Energy Department

By relentlessly focusing attention on $3 million to $4 million in questionable travel and personnel expenditures, critics of Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary, including The Times ("Unplug O'Leary's Energy Fiefdom," editorial, Jan. 5), have missed the forest for the trees.

The DOE has wasted nearly $1.2 billion on nuclear weapons testing programs and personnel since October 1993, when, due to the ongoing test moratorium, no nuclear devices have been detonated that entire time. During the same period, Congress appropriated and the department spent more than $2.2 billion to make materials like plutonium for the nuclear arsenal, money which in reality was largely used to keep massive production buildings and tens of thousands of workers in a very expensive standby mode. By contrast, even the most strident of O'Leary's detractors admit that her foreign trips have generated some political and economic benefits for the United States.

Strangely, O'Leary's critics don't appear eager to hold hearings on these matters, or to challenge programs that could waste billions of future dollars. A prime target would seem to be the National Ignition Facility (NIF), a massive new laser system to be built at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to test nuclear weapons. The NIF's estimated $4.5-billion price tag (a $61-million down payment is in the current budget) has even some Defense Department officials raising strong objections to the project.

STEPHEN I. SCHWARTZ, Director

U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project

The Brookings Institution, Washington

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