New energy secretary: I will go to Hanford

Source: Seattle PI

Seattle PI - Joel Connelly

The man nominated as the next U.S. Secretary of Energy said Tuesday he will go to Hanford and work on getting federal dollars needed to complete the largest environmental cleanup in history — radioactive wastes left from nearly a half-century of making plutonium for nuclear weapons.

But Dr. Ernest Moniz acknowledged:  “I don’t know the path forward” with the troubled nuclear cleanup.  The recent revelation of leaking waste tanks has focused new attention on the Eastern Washington site, where bomb building began in World War II.

Moniz previously served as undersecretary of energy in the Clinton administration.  He was questioned about the 560-square mile nuclear reservation during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“I hope you’ll make it a priority to visit Hanford very soon in your tenure as Secretary of Energy,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

Replied Moniz, “I certainly will . . . My plan would be to get hard briefings immediately, go to the site because I think you need to be there to understand the issues, come back to work with the Chairman (Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.), work with you, Sen. (Patty) Murray and make sure we get a plan together going forward and do that expeditiously.”

The 23-year-old cleanup has been plagued by delays, technology challenges and sub-par performance by contractors.  A key contractor, CH2MHill, last month admitted to criminal time-card fraud, charging the federal government for overtime work that was not performed.

The Department of Energy has revealed, in the past two months, that a half-dozen old, single-shell waste tanks — dating from the World War II Manhattan Project — are leaking radioactive sludge into the soil at Hanford.  A $13.4 billion treatment plant is a decade behind its originally scheduled completion date and billions over budget.

On top of these travails, the federal budget sequester has hit Hanford hard:  244 workers have received pink slips, while 2,000 people involved in the cleanup will be forced to take weeks-long furloughs.

“Do you believe in cutting the budget, including Hanford cleanup, if it’s going to miss the (waste treatment/cleanup) milestones?” Cantwell asked Moniz.

“Clearly I support trying to meet the milestones and that will require having the budget to do it,” Monzi replied.  “Again I don’t know what the budget is.  I don’t know the path forward.  I can assure you that I will work with you and the other involved members to try to do the best we can to A) get the resources, and B) to use what resources we have most effectively.”

Cantwell has heard promises before from other Energy secretaries.  The federal department has veered between a centralized, top-down regime with its nuclear weapons sites, and a rival approach that gives autonomy and decision-making latitude to site managers.

“Every time a new Administration or a new Energy Secretary comes in, somebody comes up with a brilliant, ‘Oh, this is the best way to do it, this is how we’re going to do it,’” Cantwell told Moniz.  “And they come up with a new idea and it usually ends up costing millions or billions of dollars. “

Moniz is a nuclear physicist.  He has recently served as director of the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He is a booster of natural gas production, hoping gas will be a “bridge fuel” between the carbon economy and new, non-polluting energy sources.  He spoke on Tuesday of the “stunning increase” in gas production and extractive technology.  Environmentalists have criticized the extractive technique known as fracking.

“You’re not signing up for the easiest job here,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, ranking Republican on the energy panel, told Moniz.

A curious sidelight:  Cantwell asked Moniz what he thinks of a proposed Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which would preserve the B Reactor at Hanford.  The B Reactor helped make plutonium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in Japan.

The Manhattan Project Park has gained support even from Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.  Hastings usually opposes preserving anything and wants federal land to be logged, mined, drilled or paved.

Moniz told Cantwell he would work on economic development at Hanford lands which have been cleared of radioactivity.  As to the atomic park, “I certainly see no reason why that can’t go forward.”