Hanford

Energy secretary nominee pledges support for Hanford cleanup

Energy Secretary-designate, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Energy Secretary-designate, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Associated Press

Rick Perry, the nominee for energy secretary, plans a visit to the Hanford nuclear reservation and would meet with workers to hear concerns if he is confirmed, he said Thursday.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, came to Perry’s confirmation hearing armed with questions of interest to the 15,000 Department of Energy workers in Washington, most of them in the Tri-Cities area at Hanford and PNNL.

Perry addressed DOE cleanup of nuclear weapons sites like Hanford in his opening remarks, before Cantwell and other senators on the committee with states home to nuclear sites began asking questions.

“I understand, and am committed to, the vital role of the Department of Energy that it maintains in environmental cleanup, specifically cleaning up nuclear waste (that) is the legacy of the Cold War,” he said.

My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking.

Energy secretary nominee Rick Perry

He also backtracked on previous statements, made while a candidate for president, that the department he now wants to lead should be abolished.

“I have learned a great deal about the important work being done every day by the outstanding men and women of the DOE,” he said. “My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking.”

He has told multiple senators on the committee that, if he becomes energy secretary, he plans to visit DOE national laboratories, including Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, and environmental cleanup sites in the initial months of his service.

Cantwell was pleased that Perry knows a little about Hanford, which is massively contaminated from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program, she said.

But she also wanted his commitment that Hanford environmental cleanup would be adequately funded and work would move forward on the Hanford vitrification plant. The plant, over budget and behind schedule, is not expected to be fully operational until 2036.

“I am committed to working with you and prioritizing what is one of the most dangerous and polluted sites we have in this country,” Perry told Cantwell.

“I will work with you on a very, very diligent basis, up to and including coming to Hanford and walking the site with you, sitting down with the men and women of the labor unions that work there to hear their concerns so that they know there is a secretary of energy, that there is an administration, that is committed to making true movement on what I consider to be one of the real failures this country has had dealing with our nuclear waste,” he said.

I believe the climate is changing. I believe some of it is naturally occurring but some of it is caused by man-made activity.

Energy secretary nominee Rick Perry

Funding and managing environmental cleanup sites such as Hanford should be one of DOE’s priorities, he said.

He told Cantwell that keeping workers safe is an important duty for DOE, and that Hanford workers deserve and have earned appropriate protection.

As a former governor of Texas, he’s interested in collaborations among states, the federal government and private industry, he said.

“You have my commitment” to work with the state of Washington on Hanford environmental cleanup issues, Perry told Cantwell.

Hanford’s high-level radioactive waste had long been planned to be sent to the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada before President Obama’s administration shut the project down.

Perry, questioned by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., said he could not promise that no nuclear waste would be sent to Nevada.

But he also talked about finding interim and long-term solutions to storing or disposing of defense and commercial nuclear power waste, which the Obama administration has pursued by seeking communities willing to play host to nuclear repositories.

Perry said the Trump transition team asked for names of scientists involved in climate change research before he was a nominee. He does not approve of the question and does not need nor want the information, he said.

He said he found the concept of small modular nuclear reactors “fascinating,” but nuclear waste issues must be addressed.

He told Cantwell that he is open to discussing the possibility of separate disposal of commercial and defense waste, such as that at Hanford, which could move some waste off Hanford sooner.

Perry was asked about his views of climate change several times during the hearing. He declined to identify climate change as a crisis when pressed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt.

“I believe the climate is changing,” he said. “I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is caused by man-made activity.”

The question is how to address climate change without compromising economic growth, the affordability of energy or American jobs, he said.

Climate change is having an economic impact on Washington, including contributing to massive wildfires, Cantwell told Perry.

Perry said he would not single out or retaliate against employees of DOE and its national laboratories who have worked on climate change research, something feared when President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team requested information on those employees.

Perry said the Trump transition team asked for names of scientists involved in climate change research before he was a nominee. He does not approve of the question and does not need nor want the information, he said.

I think nonproliferation is a good thing, but I have not had a classified briefing yet.

Energy secretary nominee Rick Perry

Cantwell asked Perry if he will protect the scientific budget for climate change research, as well as the employees working on that research.

“My commitment to you, and the members of this committee, is to obviously not only to reach across the political aisles, but also to work with the men and women who I have an extraordinary amount of respect for at the Department of Energy to find the solutions to these many challenges that we have,” Perry said.

Perry deflected questions from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., on whether he would support the Iran nuclear deal, which current Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz played a major role in devising.

“I think nonproliferation is a good thing, but I have not had a classified briefing yet,” Perry said, adding that he would have a better idea of his position in the coming months, if confirmed.

Perry promised to fight proposed cuts to DOE — breaking with ideas proposed by the transition team — when asked about proposals to eliminate DOE offices for electricity, fossil energy, and energy efficiency and renewable energy.

If the DOE budget is flat, Perry will have his hands full on nuclear cleanup, said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., during a discussion of environmental cleanup in New Mexico.

Perry said he had experience as a governor in dealing with budget cuts and could manage budgets and prioritize work.

The McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this story.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

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