Washington, D.C. – On January 19, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) questioned former Texas Governor Rick Perry on nuclear waste issues at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the state of Washington. Gov. Perry has been nominated to serve as Secretary at the Department of Energy (DOE), with responsibility for cleanup at Hanford.
“The Department of Energy has built and maintained our nuclear deterrent, has led the science and technology development that continues to guide our ongoing nonproliferation efforts, and manages the nuclear weapons complex facilities—such as Hanford—that helped us win World War II and the Cold War,” Sen. Cantwell said. “So it is very important that we talk today about our steadfast determination on cleanup at Hanford.”
Sen. Cantwell told Gov. Perry that the Hanford site is the largest and most technically challenging nuclear waste cleanup operation in the United States. She has continuously worked to ensure that the cleanup of this site is safely and swiftly completed, consistent with agreements between the Department of Energy and the state of Washington. During the 114th Congress, Sen. Cantwell questioned DOE on proposed FY 2017 budget shortfalls, secured commitments on cleanup progress, and supported DOE’s new strategy to separate defense and civilian nuclear waste.
Last week, Sen. Cantwell and the Washington Congressional delegation sent a letter to President-Elect Trump, asking him to make ongoing cleanup at Hanford a high priority. The Washington delegation recognized the Tri-Cities communities’ contribution to the nation’s security and urged continued commitment to the decades-long nuclear waste cleanup program. There are still 54.6 million gallons of chemical and radioactive waste stored at Hanford’s tank farms, threatening the surrounding area and communities downstream along the Columbia River.
During the hearing, Sen. Cantwell secured commitments from Gov. Perry on behalf of the president-elect’s new administration on the topics below.
Hanford Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant and Tank Farm
The federal commitment to Hanford cleanup dates back to the 1989 Tri-Party Agreement. Since then, various administrations have tried to different ways of cutting corners and funding, jeopardizing cleanup goals. As such, Sen. Cantwell today asked Gov. Perry if he is “committed to funding Hanford cleanup at what it takes and getting the waste treatment plant finished?”
Gov. Perry replied: “I will work with you on a very, very diligent basis up to and including coming to Hanford and walking that site with you, sitting down with the men and women of the labor unions that are there to hear their concerns. So that they know that there is a Secretary of Energy, that there is an administration that is committed to making true movement on what I consider to be the real failures that this country has had dealing with our nuclear waste.”
Sen. Cantwell also asked if the nominee would commit to working with the state of Washington to uphold the federal government’s commitments regarding the Tri-Party Agreement. Gov. Perry answered, “you have my commitment.”
Ensuring Worker Safety at Hanford Site
As cleanup has progressed, the lack of standard chemical detection techniques has raised concerns about Hanford worker exposures to tank vapors, which may go undocumented in their health records. According to the Hanford Tank Vapor Assessment Report, current protective equipment is cumbersome and has increased worker injuries at the tank farms. In response to Cantwell’s concerns, Gov. Perry stated, “maybe one of our most important duties is making sure that those men and women who are working on a very dangerous site have the appropriate protection that they deserve and that they’ve earned.”
Separating Civilian and Defense Nuclear Waste
Defense waste has different physical characteristics than commercial waste. After a review by the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, the Obama administration decided to explore separate facilities to safely dispose and store defense waste. Scientific analysis has shown that there are both technical advantages and potential cost-savings associated with separating defense waste from commercial waste.
Governor Perry agreed to continue the conversation regarding development of a defense waste repository, stating, “Senator, I will be open to having those conversations and finding the solutions to the challenges.”
Opposing Privatization of the Bonneville Power Administration
The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) is a self-financed administration that markets hydropower generated at federally-owned dams. Ratepayers compensate the government, with interest, for Bonneville’s power and transmission systems. Several administrations, beginning with President Reagan, have proposed to sell the administration or raise electric rates to increase federal revenues. Congress has repeatedly rejected those proposals.
Sen. Cantwell asked Gov. Perry to oppose privatization and any artificial increase in electric rates. Gov. Perry acknowledged Sen. Cantwell’s concerns and committed to visiting BPA.