An environmental engineer questions whether the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory's largest plant should continue to operate at a multimillion-dollar cost.

Speaking Tuesday at a public hearing in Idaho Falls, James Werner, a Natural Resources Defense Council environmental engineer, said the Department of Energy "must recognize that weapons and environmental activities are inextricably linked."To reduce the amount of waste generated by nuclear weapons sites, the Department of Energy should consider stopping operations at the Idaho Chemical Processing Plant that are not justified by national security needs, he said.

Some 23 hearings are being held across the nation for public opinion on the DOE development of a long-range policy for cleaning up its nuclear-weapons sites.

"The Energy Department has stated that today's hearing is about environmental cleanup," Werner said. "Well, I'm here to say that it is also about nuclear weapons production. The Energy Department's environmental programs cannot be separated from its nuclear warhead production planning."

After going to court in 1989 to force DOE to abide by federal requirements for a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, the Defense Council now wants to see activity at the chemical plant curtailed or abandoned.

The court-mandated impact statement was divided into two parts by DOE, dealing first with waste management, then weapons productions issues.

Werner said the two issues cannot be separated, and added the plant has served its purpose.