Senator to Grill Obama's Energy Nominee on Nuclear-Waste Site

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., convenes Moniz’s confirmation hearing Tuesday morning, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., convenes Moniz’s confirmation hearing Tuesday morning, Charles Dharapak/AP

On Tuesday, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Ernest Moniz, President Obama’s nominee for Energy secretary, are going to square off like it’s 1998.

Wyden convenes Moniz’s confirmation hearing Tuesday morning, but the history between the two men goes back to the 1990s when Moniz was undersecretary for Energy in the Clinton administration and Wyden was Oregon’s freshman senator. The two men were on opposite sides of the fight over the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which more than a half-century ago produced plutonium for nuclear weapons during the Cold War and World War II, including the bomb detonated over Nagasaki, Japan.

Today, Hanford holds millions of gallons of radioactive waste from those weapons in underground tanks fraught with problems. Hanford is considered the most contaminated radioactive site in North America and sits on the banks of the Columbia River, which provides the water supply for key parts of Oregon’s economy, including hydropower production and commercial fishing, and the livelihood of endangered species like salmon.

“We have some history with Dr. Moniz, particularly with respect to Hanford,” Wyden said in a recent interview on CSPAN’s Newsmakers. “We had some spirited discussions, let’s put it that way,” added Wyden, who declined to comment further on those discussions.

Back then, Moniz and Wyden were debating the department’s handling of cleanup at the site. The DOE acknowledged in the late 1990s that it knew less about how much the radioactive waste was leaking into soil above the water table, a dry area known as the “vadose zone.”

“It was Moniz who had the unenviable task of coming out to the Hanford site and eating crow for DOE and admitting the waste had migrated, that the science was good, that they were wrong,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based watchdog group. According to press reports at the time, Moniz did concede the department had not done enough.

"There has not been enough science for vadose-zone assessment," Moniz said in an interview with The New York Times in March 1998 when he was undersecretary of Energy and leading the cleanup efforts.

"The Department of Energy has been sticking its head in the contaminated sand, for years, years," Wyden said, according to the Times. The article cited a General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) report, requested by Wyden, that said the Energy Department needed to pay more attention to this issue.

Fast forward some 15 years, and Wyden and Moniz find themselves in an eerily similar predicament. In recent months, tanks at Hanford have been found to be leaking, and just last week Wyden received a letter from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent government organization, warning that a treatment plant being built there to better store the waste could lead to chemical explosions. In February, Wyden asked the GAO to investigate the Energy Department’s management of Hanford. That’s the same group Wyden asked 15 years ago to look into a similar set of problems.

“The next Secretary of Energy—Dr. Moniz—needs to understand that a major part of his job is going to be to get the Hanford cleanup back on track,” Wyden said in a statement regarding the letter last week. “I plan to stress that at his confirmation hearing.”

One big thing that has changed since the 1990s is the power Wyden and Moniz hold. Ever since his days in the House representing a district bordering the Columbia River, Wyden has been one of the most outspoken watchdogs on Hanford. From his perch atop the Senate Energy panel, Wyden is one of the few people in Washington who can push legislation and conduct close oversight of the administration’s management of the cleanup process at Hanford, which costs the government about $2 billion a year.

“Now that he is chairman he will have greater ability to make sure that these serious problems get attended to,” said Dan Reicher, who served alongside Moniz in the Clinton administration as assistant secretary of Energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy. Also, as chief of staff to Clinton’s first Energy secretary, Hazel O’Leary, Reicher worked closely on Hanford issues. Reicher is now executive director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University, which announced last week it has hired former Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., to lead its initiative on renewable energy standards. Bingaman will introduce Moniz at Tuesday’s confirmation hearing.

Pending his confirmation by the full Senate, Moniz would bring to the job not just deep technical expertise—he is a physics and engineering professor at MIT—but also the power as secretary to order significant changes at the site.

“He comes to this with an understanding of the technical, policy, and political issues surrounding the cleanup of the DOE nuclear-weapons plants, including Hanford,” Reicher said of Moniz. “And now he may have to bring some of his own technical smarts to the Hanford challenges.”

This article appeared in the Monday, April 8, 2013 edition of National Journal Daily.

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