As the newly appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy early in the first Clinton Administration, I conducted the first (and only) asset inventory of the U.S. Department of Energy. In carrying it out, we departed from the usual reliance on DOE contractors. Instead, we established a team of federal employees throughout the DOE complex to scour the system for data.

After six months, we briefed Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary on what we found.

With real estate holdings of more than 2.4 million acres — an area larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined — the DOE was the largest government-owned industrial, energy supply, and research enterprise in the country.

It was responsible for:

  • More than 20,700 specialized facilities and buildings — including 5,000 warehouses, 7,000 administrative buildings, 1,600 laboratories, 89 nuclear reactors, 208 particle accelerators, and 665 production and manufacturing facilities.
  • More than 130,000 metric tons of chemicals, a quantity roughly equivalent to the annual output of a large chemical manufacturer.
  • More than 270,000 metric tons of scrap metal — equivalent to more than two modern aircraft carriers in weight. (The dismantlement of three gaseous diffusion plants would generate about 1.4 million metric tons of additional scrap.)
  • More than 17,000 pieces of large industrial equipment.
  • More than 40,000 metric tons of base metals and more than 10,000 pounds of precious metals, such as gold, silver, and platinum.
  • About 700,000 metric tons of nuclear materials, mostly depleted uranium but also including weapons-grade and fuel-grade plutonium, thorium, and natural and enriched uranium.
  • About 320,000 metric tons of stockpiled fuel oil and coal for 67 power plants.
  • About 600 million barrels of crude oil, stored at the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
  • Electrical distribution systems for the Bonneville, Western Area, Southwestern, Southeastern, and Alaska power administrations.

If the Energy Department were a private concern with more than 100,000 employees, it would be one of the nation’s largest and most powerful corporations. And if it were privately held, it would be filing for bankruptcy.

Major elements of Energy’s complex were closing down, leaving a huge, unfunded, and dangerous mess. After more than a half century of making nuclear weapons, Energy possesses one of the world’s largest inventories of dangerous nuclear materials, and it has created several of the most contaminated areas in the Western hemisphere.

We also found that a significant percentage of its overhead expenses were from hoarding a huge amount of fungible assets.

The first step was to empty bulging warehouses and generate an income for the U.S. government by selling them off. Our first effort was aimed at the large stockpile of precious metals, which would quickly generate a growing amount of revenue from thousands of nuclear warheads scheduled for dismantlement. For the first time, nuclear disarmament would actually make money for the taxpayer.

We were astounded to find that intact weapons components containing large amounts of precious metals were being disposed of at great expense in a classified landfill. It took a direct order from the Secretary for DOE’s PANTEX weapons assembly and dismantlement facility near Amarillo, Texas to obtain an industrial scale hydraulic hammer to smash non-nuclear components into little pieces so that the gold and other metals could be recovered without revealing design secrets.

Further complicating the process for dismantling weapons, the DOE had failed to properly maintain its system for assessing and evaluating each nuclear weapon for reliability, aging problems, and safe dismantlement. Known as configuration management (CM), this system is a fundamental element in the control of the nuclear stockpile and is based on careful documentation of “as built” drawings and product definitions made during the design, manufacture, assembly, and deployment of a nuclear weapon.

My staff discovered that DOE could not find nearly 60 percent of the “as-built” drawings that document all changes made to active weapons selected for dismantlement. I threw a shit fit and reported it to the front office, which promptly took action.

We wound up sending about $50 million in precious metal revenues from dismantled weapons back to the treasury. As a side benefit, we also set up the DOE’s first electronic recycling center to recover fungible materials from DOE’s huge inventory of excess computers.

However, as soon as Secretary O’Leary departed, our asset inventory was buried and barred from public disclosure. DOE program managers and contractors resented that they could not keep the proceeds from the asset sales, which by law belong to the American people.

After receiving a Secretarial Gold Medal for our asset management program, I was sent into exile from the front office for more than a year, where I spent most of my time involved with environment, safety, and health problems afflicting the DOE nuclear weapons complex.

That was until Bill Richardson first fired and then rehired me after my supporters in Congress, labor unions, and citizen groups rose to my defense. He then promoted me as a Senior Policy Advisor to help him run the DOE in 1998.

This story comes from our collection, Bob Alvarez: Lessons From a Lifetime of Activism.

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