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Published: Saturday, 2/23/2002

Unconditional nuclear cleanup

Cutting corners should be out of the question in some areas of the federal budget. But the Energy Department apparently wants to put the squeeze on nuclear cleanup funds. It's floating a Bush administration proposal to make some of the cleanup funds contingent on criteria that would require the work be done faster and cheaper.

In other words, $800 million of next year's budget proposal of about $6.7 billion for cleanup of former nuclear sites nationwide would be withheld pending approval of new agreements to make work on the cleanups more cost-efficient. Energy Department Chief Financial Officer Bruce Carnes defended as good business the move to dangle federal funds as incentive to limit cleanup costs.

“The existing way of doing business ... doesn't actually reduce risk, and it is in a way unconscionable fiscal policy because it doesn't save money,” he testified before a Senate committee.

Obviously Mr. Carnes doesn't live next door to a nuclear waste site or he might be singing a different tune. His testimony was anathema to those who do.

Ohio is home to nuclear weapons-related sites at places like Fernald near Cincinnati and Mound in Miamisburg, and activists working to clean up the nuclear garbage in their backyards accuse the Energy Department of encouraging quick but sloppy cleanups to save money.

They have a name for the proposed pool of money that would be held back when some of the federal cleanup appropriations are doled out.

“It's an extortion fund payable only to sites that agree to re-negotiate their cleanup agreements, which means reduce the level of cleanups,” said Bob Schaeffer of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability. It can also mean reduced level of cleanups if nuclear dumps don't agree to renegotiate their cleanup agreements and are completely shut out of the $800 million pool.

If the administration decided to deny any of the contingency fund to the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington, for example, which holds 60 percent of the nation's high-level nuclear waste, it would effectively cut the facility's cleanup funds by $262 million. Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell says that kind of “creative accounting” has no place in high-risk cleanup operations initiated under legally binding agreements.

In Ohio, residents near Fernald, a 1,050-acre former nuclear weapons plant, are worried the administration's attempt to change business as usual will gut the consent agreement they signed to improve their environmental safety and health.

Full funding for nuclear cleanup is in the best public interest and there should be no compromising of public protection. The Energy Department says its criteria for access to its proposed $800 million cleanup pool is a work in progress, which may mean there's still time to scrap it altogether as a cost-cutting move that is penny-wise and pound-foolish.



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