President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the Energy Department sailed through a Senate committee confirmation vote Thursday, but Sen. Tim Scott was the only one of 22 senators to oppose Ernest Moniz.
Scott, a South Carolina Republican who joined the Senate in January, acknowledged that Moniz is “well-educated and experienced,” but said he opposed Moniz’ nomination because of his “lack of clarity” in explaining the MOX (mixed-oxide fuel) program based at Savannah River Site in Aiken County, S.C.
“Clarity is something all too rare in Washington, and as of today Dr. Moniz’s position on the future of the MOX program is murky at best,” Scott said in a statement. “Given what is at stake, that is unacceptable.”
The troubled program, years behind schedule and vastly over cost, would use a plutonium-recycling plant at the Savannah River Site near the Georgia border to produce mixed-oxide fuel for nuclear power production.
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The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 21-1 to recommend the confirmation of Moniz, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology physics professor, with 12 Democrats and nine Republicans approving his nomination.
“Dr. Moniz could become the first secretary of energy who, instead of having to confront energy shortages and scarcity, would oversee an era of abundant carbon-reducing natural gas and dramatic growth of renewable energy technologies,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and chairman of the Energy Committee.
A U.S.-Russia treaty requires each country to provide 34 tons of highly enriched plutonium from their former nuclear-weapons programs to be converted into MOX fuel at the Savannah River Site plant that’s been under construction since 2007.
The $7.7 billion plant was promised to create more than 1,000 jobs for South Carolinians and Georgians, but Obama cut funding for it by $117 million in the budget he sent to Congress last week.
The funding cut sparked anger from Republican lawmakers in South Carolina and prompted Scott to grill Moniz about the MOX program’s future at a committee hearing last week.
“The United States entered into an international agreement to dispose of these materials, and we need to uphold our end of it,” Scott said then.
S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Scott to replace former Sen. Jim DeMint, who retired to head the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. Scott will run for election to a full term next year.
Moniz, who formerly worked for the Department of Energy in a lower post, would replace Energy Secretary Steven Chu as the agency’s head. The panel’s overwhelming bipartisan vote Thursday in support of Moniz indicates he’ll likely be confirmed by the full Senate.