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Rick Perry Doesn’t Really Understand the Department of Energy He’s About to Run

Perry admitted to not understanding the details of nuclear waste at Thursday's hearing.

by Grennan Milliken
Jan 19 2017, 6:50pm

Image: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee strapped on their boots again today to determine whether former Republican Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, is fit to lead the Department of Energy. In what's become almost a cliche among President-Elect Donald Trump's cabinet nominees, Perry has been picked to captain a department he once vowed to dismantle. At least during his hearing today, he passed the first test: remembering the name of the agency.

But Perry is hardly a safe choice to lead the energy sector. Scientific background—of which Perry has none at all—is not a prerequisite for the position, but it certainly helps. Particularly when the secretary is tasked with leading the country's nuclear program and its 17 national research laboratories. The outgoing secretary, Ernest Moniz, was chairman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology physics department and directed the linear accelerator at MIT's Laboratory for Nuclear Science. The secretary before him, Steven Chu, won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1996.

As head of the department, and chief of the nuclear program, part of Perry's job would be to grapple with long lasting nuclear waste storage—a problem that has plagued the country for decades and has rankled states across the Union with unwanted repositories. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada) asked Perry pointedly if he supported the current plan to house spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste in a massive federal repository underneath Yucca Mountain in Southern Nevada. The plan is staunchly opposed by a majority of residents in the state.

Perry gave a decidedly vague and noncommittal answer saying "I respect that position. I'm going to work closely to find answers to the challenges we have," adding, "It must be addressed and shouldn't be used as a political football."

"I'm going to hold you to your word, because you said that you make decisions based on data and sound science when people's lives are at risk," replied Senator Masto.

Pressed further on the topic of nuclear storage, by Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Perry again answered with little concrete information. "The time of kicking the can down the road on dealing with this issue is over," he said.

Part of overseeing a massive nuclear enterprise also involves the renovation, or expansion, of the country's massive nuclear weapons complex. Recent infrastructural upgrades, though not intended to, will actually give Perry and the Trump Administration the ability to revive nuclear tests—which the US hasn't done since 1992—or engage in an arms race, which Trump said he would be open to pursuing.

When asked by Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) on whether he would be open to greatly advancing uranium enrichment in the United States, Perry unconvincingly responded: "I will commit that I will become as educated as I can on this issue."

If Perry is nominated he will likely be at the forefront of discussions in the Trump Administration about what to do with the Iran nuclear deal—which outgoing Secretary Moniz was part of negotiating. Both President-elect Trump and Vice President-elect Pence have talked about scrapping it.

Beyond his low understanding of national and international nuclear topics, Rick Perry's views on climate change science, and deep connections to the oil industry (he served on the boards of several pipeline companies, including Energy Transfer Partners, the company constructing the Dakota Access Pipeline), also disturb some in the scientific community. In the past, he has suggested that scientists were manipulating climate change data for financial gain, even calling it a "contrived, phony mess."

On Thursday, however, seizing the opportunity to tiptoe over the low bar set by President-elect Trump who once called it a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, Perry said that "I believe the climate is changing." But like his fellow cabinet nominees, he played down its importance by saying, "Some of it is naturally occurring; some of it is man made. But the question is how we address it in a thoughtful way?"

"This shouldn't be about belief," said Senator Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) to Perry during the hearing. "It should be about data, and peer reviewed science.

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