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Energy Secretary Chu Testifies on Capitol Hill

Richard M. Jones
Number 31 - March 13, 2009   |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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“You get an A+” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) told Secretary of Energy Steven Chu at the conclusion of a hearing this week on the proposed FY 2010 budget for DOE. Chu’s appearance was the second on Capitol Hill within the last week, with another hearing scheduled next week before the House Science and Technology Committee.

Not much is known at this point about the FY 2010 budget request for DOE. The FY 2010 Budget Overview released last month by the Obama Administration has about a two-page description of the DOE budget that will be sent to Congress next month. Chu, following the Administration’s guidance, did not elaborate on the request during the two Senate hearings.

Nevertheless, there was much to be learned from these hearings. The first, before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was chaired by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), and focused on major obstacles to new energies technologies. This committee is in the process of writing an energy bill, and Bingaman sought Chu’s guidance on the direction his committee should take. Bingaman, and the committee’s Ranking Republican, Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) both spoke of the importance of R&D to strengthening America’s future energy posture.

This position was, of course, shared by Chu, who called for breakthroughs in energy technologies. In calling for increased funding, Chu spoke of “the President’s plan to double federal investment in the basic sciences.” He told the committee the FY 2010 budget would refocus research funding to develop science and engineering talent, would focus on transformational research, would pursue broader and more effective collaborations, and improve “connections between DOE research and private sector energy companies.” “DOE must strive to be the modern version of the old Bell Labs in energy research” he said. His reasoning: “the payoffs from research in transformational technologies are both higher risk and longer term . . . government investment is critical and appropriate.” As an example of transformational technologies, Chu cited biofuels.

Bingaman’s first question concerned bridging the gap between basic and applied research, describing the research as Sandia’s combustion research facility. Chu replied this was a major focus for him. This lead to a discussion about the recently funded ARPA-E, with Bingaman asking how it will be managed and what its objectives will be.

Chu said he is in the process of identifying a director, who will report to him. Chu anticipates that the agency will have a “very lean set of contract people.” Research will be funded that is too high a risk for investors, and which has a “very short time scale” of two or three years. “If it doesn’t look promising, one pulls the plug and moves on.” Success will depend, he said, on the quality of the agency’s program managers.

As expected, Chu was asked at both hearings about the Obama Administration’s decision to look for a different long-term solution to the storage of the nation’s nuclear waste than Yucca Mountain. When pressed by Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who clearly disagreed with this decision, Chu replied “I think we can do a better job.” He explained that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has found nuclear waste can be solidified and stored at nuclear power plans. “I support reprocessing research” Chu told McCain. The senator asked why more research is needed since the Europeans and Japanese are now doing it. Chu said that type of reprocessing has proliferation risks. Chu contends that the two issues should be separated; McCain disagreed. “We have a couple of decades to figure that one out” Chu told McCain, who again strongly disagreed. Later at this hearing, Ranking Member Murkowski said the Administration’s position on Yucca Mountain was “very disconcerting” to industry. Chu told the senator that the utilization of fast neutron reactors may be able to significantly reduce the hazards associated with nuclear waste, and predicted that future waste disposition may consist of short term storage, reprocessing, and permanent storage Chu will convene a panel of experts to reexamine this issue during the next year. When pressed about DOE’s plans, Chu said “one site will not work,” and foresees somewhat geographically dispersed short term and longer term storage sites.

Bingaman’s final question at this hearing was about the role of basic science at the national laboratories. He was gratified by Chu’s response that basic science was coupled with stockpile stewardship, nonproliferation, and intelligence, and attracts and retains scientists. “Anything that threatens the science component I would be very much opposed to,” he said.

This hearing had a second panel of witnesses from Argonne National Laboratory, Resources for the Future, RAND Corporation, the Council on Competitiveness, and the University of Wisconsin. Their written testimony at this March 5 hearing can be read here.

The March 11 Senate Budget Committee hearing covered much of the same ground. Chairman Conrad and Ranking Member Judd Gregg (R-NH) both discussed their concerns about heavy U.S. reliance on imported oil and climate change issues. Gregg said he was “genuinely concerned” about the Obama Administration’s position on nuclear energy because of the position it has taken on loan guarantees for the construction of new nuclear plants and Yucca Mountain . “Are you for it or against it?” Gregg asked Chu. After some discussion, Chu told the senator, “I believe nuclear power is an essential part of our energy mix.” Gregg acknowledged Yucca Mountain may not be viable, at which point the discussion turned to Chu’s contention that dry cask storage of nuclear waste could be used in coming decades. When asked about the offering of loan guarantees for the construction of new nuclear plants, Chu told Gregg “I want to encourage this thing to go forward.” Later, Chu said “closing the [nuclear] fuel cycle is something we do want to do” since it would reduce the amount of nuclear waste, and the length of time it would need to be stored. He again spoke of the use of advanced nuclear reactors, and “making fuel recycling a reality.” In response to another senator’s questions about the disposition of nuclear waste, Chu said “we have to come up with a viable plan in a timely manner.” The secretary’s answers seemed to reduce some of the concerns that pro nuclear energy senators had, with Lindsey Graham (R-SC) commenting that Chu was more reassuring on this matter than either President Obama or the budget was.

The other major topic of discussion at this Budget Committee hearing was carbon capture. Chu said it was important to develop it, saying it had a “reasonable chance of success.” The rapid construction of new coal-fired generating plans in China and India necessitated that a way be found to capture carbon, with Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) calling it “a gift to the world” and Mark Warner (D-VA) saying “The Holy Grail is a cleaner way of grappling with coal.” Later Chu told the committee that there is “a lot of merit in FutureGen,” while acknowledging that “the price is still very high.” It is, he said, “a technology certainly worth testing.” “Ultimately,” Chu told the senators, “solar will be the answer.”

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