Moniz zeroes in on nuclear energy

Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper and U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz share a laugh Wednesday morning after Casper presented Moniz with a key to the city. Moniz was the keynote speaker at the Intermountain Energy Summit at the Shilo Inn & Conference Center. Monte LaOrange /

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz awaits questions at a press availability at the Energy Innovations Laboratory in Idaho Falls on Wednesday morning. Moniz was the keynote speaker at the Intermountain Energy Summit earlier in the day. Monte LaOrange /

Corey Goulet, Elliot Mainzer and Richard Walje (left to right) listen to a question from Michael Hagood during a panel discussion on future energy transmission scenarios Wednesday morning as part of the Intermountain Energy Summit held at the Shilo Inn & Convention Center in Idaho Falls. Monte LaOrange /

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz touted an “all of the above” energy strategy at the Intermountain Energy Summit on Wednesday.

That strategy includes investment in coal, oil, natural gas and renewables, he said, plus continued support for nuclear energy.

“We are, and we will continue, to make significant investments across all the fuels, all the technologies,” he said. “The reason is pretty simple: even as we move toward a low carbon future, we should understand that low carbon solutions will look very different in different parts of our country, and in different parts of the world.”

Moniz, during his morning talk at the Idaho Falls Shilo Inn & Conference Center, broadly outlined the Energy Department’s energy investment strategy, then dug into several nuclear-centric topics.

He also announced $67 million in federal funding slated for nuclear technology around the country, out of which $3.7 million will be earmarked for Idaho-based research. It includes three projects at Idaho National Laboratory, two at Idaho State University and one at Boise State University.

The two-day conference, which ended Wednesday, was meant to spark discussion about challenges facing the energy industry and peer into its future. It was organized by Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper, Idaho National Laboratory, international engineering conglomerate Fluor and the Post Register.

Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter spoke to attendees Tuesday. The Wednesday schedule featured Moniz, Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and James Risch, Rep. Mike Simpson and Kristine Svinicki, a commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Moniz said he had not been to the state since working as a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission several years ago. The commission reviews management policies of the nuclear fuel cycle.

“I’m getting a big taste for Idaho,” said Moniz, who enjoys fishing.

On a tour of the West, Moniz made stops in North Dakota, New Mexico and Alaska before traveling to Idaho Falls this week. While here, he toured Idaho National Laboratory and met with lab officials. He was headed to Cheyenne, Wyo., on Wednesday afternoon.

“This is the first Secretary of Energy I’ve worked with who gets it,” Simpson said.

The Republican congressman cited Moniz’s deep background in science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, plus his public policy experience. Simpson is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.

During his remarks, Moniz first pitched the Obama administration’s energy approach.

He touted DOE investments in everything from coal to natural gas, which he said can be credited with significant recent carbon dioxide emission reductions in the U.S. In the same breath, he said U.S. oil production only will increase in the next several years.

“But that doesn’t take our eye off the ball of reducing oil dependence,” he said.

Oil imports have decreased, Moniz said, while increasingly efficient cars and new energy technologies should slowly lower our reliance on gasoline.

On nuclear power, he conceded there were challenges. Natural gas, with its low prices, is is an attractive way to produce power. As a result, he said, keeping older nuclear plants up and running has not always made sense for operators. Several plants have closed recently.

There are a few positive signs for the nuclear industry, however, Moniz said. He cited two new nuclear plants being built in Georgia, and another two in South Carolina. Another “thrust” in nuclear, he said, was the development of small modular reactors that are more adaptable to changing energy needs and can be prefabricated.

“The interest in this technology is tremendous,” he said. “This is an area where INL, in particular, will have a very important role. This could be a transformative approach in the nuclear world.”

Reactivating the Transient Test Reactor — or TREAT — at INL also is in the works, Moniz said. The reactor, which has been closed for about 20 years, allowed scientists to conduct experiments with different types of nuclear fuel, and increase efficiency. The goal, Moniz said, is to have it back online by 2018.

NRC commissioner Svinicki talked about the possibility of more premature nuclear plant closures coming around the country — at least that’s what Wall Street investment reports are saying.

“There’s rife speculation,” she said. “If the money people on Wall Street are right about the wave of taking high-performing, low-emitting nuclear power plants out of the energy picture … (that) could have horrible unintended consequences.”

Svinicki, a former Idaho Falls resident, worked as a nuclear engineer and later, a staffer in the U.S. Senate for Sens. John Warner and John McCain before joining the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2008. She put in a final call to action for the scientists, politicians and energy company officials gathered at the event, which Otter said Tuesday may have been the first of its kind in Idaho.

“I think this (conference) has been really, really successful, but it will not be successful at all if it is just this — if we all decide that it was just an interesting two days out of our lives,” she said. “There is no one coming from Washington with a briefcase of answers to solve these problems.”

Luke Ramseth can be reached at (208) 542-6763