Chu supports efforts to speed waste cleanup

By Les Blumenthal, Herald Washington, D.C., bureau January 14, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- Though he didn't know all the details, Secretary of Energy-Designate Steven Chu told a Senate committee Tuesday that the federal government has a "legal and moral" obligation to clean up Hanford and other sites contaminated during 50 years of nuclear weapons production.

"Cleanup of these materials is a complicated, expensive long-term project, but I pledge to you to do my best to accelerate these efforts in order to protect human health and the environment, and to return contaminated lands to beneficial use," Chu said.

Chu, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1997 and is director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, made the comments during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Chu is expected to easily win confirmation.

Under questioning from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Chu said there should be a "significant" amount of additional cleanup money in a stimulus bill Congress is expected to consider in the coming weeks.

Cantwell and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., have talked to Chu and other officials connected to the incoming administration about including $6 billion to $7 billion of cleanup money in the stimulus bill. How much of that would go to Hanford is unclear.

Cantwell pressed Chu about whether he would support an additional $2 billion specifically for Hanford over the next four years. Cantwell said the money was needed to put cleaning up the underground storage tanks back on track.

The tanks, which are at least 30 years beyond their design life, hold 53 million gallons of radioactive and chemical waste, she said.

Sixty-seven of the tanks are believed to have leaked in the past, releasing an estimated 1 million gallons of waste into the ground.

Cantwell also wanted to know if Chu supported a provision in the Tri-Party Agreement covering Hanford cleanup that requires removal of 99 percent of the tank waste.

"I plead ignorance on the 99 percent number," Chu said, though he added, "I am committed to cleaning up the site."

On another topic, Chu said he supported requests from the region's lawmakers to double the Bonneville Power Administration's borrowing authority from the federal treasury to upgrade transmission lines. The lines are needed to carry wind-generated electricity from Eastern Washington to the heavily populated Puget Sound basin.

"I think expansion of transmission lines especially to carry alternative energy is something I support," he said.

Chu said the incoming administration would show an increased commitment to alternative energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal, but also made clear coal and nuclear would be part of the mix.

The new administration is also committed to "aggressively" increasing energy efficiency in appliances and buildings, will push for more fuel-efficient vehicles including plug-in hybrids and supports a more "robust" transmission and distribution system for electricity, Chu said.

But Chu said the Obama administration would support efforts to revitalize the nuclear energy industry including developing a long-term plan to dispose of radioactive waste from the civilian reactors, would seek the "responsible" development of domestic oil and gas supplies and would invest in technology to capture and store carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Chu said a federal loan program to restart the nuclear industry needs to be accelerated, but acknowledged finding a way to safely dispose of the waste could be more difficult.

Obama said during the campaign that he opposed using Yucca Mountain, Nev., to store the waste, which the federal government is obligated to take. Chu said a better system to recycle the waste needed to be developed, but even then there would be nonproliferation issues.

As director of the Berkeley lab, Chu said he has urged its best scientists to start doing research on climate change and renewable energy.

"I know these efforts are working and I want to extend this approach to an even greater extent throughout the department's network of national laboratories where 30,000 scientists and engineers are at work performing cutting-edge research," he said.

* Les Blumenthal: 202-383-0008; lblumenthal@mcclatchydc.com

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