U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry spoke Tuesday afternoon to Idaho National Laboratory employees in a packed hall at the lab’s Idaho Falls campus.
The speech capped Perry’s two-day tour of INL facilities, which included briefings on nuclear power and its effects on energy, national security and the environment.
During his speech Perry touted the U.S. Department of Energy; he said that although the governorship of Texas has been his favorite position thus far, the “coolest” job of his career has been that of energy secretary.
It was Perry’s first visit to INL. This week’s visit is the first of several planned lab visits for Perry. While addressing INL employees, he discussed the importance of national labs in science, economics and domestic security.
“I cannot tell you how honored I am to be associated with men and women who do what you do, who truly have the potential to change the world on any given day,” Perry said. “We have the national labs that are going out there and scientifically experimenting and finding the next big thing, and you all are at the heart of that.”
After his speech, Perry threw his support behind INL as a flagship lab within the DOE complex, particularly in nuclear research.
“What Idaho does is at the top of the list from my perspective, and I’ll say that tomorrow when I go to (Los Alamos National Laboratory) as well,” Perry said, reiterating that INL is “going to be one of the lead players, if not the lead player, as we develop and are developing the nuclear energy portfolio.”
He specifically mentioned nuclear within weapons, security and energy contexts.
Many in the nuclear field believe the U.S. is trailing other countries, particularly China and Russia, in the development of next-generation advanced nuclear reactor technologies.
Perry mentioned the importance of catching up.
“Because in the last 30 years, the fact is we got behind in this country,” he said. “And you and young people you’re going to recruit to come in here over the course of the next decade or so have the potential to change that trajectory in a very powerful and positive way.”
Part of that, Perry said, involves making nuclear attractive to the next generation — “making nuclear energy cool again” — and part of it involves embracing new technology.
Perry specifically referenced fast reactor technology.
The DOE is undergoing a three-year research and development process regarding a potential fast-neutron test reactor at INL’s desert site.
The research follows DOE and Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee reports published late last year and early this year, respectively, that both recommend developing a fast reactor in the U.S.
He also spoke of the importance of modernizing decades-old INL infrastructure.
A spending package signed into law last week by President Donald Trump includes $238 million for INL infrastructure maintenance and improvement.
Though nuclear has been and remain’s INL’s primary mission, Perry also discussed the importance of embracing other research areas, including cybersecurity and supercomputing.
The state Legislature approved a resolution this year allowing $90 million in state bonds to be used in the construction of two INL buildings in Idaho Falls.
One of them, the Cybercore Integration Center, will play a key role in cybersecurity research, which is one of INL’s fastest-growing departments. The other, the Collaborative Computing Center, will house a new supercomputer to be used for scientific simulation and modeling.
“I think it’s an opportunity for the state of Idaho to be world-leading,” INL Director Mark Peters told the House Education Committee in March.
Cybersecurity research and supercomputing capabilities are national security focal points for the Trump administration, Perry said.
“We’re not where we need to be from a cybersecurity standpoint; we’re no longer number one in supercomputing. And that is of great concern to me. It should of great concern to the people of this country. I certainly am confident the president shares this concern,” he said. “Exascale computing,” an upcoming major step in computer engineering, “the next generation of supercomputers — both of those are growth areas, and I’d suggest to you the future of both of those will be prioritized.”
Perry also referenced the importance of other INL ventures — everything from biofuel research to M1 Abrams tank armor manufacturing — and how such work affects lives in the U.S. and abroad every day.
“You get to do some stuff that waters people’s eyes,” Perry said. “When you leave here and go home, and you look in the mirror at night, you don’t have to worry nor wonder whether you make a difference. You do, and I’m proud to be on your team.”