An optimist tackles ‘the toughest job in federal government’

By Hannah Hess | 06/06/2016 01:12 PM EDT

Monica Regalbuto has taken on the Department of Energy’s Mission: Impossible.

Monica Regalbuto has taken on the Department of Energy’s Mission: Impossible.

As chief of DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, Regalbuto oversees cleanup of Cold War-era nuclear weapons sites that the department once promised to finish by 2019. On her must-do list: more than 2,000 buildings — many of them sprawling hangars as big as soccer fields — where making bombs took priority over protecting the environment.

"What’s the composition of the waste? The answer is pretty much everything on the periodic table," the assistant Energy secretary said during a recent interview. She pointed to a poster-sized periodic table on an easel in front of a windowed wall of her corner office on the seventh floor of the department’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.


"Understand, there was a war. … The priority wasn’t on the waste, it was on the product moving forward, forward, forward," she said. "What was left became the mission of EM."

The estimated cleanup tab: $340 billion.

Regalbuto (pronounced Reg-al-BOO-toe) isn’t one to shy from big challenges. The Mexico-born engineer holds six patents and master’s and doctoral degrees in chemical engineering. She expresses confidence that technological advances can make the mission possible.

Monica Regalbuto
Monica Regalbuto, assistant secretary for the Energy Department’s Office of Environmental Management, shows off a robotic exoskeleton on display outside her office at DOE’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. | Photo by Hannah Hess.

For a high-stakes, high-cost cleanup effort, the office was forced to go more than four years without a Senate-confirmed leader. That changed last August, when Regalbuto took the reins after being confirmed to replace Ines Triay.

Regalbuto’s in charge at a critical time. The Obama administration is considering an overhaul of the office that has been besieged by high-profile leaks of radioactive waste, contractor problems, missed deadlines and ballooning cleanup costs, according to documents obtained by Greenwire. DOE is proposing to reconfigure Environmental Management to focus on regulatory and policy affairs, field operations, and business operations, Regalbuto and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Mark Whitney said in a presentation last month (Greenwire, June 1).

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has been working to prime DOE to leverage new technology and connections with universities and businesses — relationships that have been key to Regalbuto’s career.

In 1988, she got her start at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, supporting the development of technologies for the treatment of high-level waste at DOE’s plutonium production sites. Eight years later, she departed for BP Amoco, returning to Argonne in 2001. She joined Environmental Management in 2008.

From 2010 to 2014, she served as assistant secretary for fuel cycle technologies at DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy. Regalbuto was responsible for directing a research and development program involving 10 national laboratories, 32 universities, over 400 scientists and 300 professors.

Two years ago, Regalbuto returned to Environmental Management, which has a laboratory at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The office took the helm of the lab in 2006, making it the nation’s central source for science and technology to reduce the cost, shorten the schedule, and mitigate risks to workers and the environment.

"They have, in my opinion, the best logo in the whole DOE complex," Regalbuto said of the lab. "That is, ‘We put science to work,’ and they really do."

Science is on display in DOE headquarters, where Regalbuto showed a visitor a robotic exoskeleton developed by the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a State University System of Florida-affiliated nonprofit that has partnered with NASA and the U.S. military.

Robotic devices, such as arms equipped with jaws and pipe-cutting shears, are used in cleanups overseen by Regalbuto’s office to remove waste from areas of high radioactivity.

The administration’s plans to revamp the office would establish a new field operations division with a unit focused on technology development.

Big question: Can technology make up for funding shortfalls?

The office is running on about 15 percent less cash since a 2005 peak of $7.3 billion, with an increasing chunk of the agency’s funding targeted for maintaining the safety and readiness of the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

"We never have enough money to do everything that we would like to do," Regalbuto said.


Members of Congress, focused on cleanups in their home states or districts, have formed caucuses in both chambers to promote funding for the effort.

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.), chairman of the House Nuclear Cleanup Caucus, told Greenwire the caucus is one of the fastest-growing in Congress, in part because of the complexity of the challenge.

"Let’s face it — thank goodness we don’t have legacy sites in every congressional district in the country. But in those communities where you have it, the members are made acutely aware of this," said Fleischmann, who represents Oak Ridge, the former Manhattan Project site.

Regalbuto attended a caucus meeting in April to discuss DOE’s plans for addressing the problem of high-risk excess facilities, or high-risk buildings that are no longer needed. The number of excess facilities in DOE’s inventory is expected to grow to more than 3,000 over the next decade. For fiscal 2017, EM requested $887 million — about 15 percent of its annual budget — for facility deactivation and decommissioning.

According to Rep. Mike Simpson, the Idaho Republican who leads the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the cleanup budget, Regalbuto does "the toughest job in federal government" (E&E Daily, March 16).

The Environmental Management footprint has shrunk 90 percent since the office was established in 1989, but many of its biggest challenges lie ahead.

Before decontamination and decommissioning can begin, workers need to inventory hazardous chemicals and special nuclear materials that haven’t been characterized since the weapons work concluded.

Regalbuto tries a homespun explanation of her office’s assessments.

"Imagine you were making cupcakes in your kitchen and we told you to go do something else, and you left the kitchen as is. So you have cupcakes and the containers. Yeah, you shut off the oven and took them out so they didn’t burn, but in general you didn’t leave it in a clean, safe way," she said.

"So if you leave your house, I don’t know what kind of batter you used. Were you making chocolate chip? Were you making vanilla? Was it from scratch? Was it from a box? I have no idea unless I start rumbling in there, right."

This conservative approach, aimed at protecting the health and safety of the federal nuclear waste workforce, has contributed to missed deadlines and cost overruns. But Regalbuto says it’s necessary to "inch away."

Environmental cleanup and nuclear waste disposal continue to rank among DOE’s most pressing management challenges (Greenwire, Nov. 19, 2015).

Acting Inspector General Rickey Hass, who runs his shop down the hall from Regalbuto, noted the agency is responsible for "one of the most complex nuclear remediation efforts in the world … faced with developing unique solutions to address often unknown obstacles."

Adding to the problem, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, in Carlsbad, N.M. — the nation’s sole repository for defense transuranic waste — remains shuttered as a result of an accidental radiological leak in February 2014. Regalbuto wishes DOE had robotic capabilities to support the investigation into the incident and the ongoing efforts to reopen the facility.

According to the department’s recovery plan, WIPP was slated to resume operations in the first quarter of 2016. However, last summer DOE announced the March target date was no longer viable and a new target date in 2016 must be established (Greenwire, Aug. 24, 2015).

"Our goal is to restart operations at the end of the calendar year, but we will only do that if it’s safe to do so," she said.

WIPP moved one step closer to reopening in early May with approval of the newest documented safety analysis, in which officials detailed potential disasters and their plan of action. Cold operations started last week.

"It’s a big landmark to us, and we’re very much looking forward to that. The target is the end of the year, but again, only if it’s safe to do so," Regalbuto said. "It’s exciting, but there’s still work to do."


For Regalbuto, incremental progress on the 16 cleanup sites the office oversees in 11 states is "exciting."

At the Hanford site in southern Washington, where engineers once manufactured plutonium for the first nuclear bomb, Regalbuto reports "very exciting" progress toward removing sludge from the K Basins.

Hanford’s overdue Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant, tied up with technical glitches for more than a decade, is also "actually getting pretty close, which is very exciting," she said.

The 586-square-mile site was a sticking point in Regalbuto’s lengthy journey to Senate confirmation. Her nomination was advanced by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the 113th Congress but stalled before reaching the floor. President Obama nominated her again in the 114th, but Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden threatened to block consideration over dissatisfaction with her plans for high-level nuclear waste storage tanks (Greenwire, June 16, 2015).

At Oak Ridge, Environmental Management is on the verge of another exciting milestone, Regalbuto said.

By the end of this year "if not sooner," she said, the office expects to demolish the last of five uranium-enrichment buildings at the former gaseous diffusion plant. The former weapons site is slowly being converted to an industrial park that would include an airport on land transferred back to local control in Knoxville, Tenn.

"I don’t think anybody in the old days would have envisioned at that site you would be having your airport expansion," Regalbuto said, tying the site to two other former gaseous diffusion plants in Kentucky and Ohio. "So, it’s very exciting and we can just think about the future of other sites that are in the same process."