SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — All four senators from Washington and Oregon on Thursday voted against Rick Perry to become energy secretary, saying they worried about his commitment to clean up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state and other issues.
But the former Texas governor was easily approved by the full Senate on a vote of 62 to 37 to join the cabinet of President Donald Trump.
The Department of Energy is responsible for the nation's nuclear arsenal and the waste left over from the production of those weapons.
Hanford, created during the Manhattan Project during World War II, for decades made plutonium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons. That mission ended decades ago, and the site is now engaged in cleaning up the nation's largest stockpile of radioactive waste. The work expected to last for decades and cost tens of billions of dollars.
Hanford is located near Richland, about 200 miles southeast of Seattle, and about 10,000 people work on the site.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. And Sen Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., all voted against Perry's nomination. Some said they were unsure whether he was capable of overseeing the technically complex job.
"It is the federal government's moral and legal obligation and responsibility to clean up Hanford," Murray said Thursday. "It requires a deep understanding of a very large and complex cleanup project."
Murray added: "I remain deeply concerned Governor Perry — and this administration — fails to grasp what's at stake."
Wyden said he was "not convinced that someone who just months ago supported abolishing the Energy Department understands the urgent need to clean up millions of gallons of toxic, radioactive waste."
That waste threatens the Columbia River, which forms the border of Oregon and Washington, Wyden said.
The new energy secretary must also end a "longstanding culture of retaliation against whistleblowers who raise safety and management alarms," Wyden said.
Cantwell voted against Perry, but said she hoped to work with him in the future to clean up the entire nuclear weapons production complex, which sprawls across numerous states.
"I take the governor at his word that he will come to Hanford and that he will look for funding to make sure that cleanup happens," Cantwell said.
Perry does have supporters in the region.
U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., who represents the Hanford area in the House, congratulated Perry on his confirmation.
Newhouse noted that the Energy Department is responsible for Hanford and the adjacent Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
"With Secretary Perry at the department's helm, I look forward to working together to ensure that Hanford and PNNL have the support to accomplish their respective missions," Newhouse said.
Perry, who once pledged to eliminate the department, has repeatedly promised be an advocate for the agency and to protect the nation's nuclear stockpile.
Perry has said he will seek to develop American energy in all forms — from oil, gas and nuclear power to renewable sources such as wind and solar power.
But Democrats worry he may not stand up to GOP proposals to slash the department's budget.
Democrats and environmental groups have derided Perry's nomination, calling him less qualified than the two renowned physicists who preceded him as the U.S. energy chief, Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz. Perry earned a bachelor's degree in animal science from Texas A&M University.