U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu rallied the Oak Ridge National Laboratory's staff and contractor Tuesday to push the envelope on innovation to help America cope with climate change.

Announcing a five-year extension of the UT-Batelle contract to run the laboratory, Mr. Chu also told his audience that in coming years innovation need not always apply for funding first.

"Our (national) laboratories are the primary asset of the Department of Energy," the secretary said.

He reminded the group that there were similar situations in the past where laboratories researched without first spending years on funding reviews. One example Mr. Chu used was the Manhattan Project -- the creation of enriched uranium and later the atomic bomb.

"The government got a group of really smart people together and said, 'Here's a problem. Go solve it.' And then funded it," he said.

To facilitate the plan, the Department of Energy is launching what Mr. Chu called energy hubs for advanced research projects dealing with climate and energy.

"Developing today's energy technologies took 80 years," he told his audience. "If we take another 80 years for new (carbon-free) technologies, it will be too late. Failure is not an option."

Nuclear power is one hope of the Obama administration to combat climate change, and with last month's apparent defunding and demise of Yucca Mountain -- a proposed long-term storage facility for highly radioactive spent nuclear reactor fuel -- President Obama tasked Mr. Chu with heading a blue-ribbon panel next month to look at alternatives. Those alternatives may be other storage sites or reprocessing methods for the mounting wastes from the nation's 104 nuclear power reactors.

On Tuesday in Oak Ridge, Mr. Chu did not publicly address Oak Ridge National Laboratory's pilot nuclear reprocessing research, though he praised the lab's material sciences research and nuclear technologies research.

But Billy Stair, the laboratory's director of communications and external affairs, said the pilot nuclear reprocessing program, sometimes call spent fuel recycling, definitely is the kind of thing the secretary is seeking as he encourages innovation.

"We're working on it right now," Mr. Stair said, adding that researchers already have demonstrated they could reprocess small amounts. "They started with what I would call granular level, now they have it up to golf-ball level. The goal is to get it to metric tons. ... They think in four or five years that can be a reality."

Critics of reprocessing say it creates more waste and lead to the importation of the nation's waste to whatever location sites a reprocessing plant.

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen attended Mr. Chu's visit Tuesday, and he praised the new contract and initiatives, especially for their contribution to Tennessee's economy and the University of Tennessee's partnership with the contractor Batelle.

Secretary Chu's research wish list

* Greatly improved battery storage

* Detailing climate models

* Breakthrough nuclear technologies

"A lot of the new energy (technologies) and alternative energy of the future is going to be built around the expertise that already exists right here in Tennessee," the governor said.

He said he does not think anyone wants a nuclear reprocessing plant in the state, but he believes that is a different issue from the research.

"I have confidence in Oak Ridge and the Department of Energy's research," Gov. Bredesen said. (Reprocessing) is one of the things that ought to be considered ... I hope (Oak Ridge) is a real player, and I think it will help the country."