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Energy Nominee: Coal, Nuclear an 'Important Part' of Power Mix

by Les Blumenthal
WASHINGTON - Energy-Secretary-Designate Steven Chu told a Senate Committee on Tuesday that the incoming administration would have an increased commitment to alternative energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal, but also made clear coal and nuclear would be part of the energy mix.

Chu, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1997 and is currently 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 win confirmation easily.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Dr. Steven Chu makes remarks before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources on his nomination to be the next energy secretary in the Obama administration, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, January 13, 2009. (Reuters/Mike Theiler) 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.

"I would not have accepted the President-elect's nomination if I had not thought it was essential to move ahead on this plan," he said.

Chu also said, however, that the Obama administration would support efforts to revitalize the nuclear power 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 was questioned closely by Republican and Democratic committee members about the new administration's plans for nuclear and coal. Chu said in a public lecture last year, available on YouTube, that coal was his "worst nightmare."

"That quote is ricocheting around the Internet," Chu said. "The context was whether we will continue using coal as we do today . . . that is a pretty bad dream."

Burning coal is a major source of the carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere and is contributing to an increase in Earth's average temperature that experts say will lead to damaging changes in climate and sea level in the decades to come.

Chu began his comments at his confirmation hearing by warning: "It is now clear that if we continue on our current path, we run the risk of dramatic, disruptive changes to our climate system in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren."

Chu has spoken throughout the country and focused the Berkeley Lab's work on the related problems of global warming and the need for renewable energy sources that don't add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

The U.S. has immense stores of coal, and Chu said he was "hopeful and optimistic we can use those resources in a clean way."

The only way to burn coal without increasing the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is to capture it and store it underground, something that's not being done at any of the nation's 450 coal-fired power plants.

As for nuclear power, Chu said that a federal loan program to provide funding to build new nuclear power plants needs to be accelerated, but he acknowledged that finding a way to safely dispose of the waste could be more difficult.

Obama said during the campaign he opposed using the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada to store the waste, which the federal government is obligated to take.

Chu said that a better system to recycle the waste would need to be developed, but non-proliferation issues would remain.

Even so, Chu said, "Nuclear power will be an important part of the energy mix."

(Renee Schoof contributed to this article.)

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