If confirmed, he will set policies directly affecting Savannah River Site and thousands of people living near the South Carolina nuclear weapons plant.
But on Friday, puzzled residents on both sides of the river had little to say about Federico Pena, the man President Clinton had just named energy secretary. If things go as planned, Mr. Pena will change Cabinet seats from his current post as transportation secretary to energy, succeeding Hazel O'Leary who has resigned.
"I have no idea," laughed Brian Costner of Energy Research Foundation, an SRS watchdog group in Columbia. "I have no idea what he'll be like as secretary of energy - I didn't follow what he did in transportation particularly closely. So I guess we'll all find out together, won't we?"
Generally speaking, "I think he has a good reputation," ventured Bill Lawless, a member of the SRS Citizens Advisory Board. "I really don't have anything negative to say about him."
A native of Texas and former mayor of Denver, Mr. Pena will have his work cut out for him at the $16 billion Energy Department. What to do with 30,000 metric tons of nuclear waste from commercial power plants, and how to dispose of huge inventories of radioactive defense leftovers, are just a couple of items on his plate if he's confirmed by the Senate.
"I'm really concerned because he has been in the Clinton administration already and the administration has shown it's anti-nuclear. I'm just afraid he's going to fall into that foot path," said Aiken Mayor Fred Cavanaugh, adding: "But I really have no indication of how he feels about these issues. I guess you could say, I'm cautiously optimistic."
Jumping from highway safety and airline issues to energy might seem awkward. But Dr. Lawless noted that Mr. Pena might find his knowledge of transportation matters come in handy.
"One of the key issues of the next year will actually involve transportation (of nuclear waste) so I think it's good he has that background," he said. "It will become central to cleanup of these sites."
The Energy Department is currently seeking to consolidate its defense facilities and waste inventories - initiatives that will entail moving materials thousands of miles from one part of the country to another.