The question is not whether America should start making nuclear weapons again. Rather, the question is merely how quickly such work ought to resume.
It's an issue that will come before Congress next month when several House and Senate committees open hearings. When that happens, let's hope the lawmakers show a greater sense of urgency than has been displayed so far.Up to a point, the present slow pace is understandable. After all, it takes time to finish studies on the safety and management problems that have shut down the nation's nuclear weapons facilities. Two major reports are said to be on the verge of completion.
But now 18 environmental groups and eight congressmen are demanding even more reports. If Washington isn't careful, it could let the nation's troubled nuclear weapons production facilities get studied to death. And the longer the delays drag on, the more this nation puts itself in the position of disarming unilaterally.
As matters now stand, all nuclear weapons production has been shut down since June at all 17 such plants in 12 states. The bill for cleaning up the wide variety of problems involved, ranging from radioactive contamination to less serious shortcomings, is bound to be staggering. But so be it.
Yet, even after all other facilities resume operation, there will be a big chink in America's nuclear armor as long as a tritium plant at Savannah River in South Carolina remains closed.
The Savannah River plant is the only one in the country that produces tritium, a key component of nuclear weapons. Tritium decays rapidly. This means that, as long as the South Carolina plant is closed, some existing warheads will have to be cannibalized to keep others in working order. Eventually, such cannibalization could threaten the U.S. nuclear deterrent that has helped to avert a world war for two generations.
That's why the Pentagon is pressing for a quick safety review and a quick reopening of the Savannah River plant. But environmental groups and some members of Congress are insisting on a review process that could take two years, if not longer.
Thus, Washington is being presented with a choice between public safety and national security. Though that may sound like an agonizing dilemma, the decision need not be particularly difficult or time-consuming.
The decision should be based on the fact that in its 38 years of operation, the Savannah River plant has never presented a concrete risk to that area and has never been involved in even so much as an injury related to any nuclear incident.
That record should make it reasonably easy to set a realistic deadline for replacing or restarting the reactor at Savannah River. After that is done, Congress ought to take a new look at the policy that put all our nuclear weapons-making eggs in just one basket by giving the U.S. a single tritium plant.