Moniz is Obama's new man for energy

05 March 2013

After much speculation, MIT's Ernest Moniz has been announced as President Barack Obama's choice for energy secretary. He awaits confirmation by the US Senate.

Moniz is no stranger to the Department of Energy (DoE), which he is now likely to head. He served as under secretary of energy for President Bill Clinton from 1997 to 2001, taking responsibility for the department's network of 17 national laboratories. Currently he is the Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and director of its Energy Initiative and its Laboratory for Energy and the Environment.

On nuclear power, Moniz takes a pragmatic view, saying it would be a "mistake... to let Fukushima cause governments to abandon nuclear power and its benefits." He wrote this in a November 2011 article for Foreign Affairs magazine. Recognizing the benefits of nuclear power in terms of reliable, low-carbon generation, Moniz listed some of the problems that should be overcome in the USA to allow nuclear to fulfil its potential.

Chief among these are economic issues of high build and capital costs, which are exacerbated when problems occur during construction. Industry is working hard to address the issue for new build in Western countries. Elsewhere, in China and Russia for example, predictable construction costs and schedules are already a reality. In America, "the government and industry need to advance new designs that lower the financial risk of constructing nuclear power plants."

Obama nominates Moniz, March 2013 (White House - Lawrence Jackson) 460x306
President Obama announces Ernest Moniz as his nomination for energy secretary. At the same time he announced Gina McCarthy (centre left) as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and Sylvia Mathews Burwell (right) as director of the Office of Management and Budget (Image: White House, Lawrence Jackson)

Wasting time

Second on Moniz's list was to fix the "dysfunctional" waste management system that had seen a $25 billion fund build up from industry contributions to finance a non-existent program after Yucca Mountain was pulled by Obama with collaboration from outgoing energy secretary Stephen Chu and former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Gregory Jazcko.

Moniz contributed to the Blue Ribbon Commission that drafted ideas for a replacement strategy. A year after the commission's report came proposals from the DoE for a central interim dry storage facility to be created for the period until a permanent underground disposal site was set up. This corresponds closely to Moniz' ideas in the Foreign Affairs article, in which he said moving used reactor fuel from wet to dry storage should be a priority and money from the Nuclear Waste Fund should be used to do this.

Small might be beautiful

Moniz had called for the US government to support the development of small modular reactors (SMRs), which could take advantage of economies of manufacturing, rather than the economies of scale offered by large reactors (complete with capital cost issues). He described this trade-off as "a proposition that will have to be tested," calling for the government to share some of the risk. Such an SMR cost-sharing program is in fact part of the DoE's plans, with Babcock & Wilcox the recent winner of a cost-sharing scheme to accelerate commercialisation of a small reactor design. Said Moniz, "If the USA takes a hiatus from creating new clean-energy options - be it SMRs, renewable energy, advanced batteries, or carbon capture and sequestration - Americans will look back in ten years with regret."

Moniz wrote: "As greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere, finding ways to generate power cleanly, affordably, and reliably is becoming an even more pressing imperative. Nuclear power is not a silver bullet, but it is a partial solution that has proved workable on a large scale. Countries will need to pursue a combination of strategies to cut emissions, including reining in energy demand, replacing coal power plants with cleaner natural gas plants, and investing in new technologies such as renewable energy and carbon capture and sequestration. The government's role should be to help provide the private sector with a well-understood set of options, including nuclear power - not to prescribe a desired market share for any specific technology."

Speaking yesterday to announce Moniz's nomination, Obama said he "could not be more grateful" to outgoing energy secretary, the Nobel laureate Stephen Chu. President of MIT Rafael Reif said Obama "has made an excellent choice in his selection."

US nuclear industry trade group the Nuclear Energy Institute welcomed Moniz's nomination, calling on him to quickly implement waste policies - as well as reevaluate the waste fund and restart the licensing of Yucca Mountain "as a matter of legal obligation." The NEI's president and CEO Marv Fertel said Obama's nomination of Moniz "has sent America a strong message that its energy leadership will be entrusted to a strong advocate of clean energy supplies, including nuclear energy."

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News