Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Steven Chu Energy Secretary Confirmation Hearing

Steven-Chu-Energy-Secretary-confirmation-hearingIf you're a proponent of nuclear energy in the United States, I'm not sure that Steven Chu's testimony from today's Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of Energy could be any more encouraging. Excerpts from a rush transcript are below.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK): Let me ask you about nuclear energy. You have indicated in your statements and in our conversations that you support continued nuclear development. I think we recognize as we want to move towards a world where we have greatly reduced our emissions, that nuclear is a very key component in our energy package there. The nuclear waste policy act requires that in exchange for a 1 mill per kWh fee on nuclear power, the DOE has an unconditional obligation to take and dispose of that nuclear waste. That was beginning back in 1998. Obviously we’re about ten years late. The projected taxpayer liability for DOE’s failure is $11 billion at this point and growing. The issues as they relate to Yucca Mountain. I understand that President-elect Obama has said he opposes that. If confirmed, what do you propose to do, in the short term, to meet the government’s obligation as it relates to the nuclear waste issue. And if you could speak just a little bit about the option of nuclear fuel recycling.

Steven Chu: Thank you, Senator. I think these are very thorny questions, as you know. The President-elect has stated his position very clearly. On the other hand, the Department of Energy has an obligation, a legal obligation, to safely dispose, provide a plan that allows the safe disposal of this nuclear waste. And indeed I am supportive of the fact that the nuclear industry is, should have to be part of our energy mix in this century. And so, in going forward with that, we do need a plan on how to dispose of that waste safely, over a long period of time. There’s a lot of new science that’s coming to the fore and I pledge, as Secretary of Energy, that I would work with the members of this committee to try to use the best possible scientific analysis to try to figure out a way that we can go forward on nuclear disposal. So it will occupy certainly a significant part of my time and energy.

Sen. Murkowski: Can recycling be a part of that solution?

Steven Chu: Yes. Again, in the long term, recycling can be a part of that solution. Right now, even though France has been recycling, Japan is starting to recycle, Great Britain is now beginning to look at this. I think, from my limited knowledge about that, that the processes we have are not ideal. There’s an urge to increase the proliferation resistance of recycling. This dates back to the days of the Carter Administration where he said the United States will go once through recycling, once through the fuel cycle in order to decrease the chance of nuclear proliferation. Now we’re in a different place and time. There are other countries doing recycling. And so the idea here is now to do it in a way that makes it more proliferation resistant. And there’s an economic feasibility issue. This is actually, in my mind, a research problem at the moment and something that the department should be paying a lot of attention to. I think there’s time to look at it and develop means, but certainly recycling is an option that we will be looking at very closely.

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Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC): In 2005 we passed EPAC. That Energy Policy Act incorporated a loan guarantee program for companies willing to step out and build new nuclear generation. It was authorized at $18.5 billion. Not sufficient for the future, but a good start. Just recently, Progress Energy in North Carolina announced two new plants in Florida that they would construct. And they made this statement that they think that, they will seek to do these without DOE loan guarantees. Because they had run into too many hurdles with the program. One, it’s been slow to get up and running and structurally in place. Now, all of a sudden, we’re hearing companies that talk about it’s problematic to go that route. We’re on a timeline that, from a reliability standpoint, we have to start construction and we have to do it soon. Do you support the loan guarantee program, number one?

Steven Chu: Senator, yes I do.

Sen. Burr: If confirmed, do you commit to expanding the authorization levels?

Steven Chu: Well, I think that’s a matter of Congress.

Sen. Burr: [Are you] seeking to expand?

Steven Chu: I think it is something that is very important. As I said before, [as is] the development of nuclear power. But as these companies, what little I know of what these companies are doing, it’s a mixture of the loan guarantee program and the local regulatory authorities that can allow the utility companies to fold whatever they want to do in the rate base. The point here is that nuclear power, as I said before, is going to be an important part of our energy mix. It’s 20% of our electricity generation today, but it’s 70% of the carbon-free portion of electricity today. And it is baseload. So I think it is very important that we push ahead. I share, what little I know, again, your frustrations of the time it has taken and I will do my best to, as I said before, put together a leadership and management team that can do it in a more timely manner.

Sen. Burr: Do I have your commitment that you’ll work to make this a more workable program?

Steven Chu: You absolutely do.
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Senator Bob Corker (R-TN): The issue of nuclear. I'm gonna skip down and just be very brief since you've had now nine questions regarding that [nuclear]. I noticed a lot of people say that they support nuclear, but they also mention the waste issue. And it's as if once we solve the waste issue then we can pursue nuclear again. It's my understanding, based on what I've heard here today, you mean pursue nuclear now in spite of the, some of the issues that we have regarding waste. Is that correct? All out now? Loan guarantees, let's move ahead. We have 104 plants today. Probably need 300, let's move on?

Steven Chu: Yes, because I'm pretty confident, I'm confident that the Department of Energy, perhaps in collaboration with other countries, can get a solution to the nuclear waste problem.

Sen. Corker: Okay. Perfect. So, you'd move ahead while that was being solved?

Steven Chu: I think, certainly, these first several [new] plants that we talked about, use the loan guarantee to start them going. Just also, as you well know, Senator, I think, this is a complicated economic decision by the utility companies that will invest in these plants. So it's partly loan guarantee, it's partly the rates that utility companies will allow. But it, there is certainly a changing mood in the country, because nuclear is carbon-free, that we should look at it with new eyes.
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Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL): Let’s talk about nuclear power. You’ve mentioned this as an option, as something that will be part of the mix. I guess my question to you is, if you accept the CO2 as a global warming problem, isn’t it important that we accelerate this proven source of clean energy? And will you take a lead, not just to talk about it, not just to opine about it, as we often do, but actually do the things necessary to see if we can’t restart a nuclear industry in America? Are you committed to that?

Steven Chu: Senator, yes I am. I think, first to get these first several projects [new plants] going. In the meantime, we need to do the work necessary to see if recycling and proliferation resistant and economically viable ways also [are] feasible. I think those are two areas that are very important.
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Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA): My question is, to follow-up, and I ask this, because, not because it hadn’t been asked ten times to you this morning, but I think, in asking, you’ll understand how many of us feel about nuclear. You’ve had a least six or seven questions. Mine’s going to be the eighth. It’s just apparent to us, mainly based on the great leadership of Senator Domenici, who is with us, I think, this morning, and others, the importance of getting off the dime on nuclear. So would you just briefly state again what are your number one, number two, and number three strategies to move us forward on nuclear?

Steven Chu: The first is to accelerate this loan guarantee program for the several [new] nuclear reactors, their need to start, to restart the nuclear industry. So that, certainly, you’ve got to get going as you say. I agree with you, Senator. The other question, and it’s a concern of other Senators, is that we need to develop a long range plan for the safe disposal of the waste. And this is something that’s the responsibility of the Department of Energy. And that has to go forward as well, because you have to develop that concurrently with the starting of this industry again. And so those are [inaudible], in my mind, the two highest priorities. The third is that there is research that has to be done. Again, because reprocessing has the potential for greatly reducing both the amount and lifetime of the waste and to extend the nuclear fuel.

Sen. Landrieu: Well can we, can this committee count on you to go to bat in the atmosphere of these troubled financial markets? Can we count on you to go to bat with the Administration to make sure that the energy sector of this country is given priority, in terms of stabilizing markets so that we can get a lot of this done with government, you know, not being done by the government but supported by the government?

Steven Chu: Yes. It’s been said again and again on the importance, for example, of that $18.5 billion loan guarantee program that to start moving in that direction.

(Photo: Reuters)

5 comments:

david lewis said...

Chu could have been more encouraging. He's being careful.

His heart seems to be elsewhere. He really wants a smart new electric grid to give wind and solar more of a role, and he is a real fan of accelerated basic research. He is supporting and calling out for the "best and the brightest" young scientists to "step up to the plate" and come up with better technology on batteries, efficiency, and every other aspect of the energy problem we face. His caution on nuclear seems understandable: if you read the IAC report he co-chaired it is there as well. Nuclear has issues, with public acceptance right up at the top.

But listening to his hearing was inspiring - I loved it when he said if there are young PhDs out there who have decided they trained for the wrong thing, and they want to join in on this nationally important effort, he'd make some funds available so they could retrain to change course. He was calling out to the best minds in the US to show everyone what they can do.

AlphaLiberal said...

Good luck with that. Joe Romm has had a series of posts on the terrible economics of nuclear power. Don't have time to dig them up, but it was last week or so, on Climate Progress and Grist.

Rod Adams said...

I have been spending the last couple of hours digesting Chu's responses to some very interesting questioning in preparation for an Atomic Show that I will be putting together this weekend.

Though I have a great deal of respect and hope for what Chu should be able to accomplish, I am now less enthusiastic than I was before I started listening carefully, watching the body language and parsing the cautious statements.

Though I will have a lot more to say on the audio program, my overall impression is that Chu is a scientist who prefers research over engineering. Though research is important for answering thorny questions, there comes a time when science is no longer the right tool and when as Jeff Sessions said "the perfect becomes the enemy of the good". We are there when it comes to nuclear fission power and waste storage.

We do not need any research to tell us how to build new power plants - we certainly do not know everything, but the things we do not know will never be answered in a laboratory environment. They need an industrial environment where real concrete gets poured (and may need to be chipped out and poured again if someone goofs up the mix), where real metal gets bent and welded, and where real operators sit in the front of panels and explain why they cannot see a particular indication very well.

We also do not need any research on how to store used nuclear fuel safely - someone needs to make darned sure that Chu knows we have been handling that task for more than 50 years with an unblemished record. We do not know how to permanently "dispose" of used nuclear fuel, but I think that is a good thing - it is to darned valuable to throw away.

I was especially disappointed to hear, in Chu's gushing about the California experience and the potential of energy efficiency programs, that he is apparently a follower of the Lovins school of NO WATTS. He even indicated that he liked the idea of slowing down new plant construction, "like California did". Nothing could be more damaging for the effort to control construction costs than to build more slowly.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host, The Atomic Show Podcast

Anonymous said...

In his answer to Sen. Murkowski, Chu acknowledged that DOE has a legal obligation to dispose of spent nuclear fuel (and let's not forget the government-owned high-level radioactive waste now at DOE installations) and that "we need a plan." By inference--though he did not say so-- the plan approved by Congress in 1982, 1987 and 2002 is not satisfactory to him. Why? Because it is not satisfactory to Senator Reid of Nevada and Majority Leader of the Senate, where the new President will be seeking support on many of his legislative issues.
Chu also said "we have time" to develop this better plan. He may want to have his staff advise him of the liability the government and the taxpayers face as long as the DOE delays removal of the spent nuclear fuel from 72 storage sites.

Anonymous said...

Right on Rod; Chu has evolved into a slippery politician as mentored by Al Gore in a way that reflexively forces him to agree in a fearful, weak and half-hearted way with pro nuclear Senators, but sometimes in his less guarded, jocular, and more candid moments, in a fit of classical Pavlovian conditioning, he reveals the depths of his west coast inspired anti-nuclear sentiments and deep green prejudices.