The Hanford nuclear reservation and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland have new leadership with Thursday’s swearing in of Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
The Senate voted 62-37 to confirm his nomination, with the four Democratic senators from Washington and Oregon in opposition.
Hanford cleanup “requires a deep understanding of a very large and complex cleanup project and a great deal of respect for the workers who show up each day to make progress on this massive project,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a speech Thursday before the vote.
She remains concerned that Perry, and the rest of President Donald Trump’s administration, does not grasp what is at stake at Hanford or the national lab in Richland.
She repeated Perry’s promise made during a confirmation hearing to work with her and visit Hanford and PNNL.
“You can bet I will hold him to that,” she said.
Our scientists and labs are the envy of the world, and I am a major proponent of maintaining American leadership in the area of scientific inquiry.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry
Perry, 66, brings executive management experience to DOE as a Texas governor for 14 years. But with a bachelor’s degree in animal science, lacks the academic background of many of the previous energy secretaries.
His predecessor, Ernest Moniz, earned a doctorate in theoretical physics, and the previous energy secretary, Steven Chu, won a Nobel Prize in physics.
“I have a long record of aggressively courting leading scientific minds to set forth innovation, solutions and job creation strategies,” Perry said in a statement released by DOE after he was sworn in. “Our scientists and labs are the envy of the world, and I am a major proponent of maintaining American leadership in the area of scientific inquiry.”
He also said the nation would continue nuclear environmental cleanup work, which would include Hanford.
Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican whose district includes Hanford and PNNL, congratulated Perry.
“With Secretary Perry at the department’s helm, I look forward to working together to ensure that Hanford and PNNL have the support to accomplish their respective missions,” Newhouse said.
But Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., echoed Murray’s concerns about Hanford cleanup.
“I am also not convinced that someone who just months ago supported abolishing the Energy Department, understands the urgent need to clean up millions of gallons of toxic, radioactive waste left over from nuclear weapons work at Hanford,” he said.
During Perry’s campaign for president, he called for disbanding DOE, but infamously could not remember the agency during a debate.
We need an energy secretary for the 21st century — one that will help us by fighting for an (efficient) electricity grid and cybersecurity.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
Real leadership will be needed to end a longstanding culture of retaliation against whistleblowers who raise safety and management alarms, Wyden said.
“I am not confident Gov. Perry can meet this test where so many have failed,” he said.
Perry said after he was nominated that he now better understands the role and importance of the Department of Energy. It is responsible for energy research, physical science research and the nation’s nuclear program, including cleanup of contaminated nuclear sites.
Murray said Perry’s interests have been more closely aligned with those of “big oil” and corporations rather than advancing the nation’s energy challenges.
PNNL is DOE’s premier chemistry, environmental sciences and data analytics national lab, she said. It is a leader in atmospheric research, nuclear detection and nonproliferation, and the nation’s electric grid.
“We need an energy secretary for the 21st century — one that will help us by fighting for an (efficient) electricity grid and cybersecurity that will make our entire internet economy safer and more reliable,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. “We need one who will invest in an energy efficiency strategy that will save our businesses money, that will help make them competitive.”
The next energy secretary must defend the department’s key functions when they come under attack from ideologues seeking to disqualify sound science or dismantle the growing clean energy economy, she said.
She will work with Perry to fulfill the federal government’s legal and moral obligation to clean up Hanford, which is massively contaminated from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program, she said.
She said she takes Perry at his word that he will look for funding to make sure the cleanup happens.
Alex Daugherty of McClatchy contributed to this article.