BPR Interviews: Ernest Moniz

Ernest Moniz is the current U. S. Secretary of Energy. He was unanimously confirmed to the position by the Senate in 2013. Moniz is an esteemed nuclear physicist and has served as Head of the Physics Department and Director of the Bates Linear Accelerator Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Given President Obama’s recent 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, what are tangible steps that can be taken in the near future to increase nuclear security on a global and domestic level?

First of all, the nuclear security summits, of which this was the fourth and presumably last, have been successful in raising the visibility of [nuclear security] as a critical global issue. That in itself is already an accomplishment. The last years have seen 32 countries and Taiwan send all of their HEU [highly enriched uranium] out of the country. South America is now both HEU and plutonium free. Other regions such as Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe are heading there. … We have made significant progress, but there is still much to do. Out of the last summit a contact group was formed with more than thirty countries, INTERPOL, the IAEA and other UN agencies that will meet at least annually to keep the momentum going of the nuclear security summit initiatives. Some heads of states have suggested that the same format be extended, and when I was in Kazakhstan earlier this year, President Nazarbayev offered to host the next summit. Additionally, the IAEA has already established a ministerial-level nuclear security summit that will meet in December, with the idea that it will continue the momentum of the previous summits. [To increase nuclear security] the basic program is securing, removing, and when possible, eliminating nuclear weapons usable material, which are HEU and plutonium. We have made progress, but there remains a lot to gather up. A continued focus on controlling movement of nuclear materials across borders is necessary, and we have made progress on that, including establishing regional centers of excellence. Earlier this year I was in China dedicating a large center of excellence that we worked on with the Chinese that will train 2000 inspectors per year and serve as a regional hub. A tough security issue that we need to make more progress on is radiological sources. There is a wide distribution of material [in industrial use] such as oil well logging operations. Clearly it’s not a nuclear explosive issue, but it’s a dirty possibility. Addressing this includes security, training, and emergency response capabilities. It also includes continuing to accelerate work on the technologies that can eliminate the needs for those sources in the first place.

What are your thoughts on claims that the US government’s development of smaller, specialized, and more tactical nuclear weapons is indicative of a new nuclear arms race?

In the United States much has been made of the so-called modernization program. I will make it very clear; the President continues to call for continuing reductions of the nuclear stockpile. At some point, however, that becomes a bilateral and even multilateral conversation. Right now the bilateral conversation is not being pursued actively. President Obama has put it on the table, but President Putin has made it very clear that he has no interest in discussing it.

Secondly, the issue with modernizing our production complex is not about new weapons, new types of weapons, or more weapons. Quite the contrary, it is that we literally have an infrastructure of the 1960s, which if you sit in my chair, has plain and simple safety implications for our workers. … We want to rebuild that capability actually right-sized to the deterrent. We have done the easiest case so far, and that is in Kansas City where all of the non-nuclear components are made. In Kansas City, our project successfully moved to a new space with half the footprint and significantly lower operating costs. Kansas City was the easy one because it dealt with non-nuclear components. Now we are working on uranium components at Oakridge and plutonium components at Pantex in Los Alamos. In Los Alamos and Y-12 cases, we have gone from large plans to module plans that will be far less expensive. I want to emphasize that this is what we are doing, and that it is not a question of new warheads.

How can the United States best safeguard our own nuclear weapons and dispose of nuclear waste? What are our own greatest domestic security weaknesses that DOE is working on?

First of all, we have received great grades from our auditors for the security of all locations with Class 1 materials. There are issues to address, but fundamentally we are in a good security position. Now in regards to nuclear waste, that’s a different issue. Clearly Yucca Mountain as a depository has not made progress. I designed a blue-ribbon commission that did a report on nuclear waste management and the commission’s most important recommendation, adopted by the Administration, was that the process for any nuclear waste facility has to be consent-based. With Yucca Mountain, you can talk about all the science you want in terms of the underground geochemistry, but the fact is that the process was not consent-based, to put it mildly, and the state [of Nevada] remains adamantly opposed to it. So, we are starting a new consent-based process. We are also starting a process that unfortunately does require legislative approval. I make no bones about it — the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and its amendments in the 1980s did not position us well for our current situation. Namely, we need to develop storage facilities in parallel with repositories. Unfortunately, we are forbidden from doing so under current law. Importantly, a year ago President Obama reversed a judgement made by President Reagan to combine defense and civilian waste. We now have the option of pursuing nuclear waste on those separate tracks. This is great news, as defense waste is actually a much easier challenge than power reactor spent-fuel.  Compared to spent fuel, there is considerably less defense waste and it is no longer growing. The forms of the defense waste are significantly more heterogeneous and tend to be cooler heat. Heat was the main design issue driving the Yucca Mountain design.  For all these reasons, the geological isolation of defense waste is an easier challenge. We also proposed in our fiscal year 2017 budget funding to advance a consent-based process for spent fuel capacity.

Coming from a scientific background, how have you found working in a political position? How do you balance politics and policy?

I was the head of the Physics Department at MIT; I have a political background [laughs]. Having a science background is part of it, but the most important thing is that I have always had great relationships in both chambers [of Congress] and both sides of the aisle. I work at it, spend the time up front, and that goes a long way towards getting some of the politics out of our policy discussions.

What are your goals for the remainder of your term at the Department of Energy?

At DOE, we have a lot of work to do. First of all, we are helping oversee the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal which requires substantial activity, including working with the IAEA. That applies to a larger non-proliferation agenda as well. Turning to the climate and clean energy side, we are making a huge push towards mission innovation and a substantial increase in funding for energy research and development in the United States and internationally. DOE also wants to connect the investment world more strongly with what we do and what we support in our labs, universities or companies. We need to accelerate the development and deployment of new technologies at scale. And frankly, our plan is to try and institutionalize the major organizational changes we have made at DOE. One of these changes which is being recognized as a big step forward has been the combination of our science and energy programs under one undersecretary to increase synergy.