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Former Assistant Secretary Reflects on Career High Point Leading EM: 'Well Worth the Effort'

February 27, 2013 - 12:00pm

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Dr. Carolyn L. Huntoon

Dr. Carolyn L. Huntoon

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In an occasional EM Update series, we feature interviews with former EM Assistant Secretaries to reflect on their achievements and challenges in the world’s largest nuclear cleanup and to discuss endeavors in life after EM.

Dr. Carolyn L. Huntoon had a distinguished federal government career of more than 30 years, serving at DOE and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In her later years of federal service, Dr. Huntoon served Presidents George W. Bush and William Clinton as the Assistant Secretary for EM, a U.S. Senate-confirmed position. As Assistant Secretary, Dr. Huntoon oversaw EM’s cleanup of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex at 113 sites in 30 states and one territory. Additionally, she was responsible for the management of seven of the Department’s field offices, including Idaho, Savannah River, Carlsbad, Ohio, Richland, the Office of River Protection and Rocky Flats, which is now closed.

Dr. Huntoon currently is a member of the Environmental Management Advisory Board, whose mission is to provide independent and external advice, information and recommendations to the EM Assistant Secretary on corporate issues relating to accelerated site cleanup and risk reduction.

What are you doing currently for your professional work?
After retirement from the federal government, I began advising DOE and NASA — personally and as a member of various review committees and boards — on subjects of my expertise: specifically, program and project management, nuclear waste and human physiology.

Where do you live now?
I currently live in Barrington, R.I. and Lake Charles, La.

How do you view your term as the EM Assistant Secretary?
My term as the Assistant Secretary for EM remains one of the high points in my career in the federal government. The job was so challenging every day and the tasks so daunting that the work was well worth the effort. One could only compare the technical challenge to the budgetary and political challenges of the job. The people at EM headquarters in Washington, D.C. and Germantown, Md., as well as across the DOE complex, were dedicated, smart and hard-working. They worked with me to try to deal with the issues we were charged to accomplish.

What was your greatest achievement as the EM Assistant Secretary?
I view EM’s job as a continuum and therefore the accomplishments were a moment in time, some of which began years before I became the Assistant Secretary. And many of the accomplishments that occurred after I left were begun under my management. An example would be the opening of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in 1999. It was quite an honor for me to push the "button" that opened the gates to let the first trucks with waste enter the area. The team that I built to work across the complex and headquarters certainly made me proud. After becoming the Assistant Secretary, I faced the first job of replacing the "stove pipe" organization with one that would work across the entire complex as well as at headquarters. It worked and it was not a stretch for the workers of EM. They were able to work together and use their expertise to solve problems. Putting safety first was my first direction. I know we had an outstanding record of protecting our workers, the public and the environment. The work that I and others did to add rigor to the project and program management effort was important and proved to be essential in getting the most work done for the taxpayer's dollars. The effort to apply innovative contracting strategies to provide reasonable incentives to reduce costs and schedules and reduce contractor overhead and administrative costs contributed greatly to our successes. The emphasis on science and technology has paid off on a continuing basis. We engaged the best scientific and technological expertise to help with the cleanup challenges. In addition, our commitment to long-term stewardship, improving public confidence and keeping our promises kept us on a steady course.

What differences do you see in EM now and when you were the EM Assistant Secretary?
Many things are about the same. I believe the Assistant Secretaries who followed me did a terrific job building on the things that I and those before me accomplished. Since there have been so many accomplishments, the remaining work is really difficult, but not impossible. Because of what has been done in the past, the budget and the technical workforce can be more focused.

Is there anything that you would change?
I am sure there are things that I would change in hindsight. Unfortunately, we don't get to turn back the clock and have do-overs.

What misperceptions do people generally have about the program and about the EM Assistant Secretary?
I believe the biggest misperception about EM comes from those people who do not have nuclear waste in their home states. The budget and manpower requirements seem to be large if one doesn't understand the technical challenges.

How has your experience as the EM Assistant Secretary helped you in subsequent endeavors?
Of course, each thing one does adds experience, which helps with the future. After serving most of my career at a NASA field center, the whole experience of managing a headquarters office, dealing with a large complex of sites and interacting with Congress was extremely beneficial to my personal growth.

Did you take any interesting trips while you were EM Assistant Secretary?
The travel that I did around the complex was terrific. I went to all of the sites, some of them many times, and I saw things that I had only read about. The trips were not necessarily easy, but it was very informative to see the sites and meet the super workforce.

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