Our New Energy Secretary

Nicolas Loris /

It’s confirmation week and the hearing for nominee for Secretary of Energy, Stephen Chu, is tomorrow, January 13th. We’ve written about Chu before (here and here) and my colleagues Ben Lieberman and Jack Spencer have come up with 5 key questions he’ll inevitably have to answer as Energy Secretary. In fact, Spencer and Lieberman even provide answers to make things easier for Chu.

Two of my favorites:

Question #1: Gasoline Prices

Last September you made the statement that “somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe,” which at the time exceeded $8.00 a gallon. As secretary of energy, will you speak for or against any measures that would raise the price of gasoline?

Answer: Clearly, the American people want energy that is more affordable, not less. High gasoline prices hurt everyone, especially those with low incomes, and weaken the overall economy.[1] It is the role of the secretary of energy to work for the benefit of the American people by advocating policies that keep energy as inexpensive as possible. To do otherwise would be fundamentally at odds with the very purpose of the Department of Energy.

Question #5: Nuclear Energy

You have publicly recognized the critical role of nuclear energy in meeting our nation’s growing energy demand. You have also suggested that with nuclear fuel recycling a permanent geologic repository at Yucca Mountain is not essential.[3] What is your position on the scientific viability of Yucca Mountain, and do you support allowing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to complete its review of the Department of Energy’s permit application for Yucca Mountain?

Answer: While recycling used nuclear fuel will likely be a critical element to any comprehensive used nuclear fuel management strategy, it is unclear that such processes will alleviate the need for some permanent geologic storage. This is especially true for America’s defense-related nuclear waste, which requires permanent geologic storage.

Although President-elect Obama and others have voiced opposition to Yucca based on concerns over safety, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, whose job it is to make such determinations, is currently reviewing the Department of Energy’s application to build Yucca. It should be allowed to carry out its mission.

Outside of defense-related activities, one of the primary jobs of the DOE is to dispose of the nation’s commercial nuclear waste. The problem is that the DOE has an abysmal record in carrying out this mission. While America’s energy consumers have paid the U.S. government roughly $28 billion (payments and interest) to dispose of nuclear waste, the U.S. government has collected no waste from utilities. In addition to that, there is no consensus on how to move forward.

This is in direct contrast to nuclear fuel-related activities and power plant operations. Both of these functions are privatized and operate safe and efficiently. Only so-called back-end activities (or those related to waste management) fall under the purview of the federal government, and only they remain dysfunctional. That is why it is essential to begin the process of moving responsibility of waste management to those that produce the waste.

The full Q & A, along with additional information, can be found here.