A Briefing for Rick Perry: Here’s What the Department of Energy Actually Does

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It's all about the nuclear weapons.Getty Images

This week, President-elect Donald Trump nominated his Republican primary rival, former governor of Texas, and Dancing with the Stars contestant Rick Perry to run the Department of Energy. You know, one of the three Cabinet departments that he proposed getting rid of during the 2012 Republican primary — the one he famously forgot about, during a 2011 debate. Oops.

First created in 1977 under the Department of Energy Organization Act, the Department of Energy’s original intent was to consolidate several federal science programs. It came as the commercialization of nuclear energy and the energy crisis of the 1970s was underway, and it was charged with two main tasks: taking control of the U.S. nuclear program and researching energy conservation. This is still the department’s intent today. As a reminder, here’s a shortlist of just what the DOE is responsible for:

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• Oversee the nuclear weapons program, including maintenance of our stockpiles. This includes designing the weapons, the weapons systems, testing the weapons, and assembling/dismantling them. That includes managing the current 95 metric tons of plutonium that the U.S. currently has. (In 1994, the military declared that 38 metric tons of plutonium was enough to meet military needs.) 

• Manage nuclear non-proliferation initiatives. This includes securing and disposing of nuclear material with the National Nuclear Security Administration as well as the deployment of response units to nuclear threats, including aircraft equipped with radiation detectors and analysis teams that can dismantle weapons.

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• Fund nuclear reactor research. This year, the DOE pledged $80 million to two companies that will be researching and developing next-gen nuclear reactors to help meet carbon emissions reduction goals.

• Finance clean energy and renewable energy research. This includes projects like Energy Innovation Hubs, which advance promising science energies and technologies until they reach a stage where risk is low enough to commercialize them.

• Create initiatives for the reduction of energy usage. Key to this are the Energy Savings Performance Contracts, under which contractors design and construct energy savings projects, and the government makes payments to the contractor over time.

• Invest in the research and development of electric cars, making Americans less dependent on foreign fossil fuels. This includes a $22 million fund this year that will go into researching Plug-In Electric Vehicles.

• Provide all sorts of subsidies — including those to the fossil fuel industry. An Energy Information Administration report found an increase from 2010 to 2013 in electricity-related subsidies ($11.7 billion to $16.1 billion), and a decline in fossil fuel subsidies over the same period ($4.0 billion to $3.4 billion).

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