Spoils Of Peace: A Texas Tussle

It's quite a spread, 16,000 acres out on the plains of the Texas Panhandle. And there's good reason for all that space. For the next eight years or so, the Energy Dept. will use its Pantex nuclear-assembly facility just outside Amarillo (population 151,615), to put thousands of warheads on ice. Pantex also is the focus of a legal brawl over who will control that lucrative work.

Last May, Energy awarded a $1.6 billion, five-year management contract to a little-known engineering outfit called Mason & Hanger-Silas Mason Co. Since the late 1950s, the Lexington (Ky.) concern has quietly managed the task of making nuclear weapons at Pantex, the nation's only such assembly plant. With the outbreak of peace, Pantex is switching to disarming nukes.

`UNEVEN RECORD.' Mason won that contract because the government decided that competing bidders--Lockheed, Olin, and the Babcock & Wilcox unit of engineering giant McDermott International--lacked experience in running such facilities. Now, the others have sued the Energy Dept. in U.S. District Court in Dallas, charging that the agency has ignored Mason's past problems in running the facility. While the case awaits a trial date, a House Energy & Commerce subcommittee headed by Representative Michael L. Synar (D-Okla.) is investigating. Says Synar: "I'm troubled by the fact that Mason has had such an uneven track record."

So is the General Accounting Office. In an April, 1991, report on Mason's management, the watchdog agency concluded that Pantex had "one of the highest injury and lost workday rates" in recent years in Energy's nuclear-weapons network. It also said Mason was sometimes unprepared to handle serious radiation accidents. One example: In May, 1989, a device to contain tritium gas failed during a routine weapons dismantlement. No workers were killed, but some were exposed to radioactive gas. The government spent some $2 million to decontaminate the facility. On other occasions, dating back to 1984, workers were needlessly exposed to radioactive dust, the GAO says.

`OLD BOY' MENTALITY. Mason won't discuss the lawsuit or the GAO report, referring inquiries to the Energy Dept. Everet H. Beckner, principal deputy assistant secretary for defense programs, concedes there have been problems at Pantex. But he adds that Mason "has done quite well in bringing its procedures into line" with Energy's toughened standards. Beckner says that Energy plans to fight the suit and has no intention of giving Mason the heave-ho.

Attorneys representing the competing bidders argue in court documents that that's typical of an "old boy network" mentality that values loyalty over performance. Perhaps. But the dispute also may underscore one thing more: just how much money will be at stake as the business of denuking the world picks up speed.

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