President Bill Clinton last week nominated Bill Richardson, the US ambassador to the United Nations and a former congressman from New Mexico, as the next energy secretary. The 50-year-old Richardson is a Clinton friend, a Democratic insider and, like outgoing energy secretary Federico Peña, a Hispanic.
He is also well acquainted with the department he is to head. From 1983 to 1997, he represented the congressional district that includes two key Department of Energy (DOE) labs, Sandia and Los Alamos, which he helped to protect from budget cuts as a member of the House commerce committee.
New Mexico's interests are likely to remain crucial to DOE politics if Richardson's appointment is confirmed. He is thought to have his eye on governorship of that state, or perhaps a role as Al Gore's running mate in the next presidential race. Pete Domenici, New Mexico's Republican Senator, already chairs the appropriations panel that determines the DOE's budget.
Richardson brings to his new job a strong interest in international affairs. Even before his move to the UN, Clinton used him in hostage negotiations with several countries, including Cuba, Iraq and North Korea. He has twice been nominated for the Nobel peace prize.
In a White House ceremony to announce his nomination, he mentioned the value of technical advances for environmental cleanup and energy research. He also spoke of the need to maintain a safe and reliable nuclear stockpile to better support the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
In Congress in the early 1990s, Richardson was sharply critical of DOE plans for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the controversial underground nuclear waste repository in his home state, and he worked to ensure stringent environmental standards for the project. Ironically, he is likely to preside over the plant's early operations (see Nature 393, 199; 1998).
Richardson's nomination is not likely to meet resistance in the Senate, which has to confirm the appointment. But he may face embarrassing questions about his minor role in the scandal involving former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, whom he offered a job at the UN last year.