By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - At first glance Energy Secretary Steven Chu's career highlights read like a dream candidate's resume for the job of managing a backlash against nuclear power following the crisis in Japan:
* Winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics.
* Head of a major U.S. energy research lab for five years.
* Top problem solver during the BP oil spill.
He's arguably better placed to address the technical issues facing the industry than anyone who has ever held the post, which, for instance, under President Ronald Reagan included a former dentist.
And Chu has proven he can take initiative during a crisis. During last year's BP spill, he embedded himself at the company's Houston headquarters, spotting problems and identifying fixes. Weeks into that job, and with no oil experience, Chu was being asked by BP experts what to do.
But one important qualification may be missing: Proven ability to make the American people feel safe from nuclear disaster.
"Chu has the scientific side of nuclear, in which he is trying to understand how the technology works, what the risks are, and perhaps how to make it better," said David Pumphrey of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a former Energy Department official.
But, when it comes to nuclear, which unlike oil drilling is spread over the country and has long-term waste issues, technical ability may not be enough to keep Americans on side.
Japan's struggles to prevent quake-hit nuclear reactors from melting down has dealt the United States its toughest test on atomic energy since the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, the worst in U.S. history.
Already politicians and anti-nuclear activists in New York and California have demanded that reactors near population centers and fault lines must be shut, or at least not relicensed.
Chu has tried to assure lawmakers that computer models can target risks to plants of dual events like earthquakes and tsunamis. "This is one of the tools we think that can be used to make any system we have, including nuclear reactors, safer," Chu said last week at a hearing on Capitol Hill.
But, even if U.S. plants can be shown that they are safer than the Fukushima nuclear complex in Japan, more than those kind of assurances may be needed to keep the U.S. nuclear power industry growing.
A majority of Americans support a moratorium on new nuclear reactor construction, if the country were able to meet its energy demand through increased efficiency and renewable sources such as wind and solar, according to a poll released on Tuesday by ORC International for the Civil Society Institute, a think tank.
"One of the problems with the kind of reactions the general public has to nuclear power is very often they are not based on evidence, but feelings," said William Phillips, a professor at the University of Maryland who shared the Nobel Prize with Chu for their work in laser cooling of atoms.
PUSHING FOR PLANTS
Nuclear Regulatory Commission chief Gregory Jaczko will need to take the lead on the Obama administration's response to ensuring safety at U.S. reactors.
But it's Chu who faces making the case for new nuclear plants -- even after the Japan crisis -- as the country's power plants age, and as emissions from coal plants are blamed for warming the planet and having health risks of their own, and for energy security.
His agency remains committed to seeking an additional $36 billion in loan guarantees from Congress for plant construction, on top of an existing $18.5 billion. Operators say without the aid it would be impossible to finance new reactors in the United States -- even before factoring in potentially higher costs after Fukushima.
It is a tough job for anyone.
Not one new nuclear plant has been approved by U.S. regulators, from the initial design plans to the final construction license, since Three Mile Island. And the Japan crisis could add more costs to new plants.
But people who have worked with Chu say his willingness to immerse himself in problems and find new ways to attack them could help him come up with surprising results.
He has won support from both political parties on nuclear, assuring Republicans he backs new plants, but easing fears of key Democrats about nuclear waste by opposing the storage of it at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
And Chu, who was not available to comment for this story, is a believer in nuclear, which for decades has provided 20 percent of U.S. electricity.
A builder of model planes before first grade, who graduated to erecting metal girder devices that took over his mother's living room, his construction dreams have grown more ambitious.
He wants the country to build next-generation nuclear plants, called small modular reactors. He says they would be safer, need far less water for cooling, and reduce radioactive waste.
He penned an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal last year imploring the United States to develop new nuclear technologies or be forced one day to import them from developing countries.
And he sees nuclear as a power source that could eventually help pave the way to broad development of plug-in battery-powered cars. One day that could help relieve two major U.S. energy headaches: vast oil imports and emissions of planet-warming gases.
But for now that vision may be on hold as securing authority from Congress for the loan guarantees may prove difficult after Japan.
"Without those loan guarantees there just isn't going to be an expansion of nuclear in the U.S. any time soon," said Peter Bradford, who was a member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulator Commission when Three Mile Island occurred.
(Editing by Walter Bagley)