Trump transition memo hints at major DOE changes

President-elect Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a Dec. 9 rally in Grand Rapids, Mich. Paul Sancya / Associated Press

President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team is considering widespread changes within the U.S. Department of Energy — some of which would likely be felt at Idaho National Laboratory and cleanup operations on the desert site.

As Trump continues to mull over his energy secretary pick, his transition team has distributed a 74-question document within the department asking a variety of questions that provide strong hints about coming changes within the DOE.

The questions cover climate change policies, inner workings of the national labs, the aging nuclear fleet, nuclear waste cleanup priorities and the revival of Yucca Mountain, among other topics. The memo was first reported by Bloomberg last week.

Several questions indicate that transition members hope to single out employees and contractors who took part in making climate policy and attended international meetings on climate change, including the Paris climate conference last year. A small number of INL employees had a periphery role in that meeting.

In a statement, Rep. Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, called the climate change questions a “witch hunt.”

Former INL Director John Grossenbacher said in general, efforts to single out employees responsible for a policy the incoming administration disagrees with is “bothersome.” He didn’t recall a similar questionnaire being distributed in 2008, as President Barack Obama prepared to take office.

Trump said Sunday on Fox News that “nobody really knows” whether climate change is real. He said he’s “studying” whether the U.S. should withdraw from the Paris accord, meant to control global emissions.

Last week, Trump selected Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt — a climate change denier and fossil fuel industry booster — to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, shattering the hope of many environmental groups that the president-elect might be moderating his stance on climate change. There is widespread scientific agreement that humans are causing the climate to change through burning of fossil fuels and other means.

“It’s very clear that the incoming administration will put a lot of emphasis on oil, gas and coal,” Grossenbacher said.

As current and former lab officials previously speculated, the memo suggests INL’s research programs in clean energy and environmental sustainability could suffer under a Trump presidency. The memo looks to identify programs that are essential to meeting Obama’s Climate Action Plan, for example, and doubts the validity of renewable energy research conducted by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But the list of questions also indicates that nuclear energy research will be supported by the incoming administration, a welcome piece of information for INL employees.

The document asks how the DOE can support existing commercial reactors and prevent them from closing prematurely. It also asks how the government plans to support the licensing of small modular reactors. The first such reactor is expected to be built on the desert site in the coming years.

Another question asks how the DOE can “optimize” its nuclear research and development activities to “maximize their value” and work with investors to commercialize advanced reactor designs. INL has been tackling this question with its Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear program, meant to assist private nuclear energy innovators by providing laboratory expertise and tools.

The questionnaire provided further evidence that the Trump administration is interested in reviving Yucca Mountain, the Nevada nuclear waste repository. The project was mothballed about five years ago due to opposition from Nevada Sen. Harry Reid and Obama, and the DOE began searching for other places to permanently place the nation’s nuclear waste. Reid, the Senate minority leader, did not seek re-election.

The document asks whether the DOE has plans to resume Yucca license proceedings, and whether there are any statutory restrictions to restarting the project. It also inquires about restrictions to “reinvigorating” the DOE’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, which would be a key step for reviving the project. Idaho has about 300 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel in storage that would be shipped to Yucca if it opened.

Questions about improving the DOE contracting process are notable for Idaho cleanup officials, from both DOE and Fluor Idaho. One question asks how to “balance risk, performance and ultimately completion” with cleanup contractors. Another asks about ensuring there are the “right incentives” to attract contractors for bidding. Both questions are relevant after the DOE struggled to attract interest in its most recent $1.4 billion Idaho Cleanup Project and was forced to delay the procurement process several times.

When asked for comment on the memo, DOE spokeswoman Danielle Miller said it would be “inappropriate to speculate about its contents and any actions that could be taken by a new administration who are not yet in place.”

INL Director Mark Peters told the Post Register last week he and other lab directors are meeting with transition officials Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

According to a Bloomberg report, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is the leading candidate for energy secretary. Others in the mix include Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — Democratic senators from oil- and coal- producing states, respectively. Another candidate is Ray Washburne, a Trump finance official and prominent Texas investor, according to Bloomberg.

None of the candidates is a scientist, unlike current Secretary Ernest Moniz, and the previous secretary under Obama, Steven Chu. At a chamber of commerce event last week, Peters praised Moniz and said he would keep him around if he could.

“He’s been a great secretary,” he said.

Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Twitter: @lramseth.

Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Twitter: @lramseth