One could be forgiven for thinking that Steven Chu, President-elect Barack Obama's choice to head the Department of Energy, was being evaluated for a somewhat different role—that of, say, chief nuclear officer—during his Senate confirmation hearing this morning.
Though Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, received questions on a variety of energy-related topics, his examiners on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee seemed to be most interested in talking about nuclear policy.
In particular, Chu was pressed about his positions on building new nuclear plants, recycling nuclear waste, and supporting increased spending—to the tune of tens of billions of dollars—on incentives for the industry and for expediting nuclear-related programs that have gotten bogged down in Washington or have gone unfunded in recent years.
Here was Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, at the opening of the hearing: "Nuclear is a very key component in our energy package."
Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a little while later: "Will you accelerate this power source of clean energy? Are you committed to that?"
Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, a Democrat: Can you "state your priorities for nuclear power?"
Chu's answers to their "nuclear questions," though general, offered some new information on a topic that Obama has been reticent to comment about, other than to pledge support while acknowledging concerns about waste disposal.
To a question from Sessions about Chu's commitment to jump-starting the construction of new nuclear power plants, Chu said, "Yes, I am."
He also expressed support for accelerating a so far poorly executed $18.5 billion government loan program designed to help finance the first batch of new power plants and vowed to move quickly to create a long-term plan for safely disposing of nuclear waste. "We have to do it concurrently with the start-up of the industry," Chu said, attempting to allay concerns that the Obama administration might try to stall the industry until the waste problem is adequately resolved.
As part of that plan for nuclear waste, Chu said he is open to reprocessing—reusing spent nuclear fuel in a reactor—but said he would favor carrying out more research on the technique before allowing it to be used commercially, as is currently done in France and Japan, among other places. "I think [nuclear fuel] recycling can be part of the solution," he said, adding, "This is a research problem."
The committee's focus on nuclear issues was not entirely surprising. Though Obama has indicated that he wants to give the Department of Energy a more research-oriented focus, with greater funding to develop technology for renewable energy and energy efficiency, much of the department's budget today goes toward protecting nuclear weapons and cleaning up nuclear sites.
There were, however, some questions in the hearing on high-profile issues that are likely to dominate the energy debate over the next few years. Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, for example, gave Chu an opportunity to clarify a statement that Chu had made in 2007—"Coal is my worst nightmare"—that, to use Dorgan's words, has "been ricocheting around the Internet" in recent weeks.
In response, Chu said that his statement was directed in large part at how developing countries are using coal without adopting even basic environmental safeguards. "If the world continues to use coal the way we are using it now, then it is a pretty bad dream," he said. "In China, for example, they have not even begun to trap sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides," which help cause smog and acid rain. He also called for "putting the pedal to the floor" on research for technologies to capture and store carbon dioxide.
Chu's confirmation before the full Senate is widely expected after Obama's inauguration.
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