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Expert warns of problems in nuclear complex

By Neil J. Ross

Richard A. Meserve, an expert on nuclear reactor safety, warned in Tuesday's Jerome A. Wiesner lecture of significant safety problems associated with the nation's nuclear weapons facilities.

He cited a recent National Academy of Sciences report which found that there were dangerous bursts of radiation produced indoors on six occasions between 1958 and 1964 and once in 1978; that significant quantities of plutonium were found "downstream" from air filters at the Hanford Nuclear Weapons Plant in Washington state; and that it was likely that plutonium had been released into the air.

Meserve, an attorney and physicist, served as chairman of the NAS panel on reactor safety which issued that report. He had previously chaired an NAS committee that assessed technical and safety issues at Department of Energy reactors, and was White House legal counsel in the Office of Science, Technology and Policy between 1977 and 1981.

The "nuclear weapons complex," the subject of Meserve's talk, consists of 17 facilities in 12 states. Of the three categories of facilities -- national laboratories, materials production facilities, and weapons productions facilities -- it is the materials laboratories which give rise to the most concern, according to Meserve. The facilities are all old, he said, having been designed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In those years, the notions of earthquake- and hurricane-proofing were not recognized as necessary, Meserve noted.

The nuclear weapons production system is not fully operational at present, due to a halt called by Energy Secretary James D. Watkins in response to safety and management concerns.

Environmental damage cited

The US countryside has been extensively contaminated as a result of the nuclear establishment, with about 3200 sites affected by radioactive and chemical waste, Meserve asserted. He said that a modest estimate of the cost of cleaning up would be over $130 billion, and that some sites might never be totally clean.

Meserve warned against allowing facilities managers to become complacent simply because no major accident, like the Soviet Union's Chernobyl disaster, has occurred in this country. He condemned what he said was the "brinksmanship" with which some establishments have been run.

The DOE's role as an overseer of a large sub-contracted workforce for nuclear facilities was also brought up in the discussion. Provost John M. Deutch '61, speaking after Meserve's lecture, urged more responsibility be put on the contractors. Meserve maintained that a careful distinction must still be made between the DOE and the contracted staff.

Westinghouse Corp. was recently awarded only $3.9 million of a possible $7.5 million incentive payment after nine months of managing the Savannah River Plant because of staff discipline problems.

Self-regulation for DOE

The DOE acts as its own safety regulatory body, with the management of nuclear weapons facilities being divided into two sections -- one group dealing with the defense programs directly, and the other, smaller group concerning itself with environmental safety and health.

Meserve said the environmental and safety group -- a regulatory branch -- has been understaffed in the past and that it has been seen by some contractors as interfering.

He remarked that the nuclear industry was having difficulty attracting enough staff to run the facilities, and ceded that this might be due in part to the bad press which nuclear facilities have had, as well as the security clearance which employees must have.

Meserve attributed the poor state of some facilities to cost cutting efforts by budget-pressured contractors. Also, oscillation in federal policy has meant that some plants designated for closure (and so not maintained fully) have had to be kept in service, he said.

Meserve declined to comment on the need or perceived need for the products of the nuclear weapons complex, but in reply to a question on the cost of safe shutdown of plants, he said, "We clearly have not been paying the real costs for weapons production for years."