Energy Chief Hazel O'Leary on Hot Seat and Enjoying Every Minute

Article excerpt

SECRETARY of Energy Hazel O'Leary looks up from a bowl of ham and barley soup. She waves her hand at the view out of her office window, a picture-perfect vista of the glistening Capitol dome.

Never mind that many in the new Republican majority don't think the Department of Energy (DOE) should exist. Never mind that some in the GOP talk about turning the biggest chunk of her business, cleanup and operation of nuclear-warhead production sites, over to rivals at the Pentagon.

"I can work with that Congress," she says, with confidence.

Hazel O'Leary, feisty lawyer, former corporate executive, the only black female ever to run a famously male-dominated bureaucracy, is nothing if not self-assured.

In the two years she has served in President Clinton's Cabinet, she has become one of the administration's most visible and controversial officials.

She has ended decades of secrecy about nuclear-bomb production, tackled a huge fissile-material cleanup problem, and tried to bring the efficiency of the private sector to government.

But her toughest task now surely lies ahead.

In the months to come, she will likely appear before 66 congressional hearings, where she'll fight to maintain funding for her conservation and alternative-energy programs.

At the same time, she'll have to defend herself against environmentalists and other critics who complain that budget cuts ordered by President Clinton himself may gut DOE programs, particularly toxic-material cleanup.

Will her department eventually evaporate, its various duties eliminated or parceled out to others? Not if O'Leary has anything to say about it. "These periods of self-examination are important and they've occurred before," she says.

O'Leary's belief that she will prevail is grounded in her already remarkable accomplishments. She is the first energy industry pro to take the helm at DOE since its establihsment almost 20 years ago, as well as the first minority and first woman.

Environmental activists, who for years have routinely battled with Energy secretaries of both parties, for the most part have given O'Leary high marks. Her release of thousands of previously classified nuclear-weapon documents wins kudos from Maureen Eldredge, who lobbies here for the Military Production Network, an umbrella group for concerned citizens who live near DOE weapons-production sites.

"All of the information she has released on the {past} human radioactivity experiments and the nuclear testing wouldn't have happened under other people," Ms. Eldredge says.

Unlike some past Energy heads, O'Leary has embraced the mission of cleaning up the wastes left over after the cold war rush to produce thousands of nuclear weapons at almost any cost.

She has carved out a sizable budget and acknowledged a long-overdue need to treat the "people who live around the sites as shareholders" in the cleanup decision process, says Jennifer Weeks, an arms-control lobbyist with the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists.

DOE estimates put the cost of cleaning up and stabilizing the nuclear-weapons complex somewhere between $600 billion and $1.5 trillion. There are roughly 20 sites salt-and-peppered around the country, from Tennessee and Florida to Rocky Flats, Colo., and Washington State.

"Huge containers, highly radioactive wastes, incredible sludges, `burping tanks' venting hydrogen gas so they won't blow up, and chemical reactions going on they {DOE engineers} don't even know or understand" are some of the challenges confronting the site overseers, says Ms. Weeks.

Ever since she took command at the Energy Department's mammoth Forrestal Building, O'Leary has been the subject of grumbling by some officials across the Potomac at the five-sided home of the Department of Defense. Many of them did not like her release of the classified nuclear files. …