Generally speaking, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) does not come up much in casual conversation. Stop a thousand people in the street and ask them who the secretary of the DOE is (Dr. Ernest Moniz, and I had to look it up) and you’ll likely get a thousand blank stares. If you get one person who does know, it’s because you’re on the 1000 block of Independence Avenue in Washington DC, and the person you asked is a DOE employee on a lunch break. As federal agencies go, it’s pretty damn low profile.
This is odd, given its purview. Ask someone what they think the DOE does, and you’ll probably get a reply along the lines of, “Um … energy stuff?” This is almost, but not completely, the wrong answer. The Department of Energy handles all things nuclear, including (and here’s the “not quite”) the oversight of nuclear power facilities. It was created by President Carter in order to consolidate a variety of disparate agencies that handled various aspects of the United States’ wide-reaching nuclear program since World War II and the Manhattan Project. The fact that it was a creature of the Cold War, and that it manages the most dangerous weapons ever devised, likely explains why you don’t hear about it much at the supper table. Mommy, what’s in that building? Scary stuff, honey. Just keep walking.
In short, the DOE is responsible for the care and feeding of all our nuclear bombs, the making of the bombs, the research behind the making of the bombs, guarding and storage of the unimaginably toxic waste created by creating the bombs, a wide range of energy-related research projects involving heavy-duty stuff like particle physics and the quest to address climate change through clean energy and other technologies, efforts at nuclear non-proliferation, and the upkeep of a 1,360-square-mile hole in the ground that can kill you just by looking at you. This is called the Nevada Test Site, and until 1992 was where the bombs were tested by way of being blown up. The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository is located there. It is one of the scariest places on the planet.
Serious stuff, yeah? Not the kind of joint you’d let any fuzzwit off the street come in and oversee. Dr. Moniz, the current Energy Department secretary, has all the bona fides you’d hope for in a guy who works in Dr. Strangelove’s attic — summa cum laude in physics from Boston College, Ph.D. from Stanford University, professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), head of the MIT physics department for four years before leaving to join the public sector and director of the Bates Linear Accelerator Center. While it would be nice to have someone in his position who is less enthusiastic about the proliferation of nuclear energy and fracking, Moniz did play a central role in bartering the Iran deal. It could be a whole lot worse.
Well, now it is. Enter Rick Perry. You remember Rick: The unimpressive former Republican governor of Texas who wears glasses to look smarter sometimes and enjoys brandishing a six-shooter at campaign rallies. Perry ran for president in 2012 but dropped out before the New Hampshire primary. He ran again in 2016 but dropped out for a second time after getting clobbered in the first debate. During that debate, he was asked which three federal agencies he would do away with if he became president. He got the first two, but couldn’t remember the third. This gaffe, as much as any of his other glaring personal shortcomings (including a 2014 indictment in Texas) ended his second run for the White House. The agency he could not remember wanting to destroy, by the way, was the Department of Energy.
Donald Trump has nominated Rick Perry to become secretary of the Department of Energy.
To repeat: Rick Perry has been nominated to run an agency he wants to erase. Yes, this happened. One does not know whether to laugh or cry. Mr. Trump looked over Perry’s résumé, realized George W. Bush and that big rock in the park had other commitments, and tapped him to run an agency responsible for a bunch of stuff that could kill us all in an afternoon. More than that, Perry is an avowed climate denier and a fossil fuel devotee, so all the vital alternative energy research currently underway at the Energy Department is about to go swirling down the drain.
The skullduggery currently being aimed at the DOE does not only exist in that cloudy space behind Rick Perry’s glasses. The Trump transition team recently disseminated a list of 74 questions to every employee at Energy. Many of these question pointedly sought to find out if the employees had worked on, or believed in, anything having to do with climate change. More ominously, the transition team demanded the names of any and all Energy Department employees who had worked on climate policy during the Obama administration.
The employees, understandably, were deeply unsettled: It smelled quite rankly like a purge in the offing to be unleashed by an incoming administration whose top official has often called climate change a hoax. Employees could be marginalized within the agency, and contract workers shown the door without cause once their contract was up. Worse, it could perhaps even become the groundwork for an effort to blackball them from future employment opportunities within the public sector and beyond. The Department of Energy has stoutly refused to turn over the names of these employees.
Yet this is Donald Trump we’re talking about here. He and his merry band of racists, warmongers, Islamophobes, xenophobes and privatizers don’t cotton much to being told “No,” especially by a bunch of pointy-headed science bureaucrats. Odds are good this little tussle is far from settled, but the simple fact of it also speaks to a far more sinister reality.
A gruesome segment of world history is four words written in blood: “Give us the names.” Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, Joe McCarthy and many others have deployed this tactic to the ultimate ruination of the vulnerable and the defenseless. No one is suggesting that DOE employees are going to be lined up and shot or sent to gulags near the Nevada Test Site, but simply asking the question rattles some very old and unquiet bones. The fact that such a request was even made speaks to the character of this incoming administration, and it does not speak well.
Does that sound paranoid? Ask a DOE climate scientist how they feel about it. Better yet, see how you feel when someone comes around asking about you. These are some strange days at the Department of Energy, and in the United States entire. Most peculiar, mama.