What we heard — and didn't hear — from Rick Perry about the US nuclear arsenal

Perry regrets pledge to shutter Energy Department
Perry regrets pledge to shutter Energy Department

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry will play a major role in maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal if he's confirmed as Energy secretary, and his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Thursday came at a critical time.

The U.S. Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration is tasked with guarding the safety and integrity of the nation's nuclear weapons. Two-thirds of the agency's budget is dedicated to this task and to cleaning up nuclear energy and weapons testing sites.

The United States is seeking to modernize the infrastructure around its aging nuclear arsenal at a projected cost of $1 trillion over 30 years. At the same time, the country remains at an impasse over what to do about nuclear waste that is currently stored throughout the nation.

Here is how he addressed those issues and others on Thursday.

Nuclear weapons testing

Sen. Bernie Sanders grilled Perry about the prospect of the United States conducting nuclear weapons testing under Donald Trump, who tweeted last month that the United States "must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability."

Donald Trump tweet

When MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski asked him to clarify, Trump said, "Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all."

Perry did not state explicitly that he is opposed to new nuclear weapons testing, but said it would be ideal if it were not necessary.

"I think anyone would be of the opinion that if we don't ever have to test another nuclear weapon that would be a good thing, not just for the United States, but for the world," he said.

Trump's tweet came on the same day Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country must boost its nuclear force. Last year, Russia suspended a pact with the United States to reduce the amount of surplus weapons-grade plutonium still held by both countries.

Who's in charge of the nuclear stockpile?

The Trump transition team has not asked the top officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration to remain in their positions until their replacements are hired. That will leave the administrator and deputy administrator roles temporarily vacant because Trump must nominate replacements, who must then go through Senate hearings.

In a letter to Trump, Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich expressed "serious concerns regarding continuity of government operations related to national security positions in the National Nuclear Security Administration."

Perry said Thursday he discussed the issue with the current NNSA administrator, retired Lieutenant-General Frank Klotz, and has interviewed current NNSA staff members.

"I will interview appropriately, but as I shared with Sen. Heinrich, the administration has the final decision on a presidential appointment. We're quite confident that our process is working," he said.

What to do with nuclear waste

Perry offered pledges to solve the country's dilemma over what to do with nuclear waste, but few concrete solutions.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada questioned Perry about long-stalled plans to store the nation's nuclear waste at a facility in Yucca Mountain, located in her home state. The Democratic lawmaker has introduced legislation that would require states to consent to storing high levels of nuclear waste — giving them the ability to refuse to accept it.

While governor of Texas, Perry said Nevadans shouldn't be forced to house the waste in their state if they don't want to. Asked whether that was still his view, Perry said he would "happily salute" the law if Sen. Cortez Masto passed it.

Perry said he would work closely with the committee to find a solution to storing nuclear waste, but did not offer specifics on how he would do that.

"Hopefully this is the beginning of seeing real movement, real management of an issue that I think no longer can sit and be used as a political football, one that must be addressed, and I think we can find a solution both in the interim and the long term of our nuclear waste," he said.

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona asked again what the Department of Energy would do to solve the storage issue. Perry said his goal is to bring the days of kicking the can down the road to an end, but again did not offer details.

Perry's SNL moment at confirmation hearing
Perry's SNL moment at confirmation hearing