Energy secretary defends proposed Hanford, PNNL cuts

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., reminded Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Thursday of the statements he made during his confirmation hearing before the same committee in January.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., reminded Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Thursday of the statements he made during his confirmation hearing before the same committee in January. AP file

Energy Secretary Rick Perry took the hot seat at a Congressional hearing for the third day Thursday to defend budget cuts proposed for the Hanford nuclear reservation and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“Your site may be the biggest challenge the country has — Hanford,” Perry told Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., at a budget hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“No, Hanford is the largest nuclear waste cleanup site in the world. That is why you cannot do it on the cheap,” said Cantwell, the ranking member on the committee.

She said she was “incredibly disappointed” by the Trump administration’s approach to Hanford cleanup.

The Hanford Richland Operations Office budget would be cut by about $124 million in the next fiscal year from current spending and $190 million from spending a year ago under the administration’s proposal.

“In light of the recent tunnel collapse at the Plutonium Uranium Extraction (PUREX) facility, followed by the worker take-cover event at the Plutonium Finishing Plant, cutting the Richland Operations budget demonstrates a disregard for the health and safety of the people of my state,” Cantwell said.

A day earlier at a Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee hearing Perry said that a discussion is needed on new ways to address radioactive and hazardous chemical contamination at the Hanford nuclear reservation and to conduct the environmental cleanup more efficiently.

Before Perry even had a chance to speak Thursday, Cantwell told him what she thought of that.

She’s heard it before, she said.

In 1991 former Energy Secretary James Watkins proposed a delay in construction in the vitrification plant, she said. The soonest the plant might treat some of Hanford’s 56 million gallons of waste for disposal now is 2022.

During the Clinton administration there was an unsuccessful plan to privatize the vitrification plant, Cantwell said.

Former Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham proposed speeding up cleanup by grouting the waste in tanks and “calling it good,” Cantwell said. The plan did not move forward.

Most recently former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz proposed a new method to dispose of Hanford’s cesium and strontium capsules in a deep borehole, with a proposal to drill a test borehole dropped this year.

“Every energy secretary comes into the office … pressured by some OMB (Office of Management and Budget) person who knows nothing about science, trying to do it on the cheap,” Cantwell said.

“I guarantee you it can’t be done,” she said. “We have to remain resolute and committed to cleaning it up and based on science.”

There is a difference between doing cleanup on the cheap and doing cleanup as efficiently as possible, Perry said.

Hanford, which covers 580 square miles, is contaminated from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program during the Cold War and World War II.

Cantwell also reminded Perry that during his confirmation hearing, he committed to advocating for the nation’s national labs.

“So I have a great concerns about a proposed cut that could affect as many as 1,000 people at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory,” Cantwell said.

Officials at the Department of Energy lab in Richland have projected that the Trump’s administration budget could cut its budget in fiscal 2018 by an estimated $190 million, including for research paid for by the DOE Office of Science.

“The budget would undermine U.S. energy leadership,” Cantwell said. Nationally, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would see a 70 percent cut and the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability would be cut 48 percent.

What areas does the nation not need innovation in, Cantwell asked, listing some of the research done at PNNL. Cybersecurity? Nuclear nonproliferation? Grid reliability? Building efficiency?

“Everything is going to be analyzed,” Perry said.

He’s hoping to have more flexibility from Congress than previous energy secretaries, he said.

“I understand how to manage during some times that have budgetary challenges,” he said. “There may be some hard decisions made about whether this is the right number of employees are not.”

Perry plans to visit the Tri-City area this summer and Cantwell said she would welcome him as soon as possible.

Perry also appeared before the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee on Tuesday.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews