In a vote of 97-0, the U.S. Senate today confirmed Ernest Moniz as secretary of energy. A theoretical nuclear physicist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Moniz succeeds Steven Chu, the only other physicist to hold the post since the Department of Energy (DOE) was established in 1977. Moniz, 69, had previously served as undersecretary of energy from 1997 to 2001 and as associate director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 1995 to 1997.
President Barack Obama nominated Moniz on 4 March. But despite receiving bipartisan support, Moniz had to wait 2 months for Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to lift a "hold" on his candidacy.
Graham was upset because the Obama administration's 2014 budget request called for a study of alternatives to the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, under construction at DOE's Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina. The plant is supposed to convert plutonium from weapons into fuel for nuclear power plants, but the study triggered fears that DOE wanted to pull the plug on the project, whose cost has ballooned from $4.9 billion to $7.7 billion. This week, Graham agreed to let the vote on Moniz go forward, although he warned that he might still hold up votes on lower level DOE appointments, according to a report in Environment & Energy Daily. Graham joined in on the unanimous approval for Moniz.
"My Senate colleagues recognize that Dr. Moniz is smart, he is savvy about how the Department of Energy operates because he has been there before, and he has a proven track record of collaboration, which is just what you need when you're leading the Department of Energy," said Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, shortly after the vote.
Back at MIT, Robert Armstrong, a chemical engineer, will replace Moniz as director of the MIT Energy Initiative. Armstrong had been Moniz's deputy. That announcement came just minutes after the Senate vote.