Energy Dept. assailed on cleanup of weapons plants


WASHINGTON -- A congressional study says the government's effort to clean up nuclear weapons plants is being hampered by a shortage of resources and a lack of public credibility, and it criticizes the Energy Department for understating the health threat posed by the plants.

The report also warned that the department has no strategy "to evaluate potential off-site human exposure" to the vast amounts of radioactive and highly toxic wastes at the facilities.

The Energy Department, responding to the report, said it agreed with many of the findings and said the report confirmed the severity of the weapons plant cleanup task and the shortage of adequate technology to deal with some of it.

"The OTA report adds independent confirmation of the fact that this is a problem of enormous proportion and will require yet unavailable technologies and trained personnel to resolve it," said Energy Secretary James Watkins in a statement.

The highly critical assessment of the government's effort to clean up the weapons facilities comes as the Bush administration is asking Congress for another $4.4 billion for the task in the next fiscal year.

Overall, the job has been estimated to cost more than $150 billion over as long as 30 years.

But the report by Congress' Office of Technological Assessment, released yesterday in advance of formal publication today, concluded that the cleanup requirements are so vast and complex that it is impossible to say when it will be completed and how much it will cost.

"Many [weapons] sites may never be returned to a condition suitable for unrestricted public access," said the OTA investigators.

The investigators added that the 30-year target for completing the cleanup "is not based on meaningful estimates."

The report, which had been requested by the House Armed Services Committee, suggested that the cleanup efforts not be left exclusively to the Energy Department, which for 40 years operated the same plants under almost total secrecy.

The investigators recommended that Congress create an independent commission, or designate another federal agency such as the Environmental Protection Agency, to monitor the cleanup effort.

It also urged creation of citizen advisory boards to participate.

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