Halt the Nuclear Weapons Shakedown

Article excerpt

OUR $11.8 billion-a-year nuclear-weapons complex has turned into an out-of-control jobs and corporate welfare program. For years we have known that to make the bomb, the Department of Energy kept 100,000 people working in dangerous facilities managed by unscrupulous contractors and overmatched bureaucrats.

Now we learn that government managers were in cahoots with the contractors, Westinghouse and Bechtel, to hide multi-million-dollar cost overruns at the huge Savannah River nuclear-weapons facility in South Carolina. Together they worked an elaborate shell game, hoping to swindle "good management" bonuses from the taxpayer. The secretary of energy apparently learned of the debacle only by reading about it in the newspaper. In mid-May the agency's own inspector general said he considers fully 20 percent of the present production budget to be wasted.

Undaunted by this corruption, members of South Carolina's congressional delegation in recent days persuaded their colleagues on the House Armed Services Committee to bypass the usual review process and support construction of yet another weapons-production reactor along the Savannah. Reactor sites are supposed to be chosen under the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires public hearings. In this case, Congress is ignoring the law it wrote.

South Carolina's motives are revealed in a letter from the state's Development Board to civic leaders. "Thousands of new jobs would be created if the new weapons reactor is built at Savannah River," the bomb boosters wrote, "but as many as 60,000 jobs ultimately could be lost throughout the region if Idaho or Washington state is selected instead of South Carolina." In Idaho, the Chamber of Commerce sent a similar letter to its constituents.

These machinations are lowlights in a decades-long story of billion-dollar boondoggles surrounding the nuclear-weapons industry. It features pork-barrel politics, criminal mismanagement, disregard for environmental laws, and constant danger to worker and community health through sheer carelessness.

Such problems in the weapons complex run so deep, and the political will to correct them is so tenuous, that several top officials have quit the Energy Department in recent months.

During the cold war, these managers could escape the consequences of their disastrous record. Emerging from the mystique of the Manhattan Project, the cold war made their factories and products seem vital no matter what the cost. Today any rationale for an all-out arms race has vanished. Their standoff ended, the superpowers seek to reduce, not enlarge, their stocks of unusable nuclear weapons. …