DOE’s Dr Inés R. Triay heads
She leads the cleanup of Cold War radioactive waste: the largest, most complex environmental program in the world
By Heidi Russell Rafferty
Senior Contributing Editor
Her family’s dramatic flight from Cuba to the U.S. in 1961 overshadowed the early life of Dr Inés R. Triay. Service to the adopted country that gave her refuge has been the central focus of her career.
In 2007 Triay became principal deputy assistant secretary for the environmental management program of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). She provides leadership for the safe and efficient cleanup of radioactive waste from the nation’s Cold War nuclear weapon production and research activities. This is the largest, most diverse and technically complex environmental cleanup program in the world, originally involving a hundred-plus sites in more than thirty states. It’s grown considerably since it began.
“The chance to succeed is available to people who come to America in pursuit of a better life. You are so grateful for it that it overrides all other considerations,” Triay says. “You want to serve your country and do the right thing every day for the great people of America. It’s a core value throughout your career; an internal compass that drives every action.”
Managing the process
It’s Triay’s job to oversee more than seventy federal project directors who lead a corps of experts in environmental management issues. The work is being done by 30,000 people in the federal government and contractor workforce, Triay says.
The cleanup effort costs about $6 billion a year. But the life cycle cost of the effort may end up close to $300 billion. “We’re cleaning up the legacy of the Cold War and energy research performed by the DOE and its predecessors,” Triay explains.
“Our work is with highly radioactive waste in underground tanks and excess nuclear materials, as well as lower-level waste and contaminated soil, contaminated water and excess facilities.”
Additionally, Triay is continually working to shorten the life cycle of the entire program, “so we can be good stewards of taxpayer funds.” One way to do that is by reducing the contaminated footprint of the environmental legacy complex. Other ways include optimizing the removal of underground tank waste, remediating excess nuclear materials and, of course, implementing the best options to manage the whole process.
Policy, strategy and resources
How does the woman at the top of the world’s largest nuclear cleanup effort divide her time?
“There’s a policy part of my job, a strategic direction part, and the part that deals with the resources,” she explains. “My most prized asset is the people, so it’s up to me to select the right individuals and manage their movement within the organization.”
She tries to keep those aspects at the top of the list. “Otherwise, we get so busy with day-to-day demands of the jobs at hand that we forget the huge impact our decisions have on people.” Lately she’s been exploring more ways to reach out to people in the vast organization. She’s even thinking about starting a blog.
As the acting top decision-maker, she also spends time “thinking about how to manage the program better, not only for today but with a long-term view,” and, of course, dovetailing her ideas with those of the new President, secretary of energy and other policy-makers in the DOE.
Another interesting aspect is managing staff members’ competition for resources. “All our offices want the best people and increased funding,” Triay says with a smile. “The offices, the headquarters and the field want to weigh in. The challenge is to find the right balance.”
Drive for excellence
Triay was born in Cuba in 1958. When she was three years old her parents took her to Puerto Rico. “When we left Cuba they knew they could never go back and they had one suitcase each, full of family pictures. The only thing they really took with them was their education.”
Her father was an EE and her mother a piano and dance teacher. They did well in Puerto Rico and then moved to Miami, and they advised their daughter to follow her interests and make her career something she loved.
She chose chemistry
She decided on chemistry, because she felt it was one of the strongest of the scientific disciplines and could be applied to almost anything. She went to the University of Miami (Miami, FL) for her 1980 BS in chemistry and continued on there to a 1985 PhD in physical chemistry.
Los Alamos National Laboratory (Los Alamos, NM) recruited the new Dr Triay. She started at the lab at the end of 1985 as a post-doc staff member, conducting research on slowing down radionuclides by placing the material in a waste matrix.
Over the years she moved up to principal investigator, then on to group leader and acting director of the lab’s chemistry division. During that time, she says, “I was cultivating a strong cadre of brilliant individuals and colleagues around me.”
Off to the DOE
In 1999 Triay left for the DOE. As manager of the department’s Carlsbad, NM field office she increased the number of transuranic radioactive waste shipments to the waste isolation pilot plant from one or two a week to twenty-five. She also spearheaded a national effort to accelerate cleanup of these radioactive waste sites. That resulted in disposal of legacy transuranic waste some twenty years early.
“The streets of Los Alamos were crowded with people applauding as the first waste shipment
to Carlsbad went out,” says Triay with a smile.
In 2004 the DOE moved Triay to Washington, DC as deputy and then chief operating officer
for the cleanup program. Under her leadership, the program completed the cleanup of the department’s Rocky Flats, CO and Fernald, OH sites, and the startup of remote-handled transuranic waste disposal at the New Mexico waste isolation pilot plant.
She moved into her current job late in 2007.
Pursue and contribute
Triay encourages her mentees to pursue their scientific careers in ways that contribute to the nation. “Every single person who has a dream has something to accomplish and the will to contribute. There is nothing that will stop you but yourself,” she says.
“I go out of my way to make sure people know the only thing that could stop them from making a historic contribution in the world is themselves, not the limitation someone puts
on them. With passion, good logic and a tremendous commitment, you can make the world better.”
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