The U.S. government's effort to clean up the nation's atomic weapons plants - badly polluted by radioactivity - lacks public credibility, resources or even adequate estimates on the costs and time required, according to a new study by Congress' Office of Technology Assessment.

Interestingly enough, the Energy Department, which is in charge of the nearly impossible multibillion-dollar cleanup effort, agrees.Although cost estimates and a timetable for completing the cleanup have ranged up to $150 billion and 30 years, the OTA report contended that no one really knows how much it will take or how long.

In any case, it appears to be a secrecy-ridden problem that is approaching dimensions of the S&L scandal.

It has been clear for some time that the Energy Department lacks the technological ability to decontaminate its polluted plants.

Some 17 contaminated plants in 12 states threaten dozens of communities nationwide as toxic and radioactive wastes seep into groundwater and run off into streams or rivers.

Four are in such bad shape that they were shut down in 1988. Optimistic statements about resuming operations have turned out to be so much wishful thinking.

It is clearly an enormous problem that may be impossible to resolve with available technologies and personnel. This critical assessment comes at the same time as the Bush administration is asking for an additional $4.4 billion for the task in the next fiscal year.

The OTA recommended that Congress create an independent commission, or designate another federal agency such as the Environmental Protection Agency to monitor the cleanup effort. Also urged was the creation of citizen advisory boards to participate in the cleanup.

The recommendation should be accepted. The Energy Department - which ran the weapons program in total secrecy for 40 years - is obviously too close to the problem to be objective. Department claims, for example, that there is no eminent health threat are simply not credible. The time for outside review is here.