Chu Discusses Push To Reduce Foreign Oil Reliance

Melissa Block talks with Energy Secretary Steven Chu about the president's call to slash one-third of U.S. oil imports by 2025 — and whether the administration's push toward nuclear energy has been derailed by the disaster taking place in Japan.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

The ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan has raised a lot of questions about nuclear safety in this country, and we're going to raise some of those questions now with the secretary of energy, Steven Chu, who is himself a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.

Secretary Chu, welcome to the program.

Secretary STEVEN CHU (Department of Energy): Thank you.

BLOCK: I'm curious, Secretary Chu, as you've thought about what happened in Japan and with your lifetime spent in science and in physics, as you've looked at the nuclear power plant system in this country, can you assure the American people that the plants in this country are safe?

Sec. CHU: Well, I don't think anyone can say - can give you a hundred percent guarantee that an accident won't happen. And what you do when accidents do happen is you double-down and you say: All right, we now know something more, and you can make it safer. This is true of any complex technical thing that we use, from automobiles to airplanes to nuclear power plants. No one can guarantee that a plane won't crash, but the planes are certainly much safer than they were 20 years ago.

BLOCK: And do you think that the nuclear industry shares that same sense of urgency in terms of doubling down on safety?

Sec. CHU: Whenever there's an accident like this, it does affect the industry, and so it is in their best interest - and they know full well, just as the oil industry knows - it is in their best interest to make sure that deepwater drilling is made safer and safer.

So the nuclear industry is very concerned about these incidents. And that's why after Three Mile Island, INPO got started. It's an industry group that says we together have to help ourselves up the level of safety of nuclear power plants in the United States.

BLOCK: I'd like to ask you about an op-ed piece that ran in The New York Times written by the nuclear physicist Frank von Hippel. It was titled "It Could Happen Here." And he talks - he's quite critical of the regulatory process. He says that the nuclear industry needs constant and aggressive regulation that is just not happening now. He says regulators, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has been effectively captured by industry, and they've succeeded in keeping standards and rules too lax. Does he have a point?

Sec. CHU: I can't really speak to that if you - because if you talk to industry, they have a somewhat different view. They think that Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a very strict organization. So there are different mechanisms. There's INPO, and there's the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to guarantee the safety of these reactors. And I hadn't spoken with him about this, so I don't know the details of what he's talking about.

BLOCK: Well, we heard similar complaints after the BP oil spill, that the regulation of the oil industry was similarly lax. And this is a physicist making the same case about nuclear power in this country.

Sec. CHU: I think what happened is after Three Mile Island, that event actually spurred the nuclear industry and the regulatory agency to take a very thorough look at what they were doing. And there were many strides being done, and so I wouldn't compare the two. Unfortunately, it took this Macondo accident to really open up the eyes for deepwater drilling safety.

BLOCK: Would you make the case that the United States needs more new nuclear power plants, that that should be more part of the equation than it is now?

Sec. CHU: Well, we're 20 percent nuclear at the moment. I do expect the renewable energies like wind and solar to come on board. The price of solar has to come down. The Department of Energy is very focused on doing what it can in terms of stimulating the research and development, to drive the price of solar energy down. Wind is getting closer. It, too, will come down in price.

We also will need a fully integrated system so that these renewable sources of energy are variable. The sun can stop shining. The wind could stop blowing. So it has to be very tightly coupled with energy generation on demand. And finally, a distribution system that can handle the two-way flows of power.

So this is all going to take time. This is - you don't do this overnight. This is going to require decades to bring these things online. And during that time, you would still want to have more traditional power sources that can generate energy on demand.

BLOCK: One last thing, Secretary Chu. In his speech yesterday at Georgetown on energy security, President Obama said that it was you who designed the cap that ultimately shut off the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year. He said you drew up the specs for it and had BP build it and construct it. Is that true?

Sec. CHU: Well, that was very flattering of the president to say that -not quite. I mean, I think me and the science team played a role in a lot of the instrumentation that went in the cap. But I think the president was being generous.

BLOCK: So he gave you a bit more than your due on that, huh?

Sec. CHU: Ah, yes.

BLOCK: Secretary Chu, thank you very much.

Sec. CHU: All right. Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

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