Energy Secretary Perry visits Hanford Nuclear Reservation, tells employees, 'Your work saves lives'

RICHLAND, Wash. (AP) — Energy Secretary Rick Perry made his first visit Tuesday to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which has been plagued by a series of problems.

Perry kicked off his tour at McNary Dam near the Tri-Cities on Monday. Tuesday he toured the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and other Hanford sites near Richland.

"I'm proud to be a part of your team," Perry told workers at the national laboratory. "Your work saves lives."

Hanford for decades made plutonium for nuclear weapons, and now is engaged in a massive cleanup of nuclear wastes that is expected to take decades and cost $100 billion.

The Tri-City Herald reported that the Trump Administration has proposed cutting $120 million from Hanford's budget next year, but the House and Senate budget proposals have restored a large portion of those cuts.

In the first of two high-profile incidents this year, thousands of Hanford workers were evacuated May 9 when the roof of a 1950s rail tunnel storing a lethal mix of nuclear waste collapsed. Tests showed no radiation was released into the environment.

On June 8, demolition work at a 1940s plutonium plant sent 350 workers seeking cover inside. Radiation was emitted but not deemed at a level harmful to people.

In addition, vapors for several years have escaped from underground nuclear waste storage tanks at Hanford, making dozens of workers sick. The cause has not been determined.

The tunnel collapse prompted a group of Congress members from Northwestern states to demand the federal Government Accountability Office review Hanford cleanup work. The lawmakers said they were concerned about the safety of workers, the public and the environment.

On Monday, Perry visited nearby McNary Dam along the Columbia River.

Perry was noncommittal when asked about a proposal in the president's budget to privatize the Bonneville Power Administration transmission grid.

"Hydro is going to continue to play a very important role," Perry said.

Northwest lawmakers have criticized the proposal to sell the transmission grid, saying it will raise rates for consumers and hurt reliability in rural areas. The BPA markets electric power generated by Columbia River system dams.