EM Assistant Secretary Monica Regalbuto Discusses Year Ahead

EM Assistant Secretary Dr. Monica Regalbuto

EM News:

EM Update recently spoke to Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management (EM) Monica Regalbuto about EM’s priorities and goals for fiscal year 2017.

What are your main objectives and goals for fiscal year 2017?

We were very fortunate in EM in the last fiscal year to realize some significant achievements across the complex, and I think we’re on track to do the same this fiscal year.

Of course, our highest priority is resuming waste emplacement activities at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) once it is safe to do so. We’re currently in the final stages of our preparations, and we’re close to completing a DOE Operational Readiness Review that has looked at the proficiency of personnel in receipt and handling of contact-handled transuranic (TRU) waste; systems maintenance and operations; fire safety; and other safety programs. Once that review is completed and any identified pre-start findings are addressed, then the New Mexico Environment Department will conduct a site inspection to ensure WIPP is in full compliance with its hazardous waste facility permit and administrative orders. The successful completion of these last remaining steps will help ensure we’re ready to resume waste emplacement at WIPP.

We’re working this fiscal year to complete the demolition of the Hanford Plutonium Finishing Plant to slab on grade. This building produced more plutonium metal for use in nuclear weapons than any other facility in the country, and was once known as one of the most dangerous buildings in the DOE complex. It was a multi-year effort to get us ready to begin actual demolition of this facility, which we got underway in early November. I’m looking forward to watching our skilled and experience workforce safely and efficiently complete this important project over the next several months.

We’re also going to continue to move forward with startup and commissioning activities at two of our important waste treatment facilities — the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit (IWTU) at the Idaho Site and the Savannah River Salt Waste Processing Facility. These facilities are critical to our plans for addressing the remaining tank waste at these two sites. And we will continue to make progress on those sections of the Hanford Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant (WTP) that are important to our plans to directly feed waste to the WTP Low Activity Waste Facility for treatment.  

At headquarters, we’re going to continue implementation of our new management structure that’s intended to help us better support our field sites where cleanup work is performed and seek to continue to strengthen our alignment with the field. We are also going to work to incorporate the feedback from this year’s 2016 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey to continue our efforts to make EM a great place to work. I was happy to see increases in satisfaction in many important areas, but I also know there are still some areas where we can continue to improve. 

At the 2016 National Cleanup Workshop, a panel focused on EM successes including completion of demolition of Building K-27 at Oak Ridge, completion of construction of the Savannah River Salt Waste Processing Facility, and the significant progress made in D&D activities at the West Valley Demonstration Project. What projects do you think are likely to be discussed at the EM success panel at next year’s National Cleanup Workshop? 

I look forward to being able to highlight the completion of the recovery of WIPP, for one. The workforce at WIPP, both federal and contractor employees, have been the key to the progress we have made in being able to resume waste emplacement activities, and they’re the main reason why we are close now to the finish line. While the incidents that led to the closure of the facility were unfortunate, thanks to the investigations we performed into their cause, we have learned a number valuable lessons we are implementing not just at WIPP but across the EM program.

I think we’re going to be able to celebrate the completion of the demolition of the PFP. That’s going to be an accomplishment not just for Hanford, but for the entire EM program.

And I think a pleasant surprise is going to be the work we have done at the Separations Process Research Unit (SPRU) site. SRPU is one of our smaller sites and doesn’t get quite the same amount of attention as, say, Hanford or Savannah River. But we’re wrapping up demolition of one of the last remaining buildings at the site and we’re moving forward with demolition work on the other remaining building. So I think by the time of the next National Cleanup Workshop, we’ll have a lot of great things to say about the work done at this site.

How would you assess the results of the new management structure at EM headquarters so far?

First of all, I think we did a very good job of rolling out the new management structure and communicating to EM employees, and our stakeholders, why we are implementing this new structure and what we expected the benefits to be.  

I think one of the main advantages we are already seeing is an increased ability to respond to the needs of our field sites in a faster and more efficient way. This was one of the driving forces behind the new management structure — the need to make EM headquarters more field-centric. Our ability to better support the field is due, in large part, to the new set of field liaisons we have established under Associate Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Field Operations Stacy Charboneau. These new field liaisons play a crucial role at EM headquarters by serving as advocates for their sites and work issues on their behalf.

Another advantage has been the creation of the new EM Chief Engineer’s Office, which is responsible for providing technical engineering support to sites across the EM complex and guidance on major construction and commissioning activities. This office has been especially beneficial for the WTP and IWTU projects. 

What areas do you see progress being made in technology development this year?

I think this is going to be an exciting year for our technology development efforts. We’re going to continue to move forward with our mercury and technetium roadmaps to help us address some of our challenging types of contamination. We’re also going to continue with the Science of Safety initiative looking at how robotic technologies can help our workers perform their activities in a safer and more efficient manner.

One area where I’m looking forward to seeing results is our CT scanner test bed. This uses technology developed to help scan cargo at U.S. ports to help us better examine waste drums and further improve our characterization abilities. The technology we are testing will allow us to see things like materials that can’t be disposed of at WIPP. Our next step will be testing this technology using actual waste drums.

What do you think will be the major challenges EM will face this fiscal year?

Obviously one challenge we are working through right now is the transition to the new administration. Secretary Moniz has stressed the importance of ensuring a smooth transition at DOE, and we have been carrying out a very robust transition planning effort since this summer. We want to do all we can to ensure the new administration understands what the EM program is, what our priorities are and what our challenges are going to be going forward. 

We’ve developed a corporate overview of the EM program that lays out what we’ve accomplished, our organization and functions and some of the major actions we have planned for the coming year. We’ve also developed a set of issue papers where we delve into more details on topics like Hanford, the WTP and WIPP. We will begin to have briefings with the transition team on EM and I look forward to continuing to work with them.

Another challenge I see for this fiscal year is continuing to address our infrastructure and deferred maintenance needs. We don’t get younger year to year, and the state of infrastructure and maintenance programs can have a direct impact on our ability to perform our cleanup mission. 

We will also be working to effectively and efficiently transition workers from one project to the next. For example, we’re looking to begin transferring those workers at Oak Ridge who helped us complete the decommissioning and demolition of the former gaseous diffusion plants at the East Tennessee Technology Park to necessary work at Y-12. That’s being challenged, though, because of funding issues and that’s something we’re working to address to help improve efficiency.

What message would you like to send to EM’s stakeholders for this fiscal year?

I, and all of us in EM, are looking forward to resuming waste emplacement activities at WIPP and beginning to work off the backlog of transuranic waste at our cleanup sites. I want to thank the local communities near those sites for their understanding and patience as we have worked to recover WIPP in a safe and deliberate manner. I also want to say thank you to everyone who is involved in our efforts to startup the IWTU, which will allow us to address the remaining liquid waste at the Idaho Site once it is in operation. We are continuing to make progress in preparing that facility for radioactive waste operations. 

Lastly, I want to say thank you to all of our various stakeholders across the EM program for their continued support and engagement. I think our engagement with the local communities near our sites is one of the best within DOE, and their support is so crucial to our ability to safely and efficiently carry out our mission. 

About Dr. Regalbuto:

Dr. Monica Regalbuto was named Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management (EM) in August 2015. In this role, Dr. Regalbuto provides the leadership necessary to continue the safe cleanup of the environmental legacy brought about from five decades of nuclear weapons development and government-sponsored nuclear energy research.

Prior to serving as Assistant Secretary, Dr. Regalbuto served as EM’s Associate Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary. In that role, she applied her deep technical expertise to reduce technical risk and uncertainty in EM’s cleanup mission across the DOE complex.

Dr. Regalbuto previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fuel Cycle Technologies in the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy, overseeing the development of the nation’s nuclear fuel cycle. In that position, she directed a research and development program comprising 10 national laboratories, 32 universities, over 400 scientists, and 300 professors. Dr. Regalbuto also has experience supporting EM as Senior Program Manager in the former Office of Waste Processing, overseeing technical risk reduction in the cleanup programs.

From 2003 to 2008, Dr. Regalbuto managed a group of 30 researchers as head of the Process Chemistry and Engineering Department in Argonne National Laboratory’s Chemical Sciences and Engineering Division. Argonne — part of DOE’s network of national laboratories — was where Dr. Regalbuto began her career in 1988. There, she helped develop technologies for the treatment of high-level waste at DOE plutonium production sites. As a researcher, she made key contributions to nuclear fuel-cycle technology, including the development of the UREX+ processes, a suite of solvent extraction processes for the recovery of actinides and fission products from spent fuel. Dr. Regalbuto also led research directly related to EM’s mission, such as the successful demonstration of the Caustic-Side Solvent Extraction process that separates cesium-137 from high-level radioactive waste. Dr. Regalbuto has authored multiple journal articles and reports and holds six patents.

Dr. Regalbuto received her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Mexican Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey, and master’s and doctorate degrees in chemical engineering from the University of Notre Dame.