EM’s Mark Whitney Reflects on DOE Tenure

How would you compare EM today to when you came to headquarters?

There have of course been a lot of changes over the past few years. I’d like to begin the answer to this question by noting a couple of important points. First, all of these changes were informed to some degree by the EM workforce; through individual meetings, group discussions, AM with EM, and other engagements, as well as recommendations by the Organization Improvement IPT (Integrated Project Team). We have really begun to transform the organization, in my view, in a positive manner. I also want to mention that I really view what we’ve done as a continuation of the efforts of our EM-1 (EM Assistant Secretary) and EM-2 (Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary) predecessors to improve the organization and make EM a better place to work.

I think one of the biggest changes is that we’re now well on the path to being a truly field-centric organization. All of the work EM does, and all of the successes and accomplishments we’ve realized, are in the field. It’s the local communities near our sites that feel the impact of our mission — past, present and future — and they are why we do our job.

It’s incumbent on all of us who work at EM headquarters to be in a position to do all that we can to support the men and women at each cleanup site who are allowing EM to continue to make and sustain progress. This summer’s reorganization of EM headquarters really puts us in a solid position to provide that support. We’ve placed field operations right at the center of our organizational structure through the creation of the new Associate Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Field Operations position, and EM headquarters is so fortunate that Stacy Charboneau has agreed to serve in that position and bring her years of experience from Hanford to assist all EM sites.

I’m excited how the new structure of EM headquarters will help us be even more effective and prepare us for the future. I know that some people were surprised by the timing of the reorganization, but as Assistant EM Secretary Monica Regalbuto and I have said before, it’s never too late to do the right thing, and this was the right thing to do to ensure that EM headquarters is able to effectively support the field. I also understand that we are experiencing some growing pains and, to a certain extent, we are still figuring this new structure out. That is to be expected with such a major change and I know that we’ll emerge from this better than ever, precisely because of the talented and dedicated men and women who work in Forrestal, Germantown and 270CC (CC stands for Corporate Center, and all three locations are facilities where EM headquarters employees work in the Washington, D.C. area).

Another significant change I’ll mention is a new emphasis on developing new technologies to aid the EM mission. It’s going to take decades to complete the current cleanup scope, and we need to do all we can to find ways to perform that work more efficiently and in a more cost-effective manner while maintaining worker safety and quality of life.

This new emphasis really got underway in late 2014 thanks to Secretary Moniz and his Advisory Board Task Force on EM Technology Development, which led to us reinvigorating our technology development program. And Monica of course has put the full weight of the EM-1 office behind this important effort. We’re seeking more funding in FY 2017 to support our technology development program. We’ve developed new technology roadmaps to help tackle challenges like mercury and technetium contamination and we’re finalizing a new Innovation and Technology Plan that outlines our approach to developing and implementing technologies to address the most difficult cleanup challenges across the complex. We’re also exploring ways advanced robotics can be utilized to aid and improve our cleanup efforts and make some of the most hazardous jobs safer for our workforce.

In addition, through the reorganization, we’ve created a new dedicated Technology Development office at EM headquarters to help identify and develop those new technologies that really have the potential to be “game changers” in how the EM mission is performed. We’ve also created a new policy office to help better utilize the expertise and capabilities of Savannah River National Laboratory, EM’s corporate lab, to aid not only the cleanup work underway at Savannah River, but across the entire EM program.

What are the main things you’re most proud of during your tenure in EM?

I have been very fortunate when it comes to timing because I’ve been able to see EM realize a number of significant physical accomplishments across the DOE complex. At Hanford, we completed the bulk of the cleanup along the Columbia River corridor; this is an area that’s larger than our last three closure sites — Rocky Flats, Fernald and Mound — combined. This was an effort that resulted in six of the nine former production reactors being placed in an interim safe storage condition; the preservation of the historic B Reactor as part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park; the removal of approximately 16 million tons of waste removed; the remediation of more than 1,200 waste sites; and the demolition of more than 500 facilities.

At Oak Ridge, a site near and dear to my heart, we’ve completed the demolition of all five of the former uranium enrichment process buildings at the East Tennessee Technology Park (ETTP). These were massive facilities that dated back to the Manhattan Project, one of which, Building K-25, was the largest building in the world under a single roof when it was built. Now the ETTP site is the first site in the world to have decommissioned all its gaseous diffusion plants. Not only is that an achievement for Oak Ridge, but the lessons learned there are going to help us clean up the Portsmouth and Paducah sites.

At Savannah River, we’ve made significant progress in tackling the largest environmental risk there — radioactive tank waste. We’ve completed the closure of eight of the site’s underground tanks and we completed construction and began startup of the Salt Waste Processing Facility. That facility is the last major component in the liquid waste system at Savannah River, and once in operation, it’s going to significantly increase our ability to treat tank waste and to empty and close the remaining tanks.

From a more programmatic standpoint, I’m proud of the work we’ve done to help strengthen EM’s relationships with the EPA and with the state regulators that oversee our work. We’ve begun a senior-level dialogue to help better share information and improve communications at all levels. We don’t want the first time we talk to someone be when we have an issue to deal with. We also want to ensure that the cleanup program is understood by all parties. It’s important for EM’s stakeholders to understand each other’s priorities in the context of frank discussions.

EM has a difficult situation in that the cost of the regulatory commitments we’ve made is significantly higher than our annual budget. Since one site’s decisions necessarily impact other sites in many cases, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that all parties understand our complex-wide challenges. I think communications and relationships have already improved, and I’m optimistic EM will continue and build upon this effort.

What do you think will be EM’s next major near-term accomplishment?

I think there are several things on the horizon for EM, and it’s going to continue to be an exciting time for EM going forward. Our highest priority is the recovery of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), and we are in the final stages of preparing to resume waste emplacement activities there, but only once it is safe to do so. The reopening of WIPP is critical for cleanup activities across EM.

At Hanford, demolition is now getting underway at the Plutonium Finishing Plant, once one of the most dangerous buildings at Hanford and in the entire DOE complex. It has been a 20-year process to safely get to this point, and the start of its demolition will represent a huge step forward for EM, plant workers, the community, and stakeholders, as well as the agencies we’ve worked with to get to this point.

A little further out, I think you’ll see EM make significant strides in establishing the capabilities we need to tackle tank waste at Hanford and Idaho. We’re on a path to complete sections of the Hanford Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant to allow us to begin actual tank waste treatment there as soon as 2022. And we’re moving forward with a phased approach to starting up the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit at Idaho that, once in operation, will allow us to address the last remaining liquid waste and tanks at that site. We understand the need to begin waste treatment at Idaho as soon as possible, but safety is our overarching concern and we will not begin radioactive waste treatment until we are convinced we can do it safely and efficiently.

Now, is there something you wish you could go back and do over or do differently?

I’m a firm believer in the leadership philosophy that you hire good people, give them the tools they need to do the job and clear direction at the outset and then let them do their jobs. You ensure that accountability and rewards are appropriate. An important element to this philosophy is really knowing your folks, so you can understand when additional help or support may be needed along the way. For this, you have to invest the time to see them, talk to them and get to know them better. I do regret that I did not spend nearly as much time as I would have liked “in the trenches,” particularly in Germantown.

What words of advice would you give to your successor?

Don’t assume you know everything! Nobody expects that. We have a talented workforce in EM, many with decades of experience in this business. Trust them, listen to them attentively — you will learn a lot and you will make better, more-informed decisions for the program.

What can you tell us about your future plans? What are you most looking forward to?

I’ll be returning to the private sector after almost 12 years of federal service in DOE and NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration). I’m excited about the challenges that the position presents and the world-class organization that I’ll be joining. Like EM, it has really good, hard-working, and dedicated professionals. I’m looking forward to working with them and helping them solve some complex challenges. I’m also really happy that I’ll be continuing, albeit in a different capacity, to work on critical environmental and national security issues.

What I’m least looking forward to is being a degree separated from the outstanding EM professionals I’ve had the honor to work with over the years; however, I’ll treasure those relationships and know that they’ll be enduring!