Those calling for the Department of Energy's weapons program to become a semiautonomous agency have not been paying close enough attention to the realities of the corporate culture at the weapons laboratories ["Panel Urges Some Autonomy for Nuclear Weapons Program," news story, June 15]. Making the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories a separate, independent body would only increase their isolation, their immunity from obeying environmental, health and safety regulations and their continued self-serving lobbying for more weapons facilities of dubious value.

The labs have a history of flouting environmental laws, resulting in massive contamination at all lab facilities and, in one instance, losing a Clean Air Act lawsuit brought by a local watchdog group in New Mexico.

The so-called stockpile stewardship program, which is intended to ensure the reliability of U.S. weapons without testing, is a big-ticket research project that emphasizes a visible demonstration of capability -- publishing papers, presenting at scientific conferences -- mechanisms that increase the availability of nuclear weapons information to the world. The commission headed by former senator Warren Rudman that investigated the labs stated that "a culture of arrogance -- both at DOE headquarters and the labs themselves -- conspired to create an espionage scandal waiting to happen." Are these the people we want in charge?

DOE is indeed a dysfunctional bureaucracy, but the labs are no better. Making the labs more autonomous is the wrong way to go.

MAUREEN ELDREDGE

Washington

The writer is program director of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, a watchdog group on Department of Energy nuclear programs.