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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Safety of US Nuclear Weapons Plants Debated

Air Date: Week of

Laura Knoy reports from Washington on new report by the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Safety that US nuclear weapons plants are often accident-prone and poorly run. The study comes amid debate over the department's restructuring of the nuclear waste cleanup process.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

Several years ago, the US Department of Energy began the huge job of cleaning up the factories that made the atom bombs, but the sites are still plagued by poor work and safety records. And now there are even questions of sabotage. All this is detailed in a new report, written by the department's top nuclear safety official, who has since left the agency. The report comes amid a controversy over plans by the new Energy Secretary, Hazel O'Leary, to revamp the entire nuclear cleanup program. From Washington, Laura Knoy has the story.

KNOY: The report by DOE's Office of Nuclear Safety says the "likelihood of a disaster" at US nuclear weapons factories is "very high." It charges the Department fails to protect plant workers, the public, and the environment. Before he resigned a few weeks ago, Steven Blush headed the office that wrote the study. Blush reviewed accidents or potential accidents at nuclear weapons facilities over the past two years, and he found more than 2,000.

BLUSH: Some involved workers inhaling or ingesting radionucleids in the workplaces. In other cases, they took contamination out of the, off-site into the public community. And others involved spills and releases of one kind or another.

KNOY: Blush says with radioactive material, a certain amount of contamination will occur, given the nature of the work. However . . .

BLUSH: What we thought we saw was an underlying problem with management of the facilities, that many of these incidents were avoidable.

KNOY: The report says poor maintenance is behind most of the accidents, and that many facilities are deteriorating with age. The study also highlights a problem that surprised most experts - more than a dozen cases of worker sabotage, where employees deliberately caused trouble. In one incident, workers unloading a drum onto a truck accidentally spilled a radioactive substance. They weren't contaminated, but one employee saw a chance to make some money from the incident. He stole some of the material, went to the bathroom of a nearby hotel, and put the substance into a sample of his urine to try to show he was contaminated. In the process, he also contaminated the bathroom. Michael Galldin is the head of DOE Public Affairs.

GALLDIN: The thought of people, for whatever reason, be they insidious or foolish, mucking around with the equipment is very serious, and it's something that we can't downplay or refuse to recognize the significance of. I think it was presented in the report deliberately to capture the attention of the press. I mean, you have to understand the political situation, what's going on, why the report was even written.

KNOY: Galldin calls Steve Blush's study "self-serving," an effort to save his job. Much of the report is a criticism of Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary's reorganization of the department. O'Leary's combining four separate safety agencies, including Blush's former office, under one larger department. O'Leary is also returning more power to DOE headquarters in Washington. Former Energy Secretary James Watkins had given much of the responsibility for safety to local nuclear plant managers. Many charge that put safety right in the laps of those people who failed to do the job in the first place. O'Leary's centralization reverses that policy. Her decision has prompted criticism from Watkins and Republican Senator William Cohen of Maine. But about a dozen other members of Congress and outside nuclear experts are pleased. James Werner is with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He praises the Blush report's list of problems at nuclear plants, but Werner says O'Leary's restructuring is the way to correct them.

WERNER: Steve Blush is wrong when he says the reorganization won't work; I believe it's the best way to go - Steve Blush is right, though, when he raises concerns about the safety problems that are out there. They need attention. Steve Blush was correct to draw attention to those. He may not have done it correctly, but now the work has to go on to fix those safety problems.

KNOY: The Energy Department's Michael Galldin says DOE is assessing the Blush report and will investigate all the allegations. For Living on Earth, this is Laura Knoy in Washington.



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