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Nomination Hearing for Ernest Moniz to be Next Secretary of Energy

Richard M. Jones
Number 60 - April 9, 2013  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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There is every indication from today’s hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that committee members will approve Ernest Moniz’s nomination to be the next Secretary of Energy and send it to the full Senate for confirmation.

The future production of domestic energy – in particular natural gas – was the focus of this well-attended three-hour hearing.  Committee chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) spoke of “a wave of good news stories about natural gas” and the impact that it has had on reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas footprint.  Moniz and the senators acknowledged the importance of building public confidence in developing these resources through hydraulic fracturing.   

There was little discussion about the role of the Department of Energy (DOE) in supporting basic research.  DOE is the leading federal sponsor of physics research in the U.S.  In her opening remarks, Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) alluded to scientific research in a statement about energy R&D:

“If confirmed, you will find yourself in charge of thousands of scientists, many of whom are engaged in exciting, cutting-edge work. But you will also inherit a range of challenges and problems. Thirty-five years after the Department of Energy was created, we are still in search of a broad, coherent, and consistent policy in this area. Energy-related programs and initiatives remain fragmented and scattered throughout the federal government, not enough money is getting ‘to the bench’ for research and development, and too often it appears that silos within the Department stand in the way of progress. In recent years, I have become concerned that DOE is not clearly and unambiguously working to keep energy abundant, affordable, diverse, and secure. As I see it, we need a stronger voice in the councils of the Administration for energy supply.”

In his written testimony, Moniz discussed his scientific and managerial experience both in and out and government, and explained:

“Taken together, these roles have given me a deep appreciation of DOE’s importance to American leadership in science. DOE is the lead funder of basic research in the physical sciences and provides the national research community with unique research opportunities at major facilities for nuclear and particle physics, energy science, materials research and discovery, large scale computation, and other disciplines. More than a hundred Nobel Prizes have resulted from DOE-associated research. DOE operates an unparalleled national laboratory system and partners with both universities and industry at the research frontier.

“The Secretary of Energy has the responsibility for stewardship of a crucial part of the American basic research enterprise. If confirmed, I will work with the scientific community and with Congress to assure that our researchers have continuing access to cutting-edge research tools for scientific discovery and for training the next generation.”

A wide range of topics were discussed at this hearing, including DOE’s support of R&D to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint, climate change, and nuclear energy and nuclear waste disposal.  Moniz was on the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future that recommended a consent-based process in locating future nuclear waste storage and repository sites.  Moniz told the committee he would advance the commission’s recommendations as Secretary of Energy, saying that “the linkage is clearly important” in moving simultaneously on future storage and repository decisions.  He told the senators that more needs to be spent on energy R&D, which is a fraction of that spent on defense R&D and health R&D. 

Moniz spoke several times about his support for an “all of the above” approach to energy development that includes oil and gas, small modular reactors, renewable energy, the utilization of coal with carbon capture and sequestration, and energy storage.  In answer to a question from Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Moniz said he would work on a reauthorization of the America COMPETES legislation which, Alexander explained, would reduce program duplication and strengthen ARPA-E.  Moniz agreed with Alexander that DOE plays an important role in the support of high performance computing. 

In answer to a question from Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) about the future role of the national laboratories in a time of budget constraints and sequestration, Moniz responded that he wanted laboratory directors to play an expanded role of being planners and not just R&D performers.  Moniz spoke of the need for more multidisciplinary research with a commitment to difficult problems, working with the nation’s universities. 

Ongoing problems with leaking tanks at the Hanford Reservation were also discussed, with Moniz telling the committee that he will closely examine previous research, adding that he will be making a site visit.

The national security role of the Department of Energy was not a subject of the senators’ questions.  In his written statement, Moniz stated:

“The President, starting with his Prague speech in 2009, has laid out a vision of nuclear security: step-by-step reductions in nuclear weapons, while ensuring the safety, security and effectiveness of our stockpile as long as we have nuclear weapons; strengthened efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons; and measures to prevent nuclear terrorism. DOE has significant responsibilities spanning much of this agenda.

“The Department is entrusted with the responsibility to maintain a safe and reliable nuclear weapons stockpile in the absence of underground testing. The responsibility for certifying this to the President rests with the Departments of Energy and Defense, with the DOE/NNSA lab directors at the center of the technical evaluation process. When I served as DOE Undersecretary, I led a review of the science-based stockpile stewardship program that emphasized the importance of strong DOE-DOD collaboration to integrate military requirements with stockpile stewardship activities. If confirmed, I intend to engage actively in this collaborative effort -- an important piece of our national security posture and a core element of the President’s nuclear security agenda.”

In his concluding remarks, Wyden told Moniz that he was encouraged by the sentiments of both Republican and Democratic senators, telling Moniz   “you have the expertise and it’s clear you have built a lot of goodwill with senators on both sides of the aisle.  I plan to support your nomination.”  Murkowski’s comments were of a similar nature:  “You may prove to be the rare nominee who gathers wide bipartisan acclaim.”

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics