WASHINGTON -- President Clinton may veto any defense bill that limits the search for a future source of tritium production to Savannah River Site, Energy Secretary-designate Bill Richardson told a Senate committee Wednesday.
During a confirmation hearing lasting more than three hours, Mr. Richardson answered questions about tritium, nuclear waste and even Monica Lewinsky, who was offered a job by the U.N. ambassador several months before allegations surfaced of her alleged sexual relationship with the president.
The Department of Energy is due to decide by the end of this year how to resume production of tritium, a radioactive gas used in nuclear bombs. Because tritium decays over time, the U.S. nuclear arsenal will require a new supply early in the next century.
The Clinton administration is opposed to language inserted in the 1999 defense authorization bill by U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that would prohibit using civilian nuclear reactors to produce tritium. The proposed ban in effect would land the lucrative mission at SRS, the only other option being considered by the DOE.
Building a proposed tritium accelerator at SRS would create an estimated 650 permanent jobs at the downsized South Carolina complex.
But the provision was not included in the $271 billion defense bill approved by the Senate last month. On Wednesday, Mr. Richardson urged members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to support the Senate version, thus leaving both options open.
He also vowed to defend the commercial reactor option from expected lawsuits -- if DOE chooses to go that route.
"We have to have a safe, reliable and credible nuclear deterrent," Mr. Richardson said.
SRS supporters in Congress said they were disturbed that the administration would even consider vetoing such massive legislation over the comparatively small tritium issue.
"Can you imagine vetoing the defense bill over something like this?" said Rep. Floyd Spence, R-S.C., chairman of the House National Security Committee.
"I'm surprised that they would threaten to veto a bill that provides for the defense of our nation and gives our soldiers a well deserved 3.6 percent pay raise," added John DeCrosta, spokesman for Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Mr. Richardson also defended the administration's position on nuclear waste storage from attacks by several committee members.
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, threatened to delay the nomination until Mr. Clinton gives senators written assurances that Mr. Richardson would have the authority to negotiate the issue with Congress. Similar concerns by Senate Republicans kept former Energy Secretary Federico Pena's confirmation on hold for several months last year.
Republicans have been frustrated by the president's steadfast opposition to building an interim storage site for high-level nuclear waste in the Nevada desert. A court-ordered deadline for the DOE to accept commercial spent fuel from nuclear plants across the nation has passed without action.
"This administration has not worked with Congress, will not work with Congress and has gagged its (energy) secretaries," said Mr. Craig.
Mr. Clinton has vowed to oppose any interim nuclear waste storage site until after scientific studies on the suitability of the proposed Nevada site as a permanent solution have been completed.
Mr. Richardson promised committee members that those studies would be done by the end of this year.
Several senators spoke out against the threat to hold up Mr. Richardson's nomination over the nuclear-waste issue, and he also took a swipe at the strategy.
"If you confirm me, we get to work," he told the panel. "I can't do anything as an unconfirmed secretary."
But committee Chairman Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the vacancy left by Mr. Pena's departure gives Republicans their best chance to try to wrest commitments from the president on nuclear waste.
"Our leverage is now," he told Mr. Richardson. "Once you're in office, you have to follow the precepts and policies of the administration."