Efforts by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., have helped protect the nation’s nuclear arsenal and preserve funding for cleanup at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland.
While the legislative wrangling involved is not the kind of congressional action that typically draws headlines, it is representative of little-noticed machinations that have far-reaching impacts. It also reflects strong work from Cantwell to protect the interests of her constituents.
Congress is considering the National Defense Authorization Act for 2021, an annual military funding bill that typically draws little opposition. Lawmakers are reluctant to vote against the bill, which this year is for $731 billion.
In that climate, the Senate Armed Services Committee inserted a provision that would move control of the Department of Energy to the Department of Defense. The transfer would have usurped oversight of the nation’s nuclear arsenal — and budgeting for weapons production — out of civilian control and into the hands of the military.
As Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette wrote in a letter to Senate leaders, that would leave him and any future secretary “with responsibility for the (nuclear) program, while removing his or her ability to effectively manage it.” It also would have set a dangerous precedent; civilian oversight of the nuclear arsenal, which has been in place since 1946, is essential for national security.
From a provincial standpoint, the proposal would have been disastrous for Washington state because the Department of Energy is tasked with cleaning up Hanford, the nation’s most toxic weapons site. The federal government spends about $2.5 billion a year for ongoing cleanup work at Hanford, which sits about 200 miles upstream from Vancouver along the Columbia River, and much work remains.
The Columbian frequently has editorially chastised the Department of Energy for its lack of attention to Hanford, and the situation likely would have grown worse under the original defense authorization plan. Cantwell said it would have allowed the military to “raid” energy funds earmarked for cleanup and added: “I do not believe that the Nuclear Weapons Council understands the Department of Energy’s priorities. How could they? Do they sit in on any of the meetings for the national labs or the waste cleanup?”
With the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland and with Hanford nearby, the issue is an important one for Washingtonians. The proposed bill would have led to cuts in spending for environmental cleanup without input from the energy secretary.
Because of that, Cantwell teamed with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to sponsor an amendment removing the change from the spending bill. While the provision was a small part of a huge bill that might have otherwise gone unnoticed, the amendment was unanimously approved. As Cantwell explained in a press release, the amendment “protects existing firewalls that ensure civilian control of spending on nuclear weapons development.”
She added: “We’re so glad that we were able to stop efforts to usurp civilian control of nuclear weapons spending and protect the Department of Energy’s funding for critical nuclear waste cleanup programs.”
That marks a victory for Washingtonians. The need to clean up Hanford has been lingering for decades, even as underground tanks of radioactive waste are known to be leaking. Cantwell’s work preserves some hope that the federal government will be more resolute in its efforts.