Obama Picks Nobel Winner As Energy Secretary

President-elect Barack Obama has chosen Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu to serve as his energy secretary. An official announcement is expected in Chicago Thursday.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

It's reported that President-elect Barack Obama plans to nominate the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory as his energy secretary. No official announcement is expected right away, but Democratic officials say Steven Chu is the president-elect's pick to head the Energy Department. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama is expected to hold a news conference in Chicago tomorrow to formally announce his choice of Tom Daschle as Health and Human Services secretary. That pick was confirmed several weeks ago. Well, NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now, and Scott, let's start with Steven Chu. What can you tell us about him?

SCOTT HORSLEY: Well, before he took over as head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, he was the chairman of the physics department at Stanford University in California. And another Stanford professor that I just spoke with, Jim Sweeney, said that Chu would really represent the brightest and the best. He shared a Nobel Prize for physics back in 1997, so he obviously has real scientific chops. But he's also described as someone with a broad command of the economics and the political policy behind energy issues. And that's something that Mr. Obama has really been putting a huge emphasis on, not only within the Energy Department but on his national security team and elsewhere throughout the Cabinet as he builds his administration.

SIEGEL: Yes. Steven Chu, I gather, at the laboratory, has been a leader on alternative energy, no?

HORSLEY: Yes, pioneering work on renewable forms of energy, solar and wind. Not only as an alternative to imported oil but also as a way to address climate change. He's also looked at ways to use more traditional forms of energy like coal, which we use to bake about half of our electricity, but to do so without generating so much greenhouse gas. And he's been a big advocate for energy efficiency. Again, one of the things we expect to hear from the president-elect, as he puts forward this economic stimulus plan, is how to use government money not just to jump-start the economy but to make investments in things like alternative energy, like energy efficiency, that will pay some long-term dividends.

SIEGEL: Now, Scott, is it true that Mr. Obama has another Californian in mind to head the White House Council of Environmental Quality?

HORSLEY: Yes. Nancy Sutley, who is a deputy mayor to Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles, is expected to sort of head this council that hopes to oversee environmental policy within the White House. She was a backer of Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary. In fact, she was part of Senator Clinton's gay and lesbian steering committee, and she would be one of the most prominent members of that community in the new Obama administration. She also has spent time in Sacramento as an adviser to former Gov. Gray Davis in California, and she worked for the EPA in Washington. So, we've - you know, we've seen now from the president-elect the economic team, the national security team. And we're starting to get a look at the shape of the president-elect's energy and natural resources team now. We are still waiting, though, for an announcement of the president-elect's pick for EPA administrator.

SIEGEL: But tomorrow, you say, when Mr. Obama holds a news conference, the subject of that will be health care.

HORSLEY: That's right. We're going to have to wait a little bit longer to have this sort of official word on any of these energy and environmental picks. Tomorrow, we're expected to get a formal announcement of what we've known for some time now, that Tom Daschle will be Mr. Obama's pick to head the Health and Human Services Department, and also to really spearhead his efforts to reform the U.S. health-care system. In fact, tomorrow's news conference is being billed as a discussion of the future of the nation's health-care system.

SIEGEL: Mr. Daschle, of course, the former Democratic leader in the Senate and man who I've heard was instrumental in advising Barack Obama to go for it and run for president this time.

HORSLEY: And someone who, with his experience at the Capitol, is expected to sort of help spearhead the political path of health-care reform.

SIEGEL: Scott, thanks.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Scott Horsley talking to us about the latest news out of the Obama transition team.

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Nobel Winner Chu To Land Top Energy Post

Carol Browner at a 2007 conference. i i

In November 2007, Carol Browner played the role of energy secretary in a discussion between former military and political leaders during a mock global energy crisis. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Carol Browner at a 2007 conference.

In November 2007, Carol Browner played the role of energy secretary in a discussion between former military and political leaders during a mock global energy crisis.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Steven Chu, a renowned physicist and green-energy advocate, has reportedly been tapped by President-elect Barack Obama to run the federal Department of Energy. Chu runs the DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, and he has made climate change the new centerpiece of his career.

Chu's resume contains an item never before seen on a DOE director's CV: a Nobel Prize in physics. Chu, who comes from an immigrant family of scientists, shared the prize with two other physicists in 1997.

His contribution was an ingenious set of experiments that captured atoms in different kinds of "atom traps." He created the traps by firing lasers at right angles to each other. The laser light functioned as a sort of "optical molasses," according to the Nobel committee. Individual atoms slowed down within the laser beams, enough so that scientists could study their inner structure.

Chu did most of that work at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. He went from there to a research position at Stanford University, then took over the Lawrence Berkeley lab in 2004. He is also a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Lab staff declined to comment on the choice of Chu for DOE. News agencies have cited sources at the Obama transition team as confirming his selection.

A Democratic aide also said Obama has settled on former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner for a new position coordinating White House policy on energy, climate and environmental issues.

A Rising Star

Scientists in the energy field have watched Chu's star rise over the past few years as he turned the lab toward research in new forms of low-carbon energy.

"Steve has given the lab clear and innovative direction. He has taken the lab's strength in energy efficiency ... and pushed it along the whole spectrum, from basic to applied science," says Dan Kammen, a physicist and energy analyst at UC, Berkeley.

And having a Nobel laureate running DOE, Kammen adds, "is a neat sign for science."

Chu has turned his attention in the past few years to building financial support for alternative energy research. He helped win half a billion dollars from British Petroleum to fund an Energy Biosciences Institute, which focuses research at several institutions, including his lab, on producing biofuels from plant materials. In fact, some of Chu's earlier work in physics applied techniques similar to atom-trapping to biological materials such as DNA.

Urging Action On Global Warming

Chu has used his reputation to urge action to slow global warming. In a PBS news program last year, he said it was his obligation.

"In the last five or six years," he said, "I was following this as an interested citizen. And it became more and more apparent to me that the dangers, the potential risks of climate change were looking like they were more and more likely, and that ... as a scientist, a responsible scientist, you really have to think of what you can do to help with this problem."

Chu also established the Helios Center within the Berkeley lab, aimed at research on new fuels for transportation. These include making biofuels from biomass, using algae in fermentation tanks to make fuel, and applying solar energy to convert water and carbon dioxide to fuels.

The Coal Question

The Department of Energy is the leading supporter of energy research within the federal government. As director, Chu will have to grapple with powerful supporters of coal, who have backed new DOE research on turning coal into liquid fuel. The department has also dedicated tens of millions of dollars to designing new power plants that capture carbon dioxide from coal before turning it into a gas to make electricity.

Much of coal's future — it currently is used to make about half the country's electricity — depends on research funded by DOE on how to bury that captured carbon dioxide so it won't rise into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.

A major part of DOE's budget is dedicated to nuclear weapons research and maintaining the military's nuclear arsenal. Among the biggest tasks facing the agency is disposing of nuclear waste from civilian power plants and government weapons labs around the country.

The leading candidate for a dump site, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, has been mired in technical and legal debate for years and is decades behind schedule.

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