Friday, January 22, 2010

Steven Chu and The Senators

gatesmain-420x0 Secretary Steven Chu was on Capitol Hill yesterday talking to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee. The discussion was wide ranging, but there’s no question the nuclear sections were the most pointed, especially notable in that Chu did not mention nuclear energy in his opening comments.

Now, we should say that Chu is notably nuclear friendly. Energy Daily (which is behind a pay wall) reported that Chu pushed hard against a directive from the Office of Budget and Management that would limit DOE spending on some nuclear technologies, including small modular nuclear reactor and fast reactor recycling of used nuclear fuel.

Asked about this by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Chu said “What we … are trying to do is make our best technical assessment, and it’s a bit of a crystal ball, but the best technical assessment of what could be productive. But because it’s research, we do not want to down select. And so what you’re referring to [the Energy Daily story] is a snippet in a time of discussion where things have not been finalized and so this is a work in progress.”

(All quotes are our transcripts.)

That sounds about right while also tamping down hints of intra-administration disagreement, but it shows Chu’s desire not to let nuclear energy take second seat to its renewable cousins.

“The White House supports nuclear,” Chu said. “We see this as part of the solution. Right now, 20% of our electricity is generated by nuclear; at a minimum, we’d like to maintain that and possibly grow that. For that reason, we are working aggressively to help restart the American nuclear industry with loan guarantees, with research over the out years that could lead to more advanced, safer nuclear power. That is the policy of the administration. The details are still being worked out.”

That’s pretty definitive. Chu also answered questions from Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) about the long-promised Blue Ribbon commission to investigate the issue of used nuclear fuel.

“I am pushing as hard as I can [to empanel the Blue Ribbon commission],” he said. “These are complicated issues and there’s a process we have to go through. I’m frustrated that it’s taking as long as it has, but it’s about to happen. And I am not doing a double-talk or slow walking it.”

Corker wasn’t very impressed, but we might add here that, as long as we’ve followed energy issues, DOE is often thought (by Congress people) to be too slow in getting things done. That was true under Samuel Bodman, it’s true under Chu. We’re not saying Corker is wrong here or that DOE is not justified in taking a deliberative approach – but that’s the dynamic. Chu will doubtless hear more about it in future hearings.

The real point that emerged from the hearing is that the administration and the Senate agree that nuclear energy is an important way forward, in terms of energy security and climate change mitigation and increasing electricity capacity. The details change from hearing to hearing, but that reality underlies everything that’s said.

Let’s leave the last word to Chu, who said that nuclear energy “is a very important part of the energy portfolio we will need in the coming century to decrease our carbon footprint.”

You can watch the whole hearing here. If you know your Senators, zero in on Murkowski, Corker and Jim Bunning (R-Kentucky) – who makes a funny comment about France to support nuclear energy – and see what you think.

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We’re a little Mac-centric ourselves, but since Steve Jobs doesn’t have a Web site of his own, we’ll happily settle for Bill Gates’ new Gates Notes. Since retiring from Microsoft, Gates has been working on philanthropic activities and establishing a broader public profile for himself. Gate Notes combines the two activities.

One feature is a series of podcasts, in which Gates is interviewed on energy issues (currently – presumably, he’ll address different topics over time). He’s right up front in his support of nuclear energy:

"Nuclear energy is worth pursuing, wind and solar are good but have limitations, and the government is putting minuscule amounts of money into energy R&D dollars.”

"[Nuclear energy is] the only thing we have today other than hydrocarbons that provides a lot of power and you could build a lot more of it."

Why, yes, indeed you could. CNET has a story about Gates Notes and its goals.

We guess there’s an irony in Bill Gates doing podcasts – shouldn’t they be zunecasts? – but well worth the listen.

Bill Gates. Did you know the first version of Microsoft Excel was created exclusively for the Macintosh? True story!

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

As an avowed supporter of the Yucca Mountain Project, I wouldn’t expect anyone to be surprised at my disappointment (once again) over Secretary Chu’s remarks on the nuclear waste disposal issue.

Nevertheless, disappointed I was. Especially noteworthy was Chu’s halting response to Senator Corker’s question about the long-promised Blue-Ribbon Commission on nuclear waste policy. The response was framed by two telling statements: Chu’s admission that he “is not a politician,” and his expression of hope (somewhat wistful) that he will leave D.C. with his reputation as a scientist intact.

To my mind, these statements, together with Chu’s body language and delivery, signal the very possibility Corker quickly raised: the possibility that external political influence is introducing a kind of “cognitive dissonance” into a process that Chu would have carried out under scientific principles.

Many of us, for example, have probably read reports in trade publications like The Energy Daily, alleging that prospective Blue-Ribbon Commission chair Lee Hamilton (of the 9/11 commission) has lost his initial enthusiasm for the chairmanship of this panel, ostensibly because he fears its conclusions will be compromised in advance by arbitrary, purely political constraints built into the Commission’s charter. I’m thinking here (obviously) of the alleged exclusion in advance of any consideration of the Yucca Mountain Project, which would be roughly tantamount to instructing the 9/11 commission not to analyze the role played by the intelligence community.

An overstatement, perhaps, but we should remember that the chairmen of the 9/11 commission concluded that they had been “set up to fail,” mainly through de facto resistance from federal agencies. The book co-authored by co-chairs Kean and Hamilton (Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission) should strongly suggest two things in the context of the proposed Blue-Ribbon Commission on nuclear waste policy: First, that Hamilton is well-versed on the shortcomings of such panels; and second, that his increasing reluctance to serve on this particular panel speaks volumes about whatever integrity it might eventually claim.

Anonymous said...

For those of us on the outside looking in, it is clear that this whole "Blue-Ribbon Commission" on nuclear waste policy is nothing more than political Kabuki Theater. Obama trashed Yucca Mountain for purely political reasons (payoff to special-interest environmental groups) and this "Commission" is nothing more than an exercise in Stall Ball. The fact that a year after the fact it hasn't even been constituted is ample evidence of that. If it ever is empaneled after such foot-dragging, I have a feeling it's only product will be vaporware, and it's only purpose will be kicking the can down the road yet again.

Anonymous said...

So much for the administration restoring science to its proper place.

For that matter, so much for closing Gitmo in one year, televising Health Care Reform discussions on C-SPAN, posting bills on the web for five days before voting, and ending earmarks (Louisana Purchase?)

I'll be hoiping for change in November, 2010...

Anonymous said...

A footnote to my Yucca Mountain comment above:

After watching the somewhat disappointing NRC adjudicatory proceedings over the last couple of days, I think it fair to give a “shout out” to NEI counsel for defending their contention that the conservatisms in the Yucca Mountain safety case could potentially result in increased occupational doses to workers at offsite nuclear facilities.

NEI’s lawyers may not get a favorable ruling based on the regulations and such, but it was an important point to make: workers at nuclear power plants and other offsite facilities deserve to be treated as any other members of the public, and anything that might potentially increase their exposure (e.g., requiring nuclear facilities to insert control rods into fuel assemblies before packaging them for shipment to Yucca Mountain, on the basis of allowing the repository to implement its criticality safeguards during the postclosure phase) ought to be given serious consideration in the proceedings.

Attempts were made to suggest that NEI (and by extensions the members it represents) was simply arguing against the imposition of additional waste handling costs on nuclear facilities, but NEI attorney David Repka (sp?) time and again invoked the ALARA principle and the ideal of minimizing occupational doses.

I couldn’t guess what the final ruling will be, and I don’t know to what degree the contention was offered as a practical argument as opposed to an ethical/hypothetical argument, but it was refreshing to hear someone advocating from the perspective of worker safety and occupational doses at offsite nuclear facilities, a subject that doesn’t seem to get much coverage in these particular NRC proceedings.