January 14, 2009
Chu Eschews Greens’ Line Against Coal, Nuclear Development
BY GEORGE LOBSENZ, http://theenergydaily.com/publications/ed/1926.html
In a clear sign that he will not toe the line drawn by some environmental groups, Energy Secretary-designate Steven Chu Tuesday gave a qualified endorsement to the continued use of coal-fired generation and said new nuclear plants are essential given that they are by far the nation’s largest source of carbon-free electricity for the foreseeable future.
Chu, appearing at a confirmation hearing held by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, also delivered surprisingly candid testimony on what he called the current “standoff” between the United States and China on global warming. He said the United States should go first on emissions cuts with the expectation that China would follow—a prescription that drew blunt skepticism from a prominent Democrat, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, about whether China actually would follow or whether Congress would buy that approach.
Overall, though, Chu drew strong bipartisan praise in carefully navigating through a host of sensitive issues, including what to do about nuclear waste and recycling; whether the federal government ought to exert more authority over power line siting; and how he will respond to state demands to deliver more funding for cleanup at DOE’s heavily contaminated nuclear weapons sites.
While he has been widely praised for his scientific expertise as head of DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for the past four years, Chu also showed nimble political footwork in a potentially tricky exchange with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) on Chu’s stated preference for a carbon emissions cap-and-trade system over a carbon tax as the best approach on climate change.
Pressed by Corker about the potential for “loopholes” in a cap-and-trade system—and whether it was the best solution or just the “politically best” solution—Chu replied with a cagey smile: “I’ll leave that to you.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Corker responded, “you seem pretty good.”
Chu then provided an elegant, to-the-point answer: “The simpler a cap-and-trade system is, the happier I will be.”
Chu was questioned closely by both Republicans and Democrats on his views on coal and nuclear, with Republicans especially determined to pin him down on his willingness to go to bat within the Obama administration for continued development of those two energy resources, which together currently provide 70 percent of U.S. electricity but which are opposed by many environmentalists.
In particular, Chu was asked by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) about recent remarks in which Chu said continued widespread use of coal-fired generation would be a “nightmare” in light of its heavy emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas. Some environmentalists have seized on those remarks to buttress a campaign to discredit “clean coal” technology, such as CO2 sequestration, as an effective solution to coal’s environmental problems.
Dorgan said while he is a strong supporter of more renewables and energy efficiency, he believed clean coal clearly is needed as well. “All of us understand that we have to use coal differently in the future,” Dorgan said, “but I think everybody knows we are going to use coal in the future.”
Chu hastened to agree—and to clarify that his “nightmare” remark was meant to refer to continued use of coal without CO2 capture.
“If the world continues to use coal the way we are using it today, then it is a pretty bad dream,” he said, adding that he was concerned China had not even begun to capture sulfur and other pollutants from some of its coal plants.
“But I also say coal is an abundant resource in the world…. India and China, Russia and the United States, I believe, will not turn their back on coal, so it is imperative we do it as cleanly as possible. I will continue to develop these [clean coal] technologies.”
Chu went on to suggest that the environmentalists’ campaign against clean coal is misguided because other countries will continue to use coal, meaning clean coal technology remains vital to solving climate change concerns.
“Some people in the United States want to turn off coal,” he said, but, “even if we do, China and India will not.”
However, Chu was notably hesitant about the feasibility of deploying carbon sequestration at the scale necessary to allow continued broad use of coal for electricity generation. He acknowledged that major research efforts will be needed to develop the infrastructure and find underground geologic structures capable of storing huge amounts of carbon from coal-fired plants. As for the prospects for success, he resorted to the studied understatement of dubious scientists, saying: “It’s a possibility, but it is a significant challenge.”
Corker appeared to tweak Chu over his carefully worded answer, saying of near-term sequestration solutions: “A lot of people feel that it is going to happen when donkeys fly.”
On nuclear, Chu pledged his full support to help utilities build new nuclear plants, most immediately by fixing DOE’s troubled loan guarantee program, under which the government is helping utilities underwrite the huge cost of building the first next-generation reactors.
More broadly, Chu clearly disagreed with those green groups that say new nuclear should not go forward as a clean energy source because there is no clear disposal plan for nuclear waste.
“I have stated and believe that nuclear power will be part of our energy mix going forward because it is carbon-free and because it is baseload,” he said.
“I certainly will be working to make as many people as possible happy [on the issue],” he added, but “nuclear power is 70 percent of our carbon-free electricity generation—that cannot be denied.”
However, Chu also acknowledged that President-elect Barack Obama’s stated opposition to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository had raised many “thorny questions” because it appeared to leave DOE without any clear strategy for disposing of spent fuel from commercial reactors despite its legal obligation to take the waste.
Still, Chu said the lack of an immediate answer on waste disposal should not stop utilities from building the first several advanced reactors. He said spent fuel could be safely stored for years while DOE looks into the potential for spent fuel recycling—the long-term solution championed by the Bush administration in conjunction with Yucca Mountain—or other unspecified disposal options.
“In the long term, recycling can be part of the solution,” Chu asserted, noting that France, Japan, Russia and other nations are committed to that approach and moving to improve recycling technologies. At the same time, though, he conceded DOE will have to conduct substantial research to determine if it is “feasible” to carry out recycling in a way that is proliferation-resistant and economic.
Chu’s interest in recycling may be a tough pill for some Democrats and environmentalists to swallow because they have repeatedly attacked Bush for pursuing that option, saying the recovery of weapons-usable plutonium for commercial use would open a Pandora’s box of proliferation concerns.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) urged Chu to “make a break” with the Bush administration’s “flawed” spent fuel reprocessing plans, which at one point called for spending billions of dollars to build prototype facilities. Wyden complained that Bush’s recycling plan “essentially green lights more [nuclear] without dealing with the enormous amount of waste we have.”
In the end, Chu appeared to suggest that Obama’s solution might be to develop interim spent fuel storage and let the next administration worry about final disposal. “The recycling issue is something that we don’t need a solution today, or even 10 years from today,” he said. “We need to figure out a way to store that spent fuel safely.”
On other issues, Chu:
• Promised to review DOE-established transmission corridors in the Mid-Atlantic and Southwest where federal officials can override state opposition to the siting of new power lines. However, Chu danced around the larger question of giving the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission more authority to site power lines, which industry officials and key lawmakers say is needed to build a national grid capable of transmitting more renewable power. “I know the bottlenecks and I know the frustration [over state opposition to power lines], Chu said. But he said that if the federal government flexes its muscle too much, “my feeling is the states and local people in these states may react,” slowing down the process even more.
• Showed some sympathy for complaints by Washington state officials that DOE has chronically underfunded the cleanup at its Hanford nuclear site, thus failing to meet legally enforceable deadlines for remedial action. Chu promised to respond to a request by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) that DOE provide an extra $2 billion over the next four years to speed the lagging Hanford cleanup. In that vein, he noted that he had urged Obama officials to include nuclear cleanup funds in the economic stimulus bill.
• Expressed striking optimism about the game-changing potential of energy efficiency technologies and advanced cellulosic ethanol to improve U.S. energy security. For example, he said new construction materials and techniques are available to reduce building-related energy use by 80 percent, but that major efforts are needed to convince the construction industry that these assertions were not “fluff.” On advanced biofuels, Chu said the brightest minds at the Berkeley lab and other research labs are focused on developing cellulosic or algae-based ethanol and he is convinced that breakthroughs will be seen in the next few years on commercial viability. “It is not a possibility, but a probability that we will develop those technologies, and very quickly, too,” he said.