A U.S. Senate committee is scheduled to vote Tuesday on Rita Baranwal's nomination as assistant secretary for nuclear energy in the Department of Energy.
Baranwal currently heads the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear, which is managed by Idaho National Laboratory. Her confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources was last week.
If confirmed by the Senate, Baranwal would lead the Office of Nuclear Energy, which promotes nuclear power and research and oversees INL. Her job would include overseeing nuclear innovation and the long-term viability of nuclear energy, Committee Chairwoman Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said at last week's hearing.
"If confirmed, she will have the opportunity to help shape the future of nuclear energy, not just in the United States but globally as well," Murkowski said.
The committee is scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. Tuesday to consider Baranwal's nomination and two others — Bernard McNamee's nomination to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Raymond David Vela's nomination to run the National Park Service. Vela is currently the superintendent of Grand Teton National Park.
Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said she was pleased with Baranwal’s background and experience. A major part of Baranwal’s job, she said, will be to oversee the development of the next generation of nuclear power as many current, aging nuclear power plants reach the end of their lives.
“The next generation must be safer and more proliferation-resistant and more economically competitive than today’s nuclear power plants,” Cantwell said. “At the same time, we must develop the world’s workforce. We need to design and build and operate these as well, and we need to find ways to work constructively with other nations where these plants will be built to ensure these technologies are used safely for peaceful purposes.”
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, introduced Baranwal, highlighting INL's role in nuclear energy development and her background at GAIN and in private sector nuclear energy work.
"As director of the GAIN Initiative, Dr. Baranwal is helping to bridge the gap between innovators in the private sector and the world-class research capabilities of our national laboratories — thereby accelerating new, innovative nuclear energy technologies toward market readiness," Risch said.
The committee spent more of the hearing questioning McNamee and Vela. In her introductory remarks, Baranwal thanked her family and talked about her background and how nuclear power development can help meet America’s electricity needs while also helping the economy, environment and national security.
“The U.S. remains in a position of strength, but that future is not guaranteed,” she said.
In response to a series of questions from Nevada Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, Baranwal said she hasn’t formed an opinion on storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. Baranwal promised to visit Yucca Mountain if confirmed and said she would listen to the opinions of residents, but that they might not be the determining factor.
“I think when it comes to that type of decision, again the voices should be heard, but I would work with what Congress decides and passes as law and would follow that,” she said.
Baranwal also talked about her support for developing small nuclear reactors and their potential to provide power to military bases and small, isolated communities. INL has been a major player in this discussion; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing a proposal to build 12 small reactors at INL’s desert site west of Idaho Falls.
“I think at the moment, some of the biggest challenges aren’t necessarily technical, they’re around perception and policy,” Baranwal said.