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NEW DELAYS are expected in making the nation's nuclear weapons plants safe to operate, but this poses no threat to national security. The important thing is to make the 17 plants, now largely at a standstill, conform with modern environmental standards.

It may seem ironic that the world's greatest nuclear power cannot, at the moment, increase the size of its nuclear arsenal because it is producing neither plutonium, the basic ingredient of nuclear warheads, nor tritium, a radioactive gas needed to boost explosive power.

But there is no need to increase the size of the U.S. arsenal. In fact, with new strategic arms agreements in the offing, there is reason to expect that part of our arsenal will have to be destroyed in the future.

The operation of the nuclear weapons plants for decades has posed a threat to their employees and the neighboring environment. Secrecy enabled them to ignore basic environmental safeguards in the name of national security. Now the Department of Energy, which operates the plants, is engaged in a vigorous cleanup effort, which may take 30 years and cost $90 billion.

The Bush administration is due to report to Congress by Feb. 1 on its long-term plans for modernizing the plants. The plans should and are expected to recommend phasing out most of the plants over the next 15 years. With vast nuclear stockpiles already in place, one or two plants may be all that is necessary in the era ahead.

But for the short term, attempts are under way to restart plants to produce plutonium at Rocky Flats, Colo., and tritium gas at Savannah River, S.C.

The Colorado plant was one of the most notorious for its pollution of the environment, dumping toxic, cancer-causing waste and creating a threat to the water supply of nearby Denver.

The public is entitled to assurance that these plants will not be reopened until adequate safeguards exist against toxic pollution.

Learning from the shocking record of negligence in the past, the administration should plan carefully for a much smaller and much safer operation for the production of nuclear weapons.

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