Due to a typographical error, it was reported in a Post article yesterday that Department of Energy officials sought $350 million for nuclear testing in the next fiscal year but only $200 million allowed. The figure sought was $250 million of which $200 million was approved.
Age, environmentalist opposition and cost are threatening the nation's nuclear weapons building complex as its largest strategic warhead production program in 20 years get under way.
Some key officials fear the nuclear weapons program is not getting the attention or funds it deserves. They point to bureaucratic shufflings over the past 10 years.
As the heir to the old Atomic Energy Commission, the Department of Energy inherited responsibility for "national security programs," the research, development, testing and building of the nation's nuclear warheads. While the Defense Department builds the more costly missiles, cannons and airplanes that deliver the warheads, DOE is reponsible for the portion that actually explodes.
Weapons program officials outlined their problems in congressional testimony and recent interviews.
A 1978 survey recently release to Congress found $500 million of "accumulated degradation . . . which could seriously impair our ability to meet the nuclear weapons forcast for the 1980s." Seven plants, two laboratories and the Nevada test site were surveyed. "We could easily have a major failure at one of these facilities that go back in age more than 30 years to hhe Manhattan Project," said one official.
Environmentalists have cited the Rocky Flats, Colo., plutonium processing plant as a hazard that should be closed. Rocky Flats is the only plant that produces atomic triggers for hydrogen bomb warheads.
Competing demands for DOE weapons funds are limiting the amount of money that the administration permitted for needed nuclear weapons testing next year.
Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm and Rep Tim Wirth (D-Cole) have called for conversion of Rocky Flats to nonweapons work.DOE has agreed to do a relocation study but government officials say privately that over $300 million has recently been put into the plant to modernize its plutonium production and there is no present intention to move the processing elesewhere.
Environmental concerns have also begun to be felt at other plants, even from federal agencies.
For example, the Environmenal Protection Agency has found the Oak Ridge steam plant that helps uranium processing failed to meet standards of the Clean Air Act. EPA has threatened DOE with a $25,000-a-day fine to get the situation corrected. In turn, Congress has been asked for $8.5 million to clean up the particulate pollution coming from the boilers. The prospect is that Oak Ridge would be unable to satisfy EPA before December 1984, even if the funds were approved this year.
Another major problem is nuclear waste from defense programs.It has been collecting since the 1940s and far exceeds the waste generated by U.S. nuclear power plants.
The nuclear Regulatory Commission is studying whether its licensing and regulation authority should be applied to defense waste storage facilities, a move that DOE and the Defense Department oppose.
Meanwhile, DOE is spending more to contain the waste it already has on its hand.
The Energy Department is seeking $4.8 million this year to build a facility for temporary safe containment of radioactive uranium wastes now held in a storage vessel that, according to congressional testimony, "is reaching the end of its serviceable life."
Along with a new container, DOE is spending money to develop a new plant to turn the Oak Ridge uranium solution into solid form for long term storage. Similar waste problems exist at other nuclear weapons complex facilities.
The departures of Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger, who resigned last week, has raised the question of whether the nuclear weapons program would be in a better position if it were relocated to the Defense Department. A proposal to do that in 1976 was turned down, partly because of Schlesinger's opposition.
Not everyone involved in the program favors such a switch."It's better to be a big fish in the Energy pond," was the way one official put it, "than be a smaller one in the bigger Defense money pool."
That same official defense the slow upgrade of the aging complex facilities on the ground that "we could not afford to do anything different [Such as] move them all to one site at the present time."
A $500 million program to correct plant deficiences over five years may be stretched out to 10 years.
One official, summing up the budget situation, said, "We're in trouble with money because we've been squeezed down to the bare minimums and can't squeeze any more."
According to congressional testimony, nuclear weapons building officials wanted $350 million for testing in the next fiscal year but were allowed $200 million.
But directors of the governments two nuclear laboratories told Congress that the approved level of testing would prevent adequate research and should be expanded.
Some nuclear officials feel that the antiweapons tone of the environmentalists suffered a setback last week. One official noted that the University of California Board of Regents, voting 15 to 7, reject a recommendation by Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. that the university end its contract to manage two weapons labs -- the Los Alamos, N.M., Scientific Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore, Calif., Laboratory.