Historian's office -- built to withstand nuclear blasts but vulnerable to budget cuts

If you've got questions about where the Department of Energy is keeping aliens, Terry Fehner is your go-to guy.

As DOE's historian for nearly three decades, he's gotten a lot of inquiries, ranging from mundane to insane. Those about where the agency is hiding aliens are among the weirdest he's fielded.

"People think that the department somewhere has those aliens squirreled away," perhaps at former nuclear testing sites in the desert, Fehner said in an interview.

His response disappoints hunters of extraterrestrials: "We don't have the aliens."

Fehner, 61, joined DOE in 1986. He had a newly minted doctorate in history from Georgetown University and signed on as a junior historian in the office charged with managing the department's historical records, writing about the agency's past and serving as its institutional memory.

He's written sweeping reports like a 151-page summary history of the agency published in 1994. More recently, Fehner wrote about the 35th anniversary of the first Energy secretary, James Schlesinger, declaring DOE open for business outside its temporary headquarters across from the White House in 1977. Schlesinger died last week at age 85.

The history office dates to the late 1950s, when it was part of the Atomic Energy Commission. The program had been created in large part to document the history of the Manhattan Project and became part of DOE when the new umbrella agency swallowed components of the former atomic agency and other government offices.

Fehner works at the DOE's facility in Germantown, Md., the former headquarters of the Atomic Energy Commission. Most days, he walks to work.

The Germantown site -- about 25 miles from downtown Washington -- was picked in the 1950s with the reasoning that it would be outside the blast range of the largest weapon conceivable at the time (20 megatons). The building was also designed to safeguard against a nuclear blast, according to a DOE history.

DOE's historical records are stored in a warehouse with massive rows of shelving containing box after box after box of materials. In all, the records take up several thousand cubic feet, he said. Some of them are classified -- including some that deal with the genesis of the nuclear weapons program -- but Fehner has the necessary security clearance to manage everything.

His office is "a mess," he said. "You could probably tell by looking at my office that this is a historian or somebody that doesn't like to throw anything away."

It's a standard office with a computer, a phone, a desk, file cabinets and stuff stacked practically to the ceiling, he said. He has an area where government officials or the public can come in to do research. An author working on a book about the history of nuclear waste storage has been studying DOE records for more than a year.

There's a separate research area for people working with classified material.

Fehner once had a "really nice" 3-foot-wide cast-iron seal from the Atomic Energy Commission hanging above his copy machine in the research area, but someone from DOE's downtown Washington headquarters admired it, so he handed it over. Now it's hanging in the secretary's hallway in the James V. Forrestal Building. "So it's probably getting seen by a lot more people than it would otherwise," Fehner said.


He's got a second office in the Forrestal Building and goes back and forth from Germantown.

'There's just me'

Growing up in Minneapolis, Fehner didn't dream of one day becoming DOE's historian. For one thing, the Energy Department didn't exist until he was in his 20s.

But he was always interested in history, and he liked the idea of working for the government.

His resume is checkered with government jobs, including a part-time stint working at an EPA library in Las Vegas and posts at the Veterans Administration in Washington. He started at the VA in the director's mailroom, then spent a summer in the department's sub-sub-basement typing death certificates.

When Fehner was first hired at DOE during the Reagan administration, the office had about half a dozen staffers, he said.

But now, "well, there's just me," Fehner said.

Due to budget cuts, departing historians haven't been replaced. "We haven't hired anyone in 25 years, probably," he said.

But responsibilities haven't declined with staffing.

"There's just as much there as far as the universe of what I deal with, but I have to pick and choose more," he said. "There's not as much time for writing history."

About 2 ½ years ago, Fehner's supervisor -- the chief historian -- retired.

"He left, and it was sort of like, 'Well, am I now the chief historian, if I'm the only historian?'" Fehner said. "So I kind of like referring to myself as the DOE historian at this point."

He's hoping to retire himself in the next year or so, but he doesn't think that will be the end of DOE's history program. His office has a lot of support from upper-level management, he said, so he doesn't think he'll be the last person to hold the title.

"I anticipate that they will bring in a very capable person to replace me," he said.

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