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A Conversation with Steven Chu

Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

A day after the President Joe Biden's inauguration, former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu joined Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment Director Chris Field in a conversation to discuss his experience as a scientist in high-level government service under the Obama administration. Chu, the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Physics and Professor of Molecular & Cellular Physiology in the Stanford School of Medicine, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997 for the "development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light." His career has focused on discovering and advancing new solutions to climate and energy challenges. 

Edited excerpts and video of the Jan. 21, 2021, conversation are below.

What did you do when you first became Energy Secretary in a new administration?

When I entered, the economy was in freefall. There was a large hunk of discretionary money, about $34 billion, to stimulate the economy. The plan was to use the money allocated for the Department of Energy (DOE) to actually stimulate the economy that could potentially have some importance, lasting impact, and get jobs going. 

We were launching ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy), something that had been recommended in a report that I participated in in 2005 and 2006. I was sent by the national academies to Congress and the DOE to convince them to authorize it and embrace it. They authorized it but didn’t appropriate funds. The DOE career folks did not want to embrace it because they were afraid of it might make DOE more applied. That was 2006, so in 2009, the new secretary, had a very different view of ARPA-E. We used Recovery Act money to fund it $200 million a year for two years. 

How much about your leadership was about setting the culture at DOE?

A lot of it was setting the culture. I brought in high-level scientists don’t often work in government. My job was to bring in good people, don’t second guess them, and block and tackle for them. This means keeping bureaucracy from stopping or slowing them down and letting them spread their wings. Also, I spent nine years at Bell Laboratories where there was absolutely no rank. You could have a post-doc be questioning an executive director and disagreeing and it was not your rank, it was the content of your ideas that ruled the day. That’s what I wanted to establish at the DOE. One person referred to it as constructive confrontation. 

How did you come up to speed as the guardian of the nation’s nuclear assets?

When I became Secretary of Energy, I’d been an advisor on a senior advisory panel to the NSA regarding nuclear issues. It was actually Condi Rice and Pief Panofsky twisting my arm to join that. So that’s how I’d learned about stockpile stewardship. 

There are two aspects to the nuclear issues. One is the military aspect where every year the Sectretary of Defense and the Secretary of Energy has to certify that the stockpiles are safe, secure, and reliable. This means essentially it’s very hard to steal these weapons. If you could steal these weapons, it’s very hard to make them go “kaboom” but if we need them to go “kaboom”, they’ll go “kaboom”. 

Then there’s the civilian waste part. There’s a contractual obligation that spent nuclear fuel will be taken by the DOE off the hands of utility companies with nuclear reactors. There was a date to do that and we haven’t done it and there are penalties so we spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on penalties because we haven’t figured out an effective disposition of the spent fuel. There was a proposed Yucca Mountain site that was politically, no geologically, selected and as soon as they started burrowing into the mountain, they found water dripped out into the tunnels. Water and nuclear waste are not a good mix. This was done in the previous administration and we at Lawrence Berkeley Lab did a lot of hydrology studies to figure out what would happen. And the previous Secretary and Deputy Secretary were as shocked as I was. I remember seeing the Deputy Secretary saying “you know Steve, this water dripping mess? Their solution is to put a $10 billion titanium shield in the mountain to protect the water” and we both said, that’s ridiculous. That’s not going to last 10,000 years, let alone a million, so this is nuts. We need a better place.

What was your role in stopping the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster?

So in late April there was the explosion and it started a very big oil leak. I had made a technical suggestion to BP, just as an interested bystander, because they didn’t know the state of the valves. There was a stack of valves one mile deep at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. There were no sensors to tell how much they were opened or closed. So I suggested you use gamma rays from cobalt 60 where you can go through this much steel and so just like dental x-rays, you can actually image the state of the valves. Now that was not looked upon favorably by BP. They laughed about it and joked that I was into gamma rays because I was from Lawrence Berkeley Lab. But then later they said, he may have a point there. Somehow the President got wind of this at the end of a cabinet meeting and he says “Chu, go down there and help them stop the leak.” So I said “Yes sir.” This was not a regulatory issue. The jurisdiction was in the department of the interior because it was offshore. 

The President went to me because I was a practicing scientist. So I formed a little team of people, not oil engineering experts, but people who could think outside of the box. We met in Houston and started with diagnostics but quickly realized that they were doing things that were adding more risks. So after a failed attempt to try to throw down junk into the oil well to counter the flow of oil and gas coming up, we laid out a plan to take certain measurements while they were engaged in this process. They didn’t do it. I had a temper tantrum in the BP control room. And Thad Alan was there and they knew the Secretary of Energy had a direct line to the President, so there said ok, we’ll do it. Now those measurements ended up being crucial in getting solutions. From then on, BP had to run their plans through our group and we prevented them from doing a lot of things that would have really increased the risks. My team was saying you don’t want to do this because you don’t want to assume some of the responsibility. But I thought, if I get fired for trying to do the right thing, I get fired. So be it. 


"If you want to get something done, take responsibility. It’s the old saying, success has many fathers and mothers but failure’s an orphan. In order to get things done, the buck stops wherever it stops." - Steven Chu


How does funding from the DOE impact the energy sector and the economy?

I think public sector money is best spent two ways. One is research where companies are not willing to do the fundamental research that creates a basis for technology that helps solve the process. The other way is to set and stimulate policies in the private sector. You really want to encourage the private sector to invest their own money to create solutions with sunset clauses. The loan program turned out to be a big success. Wall Street wouldn’t touch loans to large solar and wind projects. So we invested in those. They largely paid off. Tesla survived on our loan. They would have gone bankrupt within one month if we had not announced our loan in a month they would have vanished. Nissan developed the Leaf with our loan. Those things paid off. There were other things like Solendra that failed. But it did leverage the program in an effective way.

What are the barriers to recruiting great people to government service?

In the end, you want to build a corps of federal civil servants who are truly excellent would be my dream. It's less about money, and more about empowerment and disentangling them from bureaucratic drain. Their supervisors have to block and tackle for them. Going into government doesn't have to be a lifetime commitment. You can go for a few years. It's national service. I learned so much. I thought it was give back time, but it turns out, it changed the way I think.

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