Secretary of Energy James D. Watkins, citing decreasing defense budgets and the waning threat of superpower conflict, yesterday called on the three principal U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories to expand their non-military work in such areas as new energy sources, environmental problems and industrial competitiveness.

Testifying before an approving congressional audience, Watkins indicated that he wants a major shift in the work of the laboratories, which have focused on the design of tens of thousands of nuclear bombs since the Manhattan Project-era 45 years ago.

"With peace breaking out, so to speak, and without the threat of global conflict . . . this is the time to strengthen research" to help restore American competitiveness in civilian markets, Watkins told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He urged a major role in this for Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., and Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., which are supervised and funded by the Department of Energy (DOE).

Watkins's suggestion comes amid rising congressional criticism of the laboratories' budget of roughly $5 billion and a sharp drop in the government's demand for nuclear weapons.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, for example, recently accepted the administration's arms control initiatives and axed funding for research on new nuclear artillery shells and short-range missiles. It also killed development of new nuclear depth bombs, slashed production of two air-delivered bombs and halved development funds for exotic space weapons pumped by nuclear explosions.

Key aides say the House Armed Services Committee is also expected to shift several hundred million dollars from weapons research to cleanup of environmental damage at DOE's sprawling nuclear complex. "We're just not going to give them a lot of money for bombs," one aide said.

Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), the panel chairman, said "the laboratories are on the brink of major changes in the way they operate. The past emphasis on weapons research and development is no longer appropriate."

Sen. Wendell Ford (D-Ky.) said he also supported increased civilian work, noting, "These projects have been overshadowed by the weapons programs for too long . . . . We are summiteers around here now and not musketeers."

Similar remarks by other legislators left the laboratory directors, who appeared after Watkins, scrambling to explain current research agendas and to defend their budgets. "Our job . . . has not been diminished, but certainly our priorities in what we do has changed," said Los Alamos Director Siegfried S. Hecker.

Sandia Director Al Narath said, "I am convinced that the fundamental challenge remains the same, the preservation of national security." He added, however, that the principal threat was now "global economic competition," and that the laboratories could be used "to bring technology to the marketplace rapidly and at low cost."

Watkins cautioned, in response to questioning by Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.), that future bomb-building "cannot be neglected in the race to the peace dividend."

He said underground nuclear tests probably must increase as the U.S. nuclear stockpile dwindles, and there would be new emphasis on "weapons reliability and safety" to ensure that the weapons detonate only by command, and not by accident.