Good Hearing for Energy Secretary Chu before Senate Appropriators

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Publication date: 
27 May 2011

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu had a good hearing last week before the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.  Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN) expressed strong appreciation for the research performed by the Department of Energy.  While Chu was asked many questions about the department’s programs, some of which were critical in nature, no appropriator called for a reduction in the department’s FY 2012 budget request.  As is true for other S&T agencies, DOE’s FY 2012 appropriation is likely to be determined not as much on the basis of its individual programs but more by what will be difficult negotiations about the level of overall federal spending.

Feinstein opened the May 18 hearing noting that DOE submitted its request for an 11.8 percent or $3.1 billion budget increase (over FY 2010) before its FY 2011 appropriation was settled.  She added, “and so it doesn't reflect the new spending reality . . . it's clear that DOE and Congress will have to make some joint painful decisions and focus the limited resources that we have on the highest priorities.”  Feinstein discussed her support for a clean energy economy, declared “innovation clearly drives economic prosperity,” and cited Argonne’s work on lithium ion batteries.  Feinstein made a point that has been made at other S&T agency hearings this year, saying “the Office of Science must do a better job explaining how basic research can lead to new clean energy technologies and how it can better leverage large scientific facilities to help American industry remain competitive.”

Ranking Member Alexander’s statements are indicative of the bipartisan support there is for DOE’s energy-related research.  “I think many of my Republican colleagues see energy research as an appropriate role for the federal government,” he said.  Alexander told Chu he would like to prioritize funding by increasing spending on clean energy research and eliminating federal subsidies for established energy sources such as “big oil” and “big [land-based] wind.”  The senator also spoke of his support for the Energy Innovation Hubs and ARPA-E.

Feinstein’s first questions focused on DOE’s recommendation to reduce hydrogen energy research, the SunShot Initiative and the DOE loan guarantee program.  Regarding the hydrogen program, Chu outlined the progress that has been made in the development of stationary fuel cells that could be deployed in five to ten years.  DOE is conducting research in storage technologies for automobiles, and in developing an economically viable and environmentally benign supply of hydrogen.  Turning to solar energy, Chu told the appropriators “that’s the big deal,” when describing research to reduce the cost of photovoltaic solar energy by 75 percent by the end of the decade, which he called the “magical price.”  At that point photovoltaic power can compete, without subsidies, with other forms of energy in many parts of the United States. 

Appropriators asked a variety of questions, many of which were related to DOE programs in their states.  They included the status of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, loan guarantees, US leadership in clean energy technologies, natural gas production, the priorities of the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy, the strategic petroleum reserve, deep offshore wind technology, geothermal research, the cleanup of radioactive waste, and Yucca Mountain.

Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) asked a series of questions about the status of the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory following  a decision by the National Science Foundation to not to go forward with this joint project.  Johnson asked:

“I'm pleased to see DOE is continuing its support for the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory otherwise known DUSEL at Homestake mine, South Dakota. I appreciate that your agency included $15 million for the project in your FY '12 budget request.  I understand DOE is nearing the conclusion of an internal review of the project and I'm interested in its results. Specifically, could you talk about how DOE is prepared to work with the project team to ensure that your recommendations are known and included in future financial and construction planning.”

Chu responded:

“Well, first, I know we're undergoing this review and I have not specifically spoken with [Director of Office of Science] Bill Brinkman about this yet. . . .  Yes, the, National Science Foundation is having some second thoughts. It's very discouraging to us about that, especially since they started it.  But in any case, I think we are trying to figure a path forward on the investments that have been made by South Dakota and the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. So in the interim, we are continuing to get funds to pump the water, continue doing this. But if we lose on the long-term . . .  of what was supposed to be roughly a 50/50 partner. 

"We're trying to understand how we can go forward in a perhaps reduced program or what our options are especially in whatever funding we will be getting in F.Y. '12 and going forward.  And so, these again, are going to be very difficult choices. . . . there are a few experiments that we'd like to have done . . . .  We need to get some of those experiments done. But as I said, I don't - I have not seen the report or - and so, we're waiting for that.”

Senator Johnson continued:

“A great deal of activity is already underway at Homestake. And we had previously hoped NSF would be at this stage, be providing more support for these activities.  In lieu of significant NSF construction funding and in order to pursue the progress, an investment we have already made, what does DOE prepare to do to ensure that no jobs are lost while you evaluate your long-term plans for the project and/or for high energy physics in general.”

Chu replied:

“We are very aware of that and trying our best . . . there's a very dedicated scientific team that's been assembled on this. And while we try to push that forward, again, for '11 and '12, there's going to be continued funding. We don't want to lose and dissipate the scientific teams that have been developed,  just as we don't want the water to come back into the mine.” 

Chu added that he was not sure what the timing was on future steps, telling Johnson “in a completely unbiased point of view, I have to say that my old laboratory was the lead laboratory in this, and so I know personally how it's affecting a lot of people.”

In commenting on other DOE scientific research and facilities, Chu spoke of the Large Hadron Collider, telling the appropriators “they had a hiccup, but they’ve recovered well from that hiccup.”  Continuing, he said that “we still view . . . high energy physics as a significant part of our program . . . we still want to go further.”   Chu spoke of the lead role that American scientists have in one of the LHC detectors.  He also described the decision to invest in “new sources for neutrino beams at Fermi Lab.” 

Toward the conclusion of the hearing, Feinstein asked Chu about the storage of nuclear reactor waste.  She discussed her worries about the large number of spent fuel rods stored in “swimming pools” at reactor sites.  Feinstein expressed interest in dry cask storage, and told Chu “I've really come to my own conclusion that the way we best protect Americans is having some regional facilities where the storage of nuclear waste can be done over the hundreds of years, supervised by government. Otherwise, who knows what mother nature will bring down.”  Chu spoke of the advantages of using natural air circulation to cool the spent fuel, telling Feinstein “transitioning to that so-called dry cask storage is something I anticipate will be happening.”  The hearing concluded with a final discussion about nuclear waste handling, with Chu agreeing that wet storage is necessary for spent fuel rods for the first five or six years before it can be transferred to dry casks.  While explaining that casks are more robust, he added “that doesn’t mean that the current storage system is endangering Americans.”

Note that selections are from a transcript prepared by and used with the permission of CQ Roll Call.

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