- The Washington Times - Friday, April 1, 2011

Energy Secretary Steven Chu told reporters Friday that the United States cannot reject nuclear power because of the ongoing crisis in Japan, where workers are still fighting to keep reactors from melting down three weeks after the country was devastated by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

“We don’t want to overreact. … There are risks in life and we want to decrease those risks,” Mr. Chu said, adding that the U.S. would be willing to join an international coalition to establish stronger guidelines for nuclear power. French President Nicolas Sarkozy earlier this week called for such international standards and Mr. Chu said such a discussion would be beneficial, particularly in helping less-developed countries avoid a disaster as they seek to add nuclear power to their energy portfolio.

Speaking at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, Mr. Chu also said that while alternative energy sources — biofuels, wind and solar power — can now compete with oil, nuclear power and natural gas only because of government subsidies, he believes that will change in a decade or two.

Mr. Chu said there is a “misconception” that those alternatives will be forever reliant on taxpayer subsidies. Instead, he predicted there will be a race between nations across the globe to develop renewable energy sources that can compete in the marketplace with oil, coal and other traditional fuels.

When asked if less attention to climate change and global warming concerns could hamper efforts to produce renewable fuels, Mr. Chu said he believes those fuels will develop naturally in the marketplace within a few decades. Setting aside controversies over climate change, he said he would be happy to see the nation’s need for alternative energy framed in a purely economic context, in which companies take advantage of new technology to sell wind, solar and biofuels in order to make a profit.

Asked about the administration’s proposed budget cuts to heating assistance for low-income Americans. Mr. Chu said that while such decisions are difficult, they are necessary to begin chipping away at the government’s massive debt problems.

“You can’t just continue to pay for the weatherization of low-income houses,” he said.

In place of direct heating subsidies, Mr. Chu said the federal government aims to help struggling families “overcome some of the barriers for self-investment.” He said the Department of Energy will try to work with lenders to set up low-interest loan programs so Americans can make their homes more energy efficient. The goal of such a program, he said, is that the monthly loan payment would be less than the amount saved on utility bills as a result of the upgrades.