Interview with Energy Secretary Stephen Chu

Interview with Energy Secretary Stephen Chu

By The Situation Room - March 30, 2011

WOLF BLITZER, HOST: And joining us now, the aforementioned Energy secretary, Steven Chu.

Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for joining us.

STEVEN CHU, ENERGY SECRETARY: Oh, thank you. Glad to be here.

BLITZER: Is the president right? You actually deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. He -- he didn't necessarily deserve his?

CHU: Well, I think he deserved his, but he is being very gracious. You know, it remains -- I think I do, but, you know, you would have to ask the fellow scientists.

BLITZER: All right, well, it's nice to be praised by the president of the United States like that.

CHU: Yes.

BLITZER: Let's get to some very serious issues right now.

So many people, not only in Japan, but around the world, including here in the United States, are worried about the nuclear disaster that has occurred in Japan. There are 104 nuclear reactors here in the United States, almost all of them at least -- what -- 20 or 30 years old, many of them, they're -- they're old, old equipment, old safety standards.

The question to you is this: Could what happened in Japan happen here in the United States?

CHU: Well, we -- we think it's highly unlikely. One of the things the American public should understand is even after a reactor is built, the show is not over. There are constant upgrades to these reactors, as we learn more about it, as we realize we can make them still yet safer, and this is continuing. And it will continue, especially, of any lessons learned in Japan, we will constantly upgrade the safety of our reactors where warranted.

BLITZER: Because the Japanese were about as well prepared, if not better prepared, than any other place on Earth to deal with nuclear reactors, probably better prepared than even the United States was, but look at what's going on there.

Are we right to be deeply concerned about these 104 nuclear reactors in the United States?

CHU: Well, I -- I, first, I -- I don't want to get into a comparison of whether the Japanese reactors are safer than the United States.

I -- I will say to the American public that way -- when we design our reactors and when we build them and as we learn more about them, the design basis is we don't want something that could occur, whether it's a hurricane or a tsunami or an earthquake or a combination of a number of things, that could lead to a breakdown in the safety system we design so that it's unlikely to occur once in maybe 10,000 years. And we -- we are constantly vigilant in the safety of our current reactor fleet.

BLITZER: So can you look into the camera and assure the American public if there's -- forget about an earthquake or a tsunami, if there's a hurricane or a tornado or a flood or a terrorist incident or a complete power outage, for that matter, these nuclear reactors will be safe, the spent fuel rods will be safe, we won't to have contamination from radiation?

CHU: I can look -- I can say to the American people that we have safe reactors and whatever we can do to upgrade the safety, we will do.

As I emphasized before, we are trying to look at extremely rare events. Loss of power is certainly not so rare and in the sense of -- that's why there are backup generators. That's why there are generators upon generators as backup.

And so, I think that the safety of reactors is something we constantly upgrade. But we -- they are safe today.

BLITZER: Because in Japan, the backup generators, if they had them, they didn't work.

Is every reactor here in the United States loaded with backup generators? And if they don't work, there's other fail-safe measures to make sure, for example, those spent fuel rods don't explode?

CHU: Yes. I -- I think there are backup generators. The generators in Japan did work for a while, but there was 40-foot waves that overtook them.

And, again, we design our reactors so that a multitude of things could go wrong and we try to think through the combination of -- of events that could happen. And that's where we're improving the vulnerability and we're improving the resistance to these vulnerabilities on a year-by-year basis.

BLITZER: Is it time to take another look at Yucca Mountain and get those spent fuel rods in a -- a safe, secure facility like that, even though the president basically abandoned that entire plan?

CHU: Well, I think you shouldn't confuse what happens in a -- a spent-fuel pool with long-term storage of 10,000 years to a million years in Yucca Mountain.

What happens in a nuclear reactor is you have spent fuel. You take them out and you put them in a pond for several years. Maybe after four or five years, you can -- you transition to dry-cask storage. Dry-cask storage means air-cooled, passive storage without maintenance.

This is something that is happening in the United States. The NRC, the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, has determined that dry-cask storage will be safe for a half a century or more. And -- and this is -- this is the option.

BLITZER: As Energy secretary, what keeps you up at night?

CHU: What keeps me up at night? There are a number of things.

I think -- I think my primary concern is that we need the United States to develop a coherent plan going into the future. We've seen these terrible oil shocks (ph) and the hardships it causes on Americans. We've seen other things. And so what we think, these are -- these are likely events. They've -- it's happening now. It happened three years ago. And so we need a coherent plan going forward that can give Americans a diversity of choices in transportation and energy.

We need America to be -- we're in a -- in a competition with the rest of the world on developing those clean energy technologies. The country and the companies that develop these technologies in the future will own the market, and I want the United States to own the market.

Those are the things that keep me up -- awake at night. These other issues, we are worried about, we're concerned, we're acting responsibly and we'll continue to act responsibly.

BLITZER: Secretary Chu, thanks very much for joining us. Good luck, we're all counting on you.

CHU: OK. Thank you.


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