Despite pressure to make big spending cuts at the Energy Department, Secretary Hazel O’Leary assured Northwest lawmakers Thursday that the DOE will not back off its cleanup agreements at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
“I can’t back off because I’m bound in a legal contract,” O’Leary said.
O’Leary told a House subcommittee it may be necessary to review some of the time tables in the cleanup agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency and the states of Washington and Oregon. But she said no changes would be made without the full support of the states.
“I cannot pretend that agreements made may not be at risk,” O’Leary said.
But “we are not going to do anything that would put at risk our agreement or relationship with the states. We will move hand in hand with you and the states,” she told the House Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior.
“I understand we cannot renegotiate,” she said. “If we need to do something different, we’ll do it together.”
O’Leary was responding to questions from Reps. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., George Nethercutt, R-Wash., and Jim Bunn, R-Ore., all members of the panel.
Nethercutt said recent newspaper reports in his state indicated the DOE wasn’t getting its money’s worth in nuclear waste cleanup programs. He said he wants to be sure the department “does not end up spending thousands of dollars on pizza for employees.”
O’Leary responded, “I don’t think the problem has been spending money on pizza.
“It has been spent on assessments so we can understand and have the courage to take the steps we need to,” she said. “This is tough, dirty, dangerous work.”
O’Leary said historically private contractors were given wide latitude to complete DOE projects, with little government oversight.
“With the greatest respect to the private sector, they in fact in years past were running it. It was being run by the private sector with no direction,” she said.
She said the Cold War mentality dominated work at Hanford.
“For so long at Hanford, the main attitude has been ‘get the work done. There’s a war. There’s one enemy from which we have to protect us,”’ she said.
“I think we’ve done a darn better job over the last two years than we’d done the previous five or six years. … I cannot in two years improve 47 years of neglect,” she said.
O’Leary said the DOE intends to cut $10.6 billion from its budget over the next five years, a reduction of about 10 percent.
That will include about $4.4 billion in nuclear waste cleanup nationwide, she said.
“The area where there will be the most controversy is in environmental restoration and waste management. Our largest reductions will come in that area,” she said.
O’Leary also said she is interested if taking bids from private companies to do work on vitrification projects at Hanford intended to help turn nuclear waste into glass.
“I like the idea,” she said.
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