U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham created quite a stir at the Savannah River Site and other nuclear-weapons facilities with his plan to accelerate the contamination cleanup program, now estimated to take seven decades at a cost of $300 billion.
"A time line of 70 years means decades of treading water on environmental hazards that need to be eliminated, not just managed," Abraham said in his proposal. "It's not fair to tell people who live near these sites that if everything works right, then perhaps their grandchildren will live in communities that are risk free."
No one who lives in the shadow of SRS would disagree with that, yet President Bush's 2003 Energy budget slashes SRS cleanup funds to $961 million - down 9.7 percent, or $103.3 million, from this year. Jobs would have to be cut to stay within the budget - an odd way to accelerate the cleanup.
But then the Energy secretary cited an expedited $800 million his agency is putting into the environmental cleanup pot for "sites that agree to work with us to meet those (accelerated) goals." By that he means "reviewing remaining risks on a case-by-case basis" with state and local regulatory authorities to determine "appropriate remediation schedules and approaches."
Is this for real, or is it bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo? No one's sure, not even U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who represents the district that includes SRS. It doesn't look like the $800 million is new money for N-waste cleanup, but rather that Abraham is just shuffling funds to arrive at new "appropriate remediation schedules" with states and localities.
So-called nuclear watchdog groups, such as the Washington-based Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, often go overboard in their ideologically-driven opposition to anything nuclear, but ANA may have a point when it cautions that DOE's idea of accelerating the cleanup may mean talking state and local officials into accepting lower cleanup standards - and using the "expedited" $800 million to help bring them around.
Of course, cleanup goals can be reached much sooner if standards are reduced. If that's what the agency is up to, then the relevant authorities must not be lured into accepting the thinly veiled bribe.
On the other hand, Abraham's proposal shouldn't be cynically dismissed either. There's a long way to go between the president's budget proposals and Congress' dispositions of them. For now, Abraham deserves the benefit of the doubt.