DOE's Poneman: Nuclear, climate two key 'existential threats'

Outgoing Energy Department Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman said Monday that climate change, and nuclear energy are the two "existential threats" facing the U.S.

In his last speech as the No. 2 at the Department of Energy (DOE), Poneman laid out why he believes the department will play a critical role in dealing with those two issues.

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"By my count there are exactly two issues that I think could be characterized as existential threats, meaning threats that actually relate to existence of our planet, and one's nuclear and one's climate," Poneman said at the Woodrow Wilson Center on Monday.

He explained that at the core of the DOE's work is a strong commitment to science and technology advancements that will help the U.S. deal with nuclear threats, and build up resources to combat climate change.

Poneman played up the role of nuclear in dealing with climate change and replacing carbon-intensive fossil fuels, touting its benefits more than its potential dangers.

While citing environmental concerns surrounding nuclear, and radiation dangers posed by meltdowns like the devastating Fukushima Diiachi plant in Japan in 2011, Poneman said, the "world is in fact returning to nuclear."

He admitted that the scale of damages from the Fukushima plant disaster were "extraordinary" and that Japan will be paying it off for decades.

Despite that, Poneman said, the administration views nuclear as a "long-term element of a low-carbon portfolio."

Poneman added that if nuclear energy will have a future in the world, then the U.S. would have to lead.

He said 70 nuclear plants are currently being built across the globe, evidence of a comeback for the industry.

The more "robust" a nuclear energy industry in the U.S., Poneman reasoned, the greater the security, safety, and proliferation benefits the country will reap.

When asked if he was behind nuclear a main source of dealing with climate change, Poneman said he's a "realist."

"We need to be safe, we need to address proliferation issues," he said. "But it has a role to play in our low carbon future."

The administration has touted its recent proposal to cut carbon pollution from power plants as a possible boon to the nuclear industry.

Still, concerns from environmentalists remain as recent reports have highlighted weaknesses in nuclear facilities ability to handle natural disasters like the tsunami and earthquake that hit the Fukushima plant.