Former Governor Rick Perry speaking with supporters of U.S. Senator Ted Cruz at a campaign event at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. Flickr/cc

Rick Perry’s Texas giveaways

Donald Trump’s selection of Rick Perry to lead the Department of Energy has prompted many Democrats to question Perry’s qualifications for the position. While he governed a state rich in fossil fuels and wind energy, Perry has far less experience than President Obama’s two energy secretaries, both physicists, in the department’s primary work, such as tending the nuclear-weapons stockpile, handling nuclear waste and carrying out advanced scientific research. That’s not to mention, of course, that Perry four years ago called for doing away with the entire department. However, there’s one realm in which Perry will have plenty of preparation: doling out taxpayer money in the form of government grants to the energy industry. What often gets lost in all the talk of the Texas job boom under Perry is how much economic development strategy was driven by direct subsidies to employers who promised to relocate to the state or create jobs there.

Former Governor Rick Perry speaking with supporters of U.S. Senator Ted Cruz at a campaign event at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. Flickr/cc

Udall, Heinrich slam Trump’s pick of Perry for DOE, citing labs

New Mexico’s two U.S. Senators took aim at the latest cabinet level nominee announced by President-elect Donald Trump Tuesday. Sen. Martin Heinrich called former Texas Governor Rick Perry “utterly unqualified” to lead the Department of Energy, while Sen. Tom Udall said he was “disappointed” by the selection. Heinrich noted that those who work at the national labs in New Mexico are affected by the Department of Energy, and called the department “New Mexico’s economic lifeblood.”

Udall also mentioned that most of the DOE budget is earmarked for “its solemn and critical responsibilities regarding our nation’s nuclear security.”

Udall brought up Los Alamos National Lab and Sandia National Labs as the “crown jewels of our nuclear security complex,” as well as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeast New Mexico. “New Mexico is also home to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation’s only deep geologic facility that disposes of weapons-related nuclear waste, which is closed due to a radiological accident and still faces a difficult road to recovery,” Udall said. “To win the confidence of the American people and the Senate, Gov. Perry will need to demonstrate a strong understanding of these complex challenges and lay out a management vision to execute the difficult tasks before the department.”

Heinrich had a similar message.

Shipment of waste from Los Alamos National Labs to WIPP.Photo Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory cc

Lowered deadline standards on new nuclear cleanup plan worries some

Criticism of a controversial new agreement between the state and the federal government on how to clean up legacy waste in and around Los Alamos National Laboratory often has one thing in common—deadlines. Most agreements between states and the federal government to clean up nuclear waste have fixed deadlines set for benchmarks. If the federal Department of Energy misses one of these deadlines, it can then be sanctioned and penalized by the state. “The Department of Energy hates penalties,” Scott Kovac, a research and operations director with Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said in an interview. “A deadline might shake out some funding from its budget.”

For 11 years, a previous consent agreement between DOE and the state Environment Department set strict deadlines like these in New Mexico.

The Pete V. Domenici National Security Innovation Center at Sandia National Laboratories is named for the longtime New Mexico senator, renowned as a champion of nuclear weapons for more than three decades. Credit: Jerry Redfern for Reveal

Nuclear weapons contractor to pay millions for misuse of federal funds

A private corporation that operates a U.S. nuclear weapons laboratory agreed on Aug. 21 to pay the federal government $4.79 million to settle Justice Department allegations that it illegally used taxpayer money to lobby for an extension of its management contract. The payment by the Sandia Corporation, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin that operates Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, resolved claims that the corporation violated two laws that bar such a use of federal funds. It followed by nine months a restricted-access report by the Energy Department’s inspector general that accused Sandia of improperly trying to win a new contract without competition by lobbying senior Obama administration officials and key lawmakers with funds taken from its existing federal contract. In his report, Inspector General Gregory Friedman described the company’s tactics as “highly problematic,” “inexplicable and unjustified,” and recommended that the Energy Department pursue reimbursement of the funds.

Shipment of waste from Los Alamos National Labs to WIPP.Photo Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory cc

Bury excess plutonium, don’t turn it into fuel, study says

A team of experts has confirmed what the Energy Department has been saying for two years — that burying 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium would be far cheaper and more practical than completing a multibillion-dollar plant that would turn the radioactive material into commercial reactor fuel. The report raises pressure on Congress to walk away from a costly project that has been plagued by rapidly escalating costs and an absence of any customers for the fuel it is supposed to produce. The Department of Energy tried to kill the project in 2013, but Congress has kept it on budgetary life support, with the strong support of South Carolina’s congressional delegation. The study says essentially that sooner or later the Energy Department will be forced to abandon the fuel plant, and the sooner it does so the better. “The downward performance spiral [expected for the plant] is accompanied by an upward cost escalation spiral that would eventually make DOE’s path-forward decision for them,” the report concluded, “but only after a great deal of money has been wasted.”

The report was delivered to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz this week by an Energy Department “Red Team” led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thomas Mason.

Los Alamos National Labs, Wikicommons

Audit: Nuclear lab lets safety gaps languish for years

An obscure facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory for nine years provided vital scientific data about a critical gas used in America’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, until it was shuttered four years ago due to a raft of safety problems that have stubbornly persisted. The Energy Department, which oversees and finances the lab’s work, has poured tens of millions of dollars into fixing the problems, but so far, the expenditures haven’t borne much fruit. The facility – known as the Weapons Engineering Tritium Facility – is “vital” to the lab’s national security mission, but it remains closed, the department’s inspector general said in a report released July 20. In fact, Los Alamos managers have been unable – after seven years of effort – even to prepare a sound analysis of the site’s safety hazards and the steps being taken to ensure that the radioactive gas at issue does not leak or explode and harm either workers or those living nearby, according to the DOE report. DOE Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman said in the report that poor hazard analysis has been a recurrent problem at the lab, and said weaknesses in other projects have remained unfixed from one annual evaluation to the next.

A natural gas fired generating plant.
Photo Credit: Scott Butner cc

API: NM a world leader in natural gas production

New Mexico regularly ranks among the top states in the nation when it comes to natural gas production. A ranking published by the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association for oil and gas companies, shows that if New Mexico were its own independent country it would rank among the leaders, even ahead of Venezuela. New Mexico would rank 27th if it were its own country, between Nigeria and Oman. “Thanks to innovations in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, New Mexico now outpaces six of 12 OPEC nations in natural gas production,” API Vice President for Regulatory and Economic Policy Kyle Isakower said in a statement. “Rising domestic production has helped to reshape global markets and revitalize job creation here in the United States.”

Hydraulic fracturing is more commonly known as fracking and has become more and more controversial over the years.

DOJ to look into APD’s use of federal training

The U.S. Department of Justice has agreed to take a look into the Albuquerque Police Department’s participation with the Department of Energy at at a federal facility. This comes months after Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., voiced concern about the police department’s use of the DOE’s National Training Center, which is located at Kirtland Air Force Base. There, Albuquerque police took part in training and in some cases instructed courses using controversial methods. Grisham released a statement today about the matter, saying that she raised concerns in February to DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz about whether Albuquerque police “should have access to the facilities and classes used to train special DOE police forces to protect the nation’s nuclear stockpile.” She mentioned that for a year, Albuquerque police “has been under a consent decree with the DOJ” following the federal agency’s report that the department had in several cases violated law by using excessive force.

Shipment of waste from Los Alamos National Labs to WIPP.Photo Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory cc

DOE settles with state for $73 million over WIPP leak (updated)

On Thursday, Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Gov. Susana Martinez announced a $73 million settlement for claims from the state in relation to a leak of radioactive materials from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in early 2014. The $73 million settlement will go towards projects in the state around Department of Energy sites, including WIPP and Los Alamos National Laboratory. In late 2014, the state announced fines of $54.3 million for hazardous waste violations by the Department of Energy. The fines came after an investigation from the New Mexico Environment Department. Earlier this year, a report stated that the state Environment Department was considering $100 million or more in additional fines.