Cantwell: Trump team questions misinformed on Hanford, PNNL

By:  Annette Cary
Source: The Tri-City Herald

The record needs to be set straight on questions raised by the incoming presidential administration about Hanford, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and other Department of Energy projects, said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

A spokesperson for President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team said this week that the list of 74 questions sent to DOE earlier this month had not been authorized by the transition office, Cantwell acknowledged.

“Nevertheless, these questions plainly reflect the thinking of a transition team that appears hostile, in part, to the department’s mission and programs,” Cantwell said in a letter Thursday to Mike Pence, the vice president-elect and head of the transition team.

The letter was meant to clarify misinformation in the questionnaire, establish some of her priorities for the new Congress and re-commit to protecting workers potentially targeted in the questionnaire, Cantwell’s staff said. Cantwell is the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and has already requested a copy of any responses DOE makes to the questionnaire.

The questionnaire asked what would be the “right funding level” for DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, which is responsible for cleanup of the Hanford nuclear reservation. It also asked for alternatives to the increasing budget and schedule for the Hanford vitrification plant.

A day after her letter was sent, DOE said the cost of the project would increase $4.5 billion under an initiative to start treating waste as soon as possible.

Cantwell said DOE must complete work on the plant, which is being built to turn 56 million gallons of radioactive waste into a stable glass form for disposal. The waste is left from past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program during World War II and the Cold War.

Her constituents in the Tri-Cities and along the Columbia River are concerned that the incoming Trump administration may not understand the importance or the complexity of the Hanford cleanup work, she said.

Plutonium was produced at Hanford for more than four decades using different processing techniques. The waste that was left is not uniform and continues to change over time, she pointed out.

Adequate funding of Hanford work will not only ensure the continued decontamination of the site — and protect the Columbia River, which runs through the site — but ensure worker safety during dangerous cleanup work, she said.

Cantwell also stressed the importance to the nation of the national laboratory in Richland, which has an annual budget of close to $1 billion.

Among its projects is helping research and develop a modernized electric grid. The transition team’s questionnaire asks when DOE’s grid modernization initiative will end.

The better questions would have been to ask what the next administration could do to expand the program, Cantwell said.

Much of the nation’s electric grid was designed and built many years before power quality became a key consideration for advanced manufacturing and high-tech projects. It also was built before the advent of technologies such as energy storage and “smart” appliances that can respond to power availability, Cantwell said.

In addition, the nation’s grid operators are under constant threat of attacks from hackers and hostile states seeking to cause widespread power outages, she said.

PNNL makes important contributions to key energy, science and infrastructure security programs, including the Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation program of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

While the transition team questions indicate a desire to reduce “bureaucratic burdens” associated with exporting commercial nuclear technology, those “bureaucratic burdens” are keeping U.S. materials and technology out of the hands of terrorists and rogue states that mean to harm the United States, Cantwell said.

“PNNL recognizes there is an ever-increasing need to ensure that world-leading safeguards, verification and monitoring technology is available to meet the challenges ahead,” she said.

In response to general questions about national laboratories, Cantwell referred to the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories. It recommended the incoming administration and future Congress provide the needed resources to maintain critical capabilities and facilities at national labs.