Countdown In A Bomb Factory

'Whoever thought we'd run out of war?" asks Jean T. Stafford, a machine-shop supervisor at Mound nuclear-weapons plant. That question is reverberating through the hills south of Dayton, where for 45 years, Mound has been a key research and production facility for the nation's arsenal. Two years after workers first heard the plant would likely be phased out, they're still not used to the idea. They have something else to contemplate, too: Will Mound's unorthodox attempt to turn their skills to civilian use save their jobs?

Visiting a nuclear-weapons plant isn't your everyday experience. As you drive up the hill from downtown Miamisburg, a small town on the Miami River, a hodgepodge of unremarkable industrial buildings greets you. Atop the guard shack at the entrance is a blue sign featuring a "security awareness" man with an 'S' on his chest. Outside the administration building are concrete benches, solidly anchored to a depth of six feet. They're built to foil an assault by a truck booby-trapped with explosives.

"MISSIONS." Inside, I find it a bit unsettling to don a dosimeter, a plastic-covered device the size of a pocket calculator, which I place around my neck to detect radiation exposure. It's not likely I'll have any, I'm told, and I'll hear nothing unless I do. The first time I was here, back in August, concertina wire topped some of the fences around "the perimeter." That's how they speak here: Energy Dept. officials and Mound employees use a paramilitary jargon, speaking of their work here in terms of "missions," for example. Posted in the cafeteria are signs that read: "No classified conversations."

Security has been so tight for so long here that Mound officials beamed when they announced that three foreign nationals had been allowed in for the August tour. Eight busloads of people came for Business & Industry Day--probably more visitors than Mound had seen since it opened its doors in 1948.

Named after a cone-shaped Native American burial mound nearby, this was the nation's first permanent nuclear-weapons plant built after World War II. Recently, its main jobs have been making detonators and handling tritium, a radioactive hydrogen isotope that's used to boost the yield of nuclear explosives.

For decades, hardly anyone in these parts knew exactly what went on at "the bomb plant." That stoked rumors, such as the one that the real factory was underground and the one about a tunnel connecting it to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, 22 miles away. But locals may have had reason to be suspicious: A 1986 congressional report that just resurfaced shows that in the 1950s seven employees--including some who had been intentionally contaminated--were used to test how detergents removed radioactive contamination from human hands.

These days, some of the mysteries of the Mound are falling away as the plant opens up to outsiders. The guard shack at the main entrance is vacant, and inside, you get an overwhelming sense of the desperate race against time to do the unprecedented: find commercial businesses that can make use of Mound's arms-race skills. That could help save some 800 jobs that otherwise will just vanish after production shuts down in September, 1995. To do that, employees must learn how to market their skills even as they battle through a thicket of red tape to put their expertise into the marketplace. About half of the 1,650 workers could stay on to perform clean-up chores, since Mound, like other nuclear-weapons plants, is a polluted Superfund site.

The machine shop is one of the likeliest units to find a place in private industry. Even so, at 53, supervisor Stafford says he's thinking of quitting if management offers another buyout, like the one that 550 of his co-workers accepted in 1993. "I'm not sure if I'm looking to stay or bail out," says Stafford. Adds Mark Tibbs: "It's tough for everyone in the building." Tibbs, a research engineer is putting together a business plan that could let the machine shop carry on as an employee-owned company.

Mound and its operator, Massachusetts-based EG&G Inc., an engineering and scientific-components company, must move quickly. The future of the place will disappear if it loses its trained employees. "Without the people, you've got a warehouse," says Tibbs.

Alan C. Munger is a 29-year Mound veteran who has been trying to put his expertise in explosives to work for outside customers. EG&G was willing to let him do that. But Munger says he couldn't even bid on a Navy detonators contract he is sure his unit could have won. Why? A private contractor was available for the job, and rules dictate that it came first.

Now, Munger says that oil-services giant Schlumberger Ltd. is interested in hiring the unit to help make a new generation of oil-field explosives. But before Munger and his group can use Mound's equipment, they have to break out their nascent business commercially--and sign a lease. "By the time they figure out how [to do that], am I still going to be employed?" asks Munger associate Daniel P. Kramer.

No question, there's decent technology at Mound. Employees here make calorimeter systems so sensitive they can track the heat given off by a fly's wings. Mound also makes and sells isotopes used in medicine and agriculture. It boasts a new, still-unused $10 million lab for making flexible printed circuits, used to set off weapons detonators. And British Telecommunications PLC is said to be interested in Mound's ability to recover tritium from the bulbs it used to backlight rotary-dial telephones.

Yet the obstacles are legion. Overhead costs are staggering, while response time can be slow. Can private businesses come in without disturbing Mound's ongoing weapons work? Will new endeavors create new environmental hazards? Will the lengthy cleanup discourage business? And how do

you market yourself when you're forbidden to advertise or solicit business?

Pat J. Marx, a 12-year Mound veteran who heads the commercialization effort, is a realist. "I can't stand here in good conscience and say, 'Hang in here with us. We'll find you a job comparable to what you have now,'" she says. But there might be some small breakthroughs soon. Sigma Electromagnetic Shielding Technologies Inc., a Nebraska startup, wants to make a new kind of plastic additive here and could move in within weeks, employing 15 to 20. Altogether, about 30 outside ventures have expressed an interest in taking over some part of the Mound facility.

Proponents of conversion scored two big wins in Washington late last year. The Energy Dept. agreed to open an Ohio office for Mound and several other sites. That could speed decisions on conversion proposals. And in December, Congress passed a bill allowing the Energy Dept. to lease Mound's unused buildings and land for 10 years at no cost and to give away unneeded equipment. The city of Miamisburg, which relies on Mound taxes for 13% of its general fund, will lease facilities and sublease them or sell their output to private businesses.

IRONIC. Still, I wonder: Should taxpayers be giving away parts of this $750 million investment? It seems ironic that the Energy Dept. can now give away much of the ranch, while stiff rules stifle Mound's conversion to private enterprise. When such work comes along, the customer must testify it can't be done elsewhere. And then it has to pay up front.

Back in August, Robert W. DeGrasse Jr., special assistant to Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, declared at Mound that the Energy Dept. "is committed to not leaving these heroes of the cold war behind." But if Marx can even hit her target of reemploying 150 by next September, she'll be doing well. And if the job cuts come sooner rather than later, as many workers now expect, the entire conversion effort could be undermined. The wearisome vigil near Dayton could end all too painfully.

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