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Positive Confirmation Hearing for Steven Chu

Richard M. Jones
Number 5 - January 16, 2009  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Director Steven Chu's appearance before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee went well. This hearing to consider Chu's nomination as the next Secretary of the Department of Energy demonstrated much interest in the nominee's view on the future of nuclear and coal-fired electricity production, bioenergy and solar energy, global warming, and, in some cases, local concerns.

Committee chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) set the tone for this January 13 hearing in his opening remarks: "We're very fortunate to have a nominee of Dr. Chu's high caliber to take on these responsibilities. He will bring to the job the keen scientific mind of a physicist and Nobel Laureate, the experience and understanding of the Department of Energy, of a national laboratory director and the insight and vision needed to forge an energy policy for the 21st century. President-elect Obama has made an excellent choice in nominating Dr. Chu to be the Secretary of Energy. I strongly support his nomination. . . ." The committee's Ranking Republican, Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) echoed these remarks, saying "I think it's probably fair to say that you are uniquely poised in your ability to bring with you the background that relates to science and technology." All of the other committee members shared this enthusiasm.

In his written testimony, Chu described President-Elect Obama's energy and environmental agenda, and Chu's intention to make the Department of Energy "a leader in these critical efforts":

"In pursuing this goal, I will be building on my work as the Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. As Director of this 4,000-person organization for the last four years, I have worked to focus the lab on our energy problems. In particular, I have challenged some of the best scientists at the Berkeley lab to turn their attention to the energy and climate change problem and to bridge the gap between the mission-oriented science that the Office of Science does so well and the applied research the leads to energy innovation. I have also worked to partner with academia and industry. I know that these efforts are working, and I want to extend this approach to an even greater extent throughout the Department’s network of National Laboratories where 30,000 scientists and engineers are at work performing cutting-edge research."

Chu later stated:

"I was proud to be a member of the committee that produced the report 'Rising Above the Gathering Storm,' commissioned by Chairman Bingaman and Senator Alexander. The overarching message of that report is simple: the key to America’s prosperity in the 21st century lies in our ability to nurture and grow our nation’s intellectual capital, particularly in science and technology. As the largest supporter of the physical sciences in the U.S., the Department of Energy plays an essential role in the training, development and employment of our current and future corps of scientists and engineers."

The committee members and Chu discussed a number of issues, almost all of which involved future energy production. Chairman Bingaman's first question was about the ability of DOE to use the new stimulus money that is expected to become available in mid-February "in a rapid and responsible way." Chu cited his tenure at Lawrence Berkeley and assured Bingaman that he hoped to move "very rapidly in this direction." Bingaman asked about how the new Office of Energy and Climate Change, headed by Carol Browner, would affect Chu's role; he responded that there will be "collaborative and close cooperation."

Chu stressed the need to consider every option when senators pressed him for his views regarding coal, nuclear, solar, and bioenergy, and associated issues such as carbon sequestration, spent nuclear fuel disposal and reprocessing. He expressed optimism that "real progress can be made" regarding biofuels. Chu noted that coal, nuclear and gas form the base load for electricity generation, and "we have to evolve, recognizing that it cannot happen overnight, the nurturing of renewable energy resources."

On nuclear power, Chu stated, "nuclear power will be part of our energy going forward, because it is carbon-free and because it is base load. Now, having said that, we don't have all the answers today as to how to develop that in a way that would make us all happy, particularly about waste." Regarding nuclear fuel recycling, Chu testified that it "is an option we will be looking at very closely," explaining that current processes "are not ideal." He characterized recycling as "a research problem at the moment" that would lend itself to international cooperation. On coal, he testified, "India and China, Russia and the United States, I believe, will not turn their back on coal. So it is imperative that we figure out a way to use coal as cleanly as possible." He later said, "it's a question of science and technology, and really putting the pedal to the floor on trying to develop, as quickly as possible, the capture and sequestration technologies." Chu stressed the importance of energy efficiency, saying it "remains the lowest hanging fruit for the next decade or two." In responding to a question on reducing carbon emissions, he favors a cap and trade system, noting "the simpler . . . [it] is, the happier I will be."

The hearing lasted about two and one-half hours, with no senator expressing any reservation about Chu. It is expected that his nomination will move to the Senate floor without delay, with Chu's confirmation as the next Secretary of Energy a certainty.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095