The move surprised observers. Most people expected Elizabeth Moler, Peña's deputy, to get the position because of her experience in a number of important issues. Over the next few months the DOE plans to increase competition in the US electricity market; increase shipments of nuclear weapon grade material from Russia to the US; and finally negotiate an agreement with US civilian nuclear power plants for the disposal of their radioactive waste.

But at a press conference yesterday, Richardson emphasize the stockpile stewardship programme (which maintains the reliability of US nuclear weapons), increased diversification from military research to the civilian sector, environmental clean-up of DOE laboratories, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Richardson's experience at the UN - where he tried to build a coalition to force international weapons inspection on Iraq - explains his interest in controlling weapons of mass destruction.

It will take serveral months for Richardson's appointment to be approved by Congress. Moler will take on the day-to-day running of the organization in his absence.