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Tackle the Weapons Plant Cleanup

AS if to bolster the case for new federal taxes, the cleanup of nuclear-weapons plants bobbed back into the news last week. The Department of Energy (DOE) now estimates the project could cost about $6 billion a year for the next five years. That's a 50 percent hike over estimates made a year ago by Energy Secretary James Watkins. And the effort to reverse the environmental damage done by 40 years of neglect at the 17 weapons plants in the US will only just have begun after five years are up. Total cost estimates go as high as $200 billion, stretching to the year 2019.

This is another mess, like the savings-and-loan debacle, that accumulated as government overseers slumbered. The contractors at the plants got sloppy with environmental safeguards as pressure mounted to churn out bombs. Waste was poured into barrels, or into open pits that overflowed during heavy rainfall.

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The job should have been done better to begin with, but at the least errors are now fully recognized and the task of cleaning sites and restoring blighted surroundings is beginning. Neither the daunting size of that task, nor political wrangling over who's in charge, should hinder the work.

Under Mr. Watkins, DOE is firmly committed to attacking the job. The secretary has often reiterated his commitment to environmental protection and public safety. The department argues that it needs to double its staff working on the project, and that Congress is in danger of appropriating more money than it can efficiently spend in the next few years.

That argument demands a sympathetic hearing. At the same time, the public rightly demands a full accounting of the department's strategies and regular updates as the program progresses.

Squabbles over whether the DOE or the Army Corps of Engineers should manage the cleanup at the Hanford plant in Washington state, or elsewhere, ought to be settled immediately. The department has the greater expertise in nuclear matters and should lead, while the corps may well have a part to play in carrying out the work.

Above all, this work has to evidence the care so lacking over the last four decades. It's a chance for government to cleanse its record, as well polluted earth and water.

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