Leaders and key stakeholders integral to the cleanup program over the past three decades looked back at key moments and lessons learned as EM recognized its 30-year anniversary at this year’s National Cleanup Workshop.
A thread running through the years and EM’s successes has been the program’s relationships and partnerships in the cleanup communities that shared in their challenges and achievements.
Thomas Grumbly, who served as EM Assistant Secretary from 1993 to 1996, recounted early challenges in setting a course and ramping up the program swiftly following its establishment in 1989 with a mission to remediate 107 former nuclear weapons production and research sites. EM has completed cleanup at 91 of those sites.
Grumbly said he came to an important realization that would remain a touchstone of the EM program.
“One of the things I recognized right away was that cleanup was not a technical problem. It was a political problem,” he said. “We worked very hard then and I’m happy to say over the years everyone followed up. We tried very hard not to have this be a partisan political issue. If it was ever turned into a partisan political issue, the program would have no money today.
“We also had to recognize that while on paper (EM) was a federal program, it really is a state-federal program and not a whole lot could be accomplished without the agreement of states,” Grumbly said.
“One of the main things we did was to reach to communities around the country and bring them into the process,” he said. “Show them to the extent we could how difficult the cleanup was, and how difficult the choices were and try to get away from the antagonism. Getting out of the attitude that DOE knew best all the time, and into an attitude that this was a joint project of the state and the feds, and that the people who lived around these places had to be involved.”
The fifth annual National Cleanup Workshop, held Sept. 10-12, brought together nearly 800 DOE, state and local officials, contractors, and community stakeholders to discuss the EM program.
Thomas Grumbly, EM Assistant Secretary from 1993 to 1996.
Keith Klein, former manager of EM’s Carlsbad Field Office.
Keith Klein, former manager of EM’s Carlsbad Field Office (CBFO), said the initiative, support, and persistence of local leaders in New Mexico was key to the establishment of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the nation’s only underground waste repository.
“WIPP is the story of science, perseverance, regulatory frontiers, and politics,” Klein said. “The story is complete with drama and lessons learned, including lessons that still apply today.”
Klein was acting manager of CBFO when WIPP finally accepted its first shipment in 1999, 10 years after construction. He recalled it was an emotional experience when the shipment rolled through Carlsbad, where people gathered to welcome it in the middle of the night.
“Townspeople were out in the streets cheering, clapping, holding up signs. It was just un-fricking believable,” he said. “At 3:30 in the morning. Talk about passion. These workers who had been there 10 years waiting for this day. They were cheering, applauding, and swear to God, crying. It’s all true.”
Paul Golan served as acting EM Assistant Secretary from July 2004 to May 2005 and also was deputy manager of the field office at Rocky Flats, one of EM’s signature cleanup completions.
Golan said it took discipline, commitment, strong relationships, a willingness to set aside ego and to compromise — all while maintaining a steadfast devotion to safety — to achieve success at Rocky Flats.
“We committed to maintaining a strong relationship and an ongoing dialogue with our community advisory board that was critical as we worked through some very difficult issues,” he said. “We built strong relationships and today they would be called partnership agreements. We were actually in partnerships before the department coined the term partnership agreements.”
Paul Golan, acting EM Assistant Secretary from 2004 to 2005.
Jack Craig, former manager of the Savannah River Site.
Jack Craig, former manager of the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and former deputy manager of the Ohio Field Office where he was responsible for the management, cleanup, and restoration of the Fernald, Mound, Battelle-Columbus, and Ashtabula sites, said successes in Ohio would not have been possible without strong relationships with community advisers.
“Never underestimate the power of collaboration with the community and the regulators,” he said.
Former U.S. congressman Doc Hastings of Washington state, founder of the U.S. House Nuclear Cleanup Caucus, noted that the caucus was created to educate new lawmakers from key states about the cleanup program’s worth and needs.
Hastings said the cooperation among lawmakers from districts that supported cleanup culminated in the creation of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, established in 2015 to highlight the roles of Hanford, Washington; Los Alamos, New Mexico; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in the nation’s nuclear defense, including the preservation of the historic B Reactor at Hanford.
Former U.S. congressman Doc Hastings of Washington state.
Seth Kirshenberg, executive director of Energy Communities Alliance.
Seth Kirshenberg, executive director of Energy Communities Alliance (ECA), which represents local communities near DOE sites, and Rick McLeod, president and CEO of the Savannah River Site Community Reuse Organization, pointed to the importance of local communities having a voice in the cleanup, including when a cleanup at a site is complete.
Kirshenberg said ECA was formed at a time when DOE sites were transitioning from weapons production roles to cleanup, with resulting impacts on their workforces and potential opportunities for future uses of the properties.
“The partnership was built because the communities, the states, and the Department of Energy actually had to work through a lot of very difficult issues,” he said.
Kirshenberg said the cleanup program and the people who work there are key to their communities.
“When I think of people at the sites, I think of the contractors and the Department of Energy people,” Kirshenberg said. “I also think of them — they are the Rotary Club members. They are the elected officials a lot of times. They are the Little League baseball coaches. And as we go forward they are the people who have done the work, who have really made a difference.”
“When we talk about 30 years, they are the people I really think about,” he said. “In the end, it really is the working relationships and the partnerships that make this thing work.”