U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu laid out the Obama administration’s position on nuclear energy, nuclear waste storage, and carbon sequestration at a House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee last week.

Chu had been summoned to discuss the administration’s $26.4 billion 2010 budget request for the Department of Energy (DOE) and $38.7 billion of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 funds appropriated to the agency.

In his prepared testimony (PDF), Chu reiterated the administration’s resolve to address fundamental energy and climate change challenges with science. “A few years ago, I changed the course of my scientific work to focus on solving our energy and climate challenges. I did so because of the great national and global urgency of this issue—but also because, as a scientist, I remain optimistic that science can offer us better solutions than we can imagine today,” he said. “But those solutions won’t come easily; they will only come if we harness the creativity and ingenuity and intellectual horsepower of our best scientists in the right way.”

Subcommittee Vice Chairman Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.)—who has stepped in for Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.) as a grand jury investigation continues against the chairman—said he was “encouraged” by Chu’s enthusiasm for his position, but that it did not mean “that we will rubberstamp the DOE budget request for fiscal year 2010.”

The subcommittee’s ranking Republican, Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.)—as did other Republicans on the panel—questioned Chu on the administration’s commitment to nuclear energy and the nuclear fuel cycle, criticizing the decision to terminate Yucca Mountain, the nuclear waste repository budgeted for and studied by the DOE for more than 25 years. Frelinghuysen said that it appeared the administration was pitting renewable energy against nuclear energy.

Chu confirmed the administration’s position on Yucca Mountain, saying that “as a long-term repository [it] is definitely off the table,” but adding that he would appoint a “blue-ribbon panel” to seek out alternatives. The administration would also certainly encourage the growth of the nuclear industry, he assured the committee. “In terms of closing the fuel cycle, that’s something which I personally think has great opportunity,” he said. Though he argued against prematurely piloting a new recycling technology, he hinted at the possibility of a new generation of reactors that have a high-energy neutron spectrum and that burn down the long-lived actinide waste. He also criticized current French and Japanese recycling technologies because they create plutonium streams that create proliferation risks.

Asked about the proposed $140 million cut in the hydrogen fuel cell program, Chu explained that the decision was tagged to the complexity of setting up refueling stations, the longevity and cost of fuel cells, the use of natural gas as feedstock, and portable hydrogen storage.

Chu also stressed the necessity of engaging in carbon sequestration research, saying that China, India, Russia, and Australia would not turn away from their coal reserves. He said he did not believe there were any “showstoppers,” but said it was important “that we develop the technology that captures and also that safely sequesters carbon from coal plants, because it’s a huge asset.”

The Recovery Act makes investments in energy conservation and renewable energy sources ($16.8 billion), environmental management ($6 billion), loan guarantees for renewable energy and electric power transmission projects ($6 billion), grid modernization ($4.5 billion), carbon capture and sequestration ($3.4 billion), basic scientific research ($1.6 billion), and the establishment of the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA-E) ($400 million).

To committee member questions about how—and with what kind of oversight and accountability—these funds would be spent, Chu said he hoped to have 50% of the money obligated by Labor Day. It would be spent on weatherization programs and energy loan guarantees, he said. Reviewers from Washington would assess the proposals during a week this summer.

Sources: Department of Energy, House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, Washington Post