NOTORIOUSLY, the federal government's nuclear weapons factories are obsolete and dangerous. Secretary of Energy James D. Watkins now offers a radical solution. Instead of continuing to patch aging plumbing and to cope with outmoded technology, he suggests a drastic consolidation of weapons production at entirely new sites. The most heavily polluted of the present facilities, such as the Hanford plant in Washington, would be assigned the job of cleaning up the enormous mess that has accumulated there over the decades.

The country does not need the plutonium that Hanford could produce, the Energy Department's planners observe. No one can yet say exactly how many nuclear warheads the United States will need in the next century, but it seems likely that the inventory will be smaller than the present one. That makes it possible to reduce the scale of the production system.

Secretary Watkins' purpose goes well beyond the deteriorating physical facilities. This plan is also an assault on what it calls "the antiquated philosophy of operations" that he found in the weapons plants. It was less a philosophy than a state of mind -- deeply secretive and far out of touch with modern nuclear engineering standards. It had acquired the habit of shielding Washington from bad news that it assumed the higher-ups didn't want to hear, and it ignored the laws on health, safety and environmental protection. The reorganized weapons complex that Secretary Watkins proposes would, he firmly says, "comply with all applicable federal, state and local laws." He inherited an organization that was running itself under its own rules, with alarmingly little accountability to any outsider. In the process of rebuilding the manufacturing process, he also means to rebuild the organization that manages it.

None of that is going to be done quickly. The first step is an environmental impact statement, which, the plan estimates, will take three years. To carry out the whole plan might require 25 or 30 years.

This plan commits the government to nothing. Like most documents of this sort, it couches its advice in terms of options and alternatives among which the president and Congress can choose. But it acknowledges with unusual candor what has gone wrong, and offers realistic ways to set it right at last. Maintaining a nuclear arsenal is, unfortunately, likely to be necessary for a long time. Secretary Watkins intends to see that in the next century the job is done competently and safely.