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At Los Alamos, Perry vows clean-up effort at national labs

LOS ALAMOS – Energy Secretary Rick Perry, speaking at what he called “one of the most interesting sites in the world,” said the United States “no longer can continue to kick the can down the road” when it comes to cleaning up long-term radioactive and hazardous waste at the nation’s nuclear labs.

After getting a private tour of Los Alamos National Laboratory and speaking to its employees, Perry – who once vowed to eliminate the Department of Energy – was effusive in his praise of LANL and its sister DOE labs around the country.

“I suggest every country in the world would love to just have one like Los Alamos,” he told reporters.

But asked about cleanup of the labs’ decades of “legacy” waste, the former Texas governor and ex-presidential candidate said there are too many places where “lives and health of our citizens are in jeopardy, because the federal government has failed to respond appropriately by removing this waste in a timely way.”

Perry said he wants to send a clear message to Americans that “their families are not going to live in fear of a country that’s got waste scattered around places it doesn’t need to be.”

“I want to get things done,” he said. “I’m a realist, and I realize we’re not going to clean it up overnight. We’re going to make progress.” DOE estimates that cleanup just at Los Alamos will cost as much as $3.8 billion and take 20 years to complete.

The legacy waste problem was highlighted this week when the roof of a tunnel collapsed at DOE’s Hanford waste site in Washington state. Hanford contains the nation’s largest amount of radioactive waste from nuclear weapons work. Perry said the good news was that no one was hurt and there was no radiation release.

And he reiterated that the Trump administration supports opening the stalled Yucca Mountain repository for nuclear waste in Nevada. “It is the most studied place on earth,” he said, and “is as safe as anyplace in the world as a waste disposal.”

Perry has been a climate change skeptic over the years. Asked Tuesday if he and the administration would support LANL’s science work on climate change, he said that to “use a highly untechnical term, we’ll continue to throw some Jello at the wall in a lot of different places, and adopt a lot of different ways, because from time to time you find some answers to some things you had no idea you were going to find solutions to,” including on the climate. “We’re going to find new fuels,” he said.

Perry repeatedly expressed support for nuclear energy. “If you really care about the environment that we live in, and I think the vast majority of the people of the country and the world do, then you need to be a supporter of this amazingly clean, resilient, safe, reliable source of energy,” he said. He said nuclear power hasn’t received much support for 30 years. “Being a nuclear engineer wasn’t as cool as maybe it was in the 1970s. And we want to make it cool again.”

Perry said one of his biggest challenges is making sure Iran sticks to its nuclear weapons deal with the U.S. and other countries. “Whether I think it was a good deal or not, that’s frankly besides the point now. My job as the secretary is to make they’re living up to the deal that America agreed to.”

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