‘Dancing with the Stars’ contestant nominated to oversee the U.S. nuclear program

Rick Perry is no nuclear physicist.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Kathy Willens
CREDIT: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

If it were up to Rick Perry, he would be out of a job.

According to multiple reports, the former Texas governor has been asked to head the Department of Energy in the Trump administration — a department Perry has repeatedly said should be eliminated.

“This nomination defies all logic,” House Energy and Commerce Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) said in a statement. “Governor Perry is on the record both forgetting about the Energy Department and then later remembering that he wanted to eliminate it. Governor Perry clearly does not recognize the importance the Energy Department plays in ensuring the safety and security of America’s nuclear arsenal and nuclear power plants.”

The major role of the Energy Department is to oversee the country’s nuclear arsenals. For next year, the department has requested $12.9 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration. Another $6.8 billion was requested for “departmental management and performance programs, including environmental cleanup programs to meet the nation’s Manhattan Project and Cold War legacy responsibilities.”

That means that well over half of the agency’s $32.5 billion budget will go to nuclear safety, management, and clean up. As governor and later as a candidate, Perry has been closely tied to a Texas-based radioactive waste disposal company. He was criticized for allowing the company to go forward with plans without a full environmental review.

The current head of the department, Ernest Moniz, is a theoretical physicist. (In contrast, President-elect Donald Trump has said Perry “wears glasses to seem smart.”)

The Energy Department’s transition has been heavily scrutinized after the Trump team requested that the agency provide a list of names of people who worked on climate change issues. The agency is reportedly refusing to provide that list.

Regardless of what the agency actually does, people still hear the word “energy” and think the department deals with oil and gas.

Perry himself is a climate denier (a phrase he finds offensive). He has said that, “calling CO2 a pollutant is doing a disservice the country, and I believe a disservice to the world.” He also believes the science is “not settled” about climate change, and it is too expensive to address it.

He also has major ties to the oil and gas industry — like much of the incoming administration’s cabinet. He sits on the board of Energy Transfer Partners, the company developing the Dakota Access Pipeline, and during his time in Texas government, the oil and gas industry provided Perry’s biggest campaign contributions.

“Like his new boss, Governor Perry will surely mine his position for as much personal gain as he can find,” Schreiber said.

One of the more traditionally energy-related issues the department does oversee, though, is research and development. National labs are incubators for some of the country’s most important research. Sure, they helped improve wind turbine generation, but they also conducted the original research that led to digital optical recording (how DVDs and CDs are made). At the moment, the national labs are at the forefront of research into how to make a better battery — a critical part of transitioning to better energy use.

The Department of Energy also manages a significant loan program. The DOE loan program has been a striking success under the Obama administration, turning a profit for taxpayers while creating jobs.

Without the Department of Energy’s loan program, there would be no Tesla.

Under the program, the department guarantees a portion of a loan, usually for startup businesses — whether they are small solar businesses or major companies that need financing for a large-scale installation. Through these loans, DOE incubates new businesses and supports development.

The loan program “literally kick-started the whole utility-scale photovoltaic industry,” Moniz told NPR.

Supporters of research and development say that it could help the country win the technology race with India and China — allowing the United States to profit from the global transition to clean energy. A report released Tuesday emphasized how important continued investment in research and development is for the United States’ position as a global, technological powerhouse.

“The United States is falling behind in the race to capitalize on the burgeoning clean energy market — but the race is not yet lost,” says the report, published by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. The report outlines “five principles for institutional change that should be applied to key federal agencies, especially the U.S. Department of Energy,” including defining technological priorities, focusing on “commercially relevant” research and development, and spurring private investment.

Trump has said that under his administration, the government will stop research on solar, wind, efficiency, batteries, clean cars, and climate science.

Imagining that Trump’s climate-denying, fossil fuel-supporting Energy Secretary will steer U.S. ingenuity towards the clean energy future is a little far-fetched.

Perry’s most recent role was as a dancer/star on the television show Dancing with the Stars. He was eliminated in the third week of competition.