Peter Dykstra

Steven Chu sailed through his Senate confirmation hearings as nominee for Secretary of Energy on Tuesday. Democratic senators showered him with praise; Republicans were respectful. Chu handled non-hostile questions from both sides of the aisle on global warming, coal, solar, wind, hydro, biofuels, the electric grid, and more. In all, the line of questioning was what you might expect for a DOE nominee.

In the two-hour hearing, only two questions touched on nuclear weapons. We don’t hear a lot about the U.S. nuclear arsenal these days, but maintaining nukes and cleaning up the six decades of mess we made in building them actually takes up two-thirds of the Energy Department’s budget: $15.9 billion out of the department’s $23.9 billion, according to a report by Stephen Schwartz of the Monterey Institute of International Studies and Deepti Choubey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Which brings up another question about nuclear weapons. How is the DOE supposed to lead the way on climate change and clean energy when they’re still leaning heavily toward bombs? “The priorities are skewed,” said Joe Romm, an assistant DOE Secretary in the Clinton days.

President-elect Obama has called for a ten-year, $150 billion investment in renewable and alternative fuels research and development. While no one has yet determined where (and if) that money will end up, Steven Chu’s DOE is the likely candidate. But the bomb biz isn’t going away anytime soon.

“Most of the money, most of the staff, and most of the attention at DOE goes to the weapons program,” said Schwartz, co-author of the report.

One possible solution for clearing the way for the Energy Department to focus on energy would be to shift its weapons portfolio to the Defense Department. Joe Romm feels that’s easier said than done. “There’s just no easy way to separate out the defense functions [at DOE]. Nobody has ever really wanted the Defense Department to run the weapons programs.”

Chu is only the third scientist chosen to run the DOE -- unless you want to count James Edwards, Reagan’s first DOE boss, who was a dentist. He’ll also be the only cabinet secretary to show up for work with a Nobel Prize in his trophy case. As director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab since 2004, he’s got management experience to back up his science cred.

And he’s got quite a task ahead of him. Here’s hoping that his remake of America’s energy portfolio doesn’t, uh, bomb. 

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Peter Dykstra, the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)