The Admiral Dismantles the DOE’s Nuclear Empire

Admiral James D. Watkins took the helm of power at the Department of Energy (DOE) on

Watkins is sworn in as Energy Secretary. From left to right: James Watkins, Sheila Watkins, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, President George H. W. Bush. (Wikipedia)

Watkins is sworn in as Energy Secretary. From left to right: James Watkins, Sheila Watkins, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, President George H. W. Bush. (Wikipedia)

March 1, 1989. Appointed by President H.W. Bush, Admiral Watkins replaced President Reagan’s appointee, John Harriman. It only took about three months for the 100,000 or so DOE government employees and the contractors to realize they were in a different world and it wasn’t going to be fun anymore.

A change in presidents means changes at the secretarial level in most major departments and almost always at the DOE. During the 1989 Admiral Watkins transition, all DOE and contractor management bureaucrats were as meerkats on a mound in Namibia, standing erect, necks extended and heads stretched for the least sound, smell or other clue as to direction. The adjective, hyper-vigilant, became an understatement.

Watching Washington, D.C. for a sign.

Watching Washington, D.C. for a sign.

The lesser workerkats kept on trucking because, in the seventeen installations, test sites and plants scattered over twelve states that was the DOE nuclear world, it always worked out. Workerkats believed that once the president and new members of congress figured out that President Carter’s renaming of the Energy Research and Development Administration to the Department of Energy did not really change anything, all would be well. Irrespective of the happenings back in Washington, D.C. schedules at the working level never changed; there was always going to be the next production run or the next test.  They could not have been more wrong.

By March 1, 1989, The DOE nuclear body politic was already dead, it was to be maintained on

Color photo of the exterior of the Chernobyl power plant shortly after the explosion, just outside the Russian town of Pripyat. How shortly is unknown.  (

Color photo of the exterior of the Chernobyl power plant shortly after the explosion, just outside the Russian town of Pripyat. How shortly is unknown. (

life support for dismantlement and shut-down prior to burial. In retrospect, the demise of the nuclear infrastructure seems clear but at the time it was anything but clear. Contractors knew that the DOE was pathologically afraid of failure and of accidents. The horror of Chernobyl’s 1986 accident was fresh in everyone’s mind. The EPA wanted behind the veil of secrecy. As it played out, the EPA interest was mostly to secure a seat at the power table rather than any real concern about the environment. The protestors were the same people who carried a variety of different signs but it was known that they were funded largely by the soviets and so were ignored. The Savannah River facility, which produced tritium and plutonium-239, for nuclear weapons production, experienced another failure in 1988 and three of its five reactors (K, L, and P) were shut down. K Reactor produced tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, used to increase effect of the nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile.  Since the K reactor went down in 1988 no new tritium has been produced. Tritium decays about 5 percent per year and must now be recovered and recycled from disassembled nuclear weapons. At the moment, the U.S. cannot maintain its nuclear weapons stockpile at the level called for in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) II but President Obama signed a New START treaty in February 2011 calling for further stockpile reductions so tritium recycling can continue to support the nuclear stockpile for a while longer.

Rocky Flats Plant

Rocky Flats Plant

The Admiral took the helm in the middle of all this chaos at the direct request of President H.W. Bush.  His marching orders were to clean up the DOE mess. During his confirmation hearings, the Admiral took DOE to task for a 35-year culture of bad management and out-of-date technology. In May 1989, Watkins’s second in command, Henson Moore, led a team of 70 FBI and EPA officers on a raid of the Rocky Flats facility on allegations of environmental crimes. Gross criminal malfeasance could never be proven but when the Rocky Flats incident was over, EPA had a full-time seat at the table and DOE would never enjoy the freedom from scrutiny they had previously enjoyed.

The distinct line drawn between military and civilian nuclear capability roles during the Truman administration would also be blurred and, in some cases, be erased. DOE’s government workforce went into g-fib. Government fibrillation (g-fib) is just like ventricular fibrillation (v-fib) except instead of muscle cells all vibrating incoherently it is government employees who sit at their desks and vibrate incoherently. When the government goes into g-fib, contractors just have to wait until it is all over. Someone will either get the paddles and shock them back into harmony or the body politic will disintegrate.

Government workers in G-fib

Government workers in G-fib

Contractor personnel, like me, knew that our whole way of making a living was at risk. Admiral Watkins was a product of the nuclear Navy and had served directly under Admiral Rickover. Admiral Watkins hated government contractors; at least that is how it felt to those of us provided with Rickover’s nine memos written during a dispute with the Electric Boat

Rickover pictured in 1955 as rear admiral

Rickover pictured in 1955 as rear admiral

Company. Watkins realigned the DOE so that it operated consistently with Admiral Rickover’s Navy playbook. Watkins said that the nuclear Navy’s way had worked without flaw and so had Three Mile Island since its realignment. Doe would come on board.

In June of 1989, DOE Headquarters informed the world that Environment, Safety and Health would come before all production. Savannah River received personal attention and was realigned so that it reported directly to DOE headquarters. Rocky Flats went into decline as did the Hanford Reservation and the Nevada Test site. The military assumed a greater role in basic nuclear research and the civilian component devolved. Shortly no one knew where or who was responsible for anything and all heads turned East waiting for direction. When none came, all hands busied themselves with housekeeping matters just in case they were the next site to be raided.

At the end of the four year reign of terror nothing was better; not environment, safety, orEnvironment health and safety health, and definitely not the sciences. The good news for the taxpayers (tongue firmly in cheek) is more contractors had been hired because all the documentation for all the new processes had to be written. There was no real program left so more people were hired to write and catalogue the history. Technicians, engineers, and scientists became archivists and writers. By that time people were so terrified that truth was hard to find. The Admiral increased DOE’s funding levels, though, and he developed a plan to downsize and modernize the DOE in place. It was a good idea that did not happen.

It is important to note that the Admiral was not wrong. He was, in fact, spot on the money with respect to DOE’s complacency and security behind the black veil of secrecy. When Admiral Watkins passed away in 2012, he left a long and honorable list of achievements including tours on both surface ships and in submarines. Admiral Watkins was the 22nd Chief of Naval Operations and was awarded the Bronze Star with V, Legion of Merit with two gold award stars, and the Distinguished Service Medal from the Navy, Army and Air Force. He gave his all to ‘square away’ the civilians in the DOE. He was a leader of military personnel but did not do so well as a leader in the world of civilians. He did not respect civilians or even appear to like them. Military leaders are not without their flaws, even the famous Admiral Rickover, and neither are civilian leaders.

Through a series of poor leaders, or good leaders making poor decisions, our country has lost great test beds and thousands of talented people under the guise of upgrading. The result is an exposed soft underbelly and the loss of a leadership position in the physical sciences. Leadership makes a difference.

Many celebrations were held in out of the way places when the Admiral left. Who knew that a year with Hazel O’Leary would bring a longing for the good old days of Admiral Watkins?

Hazel R. O'Leary

Hazel R. O’Leary

Originally published as The Admiral Takes the Helm on Apr 26, 2013

3 thoughts on “The Admiral Dismantles the DOE’s Nuclear Empire

  1. This is an excellent article and a spot-on description of the situation. I was there as a contractor and later as a member of the Westinghouse transition at Savannah River when all this went down and the author describes it all perfectly.

    Especially the description of the days of O’Leary.

    • I worked at the Nevada Test Site during these fun times. I know that the Westinghouse transition at Savannah River was brutal. Thank you for your service there!

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