Paging Dr. Chu

Posted: Mar 14, 2011 10:58 AM
Paging Dr. Chu

There is an old saying which goes (approximately) "Every patient a surgeon sees, needs surgery."

In putting together his Cabinet, President-elect Barack Obama chose a nuclear physicist - a Nobel Prize-winning nuclear physicist - to be his Secretary of Energy.

Problem is, like that apocryphal surgeon, Secretary Chu sees everything in terms of charmed quarks and, uh, like that.

In his time as Energy Secretary Dr. Chu has been a strong advocate for nuclear power. One year ago he wrote an essay in the Wall Street Journal which began:

America is on the cusp of reviving its nuclear power industry. Last month President Obama pledged more than $8 billion in conditional loan guarantees for what will be the first U.S. nuclear power plant to break ground in nearly three decades. And with the new authority granted by the president's 2011 budget request, the Department of Energy will be able to support between six and nine new reactors.

Regular readers know I have done work for Boone Pickens who wants to use natural gas as a transition fuel for heavy trucks to reduce our dependence on OPEC oil. Secretary Chu is not in favor of anything which would slow down the transition from gasoline and diesel directly to batteries or, for heavy trucks, hydrogen fuel cells.

I am not anti-nuke. I am for anything which will help us reduce our need to kowtow to the Middle Eastern and African oil producers which includes everything from nuclear power to cooking grease from McDonalds.

Oil, by the way, is a minor player in power generation. It comes into the conversation when we talk about electric cars.

The reason many in Washington believe Dr. Chu is so gung-ho for nuclear power plants is his vision for a nation cars and light trucks running on battery power. We have about 250 million passenger vehicles in the U.S. and if they all ran on battery they'd all have to be plugged in to recharge.

That will require a massive amount of additional electricity which the Obama Administration does not want generated by building new coal or natural gas power plants.

Late last week a devastating earthquake hit Japan triggering an even more deadly tsunami which, in turn, damaged a number of nuclear power stations in its path.

As of this writing, Japanese engineers were using sea water to try and keep the nuclear cores of the damaged plants from further overheating which could lead to a Chernobyl-like disaster. At least one generating plant appears to have suffered a partial melt-down and radioactive steam has been released into the atmosphere.

According to the Associated Press "More than 180,000 people have evacuated the area, and up to 160 may have been exposed to radiation."

This does not augur well for Dr.Chu's energy policy here.

No new nuclear power station has come online since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. No one was hurt in that accident but the evacuation (either by government order or self-diagnosis) of 160,000 left a permanent scar on the face of nuclear power in the U.S.

Chu's singular and exclusive focus on nuclear energy was misguided last March when he wrote that essay ("we are constantly looking ahead to the future of nuclear power") and, with the potential for further problems at the damaged facilities in Japan, it is time for President Obama to instruct his Energy Secretary to revisit his position on having gone all-in on nuclear power.