Energy secretary nominee boon to PNNL

Stephen Chu’s nomination as energy secretary may be good for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, but how Hanford might fare under his leadership is tougher to predict.

Scientists at national laboratories will “have a distinguished peer at the helm,” President-elect Barack Obama said Monday as he formally announced Steven Chu as his pick for energy secretary.

“His appointment should send a signal to all that my administration will value science, we will make decisions based on the facts and we understand that the facts demand bold action,” Obama said during a news conference in Chicago.

Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, is the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and is known for his advocacy of developing energy sources that will not add to greenhouse gases.

He will bring an appreciation of the role of the national laboratory system to the Department of Energy, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement.

“This will be helpful in continuing to ensure that Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has the resources needed to provide high tech jobs in our state and to continue developing pioneering security solutions for our country,” she said.

Chu is passionate about several areas in which PNNL has significant expertise and leadership, including finding scientific solutions to combat climate change and creating renewable sources of energy and energy-efficient buildings, PNNL Director Mike Kluse said in a statement.

“We believe the Department of Energy, under Chu’s leadership, will continue to turn to PNNL as it increases U.S. energy capacity, reduces dependence on imported oil, prevents and counters terrorism and creates sustainable systems,” he said.

Chu listed DOE responsibilities at the news conference as supporting research that will lead to innovation in energy in the private sector, nurturing broad based research that will be essential to the nation’s prosperity and providing scientific leadership to minimize the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons.

Murray plans to meet with him in the coming weeks to discuss an additional responsibility, “the legal and moral obligation we have to cleaning up the Hanford nuclear reservation,” she said.

“I will be meeting with Dr. Chu to discuss the importance of a robust national budget for (DOE) environmental management that will keep Hanford cleanup on track,” she said. “I will also ensure that he knows the importance of coming together with the state to resolve differences over the Tri-Party Agreement so that we meet important cleanup deadlines.”

It will be important for a deputy secretary to be named under Chu who understands the importance of Hanford cleanup and the work remaining to be done, said Gary Petersen, TRIDEC vice president of Hanford programs.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said he has had productive relationships with energy secretaries under the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations and expects that to continue with Obama.

Chu’s background as a scientist with management experience should serve DOE well, Hastings said in a statement. He said he’ll be working with Chu to ensure Hanford cleanup is a top priority and that PNNL has the resources it needs.

The Tri-City Development Council sees both advantages and disadvantages to Chu’s nomination.

He is expected to oppose opening a national repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., which has been planned as the disposal site for Hanford’s high-level radioactive waste once it has been turned into sturdy glass logs at the vitrification plant under construction.

But Chu supports nuclear energy and reusing spent commercial nuclear fuel, Petersen said. Not only does that bode well for the Tri-Cities, but his push for other clean energies also holds promise here, Petersen said.

The Tri-Cities and the region are “almost a centerpiece for energy,” he said. It has production or research being conducted in nuclear, hydro, wind, solar, carbon dioxide sequestration and biofuels.

“Now the trick is to make sure the new secretary of energy recognizes that,” he said.

Murray said she would be working in the coming months to ensure that federal investments in creating green jobs will be made in Washington.

Chu faces a difficult task as he balances the need for clean and affordable energy supplies, safeguarding the nation’s nuclear stockpile, maintaining the United States as a leader in science and technology and cleaning up Hanford and other Cold War nuclear sites, said Bush’s Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman in a statement.

But after working with Chu for four years Bodman has confidence Chu will bring the needed leadership, vision and scientific expertise to the job, he said.

Also Monday, Obama named Carol Browner, Nancy Sutley and Lisa Jackson as his picks for other key energy and environment jobs. Browner, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, would coordinate White House energy and climate policy; Sutley, deputy mayor for energy and environment in Los Angeles, would be the chairwoman of the White House council on Environmental Quality; and Jackson, a former New Jersey environmental protection commissioner, would be the EPA administrator.

* Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com