Chu Hopes Kids Will Encourage Families To Go Green

Energy Secretary Steven Chu is launching an initiative to educate students about energy efficiency. He talks to Mary Louise Kelly about energy alternatives in an era of high gas prices, and about the future of the nuclear industry in the United States.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Energy Secretary Steven Chu is on a mission this week. He's challenging young Americans to use less energy and also to better understand the link between energy use and energy bills. Well, we've invited Secretary Chu to tell us more about the initiative and also to talk about some of the other energy challenges facing the country, especially nuclear power.

Welcome to the program.

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

KELLY: So let me start by establishing your own bona fides. I was interested to read that in each of the homes you have owned since your early 30s, you managed to reduce your energy bill by a factor of two. How'd you do it?

Sec. CHU: Well, in many of the homes, they were poorly insulated and so I would usually go out to the hardware store and buy additional insulation. I would look for where there were leaks in the doors and windows. If it was air-cooled, look for how to seal up the ducts.

But there were other things. For example, in one home, which was west-facing, during the hot summer days we actually didn't have to use the air conditioning. When the sun was coming in the windows, we actually bought shades so that it would reflect the light.

KELLY: Now, is this the type of thing that you're hoping to get at with this new education initiative, teaching kids how to waste less energy at their homes?

Sec. CHU: Well, yes. We think that the enthusiasm of kids and - is a way to socialize how do you save money by saving energy - is something that could be a very powerful force, and that kids can form their own networks and get their families to think about how they can actually save money.

In my wildest dreams, what I'd love it to be is sometime in not-too-distant future there'll be kind of a - like a March Madness, there'll be a lot of schools challenging other schools in their local areas for who's going to make the most improvement in saving money and saving energy.

KELLY: Let me change gears just a little bit, Secretary Chu, and ask - when you go around the country speaking to student groups and other audiences advocating energy efficiency, I know in past you have promoted nuclear power as a big part of the solution. Do you still feel as enthusiastic about it in the wake of the disaster in Japan this spring?

Sec. CHU: Well, I still believe that nuclear power should be a part of the energy mix of the 21st century. In the wake of the unfortunate incident that happened in Japan, we're going to learn from that, we're going to make our nuclear reactors safer. But I still think it is part of the mix.

KELLY: I mean, I think the big question for a lot of Americans is making those plants safer - are you completely confident that nuclear plants here in the States now are safe?

Sec. CHU: Yes. The newer designs are significantly safer than the old ones. They can be even still safer. But if you look back at the history of how we use energy and how we generate and how we extract energy, all forms of energy, of the traditional forms of energy, whether it be natural gas, oil, nuclear, coal, they all have downsides.

KELLY: Well, I know the situation's still unfolding, but are there lessons yet to be learned from Japan that would apply here?

Sec. CHU: Well, there are no doubt going to be lessons learned from the incident in Japan. It's going to be months before we actually figure out what really happened.

KELLY: Well, if you're still trying it figure out what the lessons are to be learned from Japan, how do you respond to some of the calls saying, hold on a second, we should stop building new plants, stop putting new investments in nuclear energy here until we have learned all those lessons from Japan?

Sec. CHU: Well, I think when people say that, they don't quite realize these things have a natural time scale of several years. So it's not as though you're rushing ahead and doing something.

KELLY: Let me ask you about where to store nuclear waste, and I'm talking about the controversy over Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The Obama administration put the brakes on plans to build a waste storage site there. Those were plans that had been in the works for decades. Why that decision?

Sec. CHU: Well, if you look at the growing resistance of the people in Nevada, instead of having this constant struggle that was going to be going on for the ensuing years, I think the president said let's wait, let's assign a very distinguished commission, so-called blue ribbon commission, to make recommendations on how you really want to deal with the back end of the nuclear cycle.

KELLY: And that commission's due to come out with their final report, final report, later this year.

Sec. CHU: Right. I think in the next month or two we'll expect their final recommendations. These are recommendations that will try to develop a strategy going forward. Sweden and Finland have developed a process where there would not be the intense local opposition that has been generated in our first attempt.

KELLY: You'll know that a federal watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, has said that the decision to shut down Yucca Mountain was political. Is it?

Sec. CHU: Well, if you look at some of our other experiences, a lower-level radioactive(ph) waste site in New Mexico, the local townspeople were brought along. It's been going on remarkably well for over a decade. It was recently relicensed. It's a large income generator for the area now and there have been no mishaps, not even close calls. And it has the complete acceptance of the local communities. And this is really how you want to do this.

KELLY: What about this argument that if you kill Yucca now, it will waste billions of dollars that have already been spent on it. It may set back long-term progress in terms of figuring out a storage solution by decades.

Sec. CHU: Well, there is a difference between used fuel, spent fuel, and nuclear waste, and that's why we tasked the blue ribbon commission to actually address this issue. Spent fuel is not necessarily all waste. In fact, we would love to develop those technologies that would utilize much more of the energy. So the whole concept of a permanent repository once-through cycle really needs to be revisited.

KELLY: You think it may get overtaken by events as technology develops?

Sec. CHU: Right.

KELLY: All right. Thanks very much.

Sec. CHU: Thank you.

KELLY: That's Energy Secretary Steven Chu speaking to us from his office in downtown Washington, D.C.

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