Department of Energy

Fact Box

United States Department of Energy

Formed on August 4, 1977
Preceding departments- Energy Research and Development Administration, Federal Energy Administration
Headquarters- Forrestal Building, Washington, D.C, as well as in Germantown, Maryland
Secretary of Energy -- Ernest Moniz
Employees (2009) 16,000 federal, 93,094 contract (2008)
Annual budget (2014) $23.6 billion

The Department of Energy (DOE) is a cabinet-level agency that has both important energy- and national security-related missions. DOE’s roots go all the way back to World War II and the Manhattan Project, the top-secret program that launched America’s effort to develop and stockpile nuclear weapons. DOE’s predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, managed the country’s nuclear weapons complex until the 1970s, when the Energy Department assumed that responsibility upon its creation. Today, Energy officials still oversee the laboratories that were once primarily responsible for creating weapons of mass destruction, along with implementing policies geared toward strengthening the United States’ sources of energy. The DOE carries out policies ranging from nuclear power to fossil fuels to alternative energy sources. Under the current administration of President Barack Obama, U.S. energy policy has focused primarily on “clean energy” initiatives and technologies, a departure from the policies of former President George W. Bush, whose DOE provided considerable support to nuclear power and oil development, which provoked criticism from environmentalists and those on the left.


The federal government’s earliest agencies that delved into energy-related policy were those that focused on petroleum and coal. The Office of Fossil Energy traces its roots back to the early 20th Century when oil was just beginning to become a much sought after fuel source for the budding automotive industry and for trans-oceanic shipping. But it was during World War II when a powerful new energy source was developed for military purposes that the U.S. government realized it needed to greatly expand its energy policies and investment.

In 1942, federal military officials established the Manhattan Project to build the world’s first atomic bombs, which were dropped on Japan in 1945. Following the war, Congress debated whether atomic power should be controlled by civilians or the military, eventually deciding on the former by passing the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. As a result of the act, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was created and took control of the nuclear weapons complex, a sprawling network of laboratories and facilities that built America’s nuclear weapons stockpile. During the early Cold War years, the AEC focused on designing and producing nuclear weapons and developing nuclear reactors for naval propulsion. This mission placed greater emphasis on weapons production than concerns over environmental degradation and health hazards produced by nuclear weapons facilities.

The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 ended exclusive government use of the atom and began the growth of the commercial nuclear power, giving the AEC authority to regulate the new industry. In response to changing needs in the mid 1970s, the AEC was abolished and the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 created two new agencies: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to regulate the nuclear power industry and the Energy Research and Development Administration to manage the nuclear weapon, naval reactor, and energy-development programs.

However, the extended energy crisis of the 1970s soon demonstrated the need for unified energy organization and planning. The Department of Energy Organization Act brought the federal government's agencies and programs into a single agency—the Department of Energy (DOE), activated on October 1, 1977. The DOE assumed the responsibilities of the Federal Energy Administration, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Federal Power Commission and parts and programs of several other agencies.

The Energy Department provided the framework for a comprehensive national energy plan by coordinating and administering the energy functions of the federal government. The DOE undertook responsibility for long-term, high-risk research and development of energy technology, federal power marketing, energy conservation, the nuclear weapons program, energy regulatory programs, and a central energy data collection and analysis program.

Over its two-decade history, the DOE has shifted its emphasis and focus as the needs of the nation have changed and as different administrations have imposed their own priorities. During the late 1970s, the department emphasized energy development and regulation, including early exploration into alternative energy sources. In the 1980s, nuclear weapons research, development and production took a priority as the Reagan administration sought to expand America’s strategic position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. The 1980s also witnessed the turning of public opinion against nuclear power following accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. By the beginning of the 1990s, the Cold War was over, leading the department to focus on environmental cleanup of the nuclear weapons complex, nonproliferation and stewardship of the nuclear stockpile, energy efficiency and conservation and technology transfer and industrial competitiveness. Research into nuclear power was greatly curtailed as well.

But with the election of George W. Bush in 2001, nuclear power gained an important ally, as did the oil industry, which spurred the Energy Department to focus on these two energy sectors. A key development in energy policy during the Bush presidency was the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Within the 500-page law was a broad collection of subsidies for nuclear and oil companies, as well as new initiatives designed to develop and promote a new generation of nuclear power reactors.

With the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, “clean energy” was given renewed attention. The passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 would, announced Obama, “spark the creation of a clean energy economy,” leading to 80% of the country’s electricity coming from clean energy sources by 2035. Indeed, according to the White House, the act provided for more than $80 billion in tax credits and investments in clean energy and transportation projects. Among those investments were $11 billion for a smart grid, $6.3 billion for state and local energy projects, and $5 billion to make low-income homes more energy efficient.

Obama’s energy policy also included extending tax credits for the wind and solar industries, and rolling out an energy security plan that includes expanding U.S. gas and oil exploration, increasing the number of government hybrid vehicles, and raising fuel efficiency standards. His call for new industry regulations in response to climate change threats prompted a predictable reaction from industry and conservative politicians, who charge that such policies would harm the U.S. economy and job growth.

What it Does

The Department of Energy (DOE) is responsible for advancing the national, economic and energy security of the United States through the implementation of policies regarding nuclear power, fossil fuels, and alternative energy sources. The DOE promotes scientific and technological innovation in all of the aforementioned energy sectors and is charged with the environmental cleanup of the national nuclear weapons complex. One of its key duties is the formulation and implementation of the National Energy Policy. This comprehensive and wide ranging document covers energy challenges facing the US;  impacts of high energy prices; protecting America’s environment; increasing energy conservation and efficiency; increasing domestic energy supplies; increasing America’s use of renewable and alternative energy; America’s energy infrastructure; and enhancing national energy security and international relations.  

Key DOE offices:

Nuclear Power and Weapons and Their Consequences

Office of Nuclear Energy

The Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) is the lead agency within the DOE charged with promoting and developing nuclear power. The NE helps spearhead new nuclear energy generation technologies, including plans to develop proliferation-resistant nuclear fuel that can maximize energy from other nuclear fuel. The office also maintains and enhances the national nuclear technology infrastructure and manages research laboratories and radiological facilities. The programs funded by the NE are designed to develop new nuclear reactors that will help diversify the domestic energy supply through public-private partnerships.

National Nuclear Security Administration

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is a semi-autonomous agency within the DOE that is responsible for overseeing the nation’s nuclear weapons complex. Using private contractors to run day-to-day operations, the NNSA manages highly classified research laboratories and nuclear defense facilities that maintain the stockpile of nuclear weapons as well as provide the propulsion systems for the U.S. Navy’s nuclear fleet. Born out of controversy, the NNSA has struggled since its creation in 2000 to move past the mistakes of the Energy Department that led Congress to establish this new agency. Security failures involving foreign espionage prompted the administration of President Bill Clinton and Congress to reorganize the DOE and entrust the NNSA with the duty of taking care of the nation’s post-Cold War arsenal of nuclear weapons. The agency, however, has repeatedly been criticized for its own lapses in security and other blunders.

Office of Environmental Management

The Office of Environmental Management (EM) is responsible for overseeing the cleanup of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex. Representing a leftover from the Cold War, vast amounts of radioactive and toxic waste and contamination are spread throughout nuclear weapons facilities around the country, requiring long-term efforts involving environmental restoration, waste management, technology development, and land reuse by EM. The agency has succeeded in completing cleanup at 90 nuclear sites and continues its efforts at 17 additional sites located in 11 states.

Uranium Enrichment Decontamination and Decommissioning Fund

Managed by the Office of Environmental Management, the Uranium Enrichment Decontamination and Decommissioning Fund supports the cleanup of some of the nation’s most contaminated areas. The polluted sites are all former production facilities used during the Cold War to supply enriched uranium for nuclear warheads and commercial nuclear reactors. Located in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio, the plants encompass more than 30 million square feet of floor space, miles of interconnecting pipes, and thousands of acres of land that are contaminated with radioactive and hazardous materials. Cleanup of the sites is expected to be completed around 2040 and cost upward of $20 billion.

Office of Legacy Management

The Office of Legacy Management (LM) picks up where the Office of Environmental Management (EM) leaves off. Once cleanup at former nuclear weapons facilities is completed by the EM, the LM takes over the location to manage any remaining environmental and human issues; it currently manages more than 87 sites located throughout the country. The office is responsible for managing issues consisting of site monitoring, property management, grants to assist local communities affected by facility closure, records storage and pensions, health care, and life insurance for former workers.

Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management

The Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) was responsible for disposing of the nation’s civilian and military nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel. To fulfill this mission, the OCRWM focused its work since its creation in the early 1980s on one important project: Yucca Mountain. Located in southern Nevada, Yucca Mountain was primed to become the nation’s first geologic repository for the long-term burial of nuclear waste that has been piling up around the country for the past six decades. According to the agency, the United States had accumulated 53,440 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel from nuclear reactors by 2005. In addition, military-related activities are expected to produce 22,000 canisters of solid radioactive waste for future disposal. Altogether, experts estimated that 135,000 tons of waste would end up being buried at the site.

Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board

The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (NWTRB) is an independent federal agency that conducts scientific and technical assessments of the DOE’s activities to dispose of the nation’s commercial spent nuclear fuel and defense high-level radioactive waste. It had evaluated DOE’s technical and scientific work to establish Yucca Mountain as the sole repository for nuclear waste, a $15-billion effort that was defunded in 2009. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act amendments of 1987, which established the board, the NWTRB has access to draft documents prepared by the DOE and its contractors so that it can conduct its review in “real time,” not after the fact. Twice a year, the board reports its conclusions and recommendations to Congress and to the Secretary of Energy and points out concerns from outside parties. It has no regulatory or implementing authority. The board consists of 11 members who are nominated by the National Academy of Sciences on the basis of expertise, which ranges from geochemistry to materials science to hydrology to transportation. Members are then appointed by the president and serve a four-year term.

Office of Health, Safety and Security

Created in 2006, the Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS) is responsible for overseeing worker safety and security matters at nuclear weapons facilities located across the country. It has been the subject of much controversy since its very beginning when Energy Department leaders decided to eliminate the previous office handling worker safety—the Office of Environment, Safety and Health—and turn those duties over to the newly formed HSS, which is led by a longtime security chief. Critics contended the move was designed to protect large private contractors at the expense of worker safety. Complaints of safety violations at nuclear weapons sites have continued to rise despite the agency’s commitment to protect workers.

Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) is an independent government agency responsible for monitoring and advising DOE’s management of defense nuclear facilities, some of which today are being dismantled and cleaned up. Under its mandate from Congress, the board is charged with ensuring the implementation of DOE health and safety standards by energy officials and to issue advisory recommendations regarding work at facilities. The board also investigates operations or specific problems that arise at facilities that could adversely impact public health or safety and issues recommendations to address these problems. The DNFSB publishes unclassified reports with recommendations to correct problems at DOE facilities.

Renewable Energy

Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) researches and develops alternative fuels and helps promote the use of these fuels. The office is concerned with developing cleaner burning fuels, wind, hydro energy, and other renewable energy sources in order to break the dependency the U.S. has on foreign oil and other non-renewable resources. As part of its mission, the EERE creates tax incentives for private businesses to develop new technologies that will assist in the overall goal of creating new and cleaner energy sources. According to the EERE, “clean energy” is defined as energy-efficient technologies and practices that use less energy, and alternative power and delivery technologies that produce and transport power and heat more cleanly than conventional sources.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is the main research center for developing renewable energy technologies and helping get those technologies into the marketplace. The laboratory’s main focus is to analyze and understand alternative energy technologies and the U.S. electrical grid system support to reduce emissions and dependence on conventional fuels. The NREL’s research focuses on thirteen areas for innovation in efficient and renewable energies. It is the principal research facility for the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Office of Science and the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability. The NREL also provides technical assistance, energy planning, and economic development for many organizations and industries in the U.S.

Power Marketing Administrations

The Power Marketing Administrations (PMAs) are four federal agencies responsible for marketing hydropower—primarily excess power produced by federal dams and projects operated by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. The four federal PMAs, which market and distribute power to 60 million people in 34 states, are required to give preference to public utility districts and cooperatives. Each PMA is a distinct and self-contained entity within the DOE, much like a wholly owned subsidiary of a corporation, and each is affected by its own unique regional issues and conditions. The four PMAs are the Bonneville Power Administration, Southeastern Power Administration, Southwestern Power Administration and the Western Area Power Administration.

Electricity, Oil, Gas and Coal

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is the federal agency responsible for overseeing the electrical, natural gas, and oil industries. It has jurisdiction over state-to-state electricity sales, wholesale electric rates, hydroelectric licensing, natural-gas pricing, and oil pipeline rates. It also reviews and authorizes liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, pipelines and non-federal hydropower projects. The FERC is composed of up to five commissioners appointed by the president, with no more than three commissioners belonging to the same political party. Although an independent agency, FERC has proven susceptible to lobbying and political influence.

Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability

The Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability (OE) is in charge of overseeing the availability of electricity throughout the country. The OE makes sure the U.S. electrical grid is working properly, both now and in the future, as new technologies become available to better provide electrical service to American homes, businesses, and governments. It funds research and development programs that explore new means of storing and delivering electricity. The office also works to identify any infrastructure problems that could potentially cause large-scale power outages, such as the 2003 blackout that affected the Midwest, Northeast, and parts of Canada. Working with other federal agencies, the OE also prepares for responding to any outages that might stem from terrorist-related attacks on the electric grid.

Office of Fossil Energy

The Office of Fossil Energy (FE) is the federal government’s lead office for coal, natural gas, and oil exploration and development. The office oversees approximately 600 research and development projects ranging from development of zero-emissions power plants to energy facilities that efficiently transform coal, biomass, and other fuels into commercial products to new technologies that can extract oil from existing fields that currently is unreachable. The FE is also responsible for managing the country’s underground supply of oil to be used in case of emergencies, known as the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and running three research labs that conduct fossil energy exploration.


Office of Science

The Office of Science (OS) is one of the federal government’s largest distributors of research money for science exploration. As the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences, the office provides more than 40% of total funding in this area. It also oversees research programs in high-energy physics, nuclear physics, fusion energy sciences, basic energy sciences, biological and environmental sciences and computational science. In addition, the OS is the federal government’s largest single financial supporter of materials and chemical sciences, and it supports programs involving climate change, geophysics, genomics, life sciences, and science education. The OS operates six interdisciplinary program offices: Advanced Scientific Computing Research, Basic Energy Sciences, Biological and Environmental Research,Fusion Energy Sciences, High Energy Physics, and Nuclear Physics.

Where Does the Money Go?

The Department of Energy (DOE) has spent more than $285.3 billion on contractors during this decade, according to More than 14,000 companies and public organizations, including some of the nation’s most prominent universities, defense contractors, and engineering firms, were paid by the department for services that largely dealt with the operating of research labs and nuclear facilities owned by the DOE.

Universities that run key research labs for the department’s Office of Science include Iowa State University (Ames Laboratory); Princeton University (Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory); Stanford University (Stanford Linear Accelerator Center); State University of New York (Brookhaven National Laboratory); University of Chicago (Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory); University of California (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory); University of Tennessee (Oak Ridge National Laboratory); and University of Wisconsin/Michigan State University (Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center).

Among defense contractors and engineering firms helping the DOE clean up the legacy of nuclear weapons production is Fluor, an international engineering and construction firm, which had a $9.5 billion contract to handle cleanup operations at Fernald, a former uranium processing facility in Ohio, and—from 1996 to 2008—a contract for work at the Hanford plutonium facility, which has been described as the most dangerous environmental project in the country because of the scope of the cleanup. Also performing work at Hanford are construction giants Bechtel (which has a stake in the Savannah River cleanup) and CH2M Hill, which is handling cleanup work through 2015 at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory and is involved with work at Savannah River.

Babcock & Wilcox, an engineering energy firm, has a $3.3 billion contract for Savannah River and another contract with Pantex, the nation’s central facility for assembling and dismantling nuclear warheads.

Defense contractor Lockheed Martin runs the United States Energy Corporation on behalf of the Department of Energy, responsible for the day-to-day operations at the two gaseous diffusion plants (GDPs) being dismantled and cleaned up under the guidance of DOE’s Office of Environmental Management (EM). Lockheed Martin also runs the Sandia National Laboratories for the DOE.

Battelle, an international science and technology firm, co-operates the Oak Ridge facility in conjunction with the University of Tennessee. Another prominent higher education stakeholder is the University of California, which was the sole manager of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California until 2007. Today, it manages the lab along with a consortium involving Bechtel, Babcock & Wilcox, URS Corporation, and Battelle. Los Alamos National Security LLC, consisting of the University of California system, Bechtel, Babcock & Wilcox, and URS Corporation, runs Los Alamos National Laboratory, the original home of the Manhattan Project.

The EM manages a cleanup project at the Nevada National Security Site, the nation’s primary testing ground for nuclear explosions from the 1950s until the 1990s. The site is managed by National Security Technologies LLC, a joint venture involving defense contractor Northrop Grumman, construction corporation AECOM, CH2M Hill, and Babcock & Wilcox.

The top five types of products or services purchased by the DOE during the past decade, according to, were operation of government R&D facilities ($131,336,945,525), operation of government restoration ($16,513,451,131), operation of other government industrial buildings ($14,722,290,665), operation of production buildings ($14,011,786,278), and operation of miscellaneous government buildings ($10,859,115,284).

The five largest recipients of DOE contracts from 2003-2013 are as follows:

1. Lockheed Martin Corporation                                $27,085,565,243        

2. Bechtel Group Inc.                                                 $24,250,967,897        

3. State of California                                                  $20,595,782,263        

4. URS Corporation                                                    $18,944,043,278        

5. Los Alamos National Security LLC                           $17,353,702,916      

Data for Department of Energy