Coal and nuclear power took center stage at Tuesday's confirmation hearing for President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for secretary of energy, Steven Chu, who garnered broad bipartisan support from senators on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The first Nobel laureate to receive a presidential Cabinet nomination, Chu, a renowned physicist, brings an impressive resume to the table, including his current position as director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a leader in alternative and renewable energy technologies.
"Simply stated, there is no one brighter or better equipped to become secretary of energy than this man," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said at the hearing.
If the members of the Energy Committee are any indication of the rest of the Senate, Chu should sail through the confirmation process quickly, with Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., planning to hold a committee vote on Chu's nomination by the end of the week and pushing for a full Senate decision by next Tuesday.
Despite the praise Chu received during the hearing, senators across the board expressed concern about the state of energy today and hammered Chu with questions about his stance on renewable energy, climate change and an array of energy sources, particularly nuclear power and coal.
Chu has made statements supporting nuclear -- a stance he reiterated Tuesday.
"The nuclear industry has to be part of our energy mix," Chu told senators. "It's 20 percent of our (total) electricity production today, but it's 70 percent of the carbon-free electricity we produce today."
As a result, Chu said he would support the construction of new nuclear reactors.
The issue of nuclear waste dominated many senators' questions, and Chu said he would consider the possibility of recycling the waste. Concern that recycling could lead to weapons proliferation has blocked the practice in the United States to date, but the apparent success of recycling in other countries, particularly France, as well as the growing need for storage solutions in the United States have created a following of recycling enthusiasts.
"In the long term, recycling can be part of that solution (to waste disposal)," Chu said. "The processes (for recycling) are not ideal … but certainly recycling is an option that we will be looking at very closely."
Chu's position on nuclear power has made some environmental organizations uneasy, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit research group. However, the organization's spokesman, Alan Nogee, said he's confident Chu will give precedence to renewable energy sources.
"I think he'll move wind, solar and other renewable resources first," Nogee told United Press International.
While that may be true, Chu said he also will support the continued use of coal.
"We will be building some coal plants," he said. "One doesn't have a hard moratorium on something like that while we search for alternatives."
Not everyone's convinced about Chu's willingness to keep coal in the mix, however, and that makes free-market economists nervous, including Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a non-profit policy group that promotes limited government.
"Secretary-designate Chu has … made a point of attacking coal -- the nation's most affordable and reliable energy source -- even going so far to describe coal-fired power plants as his 'worst nightmare,'" Ebell said. "With Dr. Chu at the helm, consumers should expect greater restrictions on power plant development and higher prices for coal and electricity across the board."
Chu addressed his "worst nightmare" quote at the hearing, saying he was referring to the use of coal without technologies that clean up the emissions streams of power plants, not coal in general.
"If the world continues to use coal the way we're using it today, then it is a pretty bad dream," he said.
As such, Chu stressed the need to develop clean coal technology, such as methods to capture carbon emissions and store the carbon dioxide underground in geological formations. It's also vital, he said, for the United States to help other countries clean up their act, such as China, whose coal-fire power plants lack basic equipment to remove the most harmful pollutants from their smokestack emissions.
"Even if we (turn off coal), China and India will not, so we are in a position to develop these technologies so the world can use them," Chu said.
Statements like that ease many environmentalists' concerns about continued use of coal, including those at the Sierra Club.
"We find it encouraging that even though we'll be moving forward on new nuclear and coal plants, we'll also be working on the technology to make them as clean as possible," Sierra Club spokesman David Willett told UPI.
Although Chu said coal is here to stay for some time to come, he also supports a federal program to curb carbon emissions. Obama has announced his plan to implement a cap-and-trade system, whereby carbon dioxide emissions are capped at a certain level and shares to emit are allotted to businesses and other entities that can sell them if they cut their emissions below the mandated level.
Chu backed Obama's plan, although he said less is more in this area.
"The simpler the cap-and-trade system is, the happier I will be," he told senators.