Admiral James D. Watkins took the helm of power at the Department of Energy (DOE) on
March 1, 1989. Appointed by President H.W. Bush, Admiral Watkins replaced President Reagan’s appointee, John Harriman. It only took about three months for the 100,000 or so DOE government employees and the contractors to realize they were in a different world and it wasn’t going to be fun anymore.
A change in presidents means changes at the secretarial level in most major departments and almost always at the DOE. During the 1989 Admiral Watkins transition, all DOE and contractor management bureaucrats were as meerkats on a mound in Namibia, standing erect, necks extended and heads stretched for the least sound, smell or other clue as to direction. The adjective, hyper-vigilant, became an understatement.
The lesser workerkats kept on trucking because, in the seventeen installations, test sites and plants scattered over twelve states that was the DOE nuclear world, it always worked out. Workerkats believed that once the president and new members of congress figured out that President Carter’s renaming of the Energy Research and Development Administration to the Department of Energy did not really change anything, all would be well. Irrespective of the happenings back in Washington, D.C. schedules at the working level never changed; there was always going to be the next production run or the next test. They could not have been more wrong.
By March 1, 1989, The DOE nuclear body politic was already dead, it was to be maintained on
life support for dismantlement and shut-down prior to burial. In retrospect, the demise of the nuclear infrastructure seems clear but at the time it was anything but clear. Contractors knew that the DOE was pathologically afraid of failure and of accidents. The horror of Chernobyl’s 1986 accident was fresh in everyone’s mind. The EPA wanted behind the veil of secrecy. As it played out, the EPA interest was mostly to secure a seat at the power table rather than any real concern about the environment. The protestors were the same people who carried a variety of different signs but it was known that they were funded largely by the soviets and so were ignored. The Savannah River facility, which produced tritium and plutonium-239, for nuclear weapons production, experienced another failure in 1988 and three of its five reactors (K, L, and P) were shut down. K Reactor produced tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, used to increase effect of the nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile. Since the K reactor went down in 1988 no new tritium has been produced. Tritium decays about 5 percent per year and must now be recovered and recycled from disassembled nuclear weapons. At the moment, the U.S. cannot maintain its nuclear weapons stockpile at the level called for in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) II but President Obama signed a New START treaty in February 2011 calling for further stockpile reductions so tritium recycling can continue to support the nuclear stockpile for a while longer.
The Admiral took the helm in the middle of all this chaos at the direct request of President H.W. Bush. His marching orders were to clean up the DOE mess. During his confirmation hearings, the Admiral took DOE to task for a 35-year culture of bad management and out-of-date technology. In May 1989, Watkins’s second in command, Henson Moore, led a team of 70 FBI and EPA officers on a raid of the Rocky Flats facility on allegations of environmental crimes. Gross criminal malfeasance could never be proven but when the Rocky Flats incident was over, EPA had a full-time seat at the table and DOE would never enjoy the freedom from scrutiny they had previously enjoyed.
The distinct line drawn between military and civilian nuclear capability roles during the Truman administration would also be blurred and, in some cases, be erased. DOE’s government workforce went into g-fib. Government fibrillation (g-fib) is just like ventricular fibrillation (v-fib) except instead of muscle cells all vibrating incoherently it is government employees who sit at their desks and vibrate incoherently. When the government goes into g-fib, contractors just have to wait until it is all over. Someone will either get the paddles and shock them back into harmony or the body politic will disintegrate.