What Does the Department of Energy Do?
When President Donald Trump nominated Rick Perry to be Secretary of Energy, there was some concern that Perry, who had proposed eliminating the Department of Energy, did not fully understand what the department does. That was probably an exaggeration. However, just in case, now that Perry has been confirmed for his new position, for him or for anyone else, a good place to start is AllGov’s page about the department here. For more information about 14 of the Department of Energy’s offices and programs, start here.
Here is your AllGov introduction to the Department of Energy:
The Department of Energy (DOE) is responsible for advancing the national, economic and energy security of the United States through the implementation of policies regarding nuclear power, fossil fuels, and alternative energy sources. The DOE promotes scientific and technological innovation in all of the aforementioned energy sectors and is charged with the environmental cleanup of the national nuclear weapons complex. One of its key duties is the formulation and implementation of the National Energy Policy. This comprehensive and wide ranging document covers energy challenges facing the US; impacts of high energy prices; protecting America’s environment; increasing energy conservation and efficiency; increasing domestic energy supplies; increasing America’s use of renewable and alternative energy; America’s energy infrastructure; and enhancing national energy security and international relations.
Key DOE offices:
Nuclear Power and Weapons and Their Consequences
The Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) is the lead agency within the DOE charged with promoting and developing nuclear power. The NE helps spearhead new nuclear energy generation technologies, including plans to develop proliferation-resistant nuclear fuel that can maximize energy from other nuclear fuel. The office also maintains and enhances the national nuclear technology infrastructure and manages research laboratories and radiological facilities. The programs funded by the NE are designed to develop new nuclear reactors that will help diversify the domestic energy supply through public-private partnerships.
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is a semi-autonomous agency within the DOE that is responsible for overseeing the nation’s nuclear weapons complex. Using private contractors to run day-to-day operations, the NNSA manages highly classified research laboratories and nuclear defense facilities that maintain the stockpile of nuclear weapons as well as provide the propulsion systems for the U.S. Navy’s nuclear fleet. Born out of controversy, the NNSA has struggled since its creation in 2000 to move past the mistakes of the Energy Department that led Congress to establish this new agency. Security failures involving foreign espionage prompted the administration of President Bill Clinton and Congress to reorganize the DOE and entrust the NNSA with the duty of taking care of the nation’s post-Cold War arsenal of nuclear weapons. The agency, however, has repeatedly been criticized for its own lapses in security and other blunders.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) is an independent government agency responsible for monitoring and advising DOE’s management of defense nuclear facilities, some of which today are being dismantled and cleaned up. Under its mandate from Congress, the board is charged with ensuring the implementation of DOE health and safety standards by energy officials and to issue advisory recommendations regarding work at facilities. The board also investigates operations or specific problems that arise at facilities that could adversely impact public health or safety and issues recommendations to address these problems. The DNFSB publishes unclassified reports with recommendations to correct problems at DOE facilities.
The Office of Environmental Management (EM) is responsible for overseeing the cleanup of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex. Representing a leftover from the Cold War, vast amounts of radioactive and toxic waste and contamination are spread throughout nuclear weapons facilities around the country, requiring long-term efforts involving environmental restoration, waste management, technology development, and land reuse by EM. The agency has succeeded in completing cleanup at 90 nuclear sites and continues its efforts at 17 additional sites located in 11 states.
Managed by the Office of Environmental Management, the Uranium Enrichment Decontamination and Decommissioning Fund supports the cleanup of some of the nation’s most contaminated areas. The polluted sites are all former production facilities used during the Cold War to supply enriched uranium for nuclear warheads and commercial nuclear reactors. Located in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio, the plants encompass more than 30 million square feet of floor space, miles of interconnecting pipes, and thousands of acres of land that are contaminated with radioactive and hazardous materials. Cleanup of the sites is expected to be completed around 2040 and cost upward of $20 billion.
The Office of Legacy Management (LM) picks up where the Office of Environmental Management (EM) leaves off. Once cleanup at former nuclear weapons facilities is completed by the EM, the LM takes over the location to manage any remaining environmental and human issues; it currently manages more than 87 sites located throughout the country. The office is responsible for managing issues consisting of site monitoring, property management, grants to assist local communities affected by facility closure, records storage and pensions, health care, and life insurance for former workers.
The Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) was responsible for disposing of the nation’s civilian and military nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel. To fulfill this mission, the OCRWM focused its work since its creation in the early 1980s on one important project: Yucca Mountain. Located in southern Nevada, Yucca Mountain was primed to become the nation’s first geologic repository for the long-term burial of nuclear waste that has been piling up around the country for the past six decades. According to the agency, the United States had accumulated 53,440 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel from nuclear reactors by 2005. In addition, military-related activities are expected to produce 22,000 canisters of solid radioactive waste for future disposal. Altogether, experts estimated that 135,000 tons of waste would end up being buried at the site.
The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (NWTRB) is an independent federal agency that conducts scientific and technical assessments of the DOE’s activities to dispose of the nation’s commercial spent nuclear fuel and defense high-level radioactive waste. It had evaluated DOE’s technical and scientific work to establish Yucca Mountain as the sole repository for nuclear waste, a $15-billion effort that was defunded in 2009. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act amendments of 1987, which established the board, the NWTRB has access to draft documents prepared by the DOE and its contractors so that it can conduct its review in “real time,” not after the fact. Twice a year, the board reports its conclusions and recommendations to Congress and to the Secretary of Energy and points out concerns from outside parties. It has no regulatory or implementing authority. The board consists of 11 members who are nominated by the National Academy of Sciences on the basis of expertise, which ranges from geochemistry to materials science to hydrology to transportation. Members are then appointed by the president and serve a four-year term.
Created in 2006, the Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS) is responsible for overseeing worker safety and security matters at nuclear weapons facilities located across the country. It has been the subject of much controversy since its very beginning when Energy Department leaders decided to eliminate the previous office handling worker safety—the Office of Environment, Safety and Health—and turn those duties over to the newly formed HSS, which is led by a longtime security chief. Critics contended the move was designed to protect large private contractors at the expense of worker safety. Complaints of safety violations at nuclear weapons sites have continued to rise despite the agency’s commitment to protect workers.
The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) researches and develops alternative fuels and helps promote the use of these fuels. The office is concerned with developing cleaner burning fuels, solar, wind, hydro energy, and other renewable energy sources in order to break the dependency the U.S. has on foreign oil and other non-renewable resources. As part of its mission, the EERE creates tax incentives for private businesses to develop new technologies that will assist in the overall goal of creating new and cleaner energy sources. According to the EERE, “clean energy” is defined as energy-efficient technologies and practices that use less energy, and alternative power and delivery technologies that produce and transport power and heat more cleanly than conventional sources.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is the main research center for developing renewable energy technologies and helping get those technologies into the marketplace. The laboratory’s main focus is to analyze and understand alternative energy technologies and the U.S. electrical grid system support to reduce emissions and dependence on conventional fuels. The NREL’s research focuses on thirteen areas for innovation in efficient and renewable energies. It is the principal research facility for the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Office of Science and the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability. The NREL also provides technical assistance, energy planning, and economic development for many organizations and industries in the U.S.
The Power Marketing Administrations (PMAs) are four federal agencies responsible for marketing hydropower—primarily excess power produced by federal dams and projects operated by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. The four federal PMAs, which market and distribute power to 60 million people in 34 states, are required to give preference to public utility districts and cooperatives. Each PMA is a distinct and self-contained entity within the DOE, much like a wholly owned subsidiary of a corporation, and each is affected by its own unique regional issues and conditions. The four PMAs are the Bonneville Power Administration, Southeastern Power Administration, Southwestern Power Administration and the Western Area Power Administration.
Electricity, Oil, Gas and Coal
The Office of Fossil Energy (FE) is the federal government’s lead office for coal, natural gas, and oil exploration and development. The office oversees approximately 600 research and development projects ranging from development of zero-emissions power plants to energy facilities that efficiently transform coal, biomass, and other fuels into commercial products to new technologies that can extract oil from existing fields that currently is unreachable. The FE is also responsible for managing the country’s underground supply of oil to be used in case of emergencies, known as the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and running three research labs that conduct fossil energy exploration.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is the federal agency responsible for overseeing the electrical, natural gas, and oil industries. It has jurisdiction over state-to-state electricity sales, wholesale electric rates, hydroelectric licensing, natural-gas pricing, and oil pipeline rates. It also reviews and authorizes liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, pipelines and non-federal hydropower projects. The FERC is composed of up to five commissioners appointed by the president, with no more than three commissioners belonging to the same political party. Although an independent agency, FERC has proven susceptible to lobbying and political influence.
The Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability (OE) is in charge of overseeing the availability of electricity throughout the country. The OE makes sure the U.S. electrical grid is working properly, both now and in the future, as new technologies become available to better provide electrical service to American homes, businesses, and governments. It funds research and development programs that explore new means of storing and delivering electricity. The office also works to identify any infrastructure problems that could potentially cause large-scale power outages, such as the 2003 blackout that affected the Midwest, Northeast, and parts of Canada. Working with other federal agencies, the OE also prepares for responding to any outages that might stem from terrorist-related attacks on the electric grid.
The Office of Science (OS) is one of the federal government’s largest distributors of research money for science exploration. As the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences, the office provides more than 40% of total funding in this area. It also oversees research programs in high-energy physics, nuclear physics, fusion energy sciences, basic energy sciences, biological and environmental sciences and computational science. In addition, the OS is the federal government’s largest single financial supporter of materials and chemical sciences, and it supports programs involving climate change, geophysics, genomics, life sciences, and science education. The OS operates six interdisciplinary program offices: Advanced Scientific Computing Research, Basic Energy Sciences, Biological and Environmental Research, Fusion Energy Sciences, High Energy Physics, and Nuclear Physics.
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