We should be scared about what's going on in Department of Energy

Posted by Patrick Driscoll on

From down here in Texas the Washington press corps looks like a first-grade soccer team. All the players are clumped around the ball. Everyone is chasing the White House soap opera and the Russian mystery show.

There is an exception. Michael Lewis, the extraordinary journalist who has given us “Money Ball,” “The Big Short” and “Liar’s Poker,” has stayed away from the scrum to play defense. Vanity Fair, where he is a contributing editor, just posted his latest effort.

It’s titled: “Why the Scariest Nuclear Threat May Be Coming from Inside the White House,” but he never got near the White House in researching it. Instead he spent time at the U.S. Department of Energy, whose Washington headquarters he describes as “relentlessly ugly.”

Lewis reminds us — as if it were necessary — that the new secretary of energy, our own former Gov. Rick Perry, destroyed his presidential candidacy five years ago when he promised in a debate he would abolish three cabinet agencies. Then he couldn’t remember the third. It was the Department of Energy.

Perry sort of sheepishly admitted, upon being appointed, that he didn’t know much about the department when he promised to abolish it. You would think a political leader forced to make such a confession would hunker down and seek a deep understanding of the agency he was about to lead. But that’s not the story Lewis tells.

At his Senate confirmation hearing, Lewis wrote, “Perry made a show of having educated himself. He said how useful it was to be briefed by former Secretary Ernest Moniz.”

But later Lewis asked a person familiar with the briefing how many hours Perry had spent with Moniz. The person laughed and said, “That’s the wrong unit of account.”

Perry had spent minutes, not hours, with his predecessor, whom Lewis describes as a “nuclear physicist who understood the D.O.E. perhaps better than anyone else on earth.”

“He has no personal interest in understanding what we do and effecting change,” a D.O.E. staffer told Lewis last month. “He’s never been briefed on a program — not a single one, which to me is shocking.”

Those programs are hugely important to the nation. A brief and partial rundown:

One program does basic research, the kind that corporations don’t do because the payoff is too uncertain and distant. One example is fracking.

“Fracking was not the brainchild of private-sector research but the fruit of research paid for 20 years ago by the D.O.E.,” he writes. “Yet fracking has collapsed the price of oil and gas and led to American energy independence.’

Other research, funded by low-interest D.O.E. loans, has greatly lowered the price of solar energy. Together, those two things have saved the government and the American public, billions of dollars, greatly overshadowing the one low-interest loan that went bad, to a company called Solyndra.

But the most important programs do things such as track and recover nuclear fuel around the world, keeping them from terrorists. They seek methods to store the nation’s huge and growing stockpile of radioactive waste from nuclear energy plants. They fund, at $3 billion a year — 10 percent of the department’s budget — for a program that has no end in sight to clean up the intensely toxic damage done by decades of plutonium production in Hanford, Washington.

There is so much more, but it’s not clear how much the energy secretary knows about them. As Lewis writes: “Since Perry was confirmed, his role has been ceremonial and bizarre. He pops up in distant lands and tweets in praise of this or that D.O.E. program while his masters inside the White House create budgets to eliminate those very programs.”

And that’s why we should be afraid. Very afraid.

There is so much more in this very important article. We have posted a link at klrn.org/texasweek. Also, we asked the Department of Energy to comment on the article, but had no response.

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