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President Obama’s nomination for Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management at the Department of Energy is a familiar name in New Mexico.
Ines Triay was one of several nominations to key administration posts announced on Friday.
Triay has served in an acting capacity in the position for which she was nominated since November 2008. Before she went to work for the Department of Energy, she spent 14 years at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where she began as a postdoc and eventually assumed a leadership role in waste management.
“She was instrumental in getting the Waste Isolation Pilot Project open, getting the first shipments going and getting the state of New Mexico comfortable with the waste that was going there,” said Johnny Harper, who worked for her at the laboratory in those days. “Even in the beginning, she was a scientist who was able to communicate with the non-scientists and the politicians to help them understand the facts, help bring them on board and help them decide.”
After Los Alamos, Triay joined DOE as manager of WIPP in Carlsbad and then went on to work at headquarters in Washington, where among many other accomplishments, she played a central role in closing the Consent Order with the State of New Mexico on a comprehensive environmental cleanup at LANL.
“We called her the “Tasmanian Tiger,” Harper said, “because she was so full of energy.”
Obama’s nominating statement stated, “In her 24 years of work with the Department of Energy’s environmental programs, Triay had devoted her professional career to cleaning up the legacy of the Cold War.”
If confirmed she will become EM-1, as DOE abbreviates the office, after having worked her way up from EM-3, the chief operating officer and EM-2, the top career position to which she was appointed in October 2007.
Triay was born in Cuba, but left at the age of 3, when her family fled the isalnd.
“They went to Puerto Rico until she was 17 and then to Miami where she went to school,” Harper recalled.
Another former colleague, now retired, Stan Kosiewicz said she worked for him and then later he worked for her.
“Ines is one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met,” he said. “She is one of three or four people I’ve known who have a photographic memory. She never took notes.”
Kosiewicz collaborated with Triay on a project to begin moving the first radioactive shipments to WIPP in 1999.
He was the lead author of an award-winning paper on which Triay was one of the co-authors on “Cutting the Gordian Knot that Binds WIPP.” The paper summarized the process by which LANL’s original shipment of transuranic waste, Lot No. 01, was validated, breaking a lengthy stalemate.
“WIPP was prohibited from receive mixed waste,” he recalled, and so the laboratory team proposed first sending plutonium-238 that was used in the Cassini spacecraft, still going after more than 11 years on its mission to Saturn. “It was handled in glove boxes and never got mixed with any hazardous chemicals,” but still took an enormous effort to clear.
“She liked Salsa dancing,” Kosiewicz said on a personal note. “When she was in Carlsbad, she took great pride in her silver Corvette.
Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque was one of the public interest environmentalists who led the fight against opening WIPP and contended with Triay afterward when she managed the repository.
“Ines has a lot of good qualifications for the job,” he said. “She worked in the field at LANL as a tech. She was site manager at WIPP and then a lot of good experience at headquarters. She’s a PhD and a smart lady.”
Like others in the anti-nuclear community, Hancock found her accessible.
“Of all the WIPP site managers I’ve dealt with for the last 35 years, the only one who came to my office and had discussions on more than one occasion was Ines,” he said.
At the same time, Hancock expressed concern that there were significant problems with environmental management at DOE during the Bush years.
“She was a part of that,” he said. “My concern was whether she is going to be able to recognize the flaws of past and be part of changing them or be more involved in defending the things of the past.”
Shortly before the announcement of Triay’s nomination, DOE Secretary Chu confirmed that the Obama administration would not proceed with the Yucca Mountain geological repository for nuclear waste.
Shortly afterward, USA Today in an editorial, proposed reopening the question of the deep salt repositories at the WIPP site as a possible alternative.
With Chu looking for alternatives, some might see Triay as a partial answer to the question of what will happen next for waste storage.
Triay’s technical background included work on Yucca Mountain and four years of experience managing WIPP are suggestive, although technically the Yucca Mountain project does not fall under the EM rubric.
“I think it will be interested in how it plays out,” Hancock said, although he immediately dismissed the connection. “It’s a non-starter from a technical point of view because salt doesn’t work for physically hot waste.”
Triay has returned to New Mexico frequently over the years, including some recent visits to facilitate negotiations between LANL and the New Mexico Environment Department.
“I’m so pleased she’s attained that position, because she’s got a good chunk of New Mexico in her heart, having worked up there at the lab and WIPP,” said Environment Secretary Ron Curry this morning “We’ve had some very hardnosed negotiations with her. I appreciate that she’s willing to go toe to toe but for the sake of getting to a resolution, but after it’s over you still have that trust to engage at the next level.”
The Senate must still confirm the nomination under its “advise and consent” authority.