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Farewell ERDA, Hello Energy Department

October 2, 2012 - 5:19pm

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In this photo taken in the 1970s, INL’s Richard Dickson is measuring background radiation levels using ionization chambers. | Photo courtesy of Richard Dickson.

In this photo taken in the 1970s, INL’s Richard Dickson is measuring background radiation levels using ionization chambers. | Photo courtesy of Richard Dickson.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Since 1977, the people of the U.S. Department of Energy have been delivering the science, innovation and expertise required to advance America's energy, economic and national security. To commemorate the 35th anniversary of this important endeavor, Energy.gov is featuring stories from a few of the Department’s longest serving employees.

I remember the announcement for the creation of the Department of Energy. Our office held a mock burial for the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), with a potluck luncheon and ceremonial coffin.

It was a much simpler time in 1977. My boss handed me a real paycheck every other Friday, and the only big decision I had to make was about my health insurance. Secretaries took notes in shorthand, and letters were typed using real carbon paper. There were no PCs. No Internet. Documents were stored on my bookshelves, not in digital archives that exist now.  

During this time, environmental regulations were just starting to have their impact. The Clean Air Act of 1970 and Clean Water Act of 1972 marked significant environmental changes. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 and Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 ultimately led to the control of both hazardous and mixed-hazardous wastes. All of this was happening amid the backdrop of the Cold War. During my first 10 years, I was part of the Idaho National Laboratory environmental monitoring group, and we were beginning to look for ways to be better stewards of the environment.

Former Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary’s leadership in the 1990s was especially noteworthy because she threw back the veil of secrecy that had been covering a lot of the early work of the Atomic Energy Commission. Her openness initiative in 1993 led to the release of 1.6 million pages of previously classified information, and former President Bill Clinton formed the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. The initiative brought a breath of fresh air and let us re-examine our history and learn from the past to move on with the future.

My whole career has been about learning -- and I’ve come to realize that you never really stop. When I began my job at ERDA I was fresh out of school, and through the years I’ve continued to recreate myself to keep up with what’s new. I’ve learned you can’t live in the past, and my advice to other Energy Department employees is this: Keep current. Ask questions, remain curious and stay vigilant. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to work with numerous students and interns. Helping them with their studies and thesis work has been an inspiration for me to keep learning new things.The opportunity to continually learn and  reinvent both myself and my job are all significant reasons why I’m still at DOE 35 years after the Department “recreated” itself. 

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