Nuclear spy scare could hurt safety

By Peter Eisler, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON - U.S. nuclear weapons plants and labs, notorious as toxic and radioactive polluters, could be left outside the reach of environmental, health and safety regulators under management changes Congress is pushing to deal with security concerns.

Spurred by a spy scandal at the Los Alamos (N.M.) National Laboratory that highlighted security problems at weapons facilities nationwide, the House passed legislation Wednesday to put eight of the Energy Department's plants and labs under a new, semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Senate approval is expected soon.

The plan aims to free the sites from a mammoth Energy Department bureaucracy criticized for diluting protections against spies, thieves and saboteurs.

But it also leaves the NNSA largely on its own to make sure plants and labs meet environmental, health and worker safety laws. Federal oversight programs set up in the late '80s to address longtime contamination problems would lose virtually all jurisdiction over the facilities. And the states, which also have gained regulatory power over the weapons sites in recent years, complain that they, too, could lose authority.

The plan is reviving debates that have burned since the first atomic bombs rolled out of Los Alamos in 1945.

On one hand, recent reports that Chinese spies penetrated key facilities to steal an array of U.S. nuclear secrets highlight the program's need for secrecy and insularity. On the other, the program has a record of poisoning workers and communities with toxic and radioactive material when left on its own.

"For over four decades, (the nuclear weapons program) operated with no external and little internal oversight of environment, safety and health (with) disastrous consequences," says a recent letter to lawmakers from the attorneys general of 45 states. "We should not return to (that) era."

The National Governors' Association and former Energy officials from the Clinton and Bush administrations also oppose the reorganization plan. And Energy Secretary Bill Richardson says he probably will urge a presidential veto.

But a veto would be politically and practically difficult, in large part because the plan is folded into a bill authorizing unrelated but popular defense programs, including a military pay raise. President Clinton would have to reject the entire bill, and aides concede that would be a tough call.

The bottom line is we have a 20-year-old problem" with security at weapons plants and labs, says Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, a chief backer of the reorganization plan. Those problems, he says, lie in Energy Department management that is "cluttered up worrying about refrigerator coolant standards" and other missions -- not about weapons production and safeguarding secrets.

I don't think the Congress or the administration wants to end this year without making some reforms," Thornberry says.

Changing missions

In the scramble to win the Cold War arms race, the U.S. nuclear weapons program operated largely in secret, churning out warheads with a doggedness that left little room for environmental, health and safety concerns. With almost no outside supervision, weapons facilities put workers in harm's way without telling them and illegally dumped millions of tons of toxic and radioactive waste on and around their sites.

In communities from Richland, Wash., to Oak Ridge, Tenn., soil and groundwater contamination is widespread. Several communities have sued the Energy Department, claiming health problems.

Since the United States halted nuclear arms production in 1989, the focus at many sites has shifted to environmental restoration. Even those facilities still doing weapons work - refining the current nuclear arsenal and disassembling weapons eliminated by global treaties - spend up to half their money on cleanup. The work is expected to take decades and cost up to $200 billion.

Beginning in the late '80s, environmental, health and safety officials who oversee that work gained far more sway over the plants and the labs. States, in particular, picked up vast new powers in 1992, when Congress stripped weapons sites' immunity from local regulation.

Now, the spy scandal that erupted this spring at Los Alamos raises questions about whether weapons sites lost track of security concerns amid their changing missions.

A congressional report in May suggested that China stole information throughout the 1980s and perhaps into the early '90s on every U.S. warhead. Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee was pegged as a suspect and fired for alleged security violations, though no criminal charges have been filed and he denies wrongdoing.

The episode drew attention to security problems at weapons facilities nationwide, leading to a damning investigation by a presidential board.

"Never before has this panel found such a cavalier attitude toward one of the most serious responsibilities in the federal government -- control of the design information related to nuclear weapons," the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board reported.

Throughout the '90s, senior management at the Energy Department failed repeatedly to act on security officials' reports that budget cuts and institutional inattention were weakening safeguards at weapons sites.

Supporters of Congress' restructuring plan say the problem is a lack of clear responsibility for facilities' security and argue that the weapons sites must be put on their own, for everything from security to environmental restoration, so they're clearly accountable for all aspects of their operation.

The plan puts the new weapons agency on its own within the Energy Department, giving it autonomy in key areas:

  • All policy matters, including personnel, legal affairs and budget decisions.
  • Security, intelligence and counterintelligence operations.
  • Environmental, health and safety programs."

Bad omens

Opponents of the congressional plan note that weapons plants and labs have been on their own before, and their environmental, health and safety records were abysmal.

"Production of nuclear weapons has always been their whole role in life; everything else is secondary," says Leo Duffy, assistant Energy secretary in the Bush administration.

"All the environmental damage, the jeopardy to employees' safety and health, almost none of this was identified until 1988," when outside regulators went in, says Duffy, who ran those early oversight programs.

Duffy and other critics of Congress' plan suggest the answer is to set up clearer responsibility for security within the Energy Department. But they say oversight on environmental, safety and health matters should remain outside the purview of those running weapons programs. They also want the legislation's language to more clearly retain states' jurisdiction over the sites.

Proponents dismiss such concerns as unfounded. And they note that many of the plants and labs with the worst records on pollution and worker safety no longer do much weapons work, so Congress' plans wouldn't necessarily change their oversight.

Among them: the Hanford nuclear reservation in western Washington, where poorly stored waste has fouled water supplies; the Rocky Flats plant outside Denver, where large tracts of land suffer from radioactive contamination; and uranium processing plants in Cincinnati and Paducah, Ky., where workers were unknowingly exposed to radioactivity.

But sites that would come under new management also have their share of problems.

Just this month, for example, the Department of Energy's office of environment, safety and health cited the Los Alamos lab for two incidents in which workers were exposed to radioactive material that wasn't stored or handled properly. In 1998, the Lawrence Livermore lab was forced to shut down a plutonium storage facility after repeated failures to follow procedures meant to prevent an uncontrolled nuclear reaction.

Congress' plan to have those sites regulated by an agency primarily devoted to weapons work "would undermine over a decade of progress to improve environment and safety standards," Richardson says.

The reorganization would leave the Energy secretary with power to fire the head of the weapons agency, but neither he nor any other Energy officials would have direct control over operations.

If the secretary suspected wrongdoing at a facility, he could assign outside inspectors and order the agency director to implement their recommendations. But if the director refused, the secretary's only recourse would be to replace him, a proposition that would require congressional consent and could take months.

The Congressional Research Service, Congress' nonpartisan research arm, reported last week that such an arrangement "may be problematic" because it "tends to make secretarial authority less direct."

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who requested the study, wants Congress to rework the plan.

Officials in the states also want changes, arguing that the legislation's language could return weapons plants and labs to the pre-1992 era when they were immune from state environmental and safety laws.

The bill's proponents say it does no such thing, suggesting that foes are nitpicking the plan simply because they don't want to oppose it outright.

"This is a chance to fix a serious (security) problem," says Thornberry, "and I don't think turf disputes or jurisdictional disputes should get in the way."