Energy Chief Hazel O'Leary On Hot Seat And Enjoying Every Minute

SECRETARY of Energy Hazel O'Leary looks up from a bowl of ham and barley soup. She waves her hand at the view out of her office window, a picture-perfect vista of the glistening Capitol dome.

Never mind that many in the new Republican majority don't think the Department of Energy (DOE) should exist. Never mind that some in the GOP talk about turning the biggest chunk of her business, cleanup and operation of nuclear-warhead production sites, over to rivals at the Pentagon.

``I can work with that Congress,'' she says, with confidence.

Hazel O'Leary, feisty lawyer, former corporate executive, the only black female ever to run a famously male-dominated bureaucracy, is nothing if not self-assured.

In the two years she has served in President Clinton's Cabinet, she has become one of the administration's most visible and controversial officials.

She has ended decades of secrecy about nuclear-bomb production, tackled a huge fissile-material cleanup problem, and tried to bring the efficiency of the private sector to government.

But her toughest task now surely lies ahead.

In the months to come, she will likely appear before 66 congressional hearings, where she'll fight to maintain funding for her conservation and alternative-energy programs.

At the same time, she'll have to defend herself against environmentalists and other critics who complain that budget cuts ordered by President Clinton himself may gut DOE programs, particularly toxic-material cleanup.

Will her department eventually evaporate, its various duties eliminated or parceled out to others? Not if O'Leary has anything to say about it. ``These periods of self-examination are important and they've occurred before,'' she says.

O'Leary's belief that she will prevail is grounded in her already remarkable accomplishments. She is the first energy industry pro to take the helm at DOE since its establihsment almost 20 years ago, as well as the first minority and first woman.

Environmental activists, who for years have routinely battled with Energy secretaries of both parties, for the most part have given O'Leary high marks. Her release of thousands of previously classified nuclear-weapon documents wins kudos from Maureen Eldredge, who lobbies here for the Military Production Network, an umbrella group for concerned citizens who live near DOE weapons-production sites.

``All of the information she has released on the [past] human radioactivity experiments and the nuclear testing wouldn't have happened under other people,'' Ms. Eldredge says.

Unlike some past Energy heads, O'Leary has embraced the mission of cleaning up the wastes left over after the cold war rush to produce thousands of nuclear weapons at almost any cost.

She has carved out a sizable budget and acknowledged a long-overdue need to treat the ``people who live around the sites as shareholders'' in the cleanup decision process, says Jennifer Weeks, an arms-control lobbyist with the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists.

DOE estimates put the cost of cleaning up and stabilizing the nuclear-weapons complex somewhere between $600 billion and $1.5 trillion. There are roughly 20 sites salt-and-peppered around the country, from Tennessee and Florida to Rocky Flats, Colo., and Washington State.

``Huge containers, highly radioactive wastes, incredible sludges, `burping tanks' venting hydrogen gas so they won't blow up, and chemical reactions going on they [DOE engineers] don't even know or understand'' are some of the challenges confronting the site overseers, says Ms. Weeks.

Ever since she took command at the Energy Department's mammoth Forrestal Building, O'Leary has been the subject of grumbling by some officials across the Potomac at the five-sided home of the Department of Defense. Many of them did not like her release of the classified nuclear files.

``I don't declassify. It's not my job,'' she says. ``The people who sit on the high-level technical team that reviews documents for declassification are the very people who design the weapons. Only upon their review and decision that unveiling these documents to the public does not compromise national security do declassifications take place.''

Many also consider her too inexperienced in the ways of weapons to handle the nuclear infrastructure.

But the Pentagon's top officials say they don't want the atomic production sites handed to them. They figure it's a major problem that they can avoid. They already have their own environmental problems, and don't want another expensive cleanup to compete with new weapons for funds.

``We are not the least bit interested in that transfer of the [nuclear] weapons development and production to DOD. Not in the least,'' said Harold Smith, assistant to the secretary of defense for atomic affairs, at a recent meeting with defense reporters.

Back in Hazel O'Leary's seventh-floor office on Independence Avenue, the secretary of energy insists that all of her most important moves haven't been hers alone.

Release of nuclear information, for example, was done upon the direction of the president and the recommendation of his high-tech advisors, she says. Leaning forward, she speaks slowly, to dramatize her next point: just how much opposition she's run into from old-order entrenched bureaucrats not only at DOD but at her own department.

Environmentalists worried

And now she's run into criticism from some of her staunchest environmental supporters, who worry that the $4.4 billion she has proposed cutting from the nuclear cleanup budget over the next five years will mean more dangerous sites.

O'Leary defends the slated reductions as an overdue trimming of fat. ``We had to interrupt the trajectory of price increases that were going out of control,'' she says. ``Some of our largest contractors believe we can cut costs.''

But doesn't less money spent mean less cleanup? ``We shouldn't trap ourselves into thinking that bucks indicate commitment, or the idea that every cabinet officers is interested in a bloated budget,'' says O'Leary. ``Success shouldn't be measured in how big your numbers are, but by your accomplishment.''

But nuclear site neighbors remain jittery about DOE plans to invest less to contain what could be a lethal situation. They talk about contaminants leeching into water supplies, and dozens of other human health hazards, such as plutonium residue, caustic solvents in pipes, risk of explosions in storage vats that can very quickly make a large residential area uninhabitable.

``When you're talking about the contamination that's out there, I'm not sure there's much room for compromise,'' says Rocky Flats resident Tom Marshall.

Rocky Flats was among the first of the ``nuclear communities'' to form a citizens' advisory board, a channel of communication O'Leary hoped would become a trademark of her new more open, accessible administration.

O'Leary has listened more to the public and local grassroots groups, Marshall says.

``The question is, what has she done with the information? Is she placating the public or actually involving us in the process?'' he asks. ``We'll be waiting to see how the budget cuts fall. But it's not just a matter of balancing the ledgers - we have 14 tons of plutonium near Denver and the vital safety systems are starting to fail.''

Despite this and other criticism, O'Leary spurns suggestions that her job is on the line.

``There is a lot of wishful thinking around here,'' she says. ``We have taken - because our administration has taken - a dramatic turn from the past. We can finally be free, not only of pointing the missles at each other, but getting rid of the excess material, which is very scary to some people.''

She adds: ``I think some people wake up and say `I wish she would go away.' Well, I came in saying, `Hey I'm not going anywhere. I'm here for the duration.' My commitment to the change has something [about it] that says I'm going to stick - despite the expectation that Cabinet officers will come and go. This is a great job. I don't mean that we are wooping it up everyday. These are issues that have profound effects on peoples' lives, that have global impact into the next century.''

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