Moniz Treated Gently at Senate Confirmation Hearing

Ernest Moniz

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Physicist Ernest Moniz appears to be on the fast track to become the next U.S. secretary of energy. Moniz received bipartisan praise today at a confirmation hearing held by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, with lawmakers touting his past experience as a senior official at the Department of Energy (DOE) and his scholarly work on energy policy.

"You may very well prove to be this rare nominee that generates bipartisan support," said Senator Lisa Murkowski (AK), the panel's senior Republican. "It's clear you've built a lot of goodwill with senators on both sides of the aisle," added Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), the panel's chair.

Moniz, a longtime member of the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, was nominated last month by President Barack Obama to become the 13th DOE secretary. Already a member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Moniz would replace Nobel laureate Steven Chu, another physicist, who is headed to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, once he is confirmed.

That approval could be imminent. At today's hearing, senators voiced no complaints about Moniz's nomination and tossed him generally friendly questions on a wide range of issues. DOE's role as a major funder of energy research and the physical sciences got relatively little attention, although Moniz vowed several times to use his post to help keep U.S. science on the cutting edge. One goal of DOE research efforts, he said, should be to develop the technologies needed to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with energy use, and to help "create a low carbon economy." He also said that he would like to see DOE's national laboratories "perform more of their work in multidisciplinary teams, for multiple years," in order to better complement research at universities and in the private sector.

Several senators wanted to know how the United States should handle the ongoing boom in natural gas production, including whether Moniz thought the country should be exporting more of the gas. That idea has drawn criticism from some environmentalists and policy analysts, who are worried about encouraging environmental problems or reducing energy security. Not surprisingly, Moniz declined to stake out a clear position but said that he would learn more about pending export requests if confirmed.

On the question of what to do about the nation's growing supply of radioactive waste from commercial nuclear power plants, Moniz said he would work to "push forward" the recommendations laid out in 2011 by a federal commission on which he served. The Obama administration has blocked further work on a central waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, and the commission has recommended a major overhaul of the process for deciding to how to handle nuclear waste. Any changes, he noted, would require the approval of Congress.

On climate policy, Moniz said he sees creating "a low carbon economy as absolutely critical." He repeated his support for investing in research on capturing carbon dioxide from power plants and pumping it underground, saying such "sequestration" technology will be an important part of curbing carbon emissions. He said long-term, "and I prefer decadal," sequestration experiments would be needed to road test the concept.

Moniz avoided saying whether he supported the controversial idea of imposing a tax on emissions of carbon dioxide. "The administration has not proposed a carbon tax and is not planning to do so," Moniz said. "Our principal job is to push the technological progress needed to make a low carbon economy possible." But the United States is probably underinvesting in developing less-polluting energy technologies, he said.

He agreed with studies suggesting that "we are underinvesting by a factory of three roughly. … I think there is a lot of evidence that we have a lot more capacity." For example, he noted that scientists have submitted many more high-quality proposals to DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy than the agency can fund.

On nuclear power, Moniz expressed support for developing so-called "modular" reactors that might drive down costs and improve safety. But there was little discussion of whether companies were willing to build such reactors and whether the government would ever agree to license them.

Moniz was pushed a bit by Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) on the future of the problem-plagued mixed oxide plutonium fuel plant under construction at the department's Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The government has already spent about $4 billion on the project, Scott noted, which is supposed to help convert 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium from the former Soviet Union and elsewhere into fuel pellets for commercial reactors. But delays and cost overruns have pushed projected costs to nearly $8 billion, and U.S. officials have begun to look at alternatives. Moniz said he would need to study the matter before deciding whether the project should move forward.

Wyden and Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) spent nearly 30 minutes asking Moniz questions about long-standing problems in cleaning up nuclear weapons waste at DOE's Hanford Site in Washington state. DOE has spent billions of dollars over several decades trying to prevent a hazardous stew of wastes produced during and after World War II and stored in dozens of underground tanks from leaking into the nearby Columbia River. Its attempt to build a waste treatment plant that would trap the wastes in glass logs has faced numerous technical challenges, long delays, and rising costs. Wyden noted that he and Moniz had "some spirited conversations about Hanford in the past," when Moniz was DOE undersecretary under President Bill Clinton, and that "DOE still has no acceptable plan for cleanup." Cantwell expressed her frustration over repeated changes in DOE's approach to the problem. Moniz promised to take a fresh look at the science and management issues, adding, "I'm not out to invent a new theory of these wastes."

On the lighter side, Senator Al Franken (D-MN), the former Saturday Night Live comedian, questioned Moniz's computational abilities. During his opening remarks, Moniz introduced his wife, Naomi Hoki Moniz, saying they had been married for "39.83" years. Later, Franken, a faux scowl on his face, challenged Moniz's math and got the MIT professor to admit that the number did contain "a rounding error."

Close was good enough for Wyden. "The sooner our committee can vote to recommend Dr. Moniz, the sooner he can get to work," he said in a statement issued after the hearing.