Hanford officials and observers said they were caught by surprise when President Clinton nominated outgoing Transportation Secretary Federico Pena to replace Hazel O’Leary as energy secretary.
The Department of Energy’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation manager, John Wagoner, declined comment Friday. But he expressed amazement late Thursday to the Tri-City Herald.
“You’re kidding. That’s totally different from all the speculation,” Wagoner said.
Wagoner noted that DOE’s Rocky Flats site is near Denver, where Pena served as mayor before being named transportation secretary.
“He’s from a state where DOE has a major cleanup site. … I assume he has a significant degree of sensitivity to the issues we deal with,” he said.
Gerald Pollet, director of the Seattle-based citizens group Heart of America Northwest, was optimistic about Pena’s nomination.
“I’m actually rather excited,” Pollet said Friday. “You have someone with a civil rights lawyer background who I think will continue or expand the commitment to openness and whistleblower protection at Hanford and across the nuclear weapons complex.”
He was unconcerned about Pena’s lack of experience in the energy industry.
‘Hazel O’Leary only knew electricity, and she did a wonderful job. Adm. (James) Watkins (who served under President Bush) knew the defense nuclear side, and was awful. … It is a strange job because you don’t necessarily want someone with insider qualifications,” Pollet said.
Pena’s selection came after Clinton had tentatively settled on Elizabeth Moler, a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission member, to replace O’Leary.
However, concerns arose in the White House about whether Hispanics were under-represented. Clinton and his aides went back to work late Thursday and came out of a post-midnight meeting with Pena’s name.
O’Leary had long said she intended to serve only one term. She was popular among Hanford constituents because she pushed cleanup at the highly polluted nuclear waste site and also promoted a DOE that was more open to the public.
But she became a political liability because of her costly travels at taxpayer expense.