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By Sam Pearson
Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s first visit to the Hanford Nuclear Site Aug. 15 comes as state and local officials wait to hear how the Trump administration will manage the complex, decades-long cleanup of the former nuclear weapons production facility.
Perry’s two-day trip to the Pacific Northwest will take him to the site’s Plutonium Finishing Plant, which workers began demolishing July 28. His visit to the facilities will include the tunnel system where workers were evacuated in May when part of it collapsed onto railcars that were storing nuclear waste.
For local officials, the trip could be a chance to show Perry that the project requires a strong commitment from the federal government. For Perry, visiting the site could actualize the steep learning curve he faces as he figures out what approach to take on the project, while defending the administration’s unpopular budget cuts to the Energy Department.
The Trump administration proposed slashing $124 million from the Hanford-Richland Operations Office overseeing the cleanup at Hanford, though House appropriators are seeking to enact a more modest budget cut for that program. At the same time, Perry told lawmakers at a Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee hearing he wasn’t sure if cleanup funds were being spent well.
In the same trip, he will visit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ McNary Lock and Dam in Umatilla, Ore., and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Reps. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who leads the House Energy and Commerce Committee, will join Perry on the trip, the Energy Department said. Newhouse invited Perry to visit the Hanford Site in a letter earlier this year.
Local officials told Bloomberg BNA Perry could learn that cutting corners comes with a cost.
The budget request was “a sign of ignorance by this administration, that you can just make cuts across the board without considering the impacts of those cuts,” Robert Thompson, mayor of Richland, Wash., told Bloomberg BNA, though he does not expect the cuts to be enacted in their proposed form.
Enacting the cut would violate the Tri-Party Agreement, an agreement between federal, state and local authorities to clean up the Hanford site, Thompson said.
“I hate to say it this way,” Thompson said, “but I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit here and be quiet and have them say, ‘Well, we just don’t have enough money to clean it up right now.’”
Perry should “focus on the most effective and efficient use of taxpayer dollars,” David Reeploeg, vice president of federal programs at the Tri-City Development Council, a regional economic development organization, told Bloomberg BNA.
“You have people who are already very familiar with the Hanford site, with the work they’re doing, with procedures,” Reeploeg said. “If you have to let them go, you know that the work still has to be done at some point, and if you bring them back a few years later, it’s just going to cost the American taxpayer a lot more at the end of the day.”
The Energy Department didn’t respond to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment on what Perry hopes to learn during the site visit.
Another key decision outside of Hanford will be appointing second-tier Energy Department officials with primary oversight of cleanups.
Bill Richardson, energy secretary during the Clinton administration, told Bloomberg BNA he has advised Perry to quickly identify a senior manager, deputy or undersecretary to manage cleanup and said “he should stay out of it.”
The Energy Department’s Office of Environmental Management is being led by Jim Owendoff, an acting assistant secretary. Owendoff created a new Office of Special Projects earlier this year to coordinate matters related to the Hanford Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant, which is being built to treat low-level waste at Hanford by 2022.
Owendoff said in a Energy Department blog post he wanted the plant to operate sooner than that “so when we do run into challenges during commissioning, we have built in some additional time to be able to resolve those challenges.”
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