Our Voice: Hanford stands to benefit from reorganization at DOE headquarters

The recent reorganization at the Department of Energy headquarters is a promising development for Hanford.

Time will tell, of course, but the decision to move oversight of Hanford under the newly created position of undersecretary for management and performance is a smart move.

The massive Hanford cleanup project, with its multibillion-dollar price tag and unparalleled technical complexity, requires champions at the highest levels of government.

And yet, former Energy Secretary Steven Chu shifted responsibility for Hanford and other environmental cleanup work to the undersecretary for nuclear security two years ago.

The undersecretary for nuclear security also leads the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, which is responsible for management and security of the nation's nuclear weapons, nuclear nonproliferation and naval reactor programs.

We weren't the only ones to worry about cleanup taking a back seat to the undersecretary's other responsibilities.

"Since the Office of Environmental Management was first placed under NNSA oversight, I've been very concerned about prioritizing funding for the Hanford site against other NNSA projects," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement

Murray and U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., lauded plans for reorganizing DOE to sharpen the focus on cleanup.

"This plan addresses my longstanding concerns about moving EM (environmental management) under the NNSA where it would always come last in line behind weapons programs," Hastings said in a statement.

Hastings' concerns ought to sound familiar to longtime Hanford observers. The Cold War's focus on weapons production for the arms race gave short shrift to the waste stream. The result is the nation's most troublesome environmental dilemma -- 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste left in 177 underground tanks at Hanford.

But maybe it's possible to learn from history. The new position will have oversight of DOE nuclear defense waste cleanup programs, the offices of Environmental Management and Legacy Management.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz' decision to create the new undersecretary means someone in DOE's top echelon will be primarily focused on cleanup programs.

The nominee for the position, Beth Robinson, chief financial officer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration since 2009, has stellar qualifications.

Robinson previously served as the assistant director for budget at the Office of Management and Budget and deputy director of the Congressional Budget Office.

She is educated as a scientist, with a bachelor's degree in physics from Reed College in Portland and a doctorate in geophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

She also has congressional experience, including as principal minority staff member for the House Committee on Science from 1995-98 and earlier as a staff member for the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology and project director for the Office of Technology Assessment.

That experience is likely to come in handy as DOE seeks continued congressional support for Hanford's vitrification plant and other big-ticket environmental programs.

None of the department's reshuffling will mean much for Hanford in the end if Moniz and company can't keep the vit plant on track. The massive facility for turning Hanford's tank wastes into stable glass logs has run up against a number of technical snags.

Resolving technical issues and getting the project back on track needs to be Robinson's top priority. The success of Hanford cleanup depends on it.

We're cautiously optimistic DOE is making the changes needed to accomplish that paramount goal.