Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Chu May Push Labs To Evolve
By Michael Coleman
Journal Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate physicist and national laboratory director chosen by President-elect Barack Obama to lead the Department of Energy, told Congress on Tuesday that he would combat climate change and aggressively promote clean energy and conservation if confirmed for the Cabinet post.
Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California since 2004, also endorsed nuclear power and said coal can remain a key energy source, provided that new science mitigates its negative effect on the environment. Chu had previously described coal use as an environmental "nightmare," prompting some worried questions from senators who represent coal-producing states.
Despite those concerns, Chu, 60, received near-unanimous praise from members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Democratic chairman of the committee, said he expects Chu to win confirmation. The panel could move the nomination to the full Senate later this week, Bingaman said.
Bingaman said the nominee's experience as a national laboratory director is a good sign for Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories, with more than 20,000 employees in New Mexico.
"Obviously he's very familiar with our national laboratories ... and he knows the lab directors and the issues that the labs contend with," Bingaman said in an interview after the hearing.
Chu told senators he would push the national laboratories with Los Alamos and some of the others focused on nuclear weapons to evolve their missions. "I have challenged some of the best scientists at Berkeley lab to turn their attention to the energy and climate change problem," Chu said. "I want to extend this approach to an even greater extent throughout the department's network of national laboratories."
The hearing contained almost no discussion of weapons budgets at the labs. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace issued a report this week that said at least 67 percent of DOE's budget goes to nuclear weapons and weapons-related programs.
Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, said that spending should have been examined at the hearing.
"How can the Senate confirm Dr. Chu without having heard a single thing about how he plans to run the vast majority of the Department of Energy?" Brian asked in a statement. "This is a case where the Senate has left some pretty important questions unanswered."
Meanwhile, Chu told senators that although he would push for more use of renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, simply using less energy makes more sense in the short-term.
"More efficient use of energy in the United States is the one big factor that can (quickly) reduce our dependence on foreign oil," Chu said.
He also said climate change, which some key Republicans in Congress believe isn't caused by humans, threatens world security if carbon dioxide emissions aren't curbed.
"It is now clear that if we continue on our current path, we run the risk of dramatic disruptive changes to our climate system in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren," Chu said.
He said science eventually will provide a way to help capture and contain carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal, a leading energy source in the U.S.
"Coal resources in the U.S. are immense, and I'm optimistic we can begin to use those resources in a clean way," Chu said.