Energy Secretary Chu Appears Before House Appropriators

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Publication date: 
9 June 2009

The Obama Administration’s position on nuclear energy was the focus of many questions from the members of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee when he appeared before the panel on June 3.  Chu was before Senate appropriators in May.

The House hearing began on an atypical note.  Subcommittee chairman Peter Visclosky (D-IN) has given responsibility for the leading of the subcommittee’s deliberations on the FY 2010 bill to Rep. Ed Pastor (D-AZ), who has the title of vice chair.  This action occurred as a result of a grand jury investigation of Visclosky’s activities, who continues as the chairman.

Pastor said the subcommittee was very encouraged by Chu’s enthusiasm for his position,  spoke of the subcommittee’s desire to be responsive to the department’s request, but added, “that is no way means that we will rubberstamp the DOE budget request for fiscal year 2010.”The subcommittee’s Ranking Republican, Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) was less enthusiastic, citing “clear philosophical differences emerging between the developing priorities of this Administration and those long supported in a bipartisan way . . . by this committee and Congress.”  Frelinghuysen questioned the Administration’s commitment to nuclear energy, criticizing the decision to terminate Yucca Mountain, for what appears (be said) to be the pitting of renewable energy against nuclear energy, and the flat funding request for the National Nuclear Security Administration.  Frelinghuysen spoke of the Office of Management and Budget forcing a budget ceiling on the department.

“The budget request emphasizes science, discovery, and innovation to support the key missions of the department,” said Chu in his oral testimony.  A large portion of the secretary’s  limited time was used to describe “one of my highest priorities in the budget, and, as secretary, amplifying the Office of Science’s fundamental research with innovative approaches to solving the nation’s energy problems.”  Chu outlined the proposed eight Energy Innovation Hubs, the existing Energy Frontier Research Centers, and a new K-20 science and engineering program that would partner with the National Science Foundation.  Chu described the Energy Innovation Hubs to the management of Bell Labs, where top scientists made “very clear, very timely decisions” to fund, or abandon, a research project.  DOE will announce a call for proposals on the innovation hubs which will focus on eight topics such as materials in extreme conditions, photovoltaics, and building systems design.

Frelinghuysen’s first round of questions centered on how, and at what rate, and with what kind of oversight and accountability  the $38.7 billion in economic stimulus money would be spent  Chu hopes to have 50 percent of the money obligated by Labor Day, describing weatherization programs, energy loan guarantees, and DOE’s plan to have reviewers come to Washington for a week this summer to review proposals.  Frelinghuysen wished him luck, but added, “we will be, obviously, closely monitoring what you’re doing.”

Much of the remainder of the hearing involved the department’s positions on nuclear energy, Yucca Mountain, and nuclear fuel recycling.  Chu assured the committee members that the Obama Administration would encourage the growth of nuclear energy.  “In terms of closing the fuel cycle, that’s something which I personally think has great opportunity,” he said, describing the possibility of a new generation of reactors with a high energy neutron flux that could burn down long-lived actinide components. He criticized current French and Japanese recycling technology that creates a stream of plutonium which could be used in bombs, and  against moving prematurely to pilot a new recycling technology.   On Yucca Mountain, Chu left no doubt about the Administration’s position.  When asked, “is Yucca Mountain as a permanent geological repository dead” Chu replied “yes,” later saying “I think Yucca Mountain as a long-term repository is definitely off the table.”

Later in the hearing, Chu was asked about the proposed $140 million cut in the hydrogen fuel cell program.  He explained this decision by discussing problems with refueling stations, the longevity and cost of fuel cells, the use of natural gas as a feedstock, and portable hydrogen storage.  DOE will continue to support research on stationary hydrogen fuel cells and conduct research on the other problems he discussed.

The secretary was also asked about carbon sequestration.  Chu said regardless of what happens in the United States, China, India, Russia and Australia would not turn away from their coal reserves, “so it’s very important that we develop the technology that captures and also that safely sequesters carbon from coal plants, because it’s a huge asset.”  He added that he did not believe there were any “showstoppers.”.

Other matters discussed during the hearing included photovoltaics, biomass (specifically algae), plug-in hybrid vehicles, K-12 educations, and research tax credits.

The House Appropriations Committee wants to get the FY2010 funding bills to the floor quickly.  Although no schedule has been announced for the Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill, the funding allocation  available to the subcommittee is up about 1 percent from last year, giving an indication of what direction the bill is likely to take.

Note: quotations are used with the permission of CQ Transcriptions

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