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. …