The House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee held hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week on the FY 2012 Department of Energy request, and the request for the department’s science programs. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu appeared before the subcommittee on Tuesday, followed by Steven Koonin, Under Secretary of Energy for Science.
A battery of television cameras in the hearing room for Chu’s testimony was an early sign that many of the members’ questions would center on the situation in Japan, and the extent to which it would influence the Administration’s often-stated support for nuclear energy. “This has been a tragic weekend,” subcommittee chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) said, reminding Chu that his statements would shape public opinion and the reaction of the markets.
Frelinghuysen reiterated his support for nuclear energy, and called on the Administration to reopen the development of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. Frelinghuysen charged that the FY 2012 DOE request would undermine U.S. energy security, criticizing proposed cuts in fossil fuel R&D and the billions of dollars that were requested for various programs with minimal justification. Significantly, Frelinghuysen doubted that the subcommittee would have any additional funding in FY 2012. Ranking Member Ed Pastor (D-AZ) spoke of “investing and inventing” to secure America’s economic future, adding that the government is not entirely the answer.
Chu’s remarks about the Japanese reactors were measured. He said DOE has sent nuclear energy experts, response teams and aerial monitoring systems to Japan. The secretary said DOE has been running atmospheric models, noting that he had been up until 2:30 that morning reviewing them.
Turning to the budget request, Chu explained “the President’s budget makes tough choices.” He described the Administration’s goal of producing 80% of the nation’s electricity from clean sources by 2035, reiterating that nuclear energy was an important component of its strategy. Chu mentioned that the Office of Science request would keep its budget on a doubling trajectory, and outlined the importance of the department’s various research units such as the Energy Frontier Research Centers and the Innovation Hubs. He assured the subcommittee that “this is not a kitchen sink approach,” and concluded his opening remarks by saying “the U.S. faces a choice. . . . will we outcompete the rest of the world, or fall behind?”
Many of the members’ questions concerned Japanese and American reactors. Chu assured them that U.S. reactors are “designed considerably above” potential natural hazards, and explained “the world learns a lot from each new accident.” He discussed new nuclear facilities under development in the U.S., and innovative reactor designs such as the Westinghouse AP1000. Subcommittee members were generally supportive of nuclear energy, although there was considerable concern about seismic safety.
Other issues raised by subcommittee members included the status of loan guarantees, the role of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the rising cost of gasoline and electricity, the need for a comprehensive energy policy, Yucca Mountain and the Blue Ribbon Commission reviewing nuclear waste options, the advanced vehicle program, and the use of hydrofracting in the exploitation of natural gas.
There was limited discussion about DOE’s science programs. Chairman Frelinghuysen asked Chu if there was substance to the reports that there might be layoffs of national laboratory employees because of budget reductions. Chu replied that lab directors are developing contingency plans for staff layoffs. Frelinghuysen, speaking of all the laboratories supported by the Department of Energy, said “they are the critical mass.” Chu concurred, exclaiming the labs are “the heart and soul of what we do in the Department of Energy.”
FYI #36 will review the hearing on the Department of Energy’s science programs.