Government & Politics

Energy nominee Ernest Moniz questioned about Hanford nuclear site

President Barack Obama’s energy secretary nominee, Ernest Moniz, faced Senate questioning Tuesday on how he’d fight global warming and fix federal mismanagement of the contaminated Hanford nuclear site in Washington state.

Moniz said at his confirmation hearing that the Department of Energy’s status quo was unacceptable at Hanford, the most contaminated nuclear site in the nation and one plagued by leaks, the risk of explosion and costly problems with a plant meant to treat the waste.

Members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee repeatedly asked him about the mess at Hanford, as well as broader issues of energy and how much he supports renewables and efforts to reduce emissions of planet-warming gases.

Moniz told the senators he backs an “all of the above” approach to energy, including oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear and renewable energy such as solar and wind. He also said climate change was real and that the Obama administration must take steps to battle the threat.

“The need to mitigate climate-change risks is emphatically supported by the science and by the engaged scientific community,” he said.

Moniz has drawn fire from some environmental groups because of his ties to the oil and gas industry. He runs an oil industry-backed research program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also has been a consultant for BP, General Electric and a private equity firm that’s invested in oil and gas.

Moniz pledges to resign his positions as a board member and consultant for energy firms if the Senate confirms him to replace Steven Chu as energy secretary.

Moniz said Tuesday that the nation needed to speed up its transition to an economy that produced less of planet-warming gases.

He said the Department of Energy had a role: “Our job is to push the technological innovation to get the cost of low-carbon technologies as low as possible.”

Moniz describe America’s boom in domestically produced natural gas as a bridge to a low-carbon economy, saying it’s a cleaner-burning fossil fuel that’s lowering the nation’s emissions. Such comments are controversial among opponents of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, a practice in which high-pressure water and chemicals are injected underground to harvest natural gas.

Much of Moniz’s confirmation hearing was dominated by a discussion of the problems at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which the federal government created in the 1940s as part of efforts to build the atomic bomb. Taxpayers have spent billions of dollars on attempts to clean up the site.

“This is the most contaminated piece of federal property, and it adjoins the lifeblood of our region, the Columbia River,” said Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, who’s the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Wyden said it was unacceptable that the Energy Department didn’t have a viable plan for cleaning up the site a half century after the contamination and a decade after Moniz had dealt with the site as an energy undersecretary in the Clinton administration.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board warned last week that underground tanks that are holding toxic radioactive sludge at Hanford could explode because of hydrogen buildup. At least six underground storage tanks are leaking into the soil. Repeated issues have delayed the construction of what was supposed to be a $12 billion plant to treat the waste, as the costs keep rising.

Moniz said he’d visit Hanford and speak with whistleblowers there. He told Wyden and Washington state Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell that he’d then meet with members of the Northwest congressional delegation to create a plan for action at the site.

He also pledged to look into a report from Wyden that energy officials said they needed two years just to decide whether tanks could be officially declared as leaking.

Moniz is expected to be confirmed as energy secretary, and Wyden said he supported him.

Moniz received bipartisan praise Tuesday from former Senate energy committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat from New Mexico, and Brent Scowcroft, who was the national security adviser for Republican Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.

“I do not know anyone more suited to lead the Department of Energy at this difficult time,” Scowcroft said.

This story was originally published April 9, 2013 4:23 PM.

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