PALO ALTO, Calif.--Add Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu's name to the ranks of scientists who advocate turning to nuclear power as an alternative energy source.
"Nuclear has to be a necessary part of the portfolio," Chu, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, said during the annual economic summit organized by Stanford University.
Chu, who also is professor of physics and molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley, said nuclear is the preferred choice to coal, pointing out that coal releases 50 percent more radioactivity than nuclear power plants.
"The fear of radiation shouldn't even enter into this, he said. "Coal is very, very bad."
That put an unexpected coda on Chu's appearance here, where he delivered a wide-ranging discourse on the state of the global environment. It didn't make for easy listening. After listening to Larry Summer's somber morning coffee disquisition, Chu followed by presenting a picture that was, at best, utterly gloomy.
Before you get started, let me be the first to concede the point: There is no unanimity about any of this. In the last couple of years, I don't think we've covered a hotter topic--no pun intended--than climate change. Some of you believe it exists, others think it's a politically correct cock-and-bull story.
But Chu, the 1997 Nobel winner in physics, wasn't in the mood for happy talk. He said forest alpine and snowpack glacier regions are shrinking around the world.
"Why are trees dying?" he asked rhetorically. "Because parasites aren't being killed by frosts. There was a prediction some years back that 78 percent of the trees in British Columbia would be dead by 2013. It turns out that about 40 percent are already dead, according to the Canadian government."
Describing what he believes has been a scattershot government initiative, Chu expressed skepticism about the free market's effectiveness in the face of a "commons problem," arguing that climate change "certainly is the common problem that we face today."
Elsewhere, Chu said wider use of wind as a clean-technology alternative will depend on finding ways to ship it thousands of miles from its sources.
"There is a technology that already does this, but there's nothing in it for power companies to do it on a national basis. They serve local regions," he said. "We're lagging behind the rest of the world."