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Perry vows to support national labs, protect WIPP

Energy Secretary-designate Rick Perry testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Energy Secretary-designate Rick Perry testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON – Rick Perry, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Department of Energy, vowed Thursday to support the nation’s national laboratories and protect the mission at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad during his confirmation hearing before the Senate energy committee.

The former Texas governor also said he regretted remarks he made in 2011 in which he suggested abolishing the Energy Department and he disavowed Trump transition officials’ efforts in recent weeks to identify department employees who were working on climate change science.

During Thursday’s hearing, Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat who had called Perry “utterly unqualified” to lead the Energy Department when his nomination was announced in December, raised concerns that the job of overseeing the nuclear weapons complex could be unfilled for a time during the presidential transition.

Perry told Heinrich he is urging continuity. Political appointees in the federal government are typically asked to submit resignations when a new president is elected, but incumbents can be asked to remain on the job until the new president chooses to keep them or names replacements. The National Nuclear Security Administration’s top two jobs are now held by administrator Lt. Gen. Frank G. Klotz and principal deputy administrator Madelyn Creedon.

Heinrich, in a letter to Trump this week, said that, as of Tuesday, Klotz and Creedon had not been asked to continue serving after Trump becomes president today. In New Mexico, the Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories are overseen by the NNSA.

“Having men and women in place and a structure in place to give confidence, and assuring predictability to the men and women of this country is very important,” Perry said. “I have sat down with (Klotz) and had a good conversation with him. I have sent the message that it would certainly be my desire to have that continuity. It (the message) is in the president-elect’s office now and I would hope we have continuity in those very important places.”

A Heinrich spokeswoman said after the hearing that the senator had not decided whether he would vote in support of Perry’s nomination.

Perry also said that, if confirmed, he will be a passionate advocate for the department’s core missions and will seek to draw “greater attention to the vital role played by the agency,” especially in protecting and modernizing the nation’s nuclear stockpile. Much of that work is done at New Mexico’s national laboratories.

Heinrich asked Perry if he could “ensure the people of New Mexico that the safe operation and proper maintenance of WIPP would be a budget priority and a management priority.” WIPP – a nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad – reopened this month after a nearly three-year hiatus prompted by a radiation release that contaminated a significant portion of the facility.

“I want my former neighbors in New Mexico to know that there is a secretary of energy who will not only come to that site and hear their concerns … but every effort will be made to make sure that sites stays open,” Perry said.

Perry told Heinrich he had not yet been nominated when Trump transition team officials sent a questionnaire to DOE employees that sought to identify who among them was engaged in work on climate science. Many department employees feared that the questionnaire could lead to their dismissal by an incoming presidential administration that has cast doubt on the science related to climate change.

“I didn’t approve of it,” Perry said. “I don’t need that information and I don’t want that information. That is not how I manage.”

In his opening statement, Perry – a former Texas governor – said he regretted his suggestion to scrap the Department of Energy, which employs some 25,000 New Mexicans. Perry made the suggestion during his first run for president in 2011.

“My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking,” Perry said. “In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination.”