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Credit: U.S. Department of Energy
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Interview of Ernest Moniz by David Zierler on September 9, September 25, October 9, October 19, November 3, November 9, November 23, November 30, December 7, and December 14, 2020.
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
In this interview, Ernest Moniz, Emeritus Professor and Special Adviser to the President of MIT, discusses his time as U.S. Secretary of Energy under Barack Obama. Moniz discusses his time as an undergraduate at Boston College working under Joe Chen and their efforts building a resonant cavity. He speaks about his experience as a graduate student at Stanford University working Dirk Walecka on the study of theoretical condensed matter physics and how it led to his eventual publishing of a paper about using a modified fermi gas to understand deep inelastic scattering. Moniz describes his time working in Washington with the Office of Science and Technology Policy and how the OSTP became marginalized under the George W. Bush and Trump Administrations. He discusses the Wen Ho Lee scandal and subsequent development of the National Nuclear Security Administration and how it has evolved throughout the years. Moniz talks about his partnership with John Deutch at MIT on a policy-oriented study of the future of nuclear power which eventually became known as the series, The Future of... He details his time working in the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology during the Obama Administration and his eventual role as the Secretary of Energy. Moniz Discusses the development of the Iran Nuclear Deal and the cooperation of the countries involved, as well as how the U. S’s relationship with Iran has changed over the years. He reflects on how the Trump Administration undid several Obama era initiatives pertaining to energy and climate and the lasting impacts of those actions. He also discusses becoming an advisor to Saudi Arabia and the planned mega-city of the Tabuk region. Lastly, Moniz reflects upon the challenges the Biden Administration may face moving towards a more decarbonized energy future.
Okay, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is September 9th, 2020. I’m so happy to be here with the honorable Professor Ernest Moniz. Ernie, thank you so much for joining me today.
Pleasure so far.
(Laughter) Okay. So, to start, would you please tell me your title or titles, as it were, and institutional affiliations, currently?
Okay. Well, first of all, I’m an Emeritus Professor and Special Adviser to the President of MIT at MIT. Just to be clear, I joined the faculty there in 1973, but retired when I became Energy Secretary. Secondly, I am the Co-Chairman of the Board and CEO of the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative. Third, I am the CEO of a nonprofit that I formed, subsequent to being Energy Secretary called the Energy Futures Initiative. And aligned with that, CEO of what’s called EJM Associates, LLC. So, those are my four jobs.
Okay (laughter). Busy indeed. And I take it you have gone to a remote platform during the pandemic and you’re continuing in all of these areas over video conference?
Correct. Unfortunately, the last four weeks in a much more pleasant place. Unfortunately, because today I’m not there. I’m not in the Colorado mountains. I’m back in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Ah. Are you there local, to be there for the beginning of the semester?
I guess it’s just a knee jerk reaction that Labor Day you always come home. For the semester. But I have no obligations to teach. And there’s no one to teach anyway, at MIT at the moment. So…
I should’ve stayed in the mountains. But, yes, I’m back here close to MIT. Just a couple miles away.
Okay well, Ernie, let’s take it all the way back to the beginning. Let’s start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they’re from.
Well, my grandparents were all immigrants from the Azores Islands. Portuguese. All immigrated to Fall River, Massachusetts as basically labor for what was then a very active economy. Especially in cotton milling. My parents were born in the United States, relatively soon after that immigration in the early part of the twentieth century. Fall River is a…let’s say, one of the many rather old, industrial towns in New England. Old meaning all that damn technology came along and the manufacturing moved elsewhere. To the south. And so, it’s one of the classic, old, New England towns. A little bit down and out from the absence of the manufacturing industries. I should say it’s about 100,000 people. And about half, maybe more now…when I grew up half…were ethnically Portuguese. That was the dominant group. Complemented by many, many others. All there as part of the labor force, really. So, my parents did not have very much formal education. But were always very committed to education. And that was certainly very, very important for my trajectory. Although in Fall River, I went to the public schools and there is a little bit of an oddity in a certain sense that the school, the public high school…a large public high school. My graduating class was not quite a thousand, but it was the better part of a thousand. But it was not named what you would expect, Fall River High School. It was named the Bradford Matthew Chaloner Durfee High School. And basically, the Durfees were the bankers and one of their…their son, Bradford Matthew Chaloner died at the age of twenty-nine in Venice. I understand it was some kind of disease that one may catch at that time in Venice. And so, they donated to the city an extremely elegant high school. It was a replica of one of the maieries (i.e., major offices for an arrondissement) in Paris, except with an astronomical telescope added to it. And the only condition was that it be named after their son and that the rather impressive carillons rang twenty-nine times every single morning. But it was a remarkable school. Not just in its physical appearance, but also because I was there in the sixties and one still had the last years of a set of extraordinary teachers who basically came out of college in the Depression. And needed to find jobs (laughter). And then stayed. And so, I have to say that I think I really had some really extraordinary teachers and if I just keep going on for a minute then that included in physics. My physics teacher was not one of the Depression era teachers. He was younger than that. But basically, it’s a classic story of relevance perhaps to today, that after Sputnik in ’57, then as you know, there became a very large emphasis in the government on revising science and math curriculum. And I was a beneficiary of that because in physics, one of the major initiatives was to establish what was called a Physical Science Study Committee. They were charged with revolutionizing, really, how physics was taught in high schools. They invented the PSSC course. That was led by MIT faculty at the time. And as I was coming to my senior year, they were in the beta testing phase. And our high school teacher, I would say somewhat courageously took up the mantle and went to Bowdoin College for a National Science Foundation sponsored boot camp as to how you teach this new physics. And came back and I was I would say, extremely fortunate to be in that class. He had a remarkable way of teaching. And I say this in a very positive way. That he just said, “Look. Your homework assignment is to do every homework problem in the book.” And then he would follow the solutions manual and go through this. But it was really an extraordinary opportunity. And it was very clear. Immediately when that class started, within a month I knew physics was—
That was it for you.
—where I was going. Yeah. So anyway, that’s a long story.
I’m sorry for these heavenly sunbeams behind my head right now (laughter).
Well, I see that. And—
Ernie, I want to take it back a little—
So that was physics. Yeah.
I want to go back a little bit because I’m interested to hear a little more about your identity and your heritage and the differences between the Azores and Portugal. How many generations back from your grandparents was your family in the Azores?
Many. Moniz is a relatively common name especially in the Azores. Where the following may be an apocryphal story. But it’s the one that I was told, and I will state that there was a bastard line of a king of Portugal, Moniz, who was kind of given a piece of the Azores. And there became the base then for many of the Monizes. And so, I don’t know exactly, but it goes back quite a few centuries. And the Azores islands, just to give a scale. Today at least, it’s about a quarter million people total across all of the islands. By the way, there’s been historically, for decades, there was a significant American Air Force base on one of the islands. But a quarter million people. And that gives you a scale. There were 50,000 in Fall River (laughter). Alone. So, a population that spread mainly in southeastern Massachusetts, Fall River to Cape Cod, etc. Cambridge, Massachusetts, now. East Cambridge. And some in New Jersey, Hawaii, and the Bay Area in California. Kind of the main spots. But probably you add it all up and you’re talking about a population at least comparable to the population in the Azores.
Now, did your grandparents or your parents…did they think of themselves as Portuguese who came from the Azores? Or were they Azores or however you say that, who have that cultural and ethnic heritage that traces back to Portugal? How would they have those overlapping identities?
No. They identified as Portuguese, basically. Coming from the Azores islands. But certainly, with hindsight, I have come to realize that the dialect for example, was quite different.
And I wonder if they could even understand each other. The continental Portuguese and the Azoreans, sometimes at least. Certainly, by the time I was growing up, and in Fall River, the dialect had further I would say, degraded to a kind of strange super position of Portuguese and English.
And I would say often my mother, I don’t think she sometimes knew what she was speaking. I mean she grew up speaking English. Make no mistake about it. But my grandparents always spoke Portuguese. Or the dialect of Portuguese. So, it was kind of a mixed language kind of situation. As I say, kind of a superposition of languages. And my wife…actually, okay, a little anecdote. My wife is Brazilian. So, she grew up speaking Portuguese and that was kind of a bit of how we got together…in Paris. But the point is that my mother then would try to speak Portuguese with her. And it kind of went along. But at one point…I remember the word, but I won’t state it. My mother used a certain word. And my wife was completely mystified. And kept, “Could you just repeat that?” You know, kind of… And she kept repeating it and repeating it. Well, it turned out it was an English word with a bizarre pronunciation that my mother didn’t realize wasn’t Portuguese (laughter). Anyway, that was kind of the ambiance in which I grew up. And I spent a lot of my time at my grandparents. Spoke Portuguese when I was very small. But of course, went to school in English. So.
And what kind of customs did you grow up with? Portuguese or Azores customs or religious observances? Particularly because in your community there was a large number of people with the shared ethnic heritage that might have had gathering places or churches or things like that. I’m curious what cultural things you might have grown up with?
I’d say the Boston Red Sox, principally.
(Laughter) Ernie, to go back to the science. You emphasized of course, physics from the beginning. What about math? Were you a standout student in math as well?
Um, yeah. I actually was (laughter), I was recently reminded that I was president of the math club in high school. Something that…probably my only elected office in history. But yeah, no I think I was singled out—shall we say? In mathematics there. And again, the teacher, Mr. Carey was always…he was very good. He became a little bit frustrated at some point that I did rather well in test after test. So, he decided at one point he was going to…it was clearly a challenge. And he was going to upgrade significantly the difficulty of the test. It was completely unfair, frankly, to the class as a whole. And just to piss him off, I turned it in 15 minutes early and left (laughter). But it was great. I mean again, I can’t say enough about the teachers. I mean Mr. Dallaire was the physics teacher and Mr. Pelletier was the chemistry teacher. Carey, the math teacher. They made a big difference. For me. I mean, with their approach and their dedication. Yeah.
Ernie, to foreshadow ahead…way ahead to your time in Washington D.C. I’m curious in your early years if you were interested in political science or the policy process at all? Or that was something that sort of came later on?
No. Yeah. The answer is no.
Yeah. And when you were thinking about colleges to apply to. Obviously, you had physics in mind from the beginning?
What schools did you apply to?
I applied to MIT, Rensselaer, Brown, and Boston College. And I got into all of them. And I had a scholarship that was completely portable. And made any of them available, financially.
What was the institution that was supporting you?
So, again, this is a very, very different time in our society. My father, that I said did not have a lot of education because in those days an immigrant family like that…the children were sent to work very early. He was a blue-collar union worker. And the unions…I think a lot of us forget how much the unions did for this country in the fifties and the sixties, in particular. And I think could do today. Could do more, given the chance.
That’s for sure.
They still do a lot, actually. But they could do much more in my view. But whatever the case, my father’s union—as part of their negotiating strategy—they always had a fund for quite a few scholarships. A National Union. And among those scholarship opportunities, there was one super opportunity. Competitive. Which covered tuition and room and board and an allowance for books and everything else, no matter where you went. And I was fortunate to have that. And so, then the logical question is well, then why did you go to Boston College?
And not MIT or Brown, etc.? And I don’t know. In the end, it was a very good choice. Obviously, MIT would have been the obvious choice in that group. But I think somehow, instinctively felt that I probably was not ready for that environment at that time. And it was an absolutely…with hindsight, there’s no doubt. It was, I think, a terrific choice. Boston College at that time was really emerging from a history as kind of a local Boston, mostly commuter college in the Boston area to much more of a residential college. Attracting people from across the country. They made a very good impression. Decided to go there. Once again, the importance of mentoring could not be more clear. There was a professor, still alive. Still see him occasionally. Professor Joe Chen. He was a young professor at that time. And carried on a very active program in solid-state physics material science. Worked with some people at MIT. Worked with people at Lincoln Laboratory. Had his own laboratory. And he decided, you know, I took his course as a sophomore. And he already had the reputation in terms of having a pretty demanding course. He decided I was worth investing in. And immediately said the summer after my sophomore year, that I should stay and work in his physics lab. And I did that. And I did that the next year. And then Boston College had and has an interesting program called, Scholars of the College. And a small number of juniors at the end of the junior year…a small number would be selected. I was one of them. And what it did is, it said that for your senior year, all of your standard requirements for graduation…any remaining requirements were waived in favor of a…more of a tutor system. That you would have a faculty member as a tutor and you would decide. You could take regular classes. You could not. You could do a thesis. You could…etc. And so, I did that. And in particular, this Professor Joe Chen, he was really extraordinary. He got the college to turn up a room. No windows. Lots of concrete. In behind the garbage dumps. But the fact is, a very stable room where I could have my own laboratory and build my own equipment for an electron spin resonance experiment. And Joe Chen…so he looked at the cost of getting a good commercial spin resonance machine with very good sensitivity. And I think the price…this is now…this is going on nearly fifty years ago. I think the price at that time was something like $250,000. There’s no way (laughter) he’s going to find $250,000. And so, there started another incredible educational opportunity. Rather than give up, the answer was, “Let’s just build one of the damn things.” And so, he got lots of surplus, waveguide equipment, etc., from the Natick Army Laboratory. We had to machine gold coated quartz. This is a long time ago, but I still remember it. We had to machine and make our own resonant cavity. The only thing we couldn’t do was some of the electronics. He had to scrounge up about $10,000 for some of the electronics. We put together this system. And it was within an order of magnitude of the state of the art, commercially available facility. So, that was…yeah, he bought a phase lock amplifier. That was the most expensive piece of equipment. And we did an experiment on synthetic ruby. And in fact, showed why…how and why the published literature on this material was incorrect. And then that piece of equipment went on to become the basis of, I know, at least two if not three Ph.D. theses in the next years. So, it was just a fabulous experience that I think would’ve been very, very difficult to replicate in other places. So…
To go back to that, Ernie, when you said was it…thinking about MIT that you might not have been ready for that. Can you explain why not? I mean, you had this interest in physics. You had a good education. Clearly, you were destined for great things. What were you thinking of yourself at the time that would make you reflect in that way?
I think socially. Principally. Just…I’d never been out of Fall River, you know? (laughter)
(Laughter) You knew Boston College would be a more nurturing place, essentially.
And I think that’s what I sensed. And boy, that became true in spades. I can’t say—I don’t know—maybe it would’ve worked out great at MIT or Brown or Rensselaer as well. But I just, in the end, somehow gravitated to that. Well again, all you know in hindsight, it worked out fine. It didn’t stop me from going to Stanford as a graduate student. And I think that background that I had was really quite exceptional. The opportunities that I was given.
On the social and cultural side of things. Boston, you know…during the time when you were in college, things were getting quite interesting in terms of the antiwar movement, Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Rights Movement. Were you involved in any of those things? Or did you sort of stick to physics? MONIZ: Actually, I was there earlier in the sixties. Really before a lot of that really blossomed. I mean, I graduated in 1966. So…
That was just beginning then. When you were graduating.
I was just at the edge. So that became more a part of the Stanford experience.
Now to stay on your undergraduate for a little while, were you thinking along those terms about whether you wanted to pursue theory or experimentation or were you just sort of taking it all in and not sort of creating those divides for yourself at that point?
Yeah. Exactly. That’s correct. I was not creating those divides. And that’s because also, this experiment that I did—it was everything from, as I said—from designing and building the equipment to taking the data, to analyzing it, to doing the “theoretical” work if you like, to understand the band structure, etc. So, I was pretty open. When I applied to graduate school, I applied to Princeton. I applied to a few places. But I applied to Princeton and with Princeton it was all about Princeton having what was certainly arguably the best theoretical physics program in the country at that time. On the other hand, I also applied to Stanford. And the attraction in my applying to Stanford was because they were just at the end of building SLAC.
And so, I was pretty…going either way. In the end, I went to Stanford. The reason had nothing to do with physics in the end for the choice. Cause I had great choices.
You were accepted at Princeton?
The reason was, it was time to go to California (laughter).
And see what the hell is it like? You know? Because I had been in Fall River and Boston my whole life, basically. And so, I said like, “What the hell?” I mean we got there. There was a little more color to it than that, but whatever the case. When I went there, I started out as a graduate student at SLAC. As an experimental graduate student. I was in the group of Dick Taylor, Jerry Friedman, and Henry Kendall. Who won the Nobel Prize for quark discovery? Probably I might have been in that experiment. The timing was just about right, actually. So, I was a student of Dick Taylor. Because he was the Stanford member of that triad.
And Ernie, how did that work? Were you a graduate student in the department of physics who spent your time at SLAC? Or were you a graduate student in SLAC with the SLAC faculty?
There were not graduate students of SLAC. As you may know, the birth of SLAC caused a great—
—fissioning at Stanford. It was not pretty. In some sense it was a…Hofstadter and Panofsky didn’t quite…have the same worldview. And Bob Hofstadter, another Nobel Prize winner. So, he continued to run the electron accelerator on campus. The high energy physics laboratory. While Panofsky and Sid Drell…was a theorist…and others, established SLAC. It was not a pleasant situation. [pause] Stanford ended up having to create SLAC as a different department of the University with several faculty there. Faculty of SLAC. Panofsky was one. Drell. Bjorken. I think Marty Perl, etc. And others, including like Burt Richter, another Nobel Prize winner, etc., were not…I think at that time at least, were not faculty. They were SLAC researchers. But the SLAC department…I’m pretty sure I’m right about this. The SLAC department had no ability to enroll graduate students.
They could only take graduate students from…well, from any department technically…but from the physics department. And Stanford worked on a quarter system. And one faculty member from SLAC was allowed to teach one quarter in the department of physics. It would’ve been…there was lots of opportunity to learn a lot from those people at SLAC.
So, I remember. I took a course in weak interactions from Bjorken, for example. And that was it. That was the quota for that academic year for SLAC. So that was unfortunate. But whatever the case. For us students…we had to go back and forth a little bit. Obviously for classes on campus. Doing our research work at SLAC.
But in terms of choosing a dissertation adviser and putting a committee together…that could all happen within SLAC?
No. No, no. Well, you still have to have a faculty member as the lead. So, I think Dick Taylor might have…I’m not sure if he was a faculty member or not. I guess he was. But the degree would be the Department of Physics.
But, whatever the case, I did not go that route. So, I went there and obviously they were…the group was obviously totally consumed by building up one of the first experiments. There were three major groups. Dick Taylor headed one. Burt Richter, another. And Marty Perl, I believe, was the third. Basically, in the end they were so consumed that especially the earlier…the younger students like me…you know, bottom of the totem pole. We were basically assigned…supervised by postdocs. And in the end, I just didn’t like it. Maybe it was part of this issue of the growing culture of high energy physics, the size of the groups. Now, here, this was a huge group for 1967. Namely, probably, twenty-five people (laughter). Like two orders of magnitude below the groups today in scale. But it was, at that time, that was the emerging new culture of the big science, etc., etc. So, I ended up deciding that I was going to head back to campus. Dick Taylor tried to convince me to stay…but I went back. And I decided I was going to do something totally different. Theoretical condensed matter physics. So, I went to Sandy Fetter. And Fetter was delighted and quite prepared. But he noted that the timing was awkward since he was going away on a year sabbatical to England. But it would be okay. And I said, “Uh. I don’t know. It doesn’t sound so okay to me.” So, he suggested that I go to his colleague, Dirk Walecka. And of course, Fetter and Walecka wrote a book on many body…one of the early books…on many body physics used in graduate school. But Dirk had me go more into many body physics and nuclear physics. And so, it was all serendipitous. It was not like some grand plan. But so, I ended up essentially doing nuclear physics under Dirk Walecka, another fabulous mentor. I mean that’s been a common theme that has made a huge difference.
What was his style as a mentor? Meaning, was he hands on? Did he give you a problem to work on and that’s what your dissertation became?
Yeah. He recommended problems. And I think was always interested. But didn’t do the work for you. And I think it was just right, frankly. Again, he was terrific. And it’s interesting. The first paper I did, he viewed it as a warmup problem. Because there was some work going on with electron scattering experimentally to start looking at what was called for nuclear physics, deep inelastic scattering. Or quasi elastic scattering. And having kind of a many body physics mentality, he suggested that I should do a Fermi gas…a modified Fermi gas approach to try to understand this deep inelastic scattering. And it led…and then we published. And I published also with some experimentalists. And there was a scaling…was found. And then also with another graduate student, applied the same kind of approach to neutrino scattering. And I just mention that specifically now because…so we published that in…I guess it was published after I’d left Stanford. So, it must have been like ’72. And when I was Secretary of Energy and visited Fermi lab, one of the physicists, a woman, came up and asked me to sign a copy of that paper. From decades earlier because they were still using it to calculate backgrounds in neutrino physics.
So, that was a very satisfying (laughter)-
—very satisfying visit. And pretty unusual for the Secretary of Energy to (laughter) have that kind of experience.
Ernie, given that, by the end of undergraduate you were still open to everything in terms of experimentation and theory, and you even sort of split the difference in terms of the programs that you applied to for graduate school. What was the formative moment or relationship at Stanford that sort of cemented your interest in pursuing theory?
Oh, it was the interaction with Dirk Walecka. Again, cause my view fundamentally was anything you do is going to end up being interesting. As long as you’re serious and you take a serious problem. And so, with Dirk and Dirk’s philosophy, his group of students, everything was just great. I mean, so, I felt very, very comfortable. And as I say, I thought Dirk had just the right touch in terms of he certainly didn’t abandon you by any stretch of the imagination. But neither…he understood the importance of working through problems. Sometimes with a few hints, but with your own ingenuity. So, it was terrific. And then the theoretical physics students on campus…we were all put up in the attic of the physics building. And so, that was itself a great environment. With all the physics theoretical students. And one of them in particular to this day is my very, very close colleague at MIT. Bob Jaffe. But it was a really, really, really extraordinary time. I think to me, graduate school is clearly, or can be at least, and for me I would say, it was kind of like the high point of one’s physics career.
One did not have a lot of other responsibilities. One could really focus on that. Obviously, in the external world at that time, the late sixties as we said earlier, a lot of things were happening. So, there was always entertainment as well. But fundamentally, you could really work on your Physics, and it was terrific.
And on that note. On the social and cultural side of things. Were you involved at all in campus protests or anything like that?
To a certain extent, but not like others. Many colleagues were far more engaged. I was kind of focused. So, I wasn’t entirely focused, but pretty heavily focused on physics.
So, you didn’t really have much of a political identity at that point?
Nope. No. Not at all.
Who was on your committee?
Well, Dirk Walecka obviously chaired it. Felix Bloch. And he was coming from, again, kind of the many body physics kind of perspective. And then there was a third person whose name I cannot remember. It’s interesting. At that time, there was an attempt at Stanford to break down some of the silos in the various academic departments. And so, there was an encouragement of faculty to volunteer to be part of the committee in some entirely different discipline. And I mean, I did nothing to arrange this. It just…maybe Dirk Walecka did. I don’t know. But whatever the case, it happened to me. That this had been going on for a couple of years. And it’s probably not surprising that a pattern was noticed in which many scientists and physicists happily volunteered to be on the committees in humanities and other areas. Because of course, it’s interesting, you know? And what’s the problem? But there had been none. None. Zero. In the opposite direction. Which is also kind of easy to understand. So, one way or another, some poor guy, and I’ve forgotten his name, from I think history, was the third person on my committee. It was the experiment. It had to have been the last (laughter). All I remember is he was a great guy. A good guy. But to be honest, the first question he asked showed that he had not understood the most elementary thing. And I could put that on my own shoulders. I mean…but nobody told me I as a graduate student, I’m supposed to defend my thesis by explaining it to a much, much broader audience. That, I think would also be unfair, frankly. To be perfectly honest. And I did it. And the experiment didn’t go well. So…anyway (laughter). But it was fine.
(Laughter) Were you asked the kind of question that a historian might ask about how you saw your dissertation sort of contributing to the broader field?
No. No. He was trying to ask a physics question.
Oh. Okay. Yeah (laughter).
Yeah. It did not work (laughter).
Well, I’m a historian and I’ll ask you that question. You know, graduate students rarely think in such grandiose terms, but perhaps looking back you might see some connection between the narrow focus of what you were doing and how it might have related to sort of the more fundamental questions in theoretical nuclear physics at the time?
Well, in terms of theoretical nuclear physics, the thing is that my thesis fundamentally had two completely different pieces added together. I would say…see in that period, in the late sixties and going into the seventies, there was a whole new set of experimental facilities being built that would change the field quite a bit. First, there were the new generation of electron accelerators. And MIT was building one of those. It started doing physics in 1973, in fact. Called the Bates laboratory, of which I ultimately became the director for 100 months. Maybe it’s worth saying here for the physics context that…so you had SLAC, which was 20 GeV LINAC when it was built. Basically, using the Stanford high energy physics laboratory kind of technology. And high energy…very, very low duty factor. 10-4. Roughly. The new generation of nuclear machine was much lower energy. Bates became about 1 GeV. But a much higher intensity and a much higher duty factor. 10-2. The reason that’s so important is that 10-2 was viewed as getting you past the threshold for doing coincidence experiments. So, measuring the electron and the proton in coincidence. This kind of a thing. In addition, the machine also was able to provide…technically it was not the LINAC itself. It was the system of the LINAC and the spectrometers. Also provided completely unprecedented energy resolution. So, you could use it with incredible resolution for nuclear states. Quantum states, if you like. And you could also use it for these coincidence experiments and blowing things out of the nucleus, etc., etc. So, this was a new area opening up. And I think it was quite influential. At the same time, there was opening up another new category of machines. In particular, I’ll single out the intense proton accelerator that was built at Los Alamos as a Meson Facility. The idea was to actually be able to produce serious, intense beams of mesons to do work. Ions, etc. So, this was also opening up a whole new area. And going back to your question, I would argue that both parts of my thesis…one was relevant to the electron scattering. And one was relevant to the proton scattering. Helped provide new theoretical frameworks for interpreting those data. And then subsequently when I went to MIT, I then also worked and developed a new framework for meson nucleus interactions as appropriate to the Los Alamos situation. My adviser, Dirk Walecka, we always laugh. And then I say…I’ve told him that the best advice he gave me was the one I did not follow. Given these two kinds of new programs; he encouraged me to go to Los Alamos and help shape that whole meson program coming forward. And not MIT. When I could have gone either place. And I think I wisely chose to ignore his advice in that case and go to MIT. And he agreed later on that I was right (laughter).
Now, why did you make that call given that all of these exciting developments were happening in real time at Los Alamos?
Well, one thing is the academic environment of MIT is pretty special.
Yeah. And you had gotten over whatever you felt as a high school kid about going to MIT? (laughter)
Yeah, yeah. I had gone through Stanford. And secondly, I mentioned earlier my wife is from Brazil. Boston looked a lot more attractive to her than did Los Alamos.
(Laughter) And when did you meet? When did you get married?
In ’73. Just a few months before I joined MIT. We had met in Paris. I was a postdoc at Saclay. And she was a graduate student at the University of Paris. Sorbonne. And we got married in ’73 in Paris. Came to the United States. And also, she then became a graduate student at Harvard. She got her Ph.D. at Harvard later on. And Boston was a much better fit in addition to the academic reason.
Now you went to Saclay right after you defended?
Um. Yes. But I had a National Science Foundation postdoc that I could take anywhere. And I chose to split it between Paris and the University of Pennsylvania. University of Pennsylvania because I really wanted to work with Henry Primakoff. Who I had met at a summer school. So, I went kind of back and forth a little bit. I don’t mean like every week. I mean, you know, six months in Paris and then time at University of Pennsylvania. Also went to Los Alamos in that time period in the summer for a few weeks. But just to seal the argument on choosing Boston. In 1976, beginning of ’76, we had just had our child. And it was a good time to get away and so…and Los Alamos was still calling. So, I said I would go on a leave of absence to Los Alamos from January to August of ’76. And I told my wife, Naomi, I said, “But don’t worry. We’ll live in Santa Fe.” And Santa Fe is, you know, it’s kind of a little bit more urban, at least, than Los Alamos up on the hill. And there’s a strong arts culture. She’s not a scientist. She’s in literature and arts. And we’d live there and okay, she kind of agreed. But then as luck would have it a fantastic house came available for just the right period up on the mesa close to the lab. So, well we took that. It was a big mistake (laughter). What I’d say is towards the end of the visit she said, “Well, I can see you really like it here.” I did like the work at the lab, etc. “I can see you really like it here. Write often.” And so, we went back to Boston (laughter). And MIT. But continue to go there every year. And frankly, she loves the area. And we end up, frankly, we have a cabin that we bought about two hours north of Santa Fe. We spend some time there every year. Because it’s just gorgeous country.
But it just wasn’t the place for us to go.
Right. It’s irresistible. France Córdova, Bill Press, you’ve got to live in Los Alamos if you can (laughter).
Yeah. No, that’s right. So.
Now when you came onto MIT was this as the Assistant Professor level or this was a second postdoc?
Assistant Professor. Yeah.
Well, yeah. Whatever that means. Yeah. Every faculty position at MIT is…tenure is open. I mean, you know. You make it or you don’t. But it’s a…right. What happened actually was…again, as I said, they were…at MIT, this new laboratory was just about to start doing physics in ’73. And a wonderful physicist and friend, unfortunately, passed away. Arthur Kerman was, as this machine was being built, it was an area where he had never worked. His work was a different area. But he was very broad and very smart. And he had a student at the time that he had put on a Ph.D. project. That was…had some very, very strong physics overlap with the first part of my thesis at Stanford. Which had already been published, etc. And Arthur was a labbie. He spent a lot of time every year at Livermore and at Los Alamos. And so, at Los Alamos, he was there and he saw me and he knew of my earlier work. And so, he called me into his office. And Arthur thinks or thought with a piece of chalk in his hand. That’s the way he thought. As far as I know he couldn’t write anything…except for the piece of chalk. He was great. And he’d talk about any physics with a piece of chalk. And so, he called me in and he started to describe what his student was doing. And frankly, it didn’t take too long before I said that there was a fundamental flaw in the way they were approaching this program. This project. And he thought about it and he said, “Hmm. You’re right” (laughter). And soon I got a call. Why don’t I come to MIT for…give a seminar? And etc. So, I ended up there. And it was great. Arthur and Herman Feshbach, Viki Weisskopf…
Was Weisskopf chair when you got there?
Uh, Weisskopf was chair…head technically, Department Head at MIT when my offer letter came in the spring. But then July 1, it switched to Herman Feshbach, who became the head. They were great. And then the young people. John Negele was absolutely my closest colleague. Bob Jaffe, I had mentioned earlier. He was already there as a postdoc and then stayed on as a faculty member. It was just a great, fantastic group. And we had a good time. Also, postdocs…a physicist named Frieder Lenz came at the same time as a postdoc from Germany. He and I became for decades, collaborators. And a Japanese, Korchi Yazaki. Anyway, it was what you would expect, frankly, at MIT I think. It was an extraordinary group, and we had a good time.
Did you take on graduate students right away?
Pretty much. Yeah.
And what kinds of graduate students would come to you? What kinds of topics were they interested in that would make you a natural fit for them?
Well, it was, this area of so-called intermediate energy physics. And then quark structure later on when I…with Frieder Lenz we did some interesting models of composite structures for nucleons and the like. And so, students did theses mainly in these areas of pion physics and then quark structure towards the end. I had students and did physics research until ’95. Then ’95, I had my first stint in government—to OSTP. Brief. Just over a year. And I went back to MIT as department head, which I had been when I left.
And I had not sought that out. And it was…I viewed it as my one and a quarter year of public service. Went back to MIT as department head with every intention of resuming my physics program. But in a lot of serendipity, I was back…I think like six weeks. And got a call from the newly confirmed Secretary of Energy, Federico Peña. Asking me to go back and stand for confirmation as Under Secretary of DOE. Completely, you know, curve ball. But I thought about it for a day and then I said yes. And I had no intention of going back to government. But I did. And then, once I did that and came back in January of 2001, at the end of the Clinton administration, then I decided that I was once again just going to roll the dice. Change direction. Not do physics research. Not take physics graduate students. I did teach freshman physics the year after I was back. But instead, I would launch a new focus in energy technology and policy. And then that’s what I did from 2001 until I became secretary in 2013 with some pretty significant efforts, I think, in the intervening time.
Ernie, I want to go back to 1995. Particularly because this was not something that you were seeking out. What was your entrée to OSTP? Who recruited you there?
So, what happened was really the major shift came when in 1983 I became rather surprisingly the director of this Bates Linear Accelerator laboratory. I say very surprising because again, I was a theoretical physicist at this time. And this was a pretty significant experimental laboratory. I won’t go into the problems as to why I got strong armed into this. But I will also say, you didn’t pick up on it when I said that I was head of the laboratory for a hundred months. It’s kind of an unusual time period to use for this kind of thing. The reason is that I had insisted I would only fill a gap for two years. And two years became eight plus years (laughter). So, that was the hundred months. But the point here is that…so I did that until 1991 when I became the department head in physics. But having directed this DOE laboratory, that MIT operates, and we did some interesting stuff. Including building a new ring. A new storage ring there. That had taken me into the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee. So, this is the committee that advises both DOE and the National Science Foundation on the entire nuclear science program. And it’s like, you know, HEPAP for high energy physics and NSAC for nuclear physics, FESAC for Fusion Energy Science Advisory Committee. All of these very serious advisory committees that set the long-term direction in these various science fields that DOE supports. So, I was on that committee and then I became Chair of that committee. And as Chair of the committee, given the background that I had from learning how Washington worked in support of basic science, I did the Chairmanship of that committee, to be perfectly honest, in a different way than it had been done. Meaning that I thought it was a responsibility to interact with the Department of Energy, with the OSTP, With OMB, with the Congressional Appropriations Committees. And so, I kind of got to see and understand how the system worked. And felt it was a responsibility. I was going be hair for three years. In those three years I would do what I could to kind of lift up the support for the field.
And Ernie, given that you were looking to see how the system worked, you know, you were educating yourself. What were some immediate sort of structural deficiencies or shortcomings that you saw in the system? In terms of science policy in D.C.?
Well, let me come back to that. And address that. But just to say that whenever a new team came into place—in the agencies for example, of relevance to our field—I thought it was my obligation then to go meet with them. So obviously, 1993 was the first year of the Clinton administration. And in the fall of that year, that’s when the National Science Foundation Director was put in place. Neal Lane. That’s when the head of the office of science at DOE was put in place. It’s when the Associate Director for Science in OSTP was put in place. The last of those, the Associate Director for Science at OSTP, her name was M.R.C. Greenwood. Was the first non-physicist in that role. She came out of the life science arena. She was the graduate dean at the University of California-Davis at the time. So, she was in there. But, you know, I just made the calls. And I figure usually you’re gonna get a call back. You know, I’ll get the meeting, but you know, she’s busy. She’s just getting into the office. She’s never been in Washington before. You know, in the government. So, maybe in a few months, you know, I’ll get an appointment. Much to my surprise, my assistant called and pops into my office and says, “They say sure. How about tomorrow?” And well, if I can make it, okay. So, the next day I was down there. And what had happed was, M.R.C., as I said, was the first non-physicist and she felt she needed a physicist as Assistant Director for the Physical Sciences. And she needed one fast. And she had asked around, and I was obviously on a list.
So, we had totally different agendas for that. And it was very clear immediately that there was no way I was going to do that job. But she was a very nice person. She had excellent taste in single malt scotch. And she was pleasantly ambitious in what she was going to do. Namely, construct a Clinton-Gore science policy statement. Something that has not typically been done at all. And so, finally I said, “Look. I’m not going to do this job. But I’ll do two things for you. One is, I will get you a physicist.” And I did. Someone from Los Alamos (laughter). First class physicist for two years. “Secondly, I will cancel my research trip in January to Germany and come here and I will work on your damn science policy statement.” And so, I did that. And in fact, in May. 1994 of the Clinton-Gore science policy statement called Science in the National Interest, was published. The point being, therefore, the answer to your question is I was not an unknown at OSTP.
And so, when M.R.C. rather abruptly—there was health issues in the family—she rather abruptly left in the spring of ’95. Jack Gibbons, who was the science adviser asked me to stand for nomination. It was a Senate confirmed position. That’s when I told him, look, in the end, I’ll do the service to finish out the first term of Clinton. And then I’m gone. And that’s when I went back to MIT.
Fully expecting that that was the end of your Washington career.
Correct. Correct. Well, again, see, it’s serendipity because what happened was at the end of ’96, after the presidential election, obviously Clinton won reelection. When he was about to announce the second half, roughly, of his cabinet, which included the Secretary of Energy…the day before, frankly he realized that the staff construct for the cabinet had overlooked some diversity issues. And he was furious. And he said, “This cannot stand.” So, they had to change twelve hours before the announcement, they had to change one of the nominees to be. And it ended up that the person who was available and could sort of fit was Frederico Peña who was just finishing his term as Secretary of Transportation. And was strong armed to agree to stay a little bit longer as the Secretary of Energy in the second term. Frederico…very smart guy, and a very nice guy. Very good guy. I like him a lot. He remains a great friend. But the point is, he was suddenly thrust into something in which he had no background (laughter). You know, he was one of the great majority of people who wouldn’t have known that DOE has nuclear weapons, for example. And suddenly, he’s just thrust into this. So, the point was he had to have a very quick education. Fortunately, he’s a quick study. But I was one of the principal educators for bringing Frederico Peña up to speed for his January confirmation hearings. Before I left. So, that’s how he got to know me, and I got to know him. And then, actually, I give him a lot of credit. He may have had advice, but the reality is—see in those days, by the way—the Department of Energy unusually had only one Under Secretary. As opposed to many. In fact, I’m the relic. I’m the last of the unitary undersecretaries. And so, the leadership was three people. Secretary, deputy, and undersecretary. And usually, the three positions were all filled typically by energy people, energy lawyers, energy politicians. Frederico had been Mayor of Denver. And my point being that there had not been scientists in any of those leadership positions. And I think Frederico, who got this crash course on DOE on its science programs where it’s the biggest supporter of the physical sciences in the country… And by the way, the initiator of the Human Genome Project. The energy technology programs. The science-based weapons programs. And the environmental cleanup programs. I think he probably, maybe by not having been so immersed in energy, recognized that the common thread was science. That, sure it was nuclear weapons, but the Department of Energy doesn’t shoot off missiles with nuclear weapons. The Department of Energy does the science job of the design and maintenance, etc. Especially without testing. So, I think he recognized that, you know, what’s wrong with this picture? Maybe there should be a scientist here. And I think that was part of the background as to why he called me. And then after a day I said yes. And so, it’s kind of interesting. And now you’ve seen since that time…well, of course, I was Secretary. Steve Chu was Secretary. Before Steve Chu was Sam Bodman.
Not a physicist, but a chemical engineer. I mean, a technical person. It was quite different. As a twelve-year run, basically, of technical leadership in a department that fundamentally applies science and technology to National needs.
Ernie, let’s go back to OSTP a little.
By the way, I’m gonna have to stop at—I have a five o’clock Zoom.
Right. So, five is a hard stop. So, let me just ask one question and then we have our round two we’ll pick up from there later in the month. Can you talk a little bit about where OSTP was in the policy process? In other words, who would be the people coming to you and where would you take that information next within the executive branch?
Well. There were a variety of issues. A whole bunch of issues, just about everything in science. Including, as I mentioned, with M.R.C., who I was doing that science policy statement when I was consulting for her. And that continued. And there were many specific issues involving, you know, NASA launches and EDR and all of those issues. But let me focus on something a little bit different. Budget. Again, as I mentioned, probably because of my background of being a DOE lab director and really understanding the importance of appropriations and OMB and everything else. You know, budget is policy to a much greater degree than one might like.
By that time, I had that in my DNA. So, when I became Associate Director, I went to the PAD with the greatest responsibility for science. PAD is the Principal Associate Director of OMB. Very, very powerful positions. And one PAD, in particular, had the DOE science and energy programs, the NSF, and NASA. You go on and on. One PAD was…it didn’t have USDA science or NIH. But really had a huge part of the science enterprise of the government. So, I don’t know. I couldn’t have been there a couple days. And I made an appointment to see the PAD, who I had never met. And I basically said, “You know, Jack Gibbons, the Science Adviser and Director of OSTP, gives advice to the OMB director when there’s something needed that touches on science and technology. You, however, are really the point person for most of these science programs in the government. How about if I’m your science adviser?” And he said, “Great!” (Laughter) Cause, he had no science background. And you know, I had the pedigree of MIT and all of that. And so, it was great. So, for those fifteen months or so that I was Associate Director, I worked really closely with the PAD in providing advice as he was getting bombarded, of course, with requests from every agency, etc., etc. And then of course, when it was understood that I was a close adviser to the PAD, they all took a lot of interest as well. And thought it would be good to discuss things in advance and why this was such a great idea. So, it was terrific. And by the way, the name of that PAD was TJ Glauthier, who in 1999 became the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Energy. When I was Under Secretary. Great relationship. And so, we just could work together in very, very complementary ways. So, you know, you build these relationships and it’s amazing how many of them come back and close again.
Well, on that note, I’m looking at the clock. We’ll leave it there, Ernie.
And we’ll pick up on September 25. So, I look forward to seeing you then.
Thank you so much. Take care.
Okay. Very good. Alright. Cheers.
[End of Recording]
Okay, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is September 25, 2020. I’m so glad to be back with Professor Ernest Moniz. Ernie, thank you so much for joining me again.
Okay. Let’s try to pick it up.
Alright. So, let’s go back to your working relationship with TJ Glauthier. How did that start?
So, that started when I, surprisingly, became the associate director for science in OSTP. That was in 1995. What had happened there was that I had made the mistake, if you like, of contacting the new associate director for science in 1993, at the beginning of the Clinton administration. And getting drawn in to helping her do two things, which I may have mentioned previously. One was recruiting for her a top rate physicist who would help her. She herself was in the life science arena. And secondly, to be essentially the shadow author of the Clinton-Gore science policy statement. Then I satisfied both of my obligations and then intentionally diminished my role there. Although, it didn’t go to zero; they still wanted me to occasionally consult on issues. On science issues for the administration. And so, then in 1995 when she rather unexpectedly, because of family issues, said she really needed to leave and go back home to Davis, California…I was a familiar face. And had been working in the office in this role. And so, Jack Gibbons, the President’s science advisor asked me to stand for nomination to fill that role because it did require a Senate confirmation. In the end I, with some mixed feelings, said I would do it. Mixed feelings because at the time, I was head of the physics department at MIT. And frankly, I liked what I was doing, and we had some big issues to deal with. So, in the end…
Like what, Ernie? What were those big issues at the department of physics at MIT that you were dealing with?
Well, in the ‘90s, one might remember that there were some substantial challenges around research funding. At that time…well, the department of physics at MIT was a large department. We had over 90 faculty slots. That’s you know, so called tenure, or tenure track if you like, slots. The second largest department at MIT following electrical engineering and computer science, which were one department. They had about 125 faculty. We had over ninety slots and MIT as a whole has a thousand slots. So, these were like ten percent each of MIT, roughly speaking. But in the department of physics, as was the case in many engineering departments…at that time, we did not have so called hard funding of faculty salaries even for the academic year. So, the way it was, and it’s incredible to remember. The way it used to be…that of course, it was one reason why the department had grown to more than ninety slots is that the senior faculty, the tenured faculty, had six of their nine months of academic year salary covered by MIT. So, fundamentally you had to raise three months of academic year salary, plus two months of summer salary typically from research contracts. Pretty large amount. Especially at a time of weak research funding and frankly, competition against all those faculty in places where they get the full academic year salary covered.
But even worse…and I just thought it was a terrible policy. But, you know, I had lived under it for quite a few years. I started at MIT in ’73 and became department head in ’91. So, you know, obviously almost twenty years. And the junior faculty, the untenured faculty, had only four and a half of their nine months covered.
So, the junior faculty actually had to raise four and a half months, plus two months for the summer, ideally. And it was not very advantageous. And so, as department head, I was very concerned about what was going to happen if funding continued to be stretched.
And, Ernie, ninety faculty? Is that historically a large number? Like, in the heyday of Viki Weisskopf, for example, was it—
This was the heyday of Viki Weisskopf (laughter). Roughly speaking. I mean, at least when I went to MIT…
No. I’m saying when you became department chair.
Yeah, well, Viki was then retired. But yeah. It was all the same size. I mean, for all those years, number of slots was essentially unchanged. And so, I mean I had completed a negotiation, but you know, there was a lot of implementation to do. Specifically, I proposed a megadeal. Maybe this was the training for the Iran negotiations. I don’t know. I proposed a megadeal with a very elaborate modeling of future…demographics and the like. And in the end went through the dean of science, who was Bob Birgeneau, who had been the physics department head. But he certainly, uncharacteristically, was happy to defer to me to make the presentation to the provost—of the megadeal proposal. And the megadeal proposal was that I would, over time, give back to the institute eight faculty slots. Reduce to 83. In return, I would have all faculty in the department, junior and senior, instantaneously get full nine-month academic year salary. And the institute would give us some additional TA positions. Teaching assistant positions. Because a lot of the faculty were of course, teaching and doing TA kind of work, in my view. So, that was a smaller part of it. But the main thing is that the model had a set of assumptions that were all made very transparent in terms of retirement age. So, I assumed that faculty would not retire at seventy because the faculty retirement age had been…the cap had been taken off. And so, I made assumptions that there would be retirements at 72 and 73 years old. And many faculty…on average that was probably about right. Many faculty still retired at 70, but others went on to 75 and 76, etc. But anyway, it was…by each headcount, I went through year by year, assumptions on retirements. And laid out a trajectory for giving up the eight slots over roughly eight or nine years, such that it would maintain… Oh! And I also made an assumption on tenure success of junior faculty. Actually, I assumed 0.5 as the probability. And that was higher than the historical number, which was in the high 30s, actually. But I was being conservative. So, I said, even if the tenure success rate is somewhat elevated over history, the combination would still leave the department with three faculty hires per year. And that of course, was going to be crucial in going back to selling it to the faculty. That I was not drying up the hiring pipeline, etc. So, anyway…
And, Ernie, how much faculty buy in did you need for this?
Okay. So, let me come to that. Let me just…first of all, the provost at the time was Mark Wrighton who subsequently became the chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, for nearly 20 years. And Mark was a chemist. And I have to say, I was very impressed. And I think the dean who was sitting there of course, for the presentation, was really surprised when Mark…you could see thinking going, you know, click-click-click for about ten minutes. He asked a couple of questions and he said, “Okay. I’m going to check out your numbers. But if your numbers are what you say, you got a deal.” Right there. No negotiating. No fooling around. It was wonderful. And I have to say, I think it’s because he also, in his click-click-click, realized this is a model that I can use with other departments.
So, even though he had a budgetary problem, he was willing to take it on. Oh, and I should have added a critical thing. That’s right. That another part of the model with those hiring and tenure decisions and retirements factored in…what I showed him was the institute’s funding of the department. And clearly, obviously on day one, it was going to create a bigger budget deficit for the provost. But I showed that in the year 2000, you would have the crossing point and that for the long term, structurally the institute would have a lower budget obligation to the department because of course of the reduced faculty lines. So, it was a fairly complicated thing, but it was immediately bought in. I might say that going back to the department and the buy in question, there is an important, in principle, an important technical difference between being the head of the department and being the chairman of the department. MIT had a head system. Not a chairman system. Technically…this is slightly oversimplified. But technically, the chairman of the department is like the representative of the faculty to the administration. The head of the department is the administration’s choice to run the department. And so, for example, in the head system, arguably the most important decision that is made is on that of tenure of junior faculty. In the chairman’s system, the chairman reports to the school what the faculty vote was. In the head system, the head reports to the dean, his or her decision. Now, the reality is, if you’ve got to draw upon that distinction between a head and a chair, you are in big trouble. And you may as well start emptying your office (laughter). And that’s really the answer to your question.
Technically, I was the department head and I didn’t have to have the approval. But in reality, it would be crazy, and you would be inviting enormous tensions and divisions in the department. So, frankly, the way the sequence is—at first I had a retreat of the department…there was a formal way of defining this. That roughly ten percent of the department faculty formed a physics council. So, I had a retreat with the physics council on this plan to get their reaction and buy in. They were very, very much bought in to it. But they had to keep it confidential from the department as a whole until I could see if the administration was going to be interested. When they said they were in, then I said, “Terrific. Deal. Modulo. I gotta go back to the department as a whole now and make sure there’s not some major insurrection and complaint.” So, we did that then with a full faculty meeting and in the end, we certainly got the buy in, but I would say the rank and file may not have the same view of governance as the physics council does. Because they have responsibility, frankly, for various operating issues. And so, there were complaints about giving up positions. Not surprising. “Why didn’t you get full faculty salary and give up no positions?” (Laughter) I said, “Because that’s not much of a deal.”
Etc. So, you know, we had to go through that. But in the end, the most convincing argument was against that. Was I said, “Look, we got three positions a year. With our budget challenges. And when you look at the need for startup packages for junior faculty, let alone any senior faculty hire…” I said, “I’m going to have a hard time affording that for three hires.”
Yeah. MONIZ: “You want us to hire five in a year? Can’t do it. I can’t afford it. Unless you want only theoretical physicists” (laughter). Who are cheaper for their startup packages? Much cheaper—
—than building up a new laboratory. So, anyway, it was a complex, multiparty negotiation. Again, probably good practice for government. But going back to the motivation here. It was that we had the agreement already done when Jack Gibbons asked me to go to OSTP. But, as you can imagine, lots of implementation issues.
And the way it worked is another wonderful person at MIT in physics, Jerome Friedman, Jerry Friedman…again, Nobel Prize winner for the quark work. I think I may have mentioned him in terms of SLAC. That I was actually, technically in the group that he and Henry Kendall from MIT and Dick Taylor from SLAC were heading. Jerry had been the department head some years earlier. Already had the Nobel Prize and he stepped forward to say that if I went to OSTP, he would agree to step in as department head again until the end of the first Clinton term. And then if I went back, I could resume the role as department head. And if I didn’t go back, then it was time to get a new, permanent department head because he wasn’t going to do it beyond that roughly year and a half. But Jerry stepped in and that was essential. So, I knew that first, the department was in good hands, and secondly, frankly, I was interested in going back to that to finish the job that I had started.
And Ernie, I want to ask. You know, obviously the funding issues at MIT were a parochial concern. But obviously they were connected to national problems in terms of science funding.
So, I wonder if that was one of your motivations in terms of being in Washington to try to influence positively the problems in the 1990s with federal funding of science?
Yeah. And in fact, let’s just go right back to your original question about TJ.
So, when I went to OSTP in ’95, TJ Glauthier was in a very important position called a PAD. A principal associate director at the Office of Management and Budget. And frankly, most academics maybe have vaguely heard about OMB and don’t realize that OMB is like the big gorilla. I mean, every budget of every agency goes through OMB and then of course that’s the “B” side of OMB. And then there’s the “M” side. Every single regulation in the entire government has to go through an OMB office called OIRA, etc. So, OMB is just kind of the slightly below the radar and yet, the big elephant in just about every room. Now, TJ was the PAD. There are several PADs. They each have multiagency responsibilities. And TJ was the PAD who had most of the major government science programs under his empire (laughter). The big exception was NIH, which was in the separate health PAD. And NIH obviously is another gorilla. But, you know, NSF and NASA and DOE and NOAA. All of these science programs were under TJ’s responsibilities. So, I was bluntly not your typical academic in not understanding the role of OMB, etc., in the government. Because of my history, starting with running the Bates laboratory, a DOE, Department of Energy laboratory. And so, I got to learn pretty quickly about congressional appropriations and Office of Management and Budget negotiations for setting the science budgets. I didn’t go into this as…you know, many academics go into these kinds of positions really not understanding how the government really works in detail. You learn. But I started out with, by that time a twelve-year history of being engaged in those activities. So, the point is, in answering your two questions at once, Jack Gibbons as the science advisor, had also done something that was very important. He really, I would say, forged a stronger relationship with the director of the OMB than had been characteristic of presidential science advisors. It wasn’t that it wasn’t done at all, but I think he made it more of a normal operating kind of relationship. You know, so that if there was something that went to the director of OMB in the science realm, that Jack was there to provide advice. Now, the reality is, there aren’t that many issues that rise to the OMB director’s level there until very late in the budget game. The PADs are the ones who are doing the blocking and tackling. And looking in a pretty detailed way with their staffs at the various science agency budgets, for example.
Was Gibbons just a smart guy? Did he just intuit where the real players were?
No. Because again, it’s this question of also where you come from.
Unlike most science advisors, Jack came from a significant history of being in the government. He was the director of the OTA in the Congress. A longtime director of the Office of Technology Assessment. So, again, you know, he was on the inside. In that case it was from the congressional perspective. But he was on the inside—inside of the government—for a long time. And so, he didn’t have to learn that when he went over to The White House. And neither did I. And so, like on day one, I never knew TJ. I didn’t know TJ specifically. But like on day one, after I was confirmed, which was in the fall of ’93, I made an appointment to see TJ. And basically, I said, “You know, your boss, the OMB director, has got a science advisor, Jack Gibbons. How would you like me to be your science advisor?” And he just…it took him like a fraction of a second. “Wow! That would be great!” TJ, himself, was not a scientist. He had come out of the World Wildlife Foundation. Terrific guy. But he just said it was great and so, I viewed that as my number one job at OSTP. Was to really helping with TJ and OMB as all the science programs were proposing their budgets and weighing in on those. So, it was really a chance to help shape at least, somewhat, those budgets. Including the DOE science. Including DOE, of course, science budgets.
Did this expand your portfolio in a way that it might not have if you had not suggested this to him?
Well, yeah. I think, again, it’s not that it wasn’t done at all before, but this was a whole new level. Where, in fact, frankly, even some of the critical meetings with the agencies…sometimes they were rescheduled to accommodate my schedule to be there with the OMB people. And frankly, being a scientist and having been involved a lot in that for quite a while. And you know, having the stature of being the head of the physics department at MIT, the agency program heads quickly understood that a) they couldn’t talk bullshit and b) that you know, maybe having some pre-meetings might be a good idea, you know? To help shape priorities. So, it also led to me working quite closely with some of the senior people at the Department of Energy. For example, Charlie Curtis was the Undersecretary of Energy and then Deputy Secretary of Energy and then acting Secretary of Energy. But because of the role I was playing, and Charlie really knows how things work. Charlie is again another very experienced guy. He was the first chairman of FERC when FERC was created in the Carter administration. So, this is a guy…he’s an energy lawyer, basically. Again, a very experienced guy. Terrific guy. And so, he understood very quickly that I was playing a different role than the associate directors had played previously. So, we remain to this day very, very, very, very good friends. In fact, as an anecdote, when I left OSTP to come back to MIT…so I kept my word to everybody. In January of ’97, the beginning of the second Clinton term, I left OSTP. I went back to MIT. Jack Gibbons was kind of shocked. And unhappy (laughter). But I said, “Look. That’s the deal. I said I’d help you out for the rest of the first term and that’s it.” Charlie Curtis came from DOE to my going away party and it’s probably somewhere. Probably somewhere in this office. I don’t know where now, but… Anyway, Charlie came to MIT with a giant Styrofoam blank check made out to MIT. Which he gave to me as a going away present. My blank check from DOE to MIT (laughter). But of course, there was no cash involved in that. No cash transfer. But it was a nice…it was a great gesture. Anyway, but that’s kind of the story of TJ and I think some change in the role at OSTP. And then my successor, Artie Bienenstock, took up that role as well. Artie from Stanford.
Ernie, how much contact did you have with the Vice President’s office? I mean Al Gore, of course, was very outspoken in his beliefs in science policy and legislation. Did you work at all with Vice President Gore or any of his staff?
Oh, yeah. I mean, the reality was, Jack Gibbons, the science advisor to the President…he was a Gore guy. To be honest. Jack’s career before OTA was at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. So, the Tennessee connection with Al Gore. And then of course as head of OTA, and I’m assuming although I don’t actually know this, but I’m assuming that Al Gore probably played some role in having Jack take on that job as well as director of OTA. And then when Clinton and Gore came in, Gore clearly is the one who you know, brought Gibbons to…let’s say, to the President’s attention. But the reality is, clearly Al Gore paid a lot more attention to the science issues than did the President.
Obviously, on the big issues, and I’m not denigrating the President’s appreciation. In fact, I’ll come back and tell you another story about that considering this is all stream of consciousness, about the President. But Jack was there because of Al Gore. Al Gore had all of us involved very, very deeply in a whole set of science issues. So, we worked quite a lot with the Vice President’s office.
Ernie, to what extent—
Uh. The story…
Yeah. Go ahead. Please.
Okay. Well, okay. The story I’ll just tell about the President. Which I find a completely amazing story. And it shows also the incredible talent that Bill Clinton has remembering things, of connecting the people, and the like. I went back to MIT at the beginning of ’97, but later on in ’97 in the fall of ’97, I was confirmed to go back as undersecretary at DOE. There were several MIT Faculty in the administration. John Deutch had been in the administration as Deputy Secretary of Defense and then head of the CIA in the first term. But he had gone back to MIT. Sheila Widnall was the Secretary of the Air Force. She had gone back to MIT by the time of, I believe it was the 1999 commencement at MIT at which President Clinton was the speaker. So, pretty sure it was ’99. So, in early June of ’99 when the commencement was taking part, I was the last remaining senior MIT person in the administration. And so, therefore, I was invited or asked or directed to be the MIT prop for the President’s commencement speech. So that he could allude at some point in the speech to what MIT had contributed to his administration and was still contributing and Professor Moniz should stand up and dot, dot, dot. And that all happened, okay? But the story, which is really interesting in my view, is that we went out to Andrews Air Force Base, obviously, for the flight to Boston. It was really just the President, his political director, Doug Sosnik, me, Tom Kalil, who was in OSTP at the time, and a good friend. And then, I mean besides the stewards and everybody else. And the young speech writer who had done the speech for the commencement. Commencement speeches do not go very high in the speech writing totem pole. And so, to be perfectly honest, and I don’t mean to sound overly pejorative, but this was a kid who didn’t understand anything.
And had written the commencement speech. And with Clinton, at least, it’s pretty clear. He’s very fast. And something like the commencement speech, he would not even read until he was on the plane, you know? Flying up to Boston. So, we’re sitting in the cabin. The main cabin. Me and Tom Kalil. And I read the newspaper, The Washington Post, and on the front page of The Post, that day, by coincidence…and also, by the way, on the front page of The New York Times and The Boston Globe…it was on front pages of major newspapers that morning that neutrinos have mass.
One of the great geopolitical events of all time. But this was the result from the Super-Kamiokande experiment in Japan. The underground experiment, that basically found neutrino oscillations and that it means they had mass. And so, this was like, you know, an issue of are we seeing the beginning of the Standard Model evolution beyond the Standard Model and this kind of stuff? And it was kind of amazing. All these papers put it on the front page. So, I said to the young speech writer, I said, “Wow. This is a coincidence. Here is the President going to nerd heaven to give a talk.” I said, “I’d be happy to write a short paragraph to insert on the neutrino discovery.” And the speech writer looked down his nose at clearly, this geeky person who didn’t understand anything about politics and what presidents talk about, etc., etc. And I said, “Look. I don’t give a shit” (laughter). Okay. Fine. No problem. And so, we take off. And the young man is finally called to the forward cabin because the President has obviously looked at the speech. And the President, by the way—not only on this speech but on any speech I was ever involved with or on the periphery of—Bill Clinton does not receive his first draft well. You can count on it. In this case, the speech writer came back to us. Head down. Tail between his legs. Comes over to me and said, “The President would like to say something about neutrinos” (laughter). Because he had read the papers and thought, “Wow, this is fantastic.” So, I wrote my little paragraph. And that was great. And then we flew into and landed at Hanscom Air Force Base, not too far from Cambridge. Twenty miles away. Most convenient place to put down Air Force One. And then, by the way, and then we flew in the Marine One helicopters to land on the MIT campus. And that, I gotta tell you, was the greatest perk of any time I’d been in government. Landing in a Marine helicopter on the MIT campus and making sure all my colleagues saw it. You know? So, that was terrific. But what happened in between was quite remarkable. We landed at Hanscom. And we all, you know, Air Force One’s got the front staircase that you always see the President coming down. And that front staircase was there. And there was the red carpet. And there was the base commander and his wife standing at the bottom of the stairs and all of that. But there’s also the back stairs. That’s where the press goes out, you know, etc., etc. And we all went out on the back stairs. And just went and sat on the helicopter waiting to take off, you know? And we’re sitting there and we’re sitting there. And President Clinton was not always, you know, prompt. The base commander and his wife…they’re still standing there at attention waiting for the President. And instead, coming down the stairs is one of the youngish, Navy stewards on the plane. And he runs across the tarmac, comes over to the helicopter, points to me and says, “The President wants to see you.” I said, “Oh. Okay. Well, I guess the President wants to see me? Let me go back to the plane.” And I go up to the cabin. And he’s there with Sosnik. And he is just fascinated over this neutrino story. Just fascinated. And he says, “You gotta tell me more about this.” So, I gave him a spontaneous lecture on the Standard Model of particle physics. And why this is…all of this hangs together. And I ended up talking about the Higgs boson, you know? And the missing…now there’s really this missing piece of the Higgs boson that had to be found. You know, etc., etc. And what was amazing…this is 1999. In 1993, largely cause of the Congress, the SSC had been killed. The Superconducting Super Collider that was partially built already in Texas. I never used the word accelerator. And the experiment in the newspaper was the underground experiment. Nothing to do with an accelerator. And Clinton, the President of the United States, after six years says, “Hey, wait a minute. Isn’t that the physics that we were supposed to do with that Super something?”
Yeah. Wow. Yeah.
And I was just floored. And I said, “You’re absolutely right.” And then we went into a discussion about the SSC, the energy frontier, why it was almost a lock to either find or not find the Higgs boson, etc., etc. Then he asked about, “Well, are we doing anything else to replace this? To do this?” I talked about the Fermilab upgrade. And what its energy was. And how there was a chance the Higgs might be in its range if the Higgs mass…well, if the Higgs proved to exist. And its mass was on the low end of the possible range. But, I said, “You know, it’s probably not gonna happen. But there’s another upgrade going to happen at CERN. The Large Hadron Collider. And you know, they still don’t have the energy of the SSC, but in their energy range, if the Higgs exists, there should be a good chance to find it.” This is in ’99. And so, we go through this long lecture on physics. Of the Standard Model, and accelerators.
Did the president sort of get that post-SSC the United States essentially had ceded leadership in high energy physics?
Yeah. Yeah. So, he clearly understood that, and the Higgs discussion is what brought that into focus.
That maybe if we were lucky, we were going to have the Big Bang. But more than likely, the focus would shift to Europe. And that’s the way it was. So, finally, I go back to the helicopter. Eventually the President comes over. We fly to the campus. And then I’m split from the President for the next couple hours. You know, he’s meeting the president of MIT. And doing things of that type, obviously. So, I don’t know, two hours go by, or more. There’s the big march into the…for the commencement, you know. All the students marching in. All of this stuff. Finally, Clinton gets up to speak. And he’s going through the speech. He comes to my neutrino paragraph and basically reads it. I mean…it was like a couple of sentences. And then everybody could tell he clearly went completely off script and gave a significant discussion of the Standard Model, (laughter) SSC, CERN, the whole thing. And he got everything right. I mean, it was amazing. Just amazing.
Everything right. And all you can imagine was the next day my physics colleagues are all saying, “What the hell did you do?” You know? Especially…they could tell it was completely extemporaneous.
So, just remarkable. And that’s not the end of the story. If that were the end of the story, in my view, what a great story.
But it’s not even the end of the story. Some years later, I forgot now the year. But it must have been six, seven years later. The Higgs was found at CERN. And it all played out just the way I had said, you know? Fermilab probably wasn’t going to get there. And they didn’t. But CERN was in the range. SSC certainly would’ve found it. Easily. But that’s the way it was. By coincidence, it was not long after the Higgs announcement. I think not long, I mean like, as I recall it was like maybe a month or something. I was at a meeting in the UK at Oxford. And Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton were at the meeting. And first of all, again, his talents are…I mean, he remembered me. He remembered a classified subject that I had briefed him on when he was President. Within the limits. You know, it was a very, sensitive, classified issue. But he asked me about that issue and what had happened in the six or seven years since he was President on the issue. And it was all kind of oblique remarks, etc. But then I went back and said, “By the way, do you remember the discussion we had on the plane? The Higgs was found!” You know? And he remembered everything.
But he had not picked up on the Higgs in the news. But it was really wonderful. So, anyway, it’s a long aside.
But really, I think quite an interesting story.
Ernie, when you left OSTP, was your sense that the dual hatted nature of your position was sort of there to stay beyond your tenure? Was that going be the new norm going forward?
Well, I wouldn’t say it was dual hatted as such. It was taking on that responsibility. I mean, I wouldn’t call it…I mean there’s no job description in which it says that’s part of the job. But as I said, Arnie Bienenstock picked it up. Unfortunately, I have no evidence of that having become the norm in the sense that it’s a bigger issue. I mean, first of all, it was the norm in the Obama years. And that’s largely because John Holdren, as science advisor, he drove that process. John, again, somebody’s been around the system for a long, long time. Knows how it works. He was science advisor for eight years. I mean, from day one to the last day of Obama, he was the science advisor. He knew how it worked. He himself, was heavily engaged with OMB as well as the other White House entities. And so, it happened then. However, the bad news is, and it’s a much bigger issue than just what that associate director does or doesn’t do…is that the director… Did we discuss previously the unusual role of OSTP and the unusual structure of OSTP?
You touched on it. But probably not as much as we should go into.
Well, okay. So, the point is that when Nixon fired the science advisor, because he didn’t like the advice, Congress reacted quite strongly, feeling that the President needed a science advisor. That it was becoming more important, not less important. And so…but the Congress cannot dictate to the President how he, maybe eventually she, but up to now he puts together his staff. You know, the national security advisor is not subject to Senate confirmation. The national economic advisor, etc., etc. Those are the personal staff of the President. And not being confirmed, they are not subject to the call of the Senate for testimony, etc. That’s the whole executive privilege discussion. But the Congress wanted the President to have a science advisor. So, they did what they could do. Which is, they created an independent agency, OSTP, lodged in the Executive Office of the President. OSTP is subject to a separate appropriations process and budget in the Congress. Because it is an independent agency. And the National Security Council does not have its own budget. They are just part of the executive office of the President budget. So, that’s why I keep emphasizing it. It’s so different. And so, technically the OSTP director, I think is misnamed as the President’s science advisor. It’s just a scientist who happens to be in the EOP, in the Executive Office of the President, who’s running an independent agency. Now obviously Congress hoped and assumed that that would naturally make that person the science advisor. Presidents George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama, therefore, gave the director of OSTP a second title. This is really a dual hat. Also called the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology. Assistant to the President is the same term for national security, economy, etc. The National Security Advisor is technically Assistant to the President for National Security. So, that puts the director of OSTP kind of at the same level of those high-level advisors but is a distinct role from the OSTP director. And that’s critical even though sometimes it’s a bit disingenuous. But still, it’s critical that the holder of that office, let’s say John Holdren in the Obama years, would be subject to the call of the Senate to testify on issues of OSTP responsibility. But he would refuse to testify in his role as advisor to the President.
So, he would try to separate those. A little bit tricky because of course, his whole office is funded by the appropriations for OSTP. But that was historically, generally overlooked. And said, okay, you know, it’s okay. But two points. One is, unfortunately, Presidents George W. Bush and Trump did not afford the OSTP director that second title. And as a result, OSTP in both administrations, frankly, was very marginalized. And if it’s marginalized by the President, every other entity, including OMB, knows it.
So, that’s a big deal. Secondly, and it’s not worth my going into this, but maybe you did or will with John Holdren. If you didn’t…and you talk with him, it’s certainly worth it. He ran into a problem because he refused…because the Congress in its appropriations included language that the OSTP director as well as others…the NASA director, etc., could not work with China. The driver was a particular Republican congressman. A chairman of a committee was…his big issue was the treatment of Christians in China. And since he had…because he had responsibility for science agencies like OSTP and…for independent agencies. OSTP, NASA, and NSF…he said that they couldn’t talk to China. John Holdren really had no choice as OSTP director. But then he went to China, as Assistant to the President. And the Department of Justice said that it was unconstitutional for Congress to block that because of John’s role as the assistant to the President. And that this was interfering in the President’s foreign policy prerogatives. And so, John went to China to do some work. The problem is, of course, the trip to China was paid by OSTP. And let’s just say there were issues of lawsuits that had to be addressed.
And Anti-Deficiency Act and all kinds of issues. Eventually, he got it resolved, but OSTP lost…they took it out on OSTP, and they chopped a third of his budget out because of that. So, anyway, that’s another issue not involving me directly, but it did involve me in the end because when I became secretary, and it took a little lawyering, but guess how Holdren and OSTP survived their budget cut? It’s called the Department of Energy (laughter).
Ernie, when you left OSTP, how long did you think you were gonna be at MIT? Did you think you were just going back open ended?
Oh, yeah. Forever. Yeah. Absolutely.
Yeah. No inkling that DOE is sort of right around the corner?
No. No inkling and no desire.
It was just out of mind. I was back doing my job and getting back into physics. But about six weeks I was back, and Frederico Peña had just gotten confirmed as secretary and called me about the undersecretary role. And I thought about it for a day and said, “Ah, what the hell.” I love DOE. I love the science programs. I love its energy programs. I love its nuclear security programs, which are science based. So, I said, it may be an unusual collection, but it’s my collection. It’s what I do.
It’s what I’ve done for a long time.
And how much bigger of a role was this than OSTP? How did you understand what was available to you?
Oh, it’s much bigger, in my view, in the sense that again, when all is said and done, the OSTP role is advisory. And frankly, to be perfectly honest, I had no desire to do any more advisory role.
The fact this was a line management role with a substantial budget, I found much more interesting. And also, when I did it, when I agreed to do it, and I knew the department very well, it’s important to know that at that time, there was only one undersecretary. Very unusual. Especially for a department with such different missions. You might imagine an undersecretary for each of the mission areas, which would be common. But DOE, for whatever reason, its organic act of creation allowed for only one undersecretary. So, that meant that, going back not only to do the science programs or the energy programs or the nuclear security programs, but all of them. So, in fact, in many ways, you had an undersecretary, a deputy secretary, and a secretary. In the latter part of my tenure, Bill Richardson was the secretary. He was the point person on all the politics. The politics for the Congress and the politics with the administration. TJ became the deputy secretary, and he really was the point person for all of the very complex management and operations issues of the department. And then I was the undersecretary, and that left me for…I think we were all doing what we really wanted to do. And I was doing policy across the science, energy, and nuclear security missions. So, that was then, in turn…again who knew twelve years later I’d become secretary? And it was extraordinarily valuable that I had been…I was the last of the unitary undersecretaries and therefore, had intimate knowledge about essentially all the department’s mission areas. Much more so than if I’d been one of three undersecretaries with just narrower responsibilities. So, again, I didn’t know I was going to be secretary, obviously. But the idea that I would really have responsibilities in all those three mission areas and it was a line responsibility was very important for my deciding to go back.
Ernie, was it complicated to extend your leave of absence from MIT when you decided to take this on?
Not really. Because MIT understood the importance of that job. Clearly, then they got another department head. Which was good. I mean, I agreed in March, but it takes a long time to go through all the nominating process. So, I wasn’t confirmed until October. But the institute did the search process for the department head and immediately when they had somebody lined up—like September 1st—I resigned from the department headship then, so that my successor could come in. But then once I was confirmed, MIT basically welcomed it. MIT is not like Harvard. Harvard really is strict on two years. Two years leave. And then you either retire from the faculty or you go back. MIT, I think, is more rational. It’s a two-year maximum leave, but renewable year by year. And that’s what happened. So, MIT was…there was no problem for the two years and there was no problem with the two extensions that I needed to complete the term.
What was your portfolio—
But in contrast, when I became secretary, I elected and the Obama administration very much wanted me to do what I did do, which was to retire from MIT. Cause as secretary it’s much harder to manage conflicts of interest, etc. with an institution that has so many engagements with DOE. So, in 2013, when I was confirmed, I went emeritus at MIT.
And what was your portfolio when you got to DOE? What were the most important things you were doing from day one?
Well, there was plenty, but what I would say is the number one issue is not the one that I had expected to be at the top of the list. And that was in the end it was in the nuclear security arena. And it was the very significant change in how the weapons program was run. Which had started before I was there. Just started. But by the time I got there in ’97, it was…big deal. Namely, the assumption that there would be no more nuclear testing and that a whole new paradigm had to be created for assuring the safety and reliability of nuclear weapons without testing. With weapons…see, the old paradigm was the laboratories designed a new nuclear weapon. They tested it underground. And it went “boom” and therefore it was good for the stockpile. It would go into the stockpile, and it would stay there maybe twenty years. And then it would be replaced by the next new design that went “boom” underground, etc., etc. Well, suddenly there was no “boom.” And the assumption was that you would not want to field in large numbers a new nuclear weapon that had never been tested. Therefore, you would be keeping…and by the way, and it wasn’t rational. Because, I mean, it wasn’t like there was a planned stockpile for a world of no testing. It was like suddenly the music stopped. You know? And people had to sit in chairs. And so, you had a certain stockpile structure that had never been optimized for a world without testing. And so, the assumption was roughly speaking, what you see is what you’re going to get forever. And how are you going to certify the safety and reliability of those weapons, not only immediately, but when they become thirty, forty, fifty years old? And a lot of people don’t…that’s not a trivial issue for lots of reasons including, not only is it nontrivial for the usual reasons of any mechanical complex device getting older. Materials aging and this kind of thing. But in addition, by definition, these weapons have radioactive materials in them. So, it’s not just usual aging, but it’s also radioactive environment affecting plutonium phase structures and all kinds of other stuff. So, when I got there in ’97, the program was just coming into shape conceptually about how one would have a whole new paradigm that would have to be science-based. And it was a very visionary head of the weapons program named Vic Reis, who did a lot of this conceptualization. Along with the laboratories, of course. And so, one big piece of it was DOE kind of, once again, having to go way into the lead in terms of developing a whole new stage of supercomputing. Because much more elaborate modeling and simulation of the weapons would be needed, including 3-D constructions. And so, there was an enormous push to develop another couple of orders of magnitude there. Then there was the design of new experimental facilities like the NIF giant laser at Livermore. Which actually works; 192 gigantic laser beams all focused on a little teeny-weeny target to reach pressures, temperatures, unreachable any other way. There was a design and construction of a whole novel major facility at Los Alamos that would do kind of stereoscopic interrogation of imploding systems. These are very, very short timescales and you’ve gotta take a picture of what’s going on there with particle beams, etc. So, it was…people don’t realize that this is one of the most stunning and innovative science pushes, technology pushes, ever made to understand nuclear weapons in detail without ever setting off a nuclear explosive. And we’re now…the last test was in ’92, ’91. I mean, we’re thirty years beyond it. And so far, and by the way, and part of the process was also establishing a very elaborate and disciplined process every year for evaluating the stockpile and its safety and reliability. And it’s not to say, you don’t have problems. You find problems, but then can you fix them without requiring underground tests? And every year that ends up with a letter that is written by the secretaries of energy and defense to the President, building upon letters from the three lab directors. The three weapons lab directors. Another letter from the head of Strategic Air Command. All of the letters, unedited, must go to the President and then to the Congress. And it’s pretty remarkable; that process in 1995 and every year the stockpile has been certified without a nuclear test. And frankly, without any projection that a nuclear test is going to be needed. So, that was a huge transformation going on there. But, in the end, what probably took even more time was the nuclear nonproliferation program that was working, especially with Russia. Russia and other former Soviet Union states like Kazakhstan and Ukraine, Belarus. To control nuclear weapons, nuclear materials. The Department of Defense did a lot of work in the so-called Nunn-Luga program for destruction of missiles and weapons. But the DOE was the lead for all the materials issues. And some of the issues on collaborating on verifiable destruction of weapons and how do you do that? Complicated issues. We had the Megatons to Megawatts deal that had been agreed to in ’93 for 500 tons of weapons grade uranium. 90%+ enriched uranium that was going to be down blended into nuclear reactor fuel for the United States. And in fact, very few Americans realize that ten percent of America’s electricity for twenty years came from Soviet nuclear weapons uranium down blended into reactor fuel uranium. Well, how do you verify that they are actually down-blending HEU and not just on the side, just giving us some new LEU? Etc. Well, guess who? That was Oak Ridge that developed the remote monitoring technology to guarantee. All of that kind of stuff. But then, in addition, for myself…I was put into the…because of my background especially and understanding all of these things. And plus, the position…I often had the point in terms of fixing issues and finding opportunities. Fixing issues, for example, the Megatons to Megawatts deal I just referred to went completely off the rails in 1998. And it rose to the Presidential level. I could go into why it fell off the rails, but it’s too arcane I think, for this discussion. But basically, a deal needed to be cut between the Soviets…the Russians, now. The Russians. And French, German, and Canadian uranium companies. And neither of those two groupings trusted the other ones and insisted that, to be honest, the Department of Energy and I personally, had to be the one to act as the negotiator between them to reach an agreement. And it was complicated. And fortunately, there were others like Pete Domenici in the Senate, who were big champions and who really helped get this over the line. So, you know, in the end, without saying how we got there…but in the end, let’s just say that well past midnight on a December night in 1998, I and my team of two people, one from State, one from DOE, the Western companies, and the Russians…we were all angry at each other over a very long negotiating day. But found ourselves in the same French brasserie in Paris at two in the morning with no other place to go. And having to face each other and finally making it up (laughter). And the deal went on and it finished its twenty-year run. And all 500 tons were blended down. So, things like that. So, anyway, we were working with Russia. Some of these things succeeded, like this. Other things failed. But very complicated discussions about everything from having our labs collaborate on nuclear weapons issues. And not a simple issue, given all the classification. To things like, fixing the HEU deal to trying to do nuclear fuel cycle work. That was by far the most time-consuming part of my tenure there. I went there thinking I’d be spending my time mostly on science and energy and it ended up, you know? You do what you gotta do and that’s what I did, mostly.
Ernie, what was your feeling about the creation of the NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration)? And specifically, how workable it was that it was a semiautonomous agency, sort of within the DOE, and whatever built in confusion that would create out of the box, essentially?
The creation of NNSA was a terrible mistake. And…
As in overreaction to Wen Ho Lee, essentially?
Yeah. Absolutely. And other things and the Wen Ho Lee issue itself is something…I was never really caught up in that. But I know a lot about it. And let me just say that the public understanding of it will eventually get straightened out when things are declassified. But it is incorrect. I’ll just say that flat out.
But whatever the case, there were a lot of problems. Including, to be perfectly honest, a lot of political tension between Pete Domenici, who was of course a major player in these areas, and Bill Richardson, who was secretary starting from August ’98 until the end of Clinton. And part of it was just, I have to say, part of it was maybe New Mexico wasn’t quite big enough for the two of them (laughter). I’m not sure. But whatever the case, they had their issues. And I think unfortunately, that played a role. Because Bill and I…we, I think, rationally presented the argument to why NNSA was a terrible mistake. And I think the political relationship between those two major players didn’t help in having the arguments heard, shall we say?
So, they went ahead, obviously, and did it. And by the way, I should say that…when I met Bill Richardson for the first time, when he was named as the nominee by President Clinton, it must have been in June or July, I think, of ’98. Um. I didn’t know him. I had never met him. I was the sitting undersecretary. I was brought there by Peña. And whether in fact, I stayed or not was something to be decided. Bill could’ve wanted his own person to come in, you know, etc. But whatever the case, we had our first meeting. And he was asking me various things about the department. And I’ll always remember one of the things I said to him is, “I’m telling you my opinion, but I don’t recommend you act on this because it’s just too much of a lift politically. Namely I really like being the only undersecretary. But I don’t think it’s the right situation. I think the department needs two undersecretaries. One for the civilian side and one for the military side. One for energy and science and one for nuclear security, basically.” So, I was…but I said, “Things like this, especially this late in the administration…you know, the administration’s been there since 1993.” This is already…Bill didn’t get confirmed until middle of August. Sworn in at the end of August. And, you know, I said, “You know, these organizational issues are just too hard to do at the end of an administration. So, my recommendation is, even though I think it’s the right structure, don’t go there. And just try to get programs done.” You know? Well, of course, ironically, the NNSA created a second undersecretary, just as I would’ve liked. The problem was the additional title of administrator of NNSA. And the quasi-independent organization. It’s been nothing but trouble. And requires workarounds. The trouble comes in that quasi-independent structure. It says that only the secretary and the deputy secretary, personally, can instruct the administrator on anything. Not a good way to run a department. So, for example…
I mean, when I was secretary, we established a very good working relationship. Frank Klotz, General Klotz, was the administrator that I had recommended for that job. And he understood. Not everyone in this organization did. But, you know, I pointed out, what the hell is the point of arguing about whether the general counsel of NNSA…and by statute, it had a general counsel…is independent of the department’s general counsel? Because the general counsel of the department cannot give any instruction to anyone in NNSA. I said, “Okay. That’s what the law says. But this is ridiculous! You come to me out of NNSA, the secretary. I still got to approve everything. I’m the one whose ass is on the line. You know? I mean, something bad happens, you’re not the one that gets called up. I’m the one that gets called up.”
Right? And see, what NNSA did is it diminished responsibility without in any way transferring accountability away from the secretary.
The worst possible outcome.
Yeah. That’s right. And the secretary is the one who’s going to be at the table. At the cabinet table, etc. Representing these interests. So, I said, “You know, the general counsel of NNSA makes some legal ruling, which is part and parcel of an action that NNSA wants to take. Comes to me. What’s the first thing I’m going do? I’m going to ask the department general counsel to review it (laughter). Wouldn’t it have been easier if they had just talked first?” (Laughter) I mean, it doesn’t make any sense. The other leitmotif…and I realize, I’m going to have to stop in a couple minutes.
The other leitmotif of forming NNSA was that it could be a steppingstone to eventually taking it out of the department. Either put it in DOD or make it a standalone administration, like NASA. Right? And we also pointed out, terrible idea. Because for one thing, look, if you had a completely white board and we were designing the government, okay, you probably wouldn’t design DOE the way it is structured. But the reality is today, the DOE in many ways functions around its 17 national laboratories. Three of them are called weapons laboratories. Los Alamos, Livermore, Sandia. Those laboratories, however, do work in all of DOE’s missions. Including science and energy. In fact, if they didn’t, they could not attract first class people, ultimately, to the weapons program. No congress person ever satisfactorily answered the question of how many Ph.D. programs there are in the United States in nuclear weapons. Even though they knew the answer very, very well.
Secondly, the flip side is that the other labs do a huge amount of national security work, even though they’re called science labs. In fact, a lot of people don’t realize…you take Pacific Northwest Laboratory, for example. It is a science lab, but its budget is two thirds national security (laughter). Um. And not only for DOE, but for some other agencies…because they have special capabilities. Oak Ridge is huge in national security work, etc. So, the point is, for better or worse, we have a system of seventeen laboratories. They are all intertwined in a complex way with multiple missions. And that is actually their strength. You cannot unravel those three laboratories from the DOE system. And nor should you suffer the delusion that if they became independent or part of DOD, that the kind of support they’d get from science and energy would survive for very long. It just institutionally…it’s just not the way the world works. So, anyway, those arguments were not listened to. However, you can go back and check it out. I think it was in 2012. The Congress really led by the House Armed Services Committee. Chairman Thornberry’s staff—in particular. They created a Blue-Ribbon commission chaired by Norm Augustine and Rich Mies—former STRATCOM commander—Admiral Mies. Stacked the group with the clear desire that their Blue-Ribbon commission was going to come back and recommend removing NNSA from the department. The commission finally reported…I think it was the fall of 2013. After I was secretary, they reported. And I had interacted with them, of course, strongly. And their report was not well received in Congress because after these people who all clearly were thought to have this idea of separation—they worked really hard, really researched the issue, and they came to the conclusion—oh shit, you really can’t do this. And so, their recommendation was further integration of NNSA with the department. And that sank like a stone in the Armed Services Committee (laughter).
This is not what we formed you for, etc. But that’s the reality. I would argue, anybody looks at it really hard and in a sophisticated way will come to the understanding that that’s the direction. Get rid of NNSA. Make it an undersecretary. Don’t eliminate that role. But make it an undersecretary in the department like other undersecretaries reporting to the secretary! In the usual way. So, but it never goes away. In fact, I cowrote a letter just about two months ago with Rick Perry, my successor. Because now it was the Senate Armed Services Committee…was making a run, not at separating NNSA, but in effect saying that the Nuclear Weapons Council, which is dominated by DOD, would determine the budget of NNSA. And again, we wrote…and that’s getting killed. Inhofe is the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and he just was irate that…arguing that the Department of Energy was undermining his initiative. Well, you know why? It was because it was a bad idea (laughter). And so, anyway. So, I forget where we were. But that’s the story.
You gotta go and we’ll pick this up on October 9 and I’ll see you then, Ernie.
Oh. October 9. Okay. Alright. Very good. We have a long way to go.
Take care. I know. We do (laughter). Bye.
[End of Recording]
Okay, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is October 9, 2020. I’m so happy to be back with Professor Ernest Moniz. Ernie, good to see you again.
Good to be back.
Okay. So, I want to talk about energy in the Clinton administration. We talked a little bit about your interactions with Al Gore. What generally were the prospects for both renewable and nuclear energy R&D during the Clinton administration?
Well, during the Clinton administration, first of all, overall budgets did not suggest very robust programs or growing programs, frankly, in any of the sub areas. But we did, of course, push forward. Not only on R&D programs, but also some programs are less costly than R&D programs. Rules, regulations, some tax incentive programs, and the like. So, I would say there was a strong emphasis in both areas. And don’t get me wrong. There were solid R&D programs. But a lot was done as well in other ways. You know, push for a million solar roofs, for example. Certainly, a strong focus which became even much more strong in the Obama administration on energy efficiency rules. Which is one of the few areas where the DOE has that kind of authority. Also, on nuclear we really started the focus on Generation IV reactors. Again, they were not huge programs. In my view, they still are not huge programs. Although today I would say there is some hope and I think some real possibilities of getting into the demonstration phase of some new reactors. That was really not anything we could do in the late nineties. But the Generation IV emphasis, I think, was a very important one. And I think you can trace it back twenty years. Today we have never seen as much innovation in the nuclear space, both fission and fusion, as has ever been the case. Frankly, those programs were, like the fields themselves, in many ways derivative from the national security activities of the Manhattan Project and then subsequent to the Manhattan Project. I think we started in those Clinton years, and I think now it is flowering much more. The idea that we should be looking at a much broader spectrum of technologies and looking at lots of innovation in that space.
And to what extent were concerns over climate change part of the equation in terms of research to advance both fission and fusion energy?
Oh…climate was certainly a concern. I would say, certainly by the end of the Clinton administration it was very much in the foreground in terms of our considerations about the R&D portfolio. Still, at that time, what I would say is the [sigh]…for the lack of a better term, the environmental community was still pretty, strongly, uninterested, would be a euphemistic way of saying, it in nuclear energy. That actually has changed now, I would say twenty years later a lot of the environmental groups, while not necessarily being terribly enthusiastic, nevertheless are actually quite supportive of nuclear energy because climate challenge has become an overarching concern. And twenty years later, the prospects for mitigating climate damage are, well, it’s twenty years later with frankly, relatively little progress in relationship to the goals. So, there’s been a big shift in those twenty years in terms of, I would say, a broader societal outlook. But in those years, I think we really did start the Generation IV fission focus. And now, I think we will see in this decade the deployment of light water, molten salt, and high temperature gas reactor technologies at the small modular scale. Obviously, light water is not what we call Generation IV. But because we have so much experience with light water technology and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has almost exclusively experience in licensing light water reactors, the light water small modular reactor is considerably ahead in terms of its licensing and its prospects for getting built quite soon. But now the next generation molten salt, high temperature gas reactors, I think are moving along in both the United States and Canada, for getting past the licensing hurdles that they face. And they are considerable because of the lack of experience in the regulatory agencies for licensing these technologies. But anyway, I think looking forward, we have to ramp up carbon free technologies dramatically in response to climate change. And the electricity sector already is and will continue to be the lead sector in terms of decarbonization. I think that future, certainly in the United States, rests with the new generation of small modular reactors and micro reactors. And probably far less so with the traditional gigawatt scale reactors. The gigawatt scale reactors are always touted as having the economies of scale. But it turns out that the stakes also have a bigger scale and have generally led to, frankly, relatively poor schedule and cost performance.
Ernie, on the political front, during the Clinton administration, there was some rumbling up on the Hill about disbanding the DOE. I’m curious if you ever paid much attention to that and if you ever thought that that was just political chatter or that movement had any legs to it?
Well, there was always a subset of people who took that quite seriously. And the interesting thing is, and what made it somewhat unsettling, was that those supporting that often came from very, very, different directions. For some, it was that they wanted to see an agency that was wholly focused on the energy technology needed for addressing climate change. There were others who were coming at this from the point of view of the nuclear weapons program. And having it in the DOD for example. And then there was talk about also having, of course, the enormous role DOE plays in the basic sciences may be focused more on a non-cabinet agency. Like NSF or NASA is, etc. But in the end, all of these initiatives, including the one that did go forward, which I will come back to which was not a dismantling, but in some ways an adding to the department. I’ll come back to that. These things all run aground when one actually thinks about it hard. Frankly, there just aren’t that many people, including in the Congress, who actually understand the Department of Energy.
The department does have this collection of missions which I’m known to have described many times, whimsically as weapons and windmills, quarks and quagmires. And a lot of people think, “Geez. How does that all hang together?” Right? And I’ll admit, both when I was undersecretary and later when I was secretary, to me frankly, the intellectual span of that mission space was not particularly challenging. What was more challenging is that each of those missions has you dealing with very, very, different people.
The weapons or national security mission, obviously including, DOD and lots of uniformed senior officers. The Joint Weapons Council with the Deputy Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for example. The Department of Energy actually shares an office with the DOD in terms of naval propulsion. Its budget sits in DOE. But it is formally an office jointly reporting to the Secretary of Energy and the Secretary of the Navy. Weapons, windmills. Well, that’s the clean energy technologies. And you’re dealing with a lot of environmental organizations and the like. Quarks, well, that’s the DOE role in the fundamental sciences and many don’t realize that the Department of Energy is by far the largest funder of basic research in the physical sciences, in addition to having this major biology program. DOE provides major user facilities. Accelerators and light sources and neutron sources. And so, there you’re often dealing with deans and provosts of universities and the like. And then quagmires are the environmental cleanup responsibility from the Cold War. Actually, even from the Manhattan Project, before the Cold War. And there you’re often dealing with county and state officials, state regulators, environmental regulators, etc. Those are four very different groups of people. But the other side of the coin is, what does bring it together is that first, the Department of Energy is fundamentally the department of applying science and technology to national missions. I mean, for example, if a person in the public were to hear that the Department of Energy is responsible for the nuclear weapons stockpile, which it is, they would probably infer that that somehow has us targeting nuclear weapons at the military targets in the Soviet Union or Russia.
Which of course, is not at all what we do. What the department does, and especially in the world of no testing, what the department does is apply extraordinary science and forensics aging weapons. It’s applying science to make sure that the weapons remain reliable. As long as we’re going to have them, they gotta be safe and reliable. And when we do that, then we give the weapon to the Department of Defense. which has all of the military aspects. So, I think a lot of people don’t realize that even in that mission, it’s really a science mission, in fact. And one, by the way, we can come back and discuss this, I would say flat out the Department of Defense could not manage very well if they had that responsibility. But then, given the fact that DOE is a department of applying science and technology to missions as well as the basic science mission, while the department supports universities and certainly has major support for the university research community through these major accelerators and light sources, many of which provide the entire research capability of universities across the country; those facilities are located in DOE national laboratories. And so, the point is, now there are seventeen national laboratories, and those laboratories are in many ways the unique asset of the Department of Energy in addressing all of those missions through science and technology. And I’ve forgotten if we discussed this previously, but if I have then stop me. But then in turn, the scientific vitality of those laboratories is in many ways, for most of them, not all, but for most of them, the scientific vitality is attached to the very fact that they are addressing this broad set of missions for the Department of Energy. And secondly, because they have this kind of broad capability, and in addition in most of the laboratories can, not always, but can carry out programs in the secure, classified arena. Those labs are also a major resource for other parts of the government. In particular in the security arena, the DOD, the intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security, they all rely on the DOE laboratories for crucial parts of their mission. So now, you go one step further. Let’s exemplify what this means about their vitality coming from the cross-mission responsibilities. Let’s start with the three so-called nuclear weapons laboratories. Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia. Well, okay, to say it somewhat facetiously, the last I checked, I haven’t seen a lot of Ph.D.’s in nuclear weapons coming out of our university programs. And this is a much longer story, but the point is that those laboratories have very important energy and science programs in addition to their weapons responsibilities. And frankly, a huge part of their weapons technical personnel were actually first recruited to the laboratory through these civilian programs. The energy and the science programs. And to this day, actually a number of them would be doing research, if you like, on both sides of the fence. For example, being an expert material scientist to understand the properties of aging plutonium, let’s say, is done on one side of the fence called the classified side. But that same person may be doing, you know, using the same techniques and tools of course, to understand other kinds of materials important, let’s say, in energy technologies. So, those weapons labs really depend upon this stuff. But in addition, the flipside, people don’t realize is that we have a lot of national security work in other labs. The Office of Science runs ten of the seventeen laboratories. Some of them are special purpose, like the Jefferson Lab, which is an accelerator lab to do nuclear and particle physics. Fermilab, etc. SLAC does now mainly material science, actually, with its light sources. But they also have the so-called multipurpose laboratories, like Oak Ridge, Argonne, Brookhaven, Pacific Northwest, Lawrence Berkeley, etc. And those laboratories, not surprising, have major science programs. But every one of them, except Berkeley, have major national security programs. Another fact not well known, understandably, is that the Pacific Northwest Laboratory is an Office of Science laboratory, and two thirds of its budget is from national security. Mainly in the nonproliferation space. Much of it serving other agencies. So, finally all I’m saying is the point is, that maybe if you had a blank sheet of paper, you’d design it differently, but where we are today is we have a set of seventeen laboratories that’s a research powerhouse for everything from nuclear weapons to serving the university basic science community. They are not stove piped in terms of their responsibilities. And there’s no way, no sensible way, to roll that back without doing tremendous damage to the department and, I believe, to the country’s scientific enterprise. So, this all started with your question about breaking up the department. And this is the reason why it’s all rather stupid, frankly, once you begin to really understand how the enterprise works, etc. Now, let me add one other part. Late nineties there was a significant change made in the department. I think I mentioned previously that the department had, from its creation, only one undersecretary. And I am the last one to have had that position. In the middle of 2000, so just six months before the administration ended, basically, the Congress, in its wisdom, created a second undersecretary. Under Secretary for Nuclear Security. The weapons programs, the nonproliferation programs, the navy nuclear propulsion programs. That was great. I always argued that, even when I was the one undersecretary, I always argued that institutionally, it made no sense and there really should be two undersecretaries. One for the security programs and one for the civilian energy science programs. If they had stopped there, I would have applauded. Unfortunately, they went further and really screwed it up. They put all of the security programs under this undersecretary in what they also called a quasi-independent administration. The National Nuclear Security Administration. And that undersecretary was also given the title of administrator of this NNSA. You know, kind of analogous to the administrator of NASA. And this quasi-independence put in law that only the secretary and the deputy secretary could in any way direct the administrator/undersecretary on nuclear security. This has been nothing but trouble for the department for twenty years.
Because this person, the administrator, should report to the Under Secretary for National Security, you’re saying?
No, no, no, no. The administrator is the undersecretary. It’s the same person. Yeah. So, it’s just one position with two titles, basically.
Alright? So, it’s the administrator is at the undersecretary level. But the point is, it says that nobody else in the department can in any way direct them. And so, I mean, I’m not talking here about the head of the Office of Science. I’m talking about like, the general counsel of the department (laughter).
The CFO of the department. So, it’s a management nightmare.
And many of those in the NNSA took this very, very seriously. And considered themselves to be independent.
But, of course, no responsibility was taken away from the secretary.
And, you know, so, at Los Alamos, let’s say, an NNSA laboratory, let’s say something really bad happens. And a bunch of people die. Who’s on the carpet?
It’s the secretary. It’s not the administrator of the NNSA.
Right? And so, it was just a bad idea.
So, Ernie, on that point. I mean, not like a federal agency ever needs help or reason to add unnecessary layers of bureaucracy. But to what extent is this about slapping together legislation quickly out of a panicked response to Wen Ho Lee? How much of the story is related to that?
It was indeed slapped together in response to the Wen Ho Lee situation. But I would argue the Wen Ho Lee situation was simply being used as the excuse that a number of people wanted to do this and saw it as the first step—
—in breaking up the department.
So, this was already in train even before the Wen Ho Lee scandal broke?
Discussions. Yes. And as I said, with strange bedfellows. Many were motivated by wanting to get the weapons program out of the department. Others were motivated—
From where? Who was responsible? Who was pushing this?
So, uh. Well. One of my great friends, unfortunately now deceased, Pete Domenici was a pusher. Ellen Tauscher. A dear friend, also—and also deceased. And Mac Thornberry were three “fathers” of this NNSA. And at least some of them, certainly Mac Thornberry and probably Pete Domenici—although with Pete, it was less clear—definitely saw this as step one towards the fissioning of the department. So, now if I go forward twelve years, Mac Thornberry, who is he’s still in the Congress, although retiring at the end of this year, was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Not now, because now he’s the ranking member in the minority party. But to be honest, he had some staff in particular for whom this was a big bee in their bonnet. And in 2012, they formed a congressional, Blue-Ribbon committee, under the co-chairmanship of Admiral Rich Meese, who had been the head of the Strategic Command and Norm Augustine, former Lockheed CEO. And with a committee that was to look at the future of NNSA and the department and should it be out? Should it be in? Etc., etc. Everyone understood that this was a committee put together for the express purpose of recommending that NNSA be taken out of the Department of Energy (laughter). The majority of the committee had already publicly taken that posture.
How much pushback was there within the DOE, itself, on this?
Well, so there was pushback. And then I became secretary in May of 2013. And worked a lot with them. And here now, I give them a lot of credit. They took the job very seriously. They came, frankly, from a position that was pretty clear, but then looked at it hard. And they came to understand some of the things I talked about earlier. Like with the laboratory system and how the hell you gonna do this? And if you do pull them out, Los Alamos, Livermore, Sandia, will die an intellectual death for two reasons. A move towards diminishing the multiplicity of missions that is important for their human resource development in weapons. And secondly, because, and I’ll say it bluntly, the Department of Defense doesn’t know how to run a scientific laboratory.
And so, they ended up going back with their report and recommending that oops! The NNSA should be reintegrated with the department. This was not well received by those who put the committee together (laughter).
And they never even called for a hearing on the report. Their so-called Blue-Ribbon commission. They just wanted to bury it. But this goes on and it will go on until the right thing is done. Which in my view is, you eliminate the NNSA label. It doesn’t change any of the programs. And you call the head of that program the Under Secretary for Nuclear Security. And they are run just like all the other undersecretary’s responsibilities in the department. You know? There’s one general counsel for the department. Not one special for them who often won’t talk to the department’s general counsel. So, you know, I mean, in the end we managed to get around this to a certain extent because the person that the President nominated, but I recommended for nomination, was Retired General Klotz, a three star. He was completely reasonable. He got it. He understood. You know? Cause like, I’d say to him, “You know, your general counsel doesn’t want to interact with the department’s general counsel. Well, what do you think happens whenever you send something up to me that involves general counsel kind of stuff? You know, I ask my general counsel to look at it!”
It sure would have been easier if they had just looked at it first (laughter). Before it came up. That kind of a thing. It was just unnecessary complication. And yet, made others on the outside, especially many in Congress, kind of think of this as a separate agency except when they wanted to blame the secretary for something.
Ernie, when we look to the future to the extent that the reintegration of NNSA is a partisan issue, do you see reintegration as more likely to happen in a Trump II administration versus a Biden administration? Or Republican or Democratic control of the House or the Senate? How do you see this in partisan terms?
I think that if the White House and the Senate flip, and the House remains Democratic…if you have all Democratic, I think there’s a much better chance of the reintegration. That will not change, especially in the Senate, some obstructionism, I believe. And in the end, I think most administrations would not think it’s worth spending the political capital on it. Even though for the Secretary of Energy, it would be a huge improvement. But we’ll see.
One other question, while we’re on the Los Alamos side of things. What was your reaction to the task force against racial profiling which was commissioned by the DOE in the wake of the Wen Ho Lee case? MONIZ: [pause] I really don’t have a very strong view on that commission. I have a strong view on the Wen Ho Lee case. And I can’t say too much without getting into various kinds of trouble. I guess all I would do is emphasize and the rest follows. He was convicted of a felony. And materials that nobody questions were taken out of the laboratory, have never been found. So, I’m not a big fan of historical revisionism.
So, the racial profiling stuff, you see as a distraction for facts that simply occurred?
No, I don’t see it as a distraction. All I’m saying is that that came later. And that was very close to the end of the Clinton administration when this really all came to a head. So, you know, I’m not in any way minimizing it. All I’m saying is that I was not deeply involved in that part. I was much more programmatically involved.
To return to this idea about breaking up the DOE and for people that might say, “Well, why don’t we just have DOD do this, you know? They have an unlimited base of resources, essentially. Why don’t we just give them all the engineers and physicists they need, and they can manage the science behind the nuclear weapons program?” What’s the response there?
No. Again, there’s no way to do that without unraveling the nuclear weapons part from the all the other parts of DOE.
From the basic science, the energy programs. I mean, I don’t think the DOD would be a very good Steward or would want to be a steward of those other missions. I’m not trying to insult my colleagues at DOD, but as a rule at least, they just don’t have the focus or the ability to run this set of laboratories in a way that will maintain scientific excellence, in my view. At a minimum, I would say, it would sure be a big risk because we can’t afford to have those science establishments weakened as long as we have the nuclear weapons responsibility. And it’s not only nuclear weapons. It’s also nonproliferation. As I said earlier, for example, I think Pacific Northwest probably has a bigger nuclear nonproliferation profile than do any of the weapons labs. They certainly have a big one, a significant one in terms of detectors and all kinds of things of this type. So, you know, it’s again, the security mission is not only in those three laboratories. And none of the missions of DOE are exclusively in any or are in all of these multipurpose laboratories, if you like. Including the weapons labs.
A few specific questions on the National Labs. First at Oak Ridge, what was your perspective on the shift from the Advanced Neutron Source to the Spallation Neutron Source?
Oh, it was a big deal. Reactor sources still remain important. And at Oak Ridge, they still continue to have reactor sources. But the Spallation Source was a whole new ball game in terms of flux and its very nontrivial technology. Putting all that power into a target. But it really kind of went pretty damn well. And it’s become an absolutely premiere material science facility. So, I think it’s great and one of the things that, when I was secretary, without going into a lot of detail, we were able to make an acquisition that increased the flux by about 20% at very, very little cost. That was a controversial program where I put my neck out by purchasing Iranian heavy water and sending it to Oak Ridge where they could use it to increase their flux. Yep. It’s a great facility and the improvements in the light sources have been fantastic. And Brookhaven and Argonne and Berkeley and SLAC really do have complementary capabilities with those light sources. It’s an unbelievable resource for the American research community.
And on Brookhaven—
Also, by the way, not well known is—I don’t know the exact number now—but it’s got to be certainly over forty percent of the light source time is now taken up by life science research.
Half of the new drugs that come out have essentially had, in their early stages, have gone through one of these light sources (laughter).
Yeah. It’s an important point.
And nobody knows that, basically.
Right. Right. And at Brookhaven, what was your reaction to the shutdown of the reactor there?
Well, I think that was very unfortunate. As you remember, that happened just as I was becoming undersecretary. The event occurred before I was there. The decision was taken by Secretary Peña before I was confirmed. But it all started with the tritium leak. I think that that could have been managed a lot better but, frankly, in those days Brookhaven was not well known for excellent community relations, shall we say? Actually, they were known for perhaps having the worst community relations of any of the laboratories. And so, the tritium leak in that kind of environment, it just kind of spiraled out of control and Peña. Peña felt that he just had to have that reactor close down. I think it was a real loss for the science community. That reactor had been very prominent in a number of materials research advances including high temperature super conductivity. Kind of towards the end of its life, etc. These laboratories, after all, live in an environment, a community, communities. And unless they are the like the pure science labs, like a Fermilab, for example, or a SLAC, there’s generally a lot of community interest in those laboratories. And if you don’t manage that, that can really come back to bite you and that’s what happened in Brookhaven.
Ernie, I’m curious if in the wake of the demise of—
By the way, and then a new director was brought in. Jack Marburger, who later became George W. Bush’s science advisor.
And Jack had been the president of Stonybrook, which is not far from Brookhaven. He was a physicist himself. As Stonybrook president, he had nurtured very, very, good relationships with the Long Island communities. So, when he became the director, it was…a sea change in terms of relationship to the communities.
Now, in the wake of the demise of SSC and where HEPAP was starting to ask existential questions about really the future of high energy physics in the United States, from your vantage point, I wonder if you ever saw opportunity at the DOE to start to branch out and to support astrophysics and cosmology? And I’m thinking specifically of the way that for example, Ray Orbach supported the work at LBNL. I’m curious during your tenure if you saw any opportunity for DOE to get into the astrophysics and cosmology business?
It was less an opportunity to get into it top-down, as opposed to not getting in the way of it—
—bottom-up. Because I think that’s really what happened. Already going back into the nineties, Fermilab was, I mean, built up an astrophysics-cosmology group basically. And had a very, very strong focus. And got involved in some major projects. As part of my physics background, I’m understanding how the questions around particle physics are so central to so much of astrophysics and cosmology. To me, it just seemed natural and that I wasn’t going to worry about putting up artificial barriers that somehow that was out of spec for what we do. And that, by the way, had nothing to do with the SSC termination. That was just the evolution of physics. And you know, and I’m a theoretical physicist, so it seemed natural. But again, what I would say is neither I, nor others in the line of science responsibilities at DOE, fortunately, I think, none of us got in the way of it, etc., I mean to have an actual project out of Berkeley, well, it’s great that it was funded. So, I think it’s a great success story, actually. And the department, its laboratories, etc., have unquestionably made a major contribution. And it’s all connected to the Standard Model and beyond the Standard Model, and the like.
What interest did you have in ITER? In the ITER project that was going on?
Well. I’ve always been somewhat skeptical about ITER. And that goes back to when I was in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, frankly. And there were two reasons. One is that it was clear that the project was being supported and was structured mainly as a vehicle for international collaboration as opposed to a vehicle to accomplish specific scientific goals that needed international collaboration.
When you have a project with its physical presence in France, its headquarters in Spain, and a Japanese director, you see the international corporative driver. I just don’t think that’s the way. I mean, I’ve always supported international science when it is contributing to getting the science done. And I felt this was a case where it was contributing the opposite (laughter). Huge bureaucracy confusion. Extraordinarily poor project management. It was so discombobulated with all the members. And yet, a project that absolutely needed the highest standard of project management. I will say that the current director of ITER, Bernard Bigot, who I’ve known a long time, has really straightened that up. He became director 2015 or 2016, I think. I was secretary at the time. I knew Bernard from his days in Paris. And when he took the job he said he had to have the ability to act like a different director. And run a project. And whoever was the best contributor for something, that’s who he needed. And he has done, as far as I can see, he’s done a terrific job. Five years. For straightening ITER as a project. But, you know, I started to get involved at OSTP in 1995. So that was twenty years of, in my view, just kind of flailing around in terms of actual project execution on a very, very, tough project. But finally, I think they’ve gotten their act together on that. Of course, it’s cost a huge amount in terms of money and schedule. Secondly, my problem back in ’95 already, and this remains to this day, is that while I could certainly see ITER succeeding and getting at burning plasma and being an excellent opportunity for doing some very interesting plasma science, I just have a hard time envisioning a technology of that complexity and scale ever having a reasonable cost point as a producer of electricity. Especially, when judged against a moving target of lowering costs for alternative technologies. So, that’s where frankly, I’ve always been more a skeptic. It’s not that I’m opposed to ITER. Because again, I do think it can succeed scientifically some years down the road. But I felt that at least in parallel with it, and you know, money being tight it was hard to do to many things—I felt that there were many opportunities for much more innovation that one could do at smaller scale. And then eventually you see what looks more promising. As I said earlier, I actually think that we’ve come to that day where we are seeing a lot more innovation. But ironically, most of it is being funded by private capital. Now I have to be transparent here and say that I’m on the board of one of those companies. TAE Technologies. And there are a couple of other companies that are getting a lot of attention as well. Like Commonwealth, which is a spinout from MIT. Which is a very compact tokamak design based upon the enormous progress in high field, high temperature superconducting magnets. And there’s another company in Vancouver called General Fusion. I mean there are some others as well, but those are three that I think in the United States and Canada, are getting quite a bit of attention. There are others in the UK, etc. So, all I’m saying is I think we’re seeing now this innovation, this exploration of alternative concepts. As I said, the Commonwealth is in some sense conventional tokamak technology, but it’s not because of the way it uses new architectures and new materials. Whereas the TAE that I’m engaged with is an entirely different concept for doing this. And I don’t know if any is gonna succeed—but I’m optimistic. Or if one or two win that would be a game changer if one could have a relatively compact fusion device that could meet a reasonable cost point. ITER’s target for a burning plasma, is something like, 2035. Even now, it’s still 2035. And I hold out hope that some of these innovative concepts which started a lot later may reach that point sooner—in this decade. It would be an enormous feat scientifically and technically. And again, if it had a cost structure that made sense it would be a total game changer for addressing climate. To have that kind of a high energy density carbon free source without having the nuclear radioactive baggage of a fission reactor, I think would just be an enormous game changer. So, we’ll see.
There’s no downside, essentially.
I think it’s terrific, but I do think at some point the government is going to have to help get one or more of these new concepts over the finish line to an actually functioning pilot project. Because at some point, I mean, private capital has demonstrated itself to be available in the, let’s say, $100 million scale. But has not proved itself to be available at the billions of dollars scale (laughter).
And so, I think we’re still going to need some kind of public-private approach, quite likely. But, maybe not. Maybe the private sector will be able to put that kind of money together and go forward. It’s really very exciting that the private sector has done that. But unfortunately, that’s happened in response to the fact that again, at least in the United States, the fusion budget was always so skimpy and ITER would take a big piece of it. And there just wasn’t the room to do serious funding of multiple other concepts. Of course, the Princeton Lab was always funded to do things. And they had the stellarator-like approach. Then they had a problem and right now they’re not working. But actually, you had Princeton, you had MIT, and you had General Atomics all with fusion activity. And I think right now it’s just General Atomics. I’m not quite sure about that, but I think it’s just General Atomics, plus these privately funded innovation companies.
Ernie, another post-SSC question. Did you see any specific opportunity or mandate to keep the United States relevant in high energy physics? In other words, did you see the United States as essentially ceding leadership to CERN in high energy? And were there any opportunities to challenge that narrative?
First of all, we did of course, do the upgrade at Fermilab with the Tevatron upgrade…I mean, they did have a chance to find the Higgs, if the Higgs had cooperated with a little bit lower mass. But you know, we still have maintained support for American high energy groups to work at CERN. Very, very central to CERN’s research program. To work at Super-Kamiokande in Japan. Underground stuff, etc. And that is something that over these years we also did encourage—the underground physics, neutrino physics, and the like. When I became secretary, 2013, I was paid a visit pretty early on by representatives of the high energy physics community about support for them. They were not getting well supported in their budget. And there was this leadership question that was lurking in the background. We didn’t have SSC and all of that. And so, I was very straightforward. I said that I think that maintaining vitality in that field was very, very important. And not because of the technology spinoffs. I mean, there’s that too. But because of the science (laughter).
And that I would be prepared to support them. Strongly. But not in their then current position. I told them bluntly, “Since the SSC has died, you guys have been a set of warring tribes. You’re a set of warring tribes, you get nothing. And your budget goes just the way you’ve seen it go these last years.” So, I said, “If you guys get together, HEPAP do a new long-range plan. And you all come together on something. And the community stops backbiting, I’ll support you. If you don’t, I won’t. Not because I don’t like the science, but because I don’t want to waste my time.” It was a little wake up call. The next year they produced a very good plan. Executing is still tough. To be honest, I haven’t checked in the last three and a half years. But I have the impression that the community is still much more together than they were in those years in the wilderness after SSC was killed. And that was a long time. I mean that was over a decade when they just could not get their act together and it showed. And, you know, usual thing. It’s easy not to get something done. It’s a lot harder to get something done. And you don’t do it if you don’t have everybody pulling in the same way. And frankly—
Ernie, the support—
—I think the SSC death in itself, was part of the fact that the community was not really, fully together on that. And you don’t build a big thing like that without having everybody behind it.
Right. And the support that you’re referring to here, if they get their act together, is this dollars specifically you’re talking about? Budgetary support? Or political support to go to Congress?
Yeah. Both. And I think they did get a little bit better treatment, budgetarily. I don’t remember the numbers exactly, to be honest. But I think the Congress, I know the Congress was impressed then with the plan that they came out with in 2014.
Meaning theoretically, that you could come up with $10-15 billion as a…
No, no, no. No. To even have the license—
—to be able to try to put together, let’s say an international consortium.
The days of the one country building these big machines themselves, I think, are past. But they never even had the license to go and do that. And that was another mistake made in the SSC. Very, very, inadequate reaching out to other countries. And it was a mess. I mean. It was a mess.
Two items while we stay in the Clinton administration. I’m curious to the extent you were personally, or the DOE was paying attention to the rise of high energy physics in China. If you were paying attention to that at all, at the time?
Well, in China. SLAC helped China to build a ring. Electron ring, etc. We were all very supportive of that. Obviously, overall relationship with China in the ‘90s was a little bit different from what it is today (laughter).
To put it mildly. Frankly, I don’t think SLAC today…not because of the Department of Energy, but today I don’t think the administration would allow SLAC to help China in building that kind of a ring.
No, it was a whole different time. And it was important. And it was great to welcome China into the international community doing this science.
And nowadays, of course, China is doing incredible things. [pause]
And a Biden administration would, obviously present some strong opportunities to collaborate again? [pause]
Eh…I don’t know. I don’t know how that would go with regard to China. I mean I think the…we’ll see how the election turns out. I mean, again, we’re doing this interview in October. And one would expect that a Biden administration would be looking to have not comity, but at least amore transactional kind of cooperation with China. Which could spill over to this field. But um. I don’t think the reality on the ground or the politics would permit any kind of magical, “let’s go back status quo anti to where we were five years ago” and just carry on like nothing’s happened. A lot’s happened. And the reality is there’s lots of reasons to be concerned about some of the things China is doing. So, I don’t know. I just don’t know what the answer to your question is…I think school is out to see what happens in the next couple years.
What was your role in the development of the Stockpile Stewardship Program?
My role. Well, the Stockpile Stewardship Program was really started in 1995. Which is when I was at OSTP and before I became undersecretary in 1997. A visionary guy in this regard certainly was someone named Vic Reis, who at the time was heading the nuclear weapons program. And with the weapons testing ban or moratorium, if you like, stockpile stewardship was born as a product of the commitment by President Clinton to make the moratorium permanent. The moratorium on testing. And so, frankly, I think, you know, it was a chicken and egg thing. I think it would’ve been very hard to have made that commitment if there wasn’t at least this idea in hand that we are going to change the entire stewardship program to a science based one in which there will be no nuclear explositive yield. So, by the time I came in, ideas were developing. Nothing executed or formally launched. Remarkable big steps forward in computation and in new experimental facilities were developing. In fact, there is a total misconception about the computational role in science-based stockpile stewardship, in the sense that a lot of people think it was conceived as, okay, we need a hundred times the computational power within a decade in order to have that as the foundation of stockpile stewardship modeling and simulation. We never phrased it that way. Rather, what we said is the program, which we then really got launched in the late nineties, the program is about providing the kinds of facilities that will provide data on materials and dynamics, implosions, and the like, in a whole new parameter space of pressures, of temperatures, of implosion times. Having to take photographs, quotes, of an implosion. And so, for example, something called DARHT, dual access radiographic something facility at Los Alamos, was built with accelerators that would intersect with exquisite timing and be able to capture these dynamics. With NIF at Livermore. A hundred and ninety-two giant lasers all to be shot off and focused onto a point of a few millimeters, basically. With reaching astrophysical level pressures and temperatures of the type that are also in nuclear weapons, etc. Plus, the computation. So, it was all of that that we approved and started to implement. And the ingenuity that was displayed by literally inventing these new kinds of machines that had never been done before. It’s amazing. And done in a short time. In the computation, there was a whole new architecture of the machines required. And also, organizationally it was remarkable. So, to get this rapid increase in the computational power and new architectures, the program worked with companies, IBM and Cray, developing different concepts. Also, what we did when I was there, we also added to the computational program a program for universities. The idea was not that the universities were going to get involved in nuclear weapons, but they would work on the algorithmic structures needed to apply these new architectures to problems like supernova. I think Chicago had that. And there were other programs of this type. The point being, that while those are not weapons, it’s the same kind of equations and chemical reacting flow that had to be addressed. So, the idea was to draw upon also, the capabilities of four universities substantially funded to develop, again, the algorithmic structures that would allow them to study those problems when this new computational architecture was available. So, it was a very sophisticated program. I mean, people think, okay, you build a bigger computer and that’s stockpile stewardship. Not at all. Really, really complex. Also, developing what are called subcritical tests underground in Nevada. Sometimes using plutonium. But never reaching nuclear yield. Those are the experiments where, for example, things like the equation of state of plutonium in a new domain could be measured. The aging properties. If you’re going to have a weapon sitting in the stockpile, not for the 15 years that was usual, but for 50 years, well, does the pit still work, roughly speaking, as the plutonium ages?
So, incredible amount of science and computation that had to come together and bring together again, these different players, industry, etc. In 1999 when I was undersecretary, I got the annual high performance computing industry award called The Cray Award for advancing large scale computation, etc., etc. And it really pissed off some of my colleagues in physics because they knew I had never done a large computation in my life (laughter). And I got the Cray Award! So, I still have the little plate that I got for that. But it was a hell of a time to invent this whole new program. And that had a secondary issue as far as physics goes. But a very prominent issue as far as nuclear security goes. When in 1999, the Senate chose to have hearings on ratification of the comprehensive test ban treaty. And everybody knew this was a show to vote no on it. In my heart of hearts, I felt that ratifying the treaty straight up kind of didn’t make a lot of sense because the Stockpile Stewardship Program was not yet in effect. The idea would be that we would have built all of those capabilities by like the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. 2008, 2009, something like that. And it would be hard to ratify the treaty as a forever treaty until you knew that the science-based program would work as a substitute for testing. So, I tried at the last minute to urge that we seek only a ten-year ratification with a mandatory review on the basis that we would then see where stockpile stewardship was. But anyway, didn’t happen, didn’t work. And we are still with an unratified comprehensive test ban treaty although we have continued the moratorium. Recently, the administration, again, we’re talking here in October 2020. Recently, the administration over the last six months had various noises come out that made a lot of people nervous, including myself, about the idea of returning to testing when there is no need for it. And it would only weaken our security.
Ernie, besides the comprehensive test ban treaty, in what other ways if at all, did your work in the Clinton administration provide training ground in the realm of nuclear diplomacy for you? MONIZ: Oh, a lot. I basically led three efforts. One was, I guess it was late ’98, to put the high enriched uranium deal back on the tracks. It had stopped. This is the Megatons to Megawatts Deal where Russian weapons uranium, high enriched uranium, would be down blended into U.S. nuclear power reactor fuel. Giant program. The greatest nonproliferation program, ever, in my view. A lot of people don’t realize that ten percent of American electricity for twenty years came from Russian nuclear weapons material. It’s huge scale. But in ’98, it had stopped. It had broken down and I’d led a team, very small team, that negotiated with Russia and with international uranium companies to put it back together. Then I negotiated –similar to the Iran negotiations later on—in Paris I let with the state department, the nuclear terms of a plutonium disposition program. And we signed that in 2000. But unfortunately, that program has never actually been executed yet. It’s still struggling. And then third, I led a negotiation with Russia on a whole new approach to the nuclear fuel cycle. That failed to converge, unfortunately. Would’ve been a big deal. But anyway, so, actually, Bill Richardson, Secretary Richardson gave me the title of Special Negotiator for Russian Nuclear Materials or something like that. And a big deal there was because I’m obviously a physicist and had been head of the Department of Physics at MIT before I went to DOE, it led the minister of atomic energy in Russia, Minister Adamov, who was a technical person, a very prominent nuclear engineering person, even though there was the protocol mismatch that he was the minister and I was the undersecretary, he basically only wanted to negotiate with me (laughter).
That we could like, talk our language.
And that really helped a lot. And again, we did manage to resolve the HEU problem. We did negotiate the plutonium disposition agreement whose implementation has been challenged. And we failed to get across the finish line on the nuclear fuel cycle. But a lot of activity. I was in Moscow a lot. In 2000, I was in Moscow six times in the first half of the year preparing for the President Clinton and President Putin first and only summit meeting in Moscow. So, a lot of this was trying to get stuff ready for the summit.
I don’t want this question to come within a million miles of classified, but I’m curious if you can tell me, and if not, that’s fine. As the Clinton administration was getting increasingly concerned about Al-Qaeda and terrorism, if the DOE played a role in intelligence gathering with regard to nuclear terrorism?
I’ll just say that the Department of Energy, again, not so commonly known, but it’s not classified. It does have an intelligence office and that office is one of the seventeen, I think it’s seventeen. Seventeen national labs. I think it’s also seventeen elements of the intelligence community.
The number may not be quite right. So, they are the conduit for most of the nuclear technical knowledge that the intelligence community is engaged with. I would say that there was, from the late nineties to the Obama administration, when I was there, I think that the DOE intelligence office did become much more prominent in the overall intelligence community and much better integrated, frankly, with the overall intelligence community. So, it’s a very important office. When I left, an anecdote. I mean, they did the counting, not me. They claimed that I had had more intelligence briefings in my term as secretary than all the previous secretaries added together.
Aha. Right (laughter).
They were a very, very important part of our activity.
Alright, Ernie. Last question for the session. And I think that’ll close out the Clinton years. Were you prepared to leave Washington regardless of who won the presidential election? Were you ready to leave?
Absolutely (laughter). Yeah. I had said, as I said before, I had made that statement after OSTP—
But that didn’t work out for you.
—I did leave. It didn’t last very long. My mindset was certainly about leaving again. To go back to MIT.
So, you preempted any conversation with the Gore people? With the Gore administration?
There really was no conversation. For one thing because if you remember, that was not an easy election resolution.
It went on until December. And I’m hoping to God we don’t have the same or worse this time around.
And so, it was, it was a lot of confusion. And okay, maybe we’ll just end. I’ll give you the anecdote on the resolution of that election. I think it was early December when it was resolved, as I recall.
And Bill Richardson had committed to be the co-chair of the second U.S.-Africa Energy Summit in early December. The first one was in the United States. This one was going to be in Johannesburg. And would be co-chaired with the South African energy minister and there’d be other energy ministers from Africa. I had made plans for early December to get an honorary Ph.D. at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. I had been a Humboldt fellow there years earlier. And in Europe, these honorary doctorate events, it’s not like tied to a graduation. It’s an independent event that you schedule. So, I scheduled it. They had contacted me I think in the spring and I said, “This is a great honor. Terrific. Love to do this. But I really can’t do it until after the election. So, let’s take a nice safe date, like early December” (laughter).
And so, it was all scheduled, you know? And I just had to go to it. So, and the election’s not over. So, it’s a mess. And for Bill Richardson, obviously with his political stature, etc., it’s kind of a mess. So, a week before the conference, he says, “Look. I just can’t go. Ernie, you go to South Africa and do this.” And I said, “Well, I have to go to Germany to get this degree. But it turns out that the conference is scheduled like for a day after the Ph.D. ceremony, so I could go from Germany to South Africa and do this. But what happens if Gore wins?”
Right? And so, the third option was the assistant secretary for international, Dave Goldwyn, he would be the co-chair of the Summit. Now the protocol gap is getting bigger and bigger.
He would go there, and the logic sequence was if Gore won, I was to get my honorary degree and get my ass back to Washington as soon as possible. And the assistant secretary would run the meeting. If Gore lost, I would go to South Africa and run the proforma meeting, etc. (laughter). And as we’re going to the ceremony, the Supreme Court suddenly says, “Bush wins.” And so, we did the ceremony and I took off my winter clothes and put my summer clothes on for Johannesburg. It was a complete mess. But anyway. So, the politics of that election result certainly was playing an important role in everything that we did. That doesn’t change the fact my head was, been here, done that.
Okay, Ernie. We’ll cut it there and I’ll see you next time.
[End of recording]
So, the few months delay from OSTP to undersecretary became a twelve-year delay from DOE to DOE.
And then back to MIT. Okay, Ernie, I’ll see you next time. Bye.
[End of Recording]
Okay, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is October 19, 2020. I’m so happy to be back with Professor Ernest Moniz. Ernie, good to see you again.
Let’s do it again.
Alright. So, we left with a pretty clean narrative break last time. The end of the Clinton administration and your return to MIT. And so, my first question there is during your latter years in Washington, at the end of the Clinton administration, how engaged were you with MIT and the department? Were you totally cut off and uninvolved or were you sort of up to date on the big goings on in the department while you were in Washington?
Well, I was generally aware of what was going on, but I was, of course, completely cut off. I was recused, obviously, from anything that involved MIT. So, just by the way, in contrast however, to when I became secretary. When I became secretary, I resigned. I retired from MIT. Became emeritus. Whereas when I was undersecretary, I was on leave of absence. So, it was quite different. But then with strict recusals.
Did you know what your research agenda was going to be before you got back to MIT? Or did you sort of think it was an opportunity to build anew what you wanted to work on next?
I knew I would be going in a different direction. And it got solidified when I was back maybe a couple weeks and my colleague, John Deutch, came to see me. John, of course, had been in the Clinton administration, but he had gone back to MIT just before the end of the first term. He had been at the Department of Defense as deputy secretary and then he was CIA director. And went back to MIT at the end of 1996. But John was also in the Carter administration. The head of what was then called the Office of Energy Research. It is now called the Office of Science. Same office, basically. And also, he was there for the very first term, when DOE got setup with Jim Schlesinger as the secretary. And of course, Schlesinger had earlier been Secretary of Defense. So, the point is, very much in the national security arena. John as head of the Office of Energy Research was also statutorily, the science advisor to the secretary. I think people identify Deutch with his Clinton service at Defense and Intelligence, but forget that in the Carter administration, he was also in the energy department.
That’s relevant, in a sense, because when I went back, then John came to see me as I said, after a couple of weeks. John is in the Department of Chemistry. And basically, as we were now the two kinds of scarred veterans of the political wars in Washington, knew our way around the policy world as well as the science world. Basically, John’s question: “Okay. What are we going to do?”
Yeah. MONIZ: “And let’s do something together.” And that…
Within the institution of MIT, you mean?
Within MIT. That’s right. Exactly right.
Right. MONIZ: “And let’s do something different.” And I knew I was going to do something different. I hadn’t exactly nailed it down. But I knew it’d be something different. And so, we decided that what we would do is a future of nuclear power study. And it would be something rather different from a traditional kind of academic work, in that it would not be kind of the typical peer reviewed kind of research project. But rather, an explicitly policy-oriented study. Very technically grounded and analytical. But again, policy oriented. Carried out by a group of senior faculty and senior researchers. Frankly, because this kind of work would not be very helpful for any junior faculty members’ tenure prospects.
And it would be all MIT because we wanted this to be not like a national academy study either—where you know, frankly—the principals fly in a couple times a year and the staff writes the report. This was going to be the real work of the working group. And so, we were meeting for most of two years. We met nearly every week. The senior group. And wrote the report. Among its recommendations were a specific set of recommendations on the R&D portfolio. And that became a template for some follow-on academic style research. But our report itself had a very, very different audience. It was really written for the Washington, D.C. policy maker. And you know, John and I having both been applied policy makers, we kind of knew how the impedance matching should go to the policy world as opposed to the publication world. Frankly, it was an enormous success. And in particular, Pete Domenici was really deep into it. And then wrote legislation that helped implement some of that. So, that Future of…study, we had great fun, frankly, I think, doing it. And it had great influence. And partly it was because of John and my coming from government. Plus being certified academics.
And Ernie, in the conceptual stage, before you were assured of its success, given this blank state status where you and John were thinking about what you can do, why nuclear? Why was that the thing of all the things to work on that you determined was the best idea?
We thought about some different areas. And decided that nuclear was ripe for this kind of thing. There was kind of a confused outlook for nuclear. For lots of reasons, including waste management, etc. And so, you know, and we both have expertise in that area.
How involved were you with the NRC during the Clinton years?
Pretty much involved. I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say that I had the opportunity to become a commissioner. I was probed by The White House. And my answer was fundamentally, “I’m not a regulator.”
I’m a technical guy and a policy guy. I’m not a regulator. But I recommended a good friend, Dick Meserve.
Who then became the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. So, he replaced Shirley Jackson when she left the chair and became the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic. So, anyway, given the success of that report, then we decided to essentially make it a franchise. The Future of... And next became The Future of Coal. By the way, this was always in a carbon constrained world. Not surprisingly, The Future of Coal ended up being a report on carbon capture and sequestration for a low carbon world. Then we did Future of Natural Gas. Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle. Future of Solar Energy. Except The Future of Solar Energy, I had to drop out of that when I became secretary, ‘cause it wasn’t finished yet. That was published afterwards. But this became a…
Ernie, a very clear partisan question. Was one of the motivations…
No, this became kind of a trademark series. The Future of series. And they were all, they were eagerly devoured in the policy world. And I think were quite influential. So that thread up through The Future of Solar Energy occupied me from 2001 until 2013, when I became Energy Secretary. And retired from MIT and the like. But of course—in the middle of that, we can come back to this—but in the middle of that, then a parallel track was my becoming the founding director of the MIT Energy Initiative— MITei (pronounced “mishly”)!
So, some people think that The Future of series was an invention of MITei. It was actually really the other way around in a certain sense. Once MITei was formed, and I was the director, then that became the home for The Future of series. But really The Future of series predated it.
Now, a strictly partisan question, knowing that you know, W. Bush and Cheney were both oil men, and that oil would certainly be having a moment in the George W. Bush presidency, was one of your motivations ensuring that you could do your part to make sure that clean energy alternatives would remain part of the national conversation?
It wasn’t because Bush was the President and Cheney was the Vice President. It’s because we, starting in that 2001 discussion with John, we both were on the same page that everything we did would be for a low carbon world. Whether it was a carbon free resource like nuclear or whether it was coal, which was the second report we did, which is of course, the most carbon intensive fuel. Which is why CCS became really, the focal point of that report. So, it wasn’t really the partisan push. It was how do we get there in terms of low carbon? And what I’d say is that we always recognized that to get to low carbon, electricity was probably going to be the lead sector. Not probably. Would be the lead sector. And that’s why it was really nuclear and coal were both, of course, really for the electricity sector. Whereas the gas study that we took on next as gas is obviously, well in fact, now today, and we were pretty prescient, to be honest. When we started it in 2008, the shale revolution was not yet in people’s minds. In fact, not too much before that, the CEO of Exxon made the statement that all of this unconventional gas was crap. And they started to build LNG import terminals. Well, Exxon Mobil corrected that mistake by spending $41 billion a few years later to buy a fracking company. So, we talked about in The Future of Natural Gas, we of course, did have to talk about other sectors because of gas’s broader uses. But even then, we still had the focal point on electricity. And the gas substitution for coal as being a critical pathway for carbon reduction. Which of course has all been borne out. And today, coal and gas have kind of flipped their market share in the electricity sector compared to say, fifteen years ago.
Ernie, what was your game plan to ensure that this series would have political relevance and it wouldn’t just be an academic study?
Well, again, it was the structure of how we put it together.
In other words, who was the target in Washington? Who was the intended audience?
Well, like Pete Domenici (laughter). So, in the Congress, the administration. Look, when we did The Future of Nuclear Power, the first one, 2003, I already mentioned briefing Pete Domenici. Actually, slightly before it was published. But in the same trip. Then John and I went and briefed the Secretary of Energy. Briefed in The White House. So, it was really, it was focused at the government. And the policy arena, where policy—I’m including things, again like the R&D agenda—as an important part of the policy activity. So, we structured it that way. We didn’t write it in a kind of, academic style. And again, I think we had policy credibility. We had access. We knew these people quite well. And so, that’s what we did.
And were Bush administration officials generally receptive to what you had to say?
Yes. Yes. Absolutely. Well, I mean during the Bush administration, the only two that were published was nuclear and coal. We started gas and we started nuclear fuel cycle towards the end of the Bush administration, but those reports were not finished until 2011.
And what were some of the benchmarks or feedback mechanisms you would use to determine how…the reception of these studies? How relevant they were in the broader policy debates of energy?
Ha. Did they appear in bills?
Yeah. MONIZ: (Laughter) They…I mean it was pretty simple. Did it influence the R&D budgets? Did it influence policy? Did it influence at DOE in the nuclear case? Did it influence how the Office of Nuclear Energy was pursuing its activities? And the answers were basically yes. I think our coal study really kind of elevated CCS as a major discussion topic. It still is today, not always viewed favorably in today’s polarized political debate. But, no, I think that’s what we were looking for. And so, it’s pretty easy to see if it was having any impact.
And how clearly did you articulate the concern of carbon emissions and climate change as one of the motivating factors for elevating these alternative energy sources?
Well, we made it very clear. But it became especially clear in our gas report. The reason being, I mean, coal and nuclear, it’s much more easy to be siloed looking at those. When we started the gas study, in 2008, the question was “is natural gas part of the problem or part of the solution for climate change?” And we came to the conclusion that the answer was yes. Yes, because then we did a general equilibrium model for substantial reduction in carbon emissions by mid-century and found exactly what you could have guessed. But it puts some numbers on it. And basically, what you found was that in the case of the model it was until about 2035, gas share was growing. Coal share was decreasing. Gas was driving coal out of the system. And so, for that period of time, the answer was yes, it’s part of the solution for climate change. After around 2035, you’re driving the total carbon emissions down. Coal has already been driven out of the system. So, now the answer is yes, gas is part of the problem.
Because it’s now too carbon intensive.
The goal posts changed.
And so, gas started to get driven out of the system. And for our particular model, it was driven out of the system a little bit past mid-century to be fully replaced by carbon free sources, renewables and nuclear. So, in that case in the gas study, it was kind of crystal clear that you had to look at the whole system and see how it worked and how gas—you know, it may be a tired expression—but being tired doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It really was gas as this bridge to the low carbon future. The exception could be of course, carbon capture and sequestration coming in to be used with gas or coal, for that matter. But, in our model, the cost of carbon capture and sequestration was still too high for it to come in in an appreciable way in the electricity sector before mid-century. But you know, if you change the costs then it would change. But anyway, but that was the main dynamic in the gas sector and that’s where, again, the carbon tradeoffs became clear. Of course, we started it seven years after the nuclear study. And in those seven years, the profile of climate change was raised pretty dramatically. It was there in 2000, 2001. We were doing that when I was undersecretary. But it really began to take off, I would say, during that decade in terms of people recognizing the scale of the challenge and the importance of the challenge.
What do you think it counts for the raising of the profile of climate change? Like things like Hurricane Katrina, for example?
Well, Katrina was part of it. But also, it was just the enormous advances also in the modeling, for example. For example, one of my colleagues, I’ll always remember this. Ron Prinn is an atmospheric scientist at MIT, and co-director for a long time of the joint program on the science and policy of global change. Throughout the nineties, it wasn’t that he was a disbeliever or denier of climate change. But as a rigorous academic scientist, he would not kind of, go over the line of what he felt the data actually showed. And pull the trigger on a statement like, “Human activity, anthropogenic activity is driving climate change…” But in that next decade, he testified in Congress. He says, “Okay. It’s there” (laughter). You know? And I think he had a lot of credibility because he had resisted that all the way to the late nineties based upon, you know, he felt it was probably right. But he was not prepared to say that it was right with extremely high confidence. In that next decade that changed. That’s just an anecdote reflecting what was happening more broadly.
And more broadly, of course, these are the years with Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth and particularly at the end of that documentary where he produces a path forward for all of the alternative energy sources that could replace fossil fuels and increase prosperity and things like that. I’m curious during the Bush 43 administration, if you worked with any prominent Clinton-era officials that you might have seen common ground to work with on?
Not really. We were, pretty much within MIT. We thought it was very important to have the study group be essentially MIT, because as I said, we thought that the contact sport part of it was going to be absolutely critical for what we wanted. But we also knew we needed broader perspectives. So, what we did is we had external advisory committees that would convene more or less quarterly. And help us put our thoughts together on these studies. Like Phil Sharp, former congressman, chaired actually the first two studies. Nuclear and coal. Mac McLarty, Clinton chief of staff, chaired the natural gas working group. Bennett Johnston was on these committees. John Podesta, another Clinton chief of staff, was on two or three of the committees. So, in that sense. But not from the point of view of doing politics together. We did our politics directly with the Congress and the administration. Politics and policy.
And who else within MIT was really key to these efforts, besides you and John? Where else did you branch out you know, throughout MIT, to seek help for this project?
Well, they always had like, four schools involved. John and I both obviously, from the school of science and obviously we had people from the school of engineering. But we also had from our school of humanities and social sciences. For example, Paul Joskow was always key as an economist. Energy economist. We used the studies to recruit new people into the energy arena. Like for example, in the nuclear power study, we recruited Steve Ansolabehere, who was a prominent, young political scientist. Did a lot of public polling, etc. So, we recruited him and supported polling. And he was in several studies. And today, for example, he’s now with Harvard, unfortunately. But one of the things we did is we—whenever we brought in the non-science and engineering faculty and got them into this energy world—we apparently created an enormous risk of MIT losing them to other schools who wanted to emphasize more energy, as well.
So, we lost Steve Ansolabehere to Harvard. Michael Greenstone was another one. A young economist who we had hired; MIT had hired from University of Chicago. Well, Michael became prominent in this, and Chicago hired him back as a chaired professor. I still work with both of them. Another person who was key out of the Sloan School was Dick Schmalensee; who was in the Council of Economic Advisers during the H.W. Bush administration. He was the dean of the Sloan School. So, we spread across as I say, four schools. Somehow, we didn’t really get into the architecture and urban planning. Not a prejudice, it just didn’t happen for some reason in those studies. But that was key. I mean it was really multidisciplinary and that’s where this idea of having repeated contact was important because, for example Dick Schmalensee, and Paul Joskow were very well known in the energy arena for what they did in terms of economics and analysis, etc. But yet, when you had them in the same room with John and me, etc., it took a while to get the same language. It was quite interesting and therefore, quite instructive for all of us. But it was great. It was a great period.
Did you ever see opportunity to include undergraduates or graduate students in these studies? I’m sure this would have been a very exciting area for people thinking about a career in the energy future to be involved.
Oh yeah. We had many students who would do projects for us. And some of the research staff. Again, the only group that we avoided was untenured faculty because we didn’t think it was going to be helpful to them (laughter). After they got tenure, they’d come on. Join the study.
And the terms when you returned to MIT. Was it understood from the beginning that you would not have many of the responsibilities of a traditional academic appointment? It sounds like you weren’t teaching very much or taking on graduate students. Or is that not correct during this period?
Well, again, we had graduate students for these energy studies. But yeah. I made it clear that I was not going to resume my physics research career.
I took the attitude that the problems I hadn’t solved by then, I wouldn’t solve (laughter) in the next twenty years. And I would do something where I felt, I mean frankly, I had something new to offer. Which ended up being this energy, technology, and policy intersection. So, I became a member of the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment at MIT. And then became the co-director of it. And then the director of it later on. I became very active with the Technology and Policy Program, which was affiliated with this Laboratory for Energy and the Environment. And a school that was attempting to integrate engineering and policy, etc. So, my students were coming from this Technology and Policy Program. And that was a program that admitted almost one hundred percent students who had undergraduate degrees in the technical area and then came for a master’s program that would teach them fundamentals of economics and policy and the like. And they would do a thesis for their two-year master’s program at this intersection of technology and policy. A lot of them were part of these Future of studies. So, they would do analyses for us and then build on those for master’s theses. And then a number of those students stayed on for Ph.D.’s. And so, I had several Ph.D. students as well as quite a number of master’s students in that decade; if you like. My last Ph.D. student followed that track. She has a physics degree from UCLA, undergraduate. And then after doing the master’s in TPP, she became my Ph.D. student. And after that, she became an AAAS Fellow. First on the hill working on the committee when Ron Wyden was chair in the energy committee. And then eventually when I became secretary, she worked at DOE in the energy policy and systems analysis group. And now she’s a senior strategy person at one of the major utilities in the United States. So, that’s kind of a trajectory. Now, in parallel with that however, it was not that I stopped my responsibilities to the Department of Physics. So, for example—well, when I went back, I mean, after the Clinton administration in January—I did not teach in the spring of 2001. You know, I had to get my head kind of back into MIT. But then I taught for the first time in my MIT career, freshman physics. And the reason was, when I was department head in the nineties, in the first half of the nineties, I think it was around ’95. I think. I don’t exactly remember. Anyway, one of the faculty, one of my colleagues in the faculty, John Belcher, came to see me. He was very interested in physics education as well as research. And he had heard my bitching that I found it really unconscionable that on the one hand, MIT students, all students, not just physics majors, but all students were required to take a year of physics from the physics department. It was few exceptions where some engineering departments could teach physics in a second-rate way. According to us. But they had to take physics. Unless they were qualified out of it because of their high school and qualifying exams, etc. So, I noted that we had the main line physics course which typically would have say, 600-650 of the thousand freshmen. Let’s say taking the first physics course, 8.01, which is mostly mechanics. And then 8.02, which would be in the spring term. Electricity and magnetism. And they had no laboratory. The reason they had no laboratory was because the class was too big, and we couldn’t do the logistics of a laboratory. But I said, “These are the kids who need a laboratory!” Whereas there were a few other flavors of freshman physics, including 8.012 and 8.022. These were the much smaller classes of the students who were basically going to be or thought about being physics majors. Or they just wanted to have the more advanced class. Much more mathematically challenging, etc. And, of course, because there were 30 of them, they could have a laboratory. And I didn’t like the idea that we were not giving a laboratory to the vast majority. So, John Belcher comes to see me and says, “I’d like to develop a new way of teaching the mainline freshman courses.” And I gave him a grant out of my discretionary money to develop a new course called TEAL. Technology Enhanced Accelerated Learning, I think it is. Or the “A” is something else. I think Accelerated. And this he developed over several years. And then piloted it for the mechanics course by teaching it in the off semester. But then he was mainlining it for the big course. And here, instead of having the giant lecture with hundreds of students given twice in a row—because we also had no room for 600 students—but we had places for 350 students at a time. And then the usual recitation sections which were taught by faculty. So, the department was using a huge number of faculty to teach freshman physics, but most of them only doing these so-called recitation sections. Instead, what John designed was a course where—and it took about a million dollars of capital to finally prepare the room—there were thirteen round tables, each with eight students. And they had laptops, data acquisition systems, etc. They would have a professor who would lecture using screens around the room. But also, as they came into the room, they would get equipment and in pairs, they would do experiments. And analyze them with data acquisition software, etc. And the thing is, you had to have like, six or eight of these classes, each taught by a different faculty member. And that is the way that it is to this day, it is taught at MIT. Going back to my story. So, spring of 2001 when I go back and I’m not teaching, guess who comes and sees me? John Belcher (laughter). And he said, “Ya know, you’re the one who started this.” And in the fall, which is so-called the off semester, so fewer students. “In the fall, we’re going to do the trial run for 8.022. The E&M course. And you’re responsible. You gotta teach it. Be one of the faculty.” And so, I did it. And so, it was interesting. It was an experiment for everybody. It still goes on. And it was great fun. And it was great to have a finally, all of these students doing experiments. And in many ways, in a more creative way. You know, like in 8.022 they’d come in and there’d be, it’d be a different set of equipment for each class. But there’d be a bin of capacitors, you know? And a bin of inductors. And they do circuits and experiment with them, etc. And also learn about data acquisition and software analysis. So, anyway, that’s when I came back. I kind of bifurcated I taught in physics, but at the same time was launching in this different direction with the future of nuclear power and joining up with the Laboratory of Energy and the Environment.
Did you see other universities copy what was happening at MIT?
Well, in particular on the Future of studies, a number of people at other places said, “You know, we couldn’t do that.” They didn’t have the multidisciplinary tradition and frankly, they didn’t have people like John and me who had come from relatively senior government positions. And we were way past tenure. We didn’t have to earn tenure. We could do these things that did not have the usual academic credit; but gave great visibility. And it gave great visibility to the university, as well. Then when we started the Energy Initiative, again—this is not the same as the Future of—but they eventually merged. In June of 2005, just after Susan Hockfield had her formal inauguration as MIT president, she appointed Bob Armstrong, a chemical engineering professor, and me to co-chair a faculty committee to design what became the Energy Initiative. And we spent a year designing it. And it has a lot of novel features compared to any program that existed. Building on MIT’s strengths of multidisciplinary work and of having collaboration with industry in its genome. But to answer your question specifically—in May of 2006—Bob and I presented our report and recommendations. Maybe it was April. I’m not sure. April or May. We went back to Susan Hockfield and presented our suggestions. I think she really understood the novelty of the construct that we had in mind. And she became one of the great supporters and the support of her as President was enormously important in advancing the Energy Initiative. But there was one thing she didn’t really understand. And that was the name that we recommended. MIT Energy Initiative. Like, what the hell’s an initiative? (Laughter) It’s not a program or a laboratory or a center you know? And my answer to her was, “We’re calling it an initiative for two reasons. One is your reaction, like what the hell is this? Is perfect. Because we’re trying to avoid the existing departments and laboratories and centers immediately developing antibodies. And turf, you know? Etc., etc. We designed this program to genuinely be a facilitator of activities at MIT through the departments and laboratories and did not want to project anything about being in competition. So, we invented a new term. The second reason I said is, “Look. This is a novel program. It might work, it might not. Five years from now there’s got to be a serious review and if it’s not adding significant value, you should be able to put a bullet through its head and not have any residual bureaucratic organization to deal with. Which would be the case if it was called a laboratory or a center. They never go away; to first approximation.” Well, the bullet wasn’t needed, it turns out. Still going strong. But then you had a spate of other universities suddenly creating energy initiatives having no clue what that word signified (laughter). Including the bullet in the head.
There are clearly some other very good university energy programs. Stanford of course, comes to mind. But none of them I think have captured the multiple traits of MITei. And nor have they captured the imagination in the same way—because it was true when I left in 2013 and it’s true today—that somewhere between 25-30% of the entire MIT faculty are one way or another involved with MITei. And of course, I also insisted that the acronym be pronounced MIGHTY. Because you gotta have some fun.
Right. Right. Ernie, as the presidential election in 2008 was heating up, were you thinking that you might get a call? Did you get a call? Were you considering going back to Washington in the event a Democrat would win The White House?
No. No. Not at all. Nor was I in 2012 (laughter).
(Laughter) Well, there’s two questions there. There’s the question did you get the call? And there’s the question how you answered it if you did in 2008?
I was not seeking and did not receive any call that I can remember in 2008. I received calls later on. Like from Steve Chu who was the Energy Secretary. So, helping out…
Did you have a relationship with Steve before he became secretary?
A little bit. Not a whole lot. But a little bit. So, for example, when the Macondo catastrophe occurred and Steve had to put together a science SWAT team quickly, he gave me a call. Which I answered by recommending an MIT engineer, Alex Slocum. Within two days, Alex was down in Houston, and he was part of a team of four to five scientists/engineers who were trying to devise clever solutions to get control. The most important call in 2008 was…2009, excuse me. Was the call from John Holdren to join PCAST (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology).
So, in the first term, I did not have a government position, but I was a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology from the beginning. I mean, when the President first appointed the PCAST.
How much of a commitment was PCAST in terms of time needed to be in Washington?
Well, PCAST, first of all, John Holdren was just the best science advisor, in my view, ever. And he had the opportunity to be the best because the President really wanted to hear about science and technology.
And so that was great. And then John, I mean obviously, it was the President’s appointment. But John obviously made the recommendations, principally, at least. Put together a really great group. And we would then have a physical meeting quarterly for basically two days. And the President and/or Vice President…actually, the President mostly and then sometimes the Vice President as well, would come to PCAST. With great regularity, which is amazing. Never happened before.
May never happen again (laughter). I don’t know. But it was, that’s what made it a pleasure and that’s why people were willing to work on it. And we worked. That PCAST has a productivity totally unmatched by any previous PCAST.
And is your sense that this came from Obama on down? He set the tone for how central PCAST would be?
Absolutely. The very first meeting of PCAST, Obama came to meet with us. And John and his co-chairs, initially his co-chairs were Harold Varmus and Eric Lander. We had spent the first day brainstorming on what might be projects that we could take on that could help the President and the administration. And as I recall, we had something like seventeen projects that we had written down as candidates. And Obama came in and we said, “Well, we have this list of suggestions of what we might do.” Read them to him. And it was fantastic. He said, “One, two, three, four. Those I want fast.”
Yeah. MONIZ: “Another few. I want those. But you can take more time on those. Important but not urgent. The first group, important and urgent. And the rest essentially, God bless you. If you want to do them, be my guest.” (Laughter) But it was clear, he wasn’t particularly interested in those others. Which was great. You could have nothing better than clear marching orders.
I forget whether it was a half dozen or seven or eight total projects that he wanted to see. And we did ‘em all.
And so, to get a sense of what Obama prioritized and what he gave weight to, you know? What were the things that were most important in terms of their national security impact? In terms of their climate change impact? In terms of their economic and jobs creation impact? How were those topline agenda items, how did they reverberate throughout all of the possibilities that you presented to him?
Well, in terms of the urgent ones, I would say national security was probably more in the second tier. The important, but not urgent. And there we did do things that were…some things that were classified, for example, in terms of cybersecurity and the like. But an example of one of the other things…big focus, huge focus, was really on the issue of pandemics. And that was addressed many times. That was addressed with several reports over the eight years. And by the way, in the mess of the current COVID crisis, John has reconvened a subset of PCAST. He calls it OPCAST. Obama PCAST. Which has posted I think, four reports on COVID. And response to COVID. Because quite frankly, it wasn’t being done by the current PCAST. That was one. Climate, for example, Maxine Savitz and I co-chaired a major project on energy technology innovation. Accelerating energy technology innovation in the climate context. Another example was work headed by Mark Gorenberg on how spectrum is allocated for communications, etc., with a rather radical idea of changing it which has never gotten implemented, but certainly caught a lot of attention. And I think probably still should be implemented. But anyway, so, it was a pretty broad agenda. So, my focus, obviously then I left PCAST when the President nominated me for Energy Secretary. But I was on there for four years, basically. And my major focus was organizing the energy work.
Who would you say would be credited with ensuring that Obama understood how important pandemic studies and preparedness would be? Or would that just be the President’s own intrinsic understanding of important events and planning?
Well, don’t forget, H1N1 came pretty early in the administration, number one. Number two, I mentioned that you know, by tradition PCAST is co-chaired by the head of OSTP. The President’s science advisor. And an external person. But as I mentioned, in this case, because the President couldn’t choose, they decided that both Harold Varmus and Eric Lander would be the co-chairs with John. Well, both of them obviously are superstars in the biology/medical arena. So, that already shows, I mean, the co-chair was going to come from that field. John’s a physicist and the co-chair was going to be Harold Varmus, who has a Nobel Prize in cancer research, and Eric Lander, the head of the Broad Institute, MIT-Harvard, for advanced genomics, etc. And so, we had a lot of horses to look at that. But the way PCAST worked, it also included bringing in not just the people from biology, but people like Craig Mundie from Microsoft. Bill Press who was a major player in computation and cyber stuff, etc. So, bringing in those different skillsets. And they are all part of this OPCAST that to this day, well, is now kind of back in the saddle analyzing the pandemic issues.
Ernie, you’re so well positioned at this point to give a broad perspective on the effectiveness of the policy apparatus.
But wait. Fifteen minutes more? Okay?
Sure. Sure. You’re so well positioned to compare and contrast, you know, from OSTP and DOE during the Clinton administration when you’re fully operating from within, to your time at MIT in the interregnum years, right?
Alright. My dog just came in. Excuse me.
Oh. Hello. Hello doggie (laughter).
Sorry. Go ahead.
No. So, I’m saying. So, you can compare working from the inside during the Clinton administration at OSTP and DOE and then purely from the outside at MIT with all of these studies. And then with PCAST which is a bit of a hybrid. You’re sort of on the inside and on the outside at the same time. So, in terms of being effective. You know, working as a scientist to help promote the best policy solutions. How do you compare each of those different perches? If the basic goal is essentially the same which is to use your expertise as a scientist to give the best advice as possible for the best possible policy for the country? MONIZ: [pause] Well, first of all. Nothing compares to being a cabinet member (laughter). In terms of obviously being able to influence a lot of things. In my case, both in the department and in The White House as well. Because the DOE Secretary is a member of both the National Security Council and the National Economic Council. That’s not a typical situation for others who work in this arena. So, let’s put aside the cabinet position which again is rather anomalous. But if I say undersecretary. Okay. Both of my roles at DOE are executive roles. You are in charge of programs with large budgets and you’re an executive. OSTP and then PCAST, for me, totally different. Advisory. No budgets. As we discussed, previously at OSTP, I used that perch to help influence the budgets as an advisor to the OMB PAD. And PCAST, still you’re making advisory statements. Now, in general, you know, the advisory roles, you have some leverage, but not a huge amount to be perfectly honest. Which is why I gravitated to the budget when I was at OSTP. But, with PCAST, it was anomalous because again, I have never seen a president so engaged. So, if the President is coming to almost every meeting you have, four times a year, I mean, that changes the level of impact that you can have. And not only on him, but it’s because everybody else in the administration understands that fundamentally we, and John Holdren, have the President’s ear. Well, then that advice means a lot more (laughter) then it would otherwise. And look. The following is not a partisan statement. But it’s just a fact that Clinton and Obama and actually—I believe, George H.W. Bush—they all made the OSTP director double hatted as assistant to the President for science and technology. So that was giving a title that at least nominally was the same level as the National Security Advisor, the National Economic Advisor, etc. Of those, Obama was anomalous in that he even went to the PCAST meetings and not just once a year to drop in and say hello. But quite substantial. I mean in the Clinton years, the Vice President, Gore, is the one of course, who had much more direct interest in the science agenda. And frankly, the first science advisor, Jack Gibbons, was really Al Gore’s person from Tennessee. You know, Jack used to be at Oak Ridge in Tennessee. And that was great. But it’s still not the same thing as the President, obviously. Unfortunately, in the George W. Bush and Trump administrations, the director of OSTP has not been afforded that second hat. Technically, we shouldn’t be calling them science advisor to the President. They are directors of OSTP. Now, that wouldn’t matter if they had the same kind of access. But they don’t.
I mean, the lack of the double hatting is a reflection of their importance, or lack of importance in The White House. In fact, when George W. Bush became president, Jack Marburger—who used to be the director of the Brookhaven Lab and president of SUNY Stonybrook before that (very good guy)—he called me when he was being offered the OSTP job. Jack passed away, unfortunately, from cancer. I asked him would he have that second hat? He said, “No.” And I said, “You shouldn’t do it.”
Well. He did it. And it wasn’t very long before his office was moved from the old executive office building, or the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. You know, right across the street from the West Wing, in The White House complex, to some office, I don’t know, a block and a half up Pennsylvania Avenue. So, it went beyond symbolic in terms of (laughter) not exactly having the inside track. And in that case, for example, if I had been asked to be on PCAST, I would’ve just said no. Not because there’s a Republican. But because you’re just wasting your time, as far as I’m concerned. There’s some impact, but it’s marginal.
Ernie, what best illustrates the point in terms of having Obama’s direct interest in PCAST? In terms of the things that you were working on, the things that you were advocating, and having the President there as an interested participant. What really illustrates the point in terms of how that process and his interest translated into the kinds of policy changes you were advocating?
Well, the pandemic responses got strengthened. And in, particular in 2014, I think it was, ’14 or ’15, in that period, that’s when the National Security Council stood up the new office on pandemics. As I said, that was a major PCAST focus. That got stood up. And that’s the office that famously was then shut down by John Bolton when he was Security Advisor to President Trump. And I might add, at NTI, Nuclear Threat Initiative, where I’m the CEO as well, we hired the woman who put that office together and ran it into the Trump administration to head our biosecurity program since they were getting a lot less attention, shall we say, than they had in the previous administration. So important, as I said earlier, that John Holdren and a significant subgroup of Obama’s PCAST have even voluntarily come back together on their own time to continue the work on the pandemic because of what’s happening with COVID. But I think also presumably, I’ve never asked the question, but presumably my engagement also with that PCAST energy taskforce probably had something to do with becoming the Energy Secretary.
And having the responsibility to implement the recommendations that we made in that report. For example, the Quadrennial Energy Review that we recommended. I got then as, in 2013, I got to start doing it, etc. The one area where a material recommendation did not get over the hump was this question of how spectrum is allocated. And you know, the analog is historically…spectrum is auctioned, right? You bid. You make a bid. A company. They make the bid for a certain amount of wavelengths. And they buy it. And then some frequencies or wavelengths are reserved for emergency responders and the like. So, you know, they have their own communication bands. But, you know, you take this spectrum, and you just chop it up into wavelengths and sell it. The PCAST recommendation was to completely change it. And say that, okay, the analog being when we built the interstate highway system. It’s a national asset. And let’s say you’re out in the open country and you know, you got four lanes in each direction, or something. You don’t own a lane. You change lanes, etc. And so, the proposal was to do that. Was that you don’t sell exclusive rights to this, but rather you have much more fancy switching capabilities that go on now and with packets, etc., etc., that you can use a much broader set of lanes, okay? And accommodate more traffic. That was the analogy. Well, it was brilliant. Except that it tossed everything up on its head and eliminated a source of funds to the government. So, that’s the one that did not get over the finish line.
But it was a very, very, serious study and I thought it was quite stimulating.
Ernie, last question for today and we’ll leave for the cliffhanger, you know, the origins of how you became secretary.
But, by the way, I’ll just make one other little anecdote—
—that I have not seen, but I’ve been told by many, many people that they have seen me with Joe Biden in ads right now in the election. I don’t think they are campaign ads. I think they’re some PAC, is my understanding. But I’ve never seen them. What it is, it comes from a photograph taken at a PCAST meeting (laughter). Where I happen to be the one sitting next to Biden. Kind of downstream to where the camera was. And John Holdren on the other side. So, apparently this role in PCAST has been enshrined now in campaign ads.
(Laughter) That’s great.
And apparently the punchline is that Biden listens to experts (laughter).
I won’t talk about the contrasts being drawn.
(Laughter) So, Ernie, last question for today. We’ll pick up next time with the origins of how you became secretary. How closely involved did you remain in the efforts at MIT with the Future initiative? I mean, once you got involved in PCAST did that mostly take up your time and did MIT work sort of continue on without you? Or you remained involved?
I remained involved. A little less so. But I was, for example, co-chairing the Future of Solar Energy study during that period. But as I said, and there was no conflict in doing that while being on PCAST. But when I became secretary, then I had to cut off all the MIT connections, so that included resigning from the study group.
Right. Right. Good. Okay. Well, I think that’s a good stopping point for today and we’ll pick up next time.
Very good. Thanks so much, Ernie.
One of these has to be the last time, you know?
(Laughter) One of them. But we’re not there yet.
Alright. Okay. See ya.
Very good. Take care.
Okay, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is Election Day, November 3, 2020. And I couldn’t think of a better way than to spend it talking about the Obama administration with Professor Ernest Moniz. Ernie, it’s good to see you.
I guess it’s good to be back.
(Laughter) Alright. Let’s first start with sequencing to establish the narrative of you being named Secretary of Energy. First, when did it become known that Steve Chu was thinking about stepping down?
Well, I think everyone expected that, that would be the case. I think it’s very unusual to have a cabinet member serve two terms.
And when did you get word that you were being considered? Or did you just right away get the offer?
No, no, no. Started to get probes in I think early December. Then came the rumor that I was on the short list. And then came an interview with the big boss on December the 28 of 2012. And that in itself was unusual because December the 28, as a sophisticated watcher of these things, you should’ve immediately blurted out, “That’s impossible!” Because the President always spends the holidays in Hawaii. And the answer is that this was the one exception where he was in Hawaii with his family, but at the end of the 2012, if you go back into the archives of your memory, you will recall there it was a budget crisis, and the government would shut down on January the 1. And he had to fly all the way back to meet with the Big Four from the Congress. And then fly back. He literally flew back on I think, New Year’s Day. The new bill, when he was back in Hawaii, I think technically the government was shut down for the holiday or something like that. But I don’t exactly remember. What I do remember is that I had 45 minutes with him—one on one in the Oval Office—in the hour immediately preceding his meeting with the Big Four to haggle on the budget. And he made it very clear he was not looking forward to that (laughter). So, that’s what happened. And then I forget when, I think then in middle of January it became clear that he wanted to go ahead with my nomination. And then it took a little while I had the confirmation hearing in March, I think it was. And was confirmed easily. I was confirmed 97 to 00. There were three travelling members. My staff remembers that when I was informed of the winning vote—and the 97 to 00 running the table, which is not typical for a department like energy—that my first statement was, “I want names” (laughter).
That was great. I was introduced for my confirmation hearing, by a Republican and a Democrat. The recently deceased General Scowcroft. Brent Scowcroft was my Republican introducer and then my Democratic introducer was just retired Senator Jeff Bingaman, who had been the chairman of the confirming committee until a few months earlier. But of course, there was the Democrat to Republican shift at that time. So, Lisa Murkowski was the chair. It’s also as a little, historical note that when I was confirmed in the Senate for my position as Undersecretary of DOE in 1997, the chair of the committee was Frank Murkowski. And then in 2013, it was his daughter, Lisa Murkowski.
So, I have a family attachment there to the Murkowski’s, right?
Ernie, how closely did you work with Steve Chu, when he was secretary?
Not terribly. It was episodic and typically only when it was an important issue. So, I was working a little bit with Steve—with the department—on issues that were relevant to PCAST. But with Steve—specifically and outside of the PCAST channel—I would give two examples. And he always seemed to call me in airports. One, I was in an airport somewhere in Europe when I got a call about would I join the Blue-Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. And that was cochaired by Brent Scowcroft and Lee Hamilton. But Obama wanted a Blue-Ribbon Commission to be put together by the Secretary of Energy, by Steve. To address— despite the broad name of the commission, America’s Nuclear Future—it was all about waste management and how to break the back of waste management. So, I agreed to do that. And Steve was the supervisory official if you like, although it was actually a report commission by Obama. So, I did that in addition to doing the PCAST. I might add that another thing which we haven’t talked about that I did in the first Obama term was the Threat Reduction Advisory Committee, TRAC. And it was a committee at the Department of Defense that reported to Ash Carter. He was not yet secretary, but it was Ash Carter. Anyway, going back to Steve. And the TRAC was about terrorist issues and stuff of that type, a classified set of discussions. The second Steve Chu call, another again in an airport. I think it was probably Reagan though, if I remember correctly, this time. It was shortly after Macondo. After the blowout in the Gulf. And Steve jumped into that, you know, both feet. And put together, his words in calling me were a SWAT team of scientists and engineers, who were not in the oil business at all. But could come and maybe just think way out of the box about solutions to try to mitigate the problems and cap off the well. And I recommended an MIT person, who was in my view the premiere designer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Alex Slocum.
And Alex is a big time, out of the box thinker. And very, very clever with all kinds of mechanical designs, etc. So, Steve liked the idea, called him, and I think Alex was down in Houston within like two days for weeks to try to think through novel solutions for the Macondo problem. So, there were kind of episodic issues like that where I tried to help out.
Did you work with Steve during the handover transition period? Or did you mostly work with staff?
I’d say it was more with staff. I certainly met with Steve. But frankly, it was just more productive to work with staff who ran programs and the like.
And who were some of the key people that you brought in with you?
And also, Steve’s chief of staff Brandon Hurlbut stepped down after I was nominated—before I was confirmed. He stepped down as chief of staff in order to lead my transition in the department, very effective to have the departmental chief of staff hand that role over to his deputy and focus his time on making sure that I was getting all of the information that I needed.
And who were some of the key career staff at DOE for you?
Well, first of all there were some advisors. For example, on the national security side, Jeff Hughes. He had been a national security advisor for me when I was undersecretary. That was very, very important. Another was Dimitri Kuznetsov. Dimitri, I had known many, many years earlier when he was a faculty member in nuclear physics at Yale University. But then I also knew him at DOE. He was then the NNSA chief scientist. He kept that role, but I also brought him up as science advisor to the secretary. He’s a career person. In fact, he’s now called I think, deputy undersecretary for AI and innovation. Or something like that. And terrific person. So, he was very important. But then I worked with a lot of the career people in the program offices themselves. For example, and again, remembering names quickly is not my strength. Kathy who headed energy efficiency. There’s one office that combines renewables and energy efficiency, which are really two completely different subjects. So, each one has kind of a deputy assistant secretary for each side. And she ran the energy efficiency… Anyway, worked extremely closely with her and her group because the energy efficiency standards for appliances and various kinds of equipment, electric motors, and the like, were all run out of her shop. And we turned up the heat on getting those efficiency standards out big time. So, it was a very, very frequent affair to be meeting with her and her group. And we ended up turning out over fifty energy efficiency standards in the Obama administration. They were thrilled to get the kind of support from the secretary directly to do that. And so, they worked really hard. Cause each rule is a complicated thing. And checking all the requirements for stakeholder involvement, etc. And also, we would involve typically Berkeley Laboratory to do the technoeconomic analysis for cost benefit. Which was an important part of that. And just for the record, I mean, the efficiency standards that we put in place that would affect, of course, new equipment sales, when it was modeled out for anticipated cumulative impact by 2030, the standards that we put in place were projected to save $550 billion on consumer energy bills. And to avoid almost three gigatons of CO2 in that time. So, big deal. An aside, we used one of the less high-profile energy efficiency standards as a way of doing the first utilization of the social cost of carbon. So, we used that in the cost benefit analysis. We included the carbon cost. And we intentionally downplayed it. You could find it in a footnote. And we had like an over-under pool as to how many days it would take before the opponents found it. The answer was two days (laughter). And then all hell broke loose as they found that. Cause this was a big policy change. Anyway, that’s efficiency standards. But another area where the career people, I mean, there’s many. But I’ll mention a few. Another one was the EIA. Energy Information Administration. The head of it, Adam Sieminski, was a political, a Senate confirmed person. But the entire office was career people. Howard Gruenspecht, a career person for example, was the deputy director. And they loved it because I think I had my first meeting with them and they said, and Adam said, “How can we best help?” And EIA was not accustomed to getting a lot of secretarial attention; shall we say? And I said, “I want a briefing a week schedule. You know, some weeks I’ll be travelling, whatever. But fundamentally, one per week. And on an important topic in energy that I should be aware of.” And Adam thought that was great until they thought through later on how much work that was gonna mean. But he asked how was I gonna pick the topics? And I said I wasn’t gonna pick the topics. He was gonna pick the topics. And the only rule was that I never wanted to get bit in the ass by some energy topic I was unprepared for.
And that was his guiding principle for choosing the weekly topics. And so, it happened. And so, it broke the record of EIA briefings of the secretary by—I don’t know—a factor of fifty or something. And every briefing was led by a career person who was the leading expert of the subject. So that was very, very important. A similar thing where all the people are career was with the intelligence. A lot of people don’t realize that DOE has one of the seventeen intelligence offices across the executive branch. And frankly, in my tenure, their profile was elevated very, very dramatically. Partly because I was a real player in the national security arena. Not to mention, like the Iran negotiation, for example. But also, I had worked very closely with them when I was undersecretary already. I mean, it wasn’t the same people, but I had worked with that office very, very closely. And in fact, when I left as undersecretary at the beginning of 2001, when everybody assumed that that was my last hurrah in government and certainly at the Department of Energy. They gave me a great going away gift. The intelligence office. It was a globe. You know, map of the world. With a nice little plaque, at the bottom. But the thing is that all the oceans of the world were black. So, it was the black world. And they were appreciative of my working with them on these national security issues. So anyway, when I went back as secretary, I reestablished that very, very quickly. I took an intelligence briefing every morning that I was in the building. And then there were lots of special briefings. When I left then the second time, they said that they had added it up. And I forget it was 800 briefings or something they had given me. And they determined that it was more briefings than all the previous secretaries combined had had from the DOE intelligence office. And again, they were all career people. Very, very important. Another area where it was career people dealt with an awful lot was environmental management. Cleaning up the mess. The Hanfords, etc., etc. And there again, actually Steve Chu had dug very deeply into Hanford, in particular. I continued that. And we did a lot of brainstorming together in terms of restructuring the entire cleanup approach at Hanford, for example. So, anyway, there are many others, but those are just about every program, area. I mean, the career people are the ones who can do the work. Or not do the work.
And it’s much better to have them doing the work. And lot of very talented people. And if they are being listened to, they’ll work their asses off.
Ernie, what was the overall budgetary environment that you inherited at the DOE? And more broadly, what was your working relationship with OMB like?
Well, the budget was okay. The budgets went up. I think when I left, budget was around $28 billion. Something like that. Now it’s I think $32 billion maybe. $31-$32 billion. A lot of that recent increase especially has been in NNSA. And the beginning of the modernization of the nuclear weapons program. With OMB, it’s the institutional tension that always exists. Because the OMB wants to structure all the programs and a cabinet member wants a lot more independence. I’d have to say that I had a lot of independence. I had that in every dimension, including who I chose to fill positions. I did not have any kind of heavy hand from The White House. There was one example where it was legitimate, that I didn’t get the person I wanted for one position. But it’s also because when he interviewed at The White House, he really said something stupid (laughter). And I couldn’t defend it, really. So, I moved on. But the same was true with OMB. Except, that is, OMB at the high levels. But sometimes I would just get furious when the examiners at OMB, the examiners are the lowest level. The ones with the really detailed interaction with the programs. And sometimes, these examiners would decide that you know, essentially, they knew more about the subject than the people at DOE did. And no, the program wasn’t going to be the way they wanted. It was going to be the way the examiner wanted it. And you know, can’t pick every fight. But sometimes I just had to roll them. And understand the consequences but, sometimes you just gotta roll ‘em. It was more trouble than it was worth sometimes; but had to do it (laughter). But generally speaking, I would say it was okay. And I have to say, I probably had a lot less micromanagement than many others did.
Ernie, what about OSTP? What kinds of input would you typically get from The White House?
Well, with OSTP, I mean, for one thing there was such a strong longstanding relationship between me and John Holdren.
And I know that John was a major supporter of my nomination. So, you know. We had a very, very good relationship. So, give you two big time examples where we worked together. One was in the Quadrennial Energy Review. That is something where I was the cochair of the PCAST committee that made the recommendation to initiate a Quadrennial Energy Review. And in that, when I was in PCAST, I recommended, and I knew the system well enough to understand the pitfalls. But recommended that the interagency group—to be effective to make a good Quadrennial Energy Review—needed the convening power of The White House. So, a senior person in The White House really had to kind of be the chair. The DOE, the Secretary of Energy and the DOE, would have, of course, the biggest individual role in it. And would provide the executive secretariat and would fundamentally do all the analysis and everything. But that’s the way it had to be. That was before I knew I would be the Secretary of Energy. And then some asked, “Well, do you regret having done that?” And the answer is no. Because it was correct. We had twenty-two agencies involved. And there’s no way the Secretary of Energy could’ve herded all of those cats. And John Holdren was The White House lead for doing that. So, it led to some disagreements, including between me and John. I don’t mean disagreements that caused us not to be friends. But professional disagreements on facts. And we’d always find a way to work them out, etc. That’s just the nature of the game because it depends upon what seat you’re sitting in. So, that was a long process and I think it worked out just the way we wanted it. Also, we didn’t want to wait four years and then have a report. So, it was a quadrennial review, but every year there would be a report that then in the fourth year would be the integration. That was the concept. The first installment was on energy infrastructure across the board. Not just electricity wires and pipes, but inland waterways, docks, lots and lots of ways that energy and energy commodities are moved. And that was put out in [pause] I guess it was like May of 2015. Yeah. Which was in the middle of the Iran negotiation, the road to Paris. 2015 was a wild year. And we announced the report. We published it. Had an event in Philadelphia at the utility. And the Vice President, Joe Biden, insisted that he wanted to be part of it. So, I went with Biden to the utility there. And rolled it out. But the amazing thing, and I think it showed the strength of the process we put together is that in 2016—twenty-one of the recommendations of that first volume were fully or partially put into law. Not some committee passed it, but actually passed into law. Into signed bills. And that was with a Republican House and Senate. And not a lot of political comity in general. But we just worked this good analysis, good process, and Lisa Murkowski, for example, and her ranking member Maria Cantwell, they both loved it. And they both worked at it. And got a lot of it into law. So, anyway, that was going back to The White House, etc. OSTP. We and the national security community wanted a major push in computation. Large scale computation as in exascale. Where DOE was the leader. But elements of the security community, like NSA for example, major users of leading-edge computation and big data analysis and the like. Mike Rogers was the head of NSA at the time. So, we got together with John Holdren and did an administration wide thing on both conventional and quantum computing. And so, John kind of chaired a group. Mike and I were really the action officers. And then we also brought in NSF. Because of NSF’s interest also in supporting especially academic computing and the like. But so that was again—a very constructive way of working with John Holdren and OSTP on big things. And you know, a lot of that initiative was public, but not surprising, not all of the iceberg was being shown. There was a lot below the surface also.
Ernie, we’ll have a dedicated discussion on NNSA. But I want to ask generally, what were some of the most important issues with the national laboratories that you faced coming into this position?
Well, the main thing was rebuilding the proper relationship between the department and the labs. I mean that was really the biggest thing. The system I think had slowly kind of gone to the place where they were almost being viewed as performer of tasks. And the programs would atomize the tasks. And for example, I mentioned earlier, EERE, Energy Efficiency Renewable Energy, you know they were the owners, if you like, of one laboratory. NREL, National Renewable [Energy] Laboratory. And the head of the program, Dave Danielson, you know is a very good guy. I mean I had recommended him when I was at MIT as the number one employee of the new ARPA-E. I knew him extremely well. And kind of had to point out to him that his office was, creating tasks and then told the lab to execute. And I said, that’s completely wrong. That’s not using the labs effectively. You have to think about them as being there when the strategic planning is done. And giving them broad, broad direction and having them figure out how to execute. And it was like a lightbulb went off. Oh. I get it. And suddenly, you know, the contracting, the procuring, he had to fight against some of the entrenched career people. But really made progress there. But more broadly it was that idea that what I said is, “Look. The lab directors are not federal employees.”
We have the GOCO relationship. Government-owned, contractor-operated. And the word contractor, I hate in there. But technically that’s what it is. So, you know, University of Chicago runs Argonne. Argonne is part of the University of Chicago. The buildings are owned by the federal government, etc., but the people are all University of Chicago employees, etc. Sixteen of the 17 laboratories have that arrangement. But despite the fact that they were not federal employees, I said, “We’ve got to think of the lab directors as kind of like senior corporate officers of DOE. DOE, Inc.” And I met with them quarterly, even as secretary. I met directly with the lab directors on a quarterly basis. When I was sworn in, I think it was a Thursday. And on that Sunday, I and they all flew to Oak Ridge and we met there. I knew them all basically already. But it was symbolic. We started new things and ideas. An annual ideas meeting, where senior people from the labs, not the directors typically, but senior people would come and really have a brainstorming about what are important new directions in technology that we really need to think about that we’re not doing enough on? And a lot of these then got into our programs. So, I said, that that’s the way I was going to run the place as long as it was a two-way street. And that means that the bad habits that had developed in this kind of transactional approach that had been going on for the previous decade or so, that the bad habits also had to end. And that means you’re not going up to the Hill behind our back and getting in your favorite thing in every appropriation bill if it’s counter to our departmental planning. You know? It’s gotta be all within reason, right? And so, there was kind of a pact that was made. And then I don’t know when it was. A year in, or something like that. An egregious relapse on the part of two of the labs where their research directors went together to the Hill to push for—I’m not going to get into the details. To push for an approach on an issue that was exactly counter to the department’s announced policy. And the next meeting of the entire group, we had a conference room where we met and sat in a horseshoe because one end was open for the slide projector, you know? And I opened the meeting studiously looking at the screen for where slides would be shown. There were no slides. But I did not want to tip my hand by looking at anybody. And I just announced, “Two of you, and you know who you are, had your research directors on the Hill contradicting what we had said. That happens again, our deal is off with all of you.” And those two later found their way to my office (laughter) shaking and said they didn’t know about it. They knew it had happened, but they didn’t order it. They didn’t know it was going to happen until after the fact. It’s probably true. But, I said, “It doesn’t matter. That’s your laboratory. So, fire them. You do what you want, but you’re responsible. And that is egregious, and I cannot trust you to help set our directions if this shit’s going to happen.” It never happened again. I mean, on a serious level.
Yeah. They all have responsibilities to their members of Congress. You know? They’ve gotta tell them they want something because the members of Congress want to be able to say that they delivered something. So, as long as it fits into the plan, it’s okay (laughter). You know? I mean, I know how the game is played. They just can’t go up and start advocating for things that…contradictory to where we’re going. Anyway, so, that was really more than any specific program, it was really establishing this very, very different relationship. Consistently being engaged. Trusting them to do big things. And I think there’s no question, I think it was a huge success, frankly. And unfortunately, that’s not completely stuck in the new administration. And frankly, again, I’m not going to get into naming names, but I know for example, that one of the laboratories led a major important study on an energy system issue and the administration would not allow them to publish it. Not that it was wrong. Not that it wasn’t good analysis. It was just inconvenient. So. And that’s the kind of the thing that really erodes the trust. And everybody knows it. I mean, it was one lab. But you know it gets around, everybody knows it. And that’s when the trust starts again, to break down. So. Anyway. That’s how we—
Ernie, generally, how would you describe your relationship with Congress? And were there particular lawmakers or staff members that you worked with particularly closely?
Oh yeah. I mean and the first thing is that we spent a lot of time up on the Hill. And a lotta the time was not only because I had a favor to ask—it was to find out what’s going on and ask them what’s on their mind? I’ll tell ‘em what’s on my mind, what’s on their mind and areas where we could work together. And did it in both chambers on both sides of the aisle. And it pays huge dividends by building those relationships. So, for example, you know, a clear example, both appropriations committees on both sides. In the Senate, Lamar Alexander from Tennessee was the chair and Dianne Feinstein was the ranking. And on the House side, Mike Simpson from Idaho was the chair and Marcy Kaptur from Ohio was the ranking. And just had terrific relationship with all four. I mean other members of the committees as well. And you know, no hysterics, no surprises. And just worked together. But then these things end up being really critically important. Well, one with Dianne Feinstein was that when the Iran agreement was before Congress to be voted on, to see whether they would block it, whether they could block it or not, and we needed 41 votes, Dianne was…and this wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have the relationship before. Dianne came to me with a great idea and we worked together, and she did a lot of work to organize a whole series of dinners, which I held in my office. Five or six senators at a time. Just to explain the deal. It wasn’t lobbying. It was a complicated deal, making sure they understood it. And she took great pride later in saying privately to me, with kind of a twinkle in her eye, “We ran the table.” Every one of the twenty-seven different senators who took part in the dinners—some came more than once—voted for the deal. And some of them we didn’t expect up front to be there. So, you know, it’s those relationships that you can really build. The same was true on the House side. In fact, I think it was my last hearing, it was in the House. House Energy Committee. And I’ve forgotten what the subject was now. But I’ll always remember that Joe Barton from Texas, former congressman, who had been the chairman of the energy committee, he was no longer the chairman because of term limits. The Republican term limits. He was still on the committee. And when it came his time to ask a question in that hearing, the first thing he said was, “You know, we’re here in the House…” Oh, it was an energy subcommittee, even. It was an energy subcommittee. I think it was on nuclear waste. That’s right. It was on nuclear waste. And I really wanted to—and this was after the election. But I really wanted to get this on the record. So, Joe Barton says, “Man. It is pulling teeth to get a cabinet member in front of this committee. I can’t believe it. You volunteered!” (Laughter) And they loved it. The fact that you know, I would do something like that. And not send, the assistant secretary, for example, to do it. So, I had terrific relationships with lots of members of both parties in both chambers. And that’s why I could get twenty-one recommendations passed of the Quadrennial Energy Review, for example. When most of the cabinet members, frankly, couldn’t get the time of day on the Hill from the Republicans, in that polarized environment.
Ernie, what were some of the most powerful interests from industry that were pulling on DOE decision making?
Well, I mean, it’s different interests in all the four areas of the department. Well, actually, environmental management, not so much. There it was more state regulators, etc., doing the pulling. But clearly in the NNSA, for example, because of our huge role in advancing computation. So, the big computer vendors and players in that space. The chipmakers, etc. They all had very, very large interests in that, of course. And then of course, the companies that ran the establishments. Like, Lockheed running Sandia, for example. You know, would have a strong interest. In the energy sector, across the board, I mean, renewables to oil and gas. In the oil and gas side, one of the big issues was LNG exports. And then later on, oil exports as an issue. LNG exports technically were always allowed, but only one license had been given to Cheniere. That was in Steve Chu’s tenure. And years had gone by without any licenses being given. A real bottleneck was that FERC had to give the environmental go ahead. DOE would give a license, but you needed FERC to approve the environmental impact statement. But number two, on the DOE side, there was a completely screwball way of having the queue. The queue was set up chronologically by when the company contacted DOE that they wanted to get a license. It cost them essentially nothing to do. They didn’t have to have done any work. They didn’t have to have an environmental impact statement done. And yet, you had this queue. And a license was supposed to be given in that order. The trouble is that some of them had no capability of actually executing the project. Or no real intent. And so, I dropped a bombshell because I decided that I thought licensing LNG exports was going to be net good for the economy and good for carbon emissions. The same way it was for the United States. Where gas displaced coal. And so, in the same way, we did a little kind of a generic analysis and concluded that on balance this would be good for carbon emissions if there were more of an LNG market. So, I announced for public comment for, I forget, thirty days or sixty days or something, to say okay, I am going to reset the process. There is no longer a queue. We will issue or decline a license for applicants who have a FERC approved environmental impact statement. Because I’m not going to give you a license if you don’t have environmental impact statement in the bag. So why don’t you stop pissing and moaning and get your damn EIS done? And of course, that costs money. I mean, you got to be serious to actually do the environmental impact statement. And so, this cut through everything. But as an aside—I’ll tell story, Jack Gerard—'cause you asked about industry. So, Jack Gerard, a good guy, he was the head of American Institute of Petroleum. The big trade lobbying organization for the oil and gas industry. And so, he asked for an appointment about this change in rule. And I took the appointment. He comes in and he says, “Oh. You know this rule change. You know, you really just can’t change the rule like this.” And this and this. You know, he’s complaining. And I knew this was a complete charade. He was checking a box for some of his members who had early places in the queue, even if they had no real intent. I knew the real players welcomed it. Cause some of them had real desire to do projects and they were like 19th in the queue. We would never get to them. It made no sense. So, I just said, “Jack, you’re very convincing. Fortunately, we’re still in the comment period, and I’m going to pull the rule that I proposed. Since the industry seems to be so opposed to it.” It took about twelve seconds for him to say in effect, “I was only kidding!” (Laughter) So, you know, the industry, that’s just an example there of the industry sometimes you also gotta know when they’re screwing around. I think in general I think we did pretty well by all the industry players. Including you know, the renewables and transmission companies, and the like. And I think they all felt that we were trying to really advance energy interests in the country, consistent with addressing climate change. So, we did that and then it’s not exactly something for which I’m uniformly applauded today. But man did we crank out LNG export licenses. And you know, I’m glad the industry didn’t say too much in praise. But boy, were they happy that they could actually do a project. And not be stuck in some crazy queue that made no sense. So, anyway, that’s just one anecdote, but it’s a big one in terms of dealing with that.
Ernie, overall, if we were to make a pie chart of the amount of time in your portfolio that was occupied with any one endeavor, nuclear enterprise, environmental cleanup, applied R&D, energy policy, and program science, what were the biggest slices of the pie and what were the smallest slices of the pie overall?
You know, it was a 24/7 job, which is not a complaint at all. Quite the contrary. It means that there was more opportunity to do stuff (laughter). Or at least 16/7 or 17/7. And, so it’s one of the things that you gotta be, an energy secretary has got to be nimble enough to spend a lot of time in very, very different program areas. As I’ve said before, the department of weapons and windmills, quarks and quagmires. With the labs as kind of a science and technology integrator and the like. But dealing with very, very different people. It also depends on the year. Like, obviously, there was a period, the most extreme period was the February to mid-July of 2015, when I was so tied up with the Iran negotiation. Including that John Kerry and I were together in Vienna literally for seventeen straight days ending on July 14 when we signed the agreement. And for a cabinet secretary, in this case two cabinet secretaries, but for a place like DOE with a lot of operational issues, I mean, State doesn’t have labs to run and weapons to build or take apart, etc., etc. Being away for seventeen days is a lot. And as I’ve already said, it wasn’t as though there weren’t other things going on, like the Quadrennial Energy Review. Like the road to Paris in that same time period. I was working with Bill Gates to get Mission Innovation structured, etc. But that was a period where obviously Iran was a big piece of the pie, single issue, while trying to balance all of these other really critical issues. I mean the road to Paris, wasn’t exactly a second-tier issue for example. That’s where I had fabulous staff. To be perfectly honest, it’s one of the things that’s been characteristic of organizations that I’ve led, been part of, in many different places. The first thing is you get really terrific people, staff in senior levels. And then trust them. And I met a lot of people like that, who I’ve been working with a long time who I trust. And I mean, I had just a terrific, terrific staff. And part of it was also unusual. For example, in 2013, April 2013, I remember this well for the following story. That’s when we had the Boston Marathon bombing. And I was very close to getting confirmed. And it was clear it was going to happen, which it’s the question of getting the vote to happen. I was going to get confirmed. Although there was the Lindsey Graham hold. As far as the final vote goes. So, I was through the committee, but there was the Lindsey Graham hold. Anyway, it was either Thursday or Friday of that week. The bombing was on a Monday, cause the marathon is the Monday. Patriot’s Day. It was, whenever it was, it was the day when in the afternoon in Watertown, the second terrorist was cornered. I had gone to MIT, to my office to work there when Cambridge was shut down. I’m not sure technically if I was supposed to be there or not, but that’s where I work better. So, I was in there. The streets were just totally empty. And coming back to the staff. Late morning two people came into interview. People I knew, but they wanted to come to interview to be part of my senior staff. And it was a yes for both. One was Kevin Knobloch. He had been the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists for about 10 years, I think. And in the end, he didn’t know what position, but he just wanted to come and work. Terrific guy. And so, I ended up bringing him as chief of staff. And usually, The White House is pretty possessive about chiefs of staff because that’s their way of kind of controlling things.
But Kevin Knobloch, they could not complain (laughter). And he was great. And the other one who came in on that day, that fateful day, was a guy named John MacWilliams. I hadn’t seen John in many, many years. John was a very successful investor. Energy investor. He and another colleague who was more my friend, but they had formed two different investment groups in energy technology. And he said he was prepared to unwind all of his investments. Give it up. And do public service. And he ended up, (laughter) I said, “I don’t know how I’m going to use you, but you’re hired.” I mean, this is the kind of quality of people you know, that really matters. And then you figure out what they do. He ended up being the first departmental, I don’t mean DOE, the first cabinet department chief risk officer. And was involved in many, many important projects. So, that’s the level I’m talking about. I mean, Melanie Kenderdine, Joe Hezir, I mean these were just extremely accomplished people. These are not kids. Some of them, like Melanie and Joe, and Kevin actually, from his earlier years, really knew their way around the system. Others like John MacWilliams, whole new world. So, he came at it without any kinds of baggage about what you couldn’t do. As far as he was concerned, you could do everything (laughter). And so, anyway, there was many, many more. I could go through. I brought in about ten of these kinds of senior people. All very complementary and it was great. I forgot how we got into that; I think. But anyway, it was terrific.
Ernie, another budget question. You did come in under the shadow of budget sequestration. So, you know, overall, you said the environment was pretty good. But given that it was budget sequestration, were there any programs that you thought felt were hamstrung? Or any initiatives that you wanted to pursue that you didn’t feel like you were able to, as a result of that?
Well, yeah. I mean, quantitatively, yes. An obvious one is APRA-E’s funding growth was painfully slow, despite all the support it had. And we finally kind of cracked that nut a little bit towards the end. And that continued in the Trump administration. So, they’re now up to, I don’t know, somewhere around I think, half a billion. When they were formed, they were formed out of ARRA. And they got $200 million for two years. So, their budget was $100 million a year. And one ARPA-E program, a scale of an ARPA-E program is $30 million. Roughly. So, it started out that they could only do three program areas. And then we started to get it up, get it up. We got up to, I don’t know, I forget. When I left, I think it was maybe $250 million per year. And I think now it’s maybe $450 million. Maybe not quite $500 million. So now, it’s you know, they can support a much bigger portfolio. And I think they’re doin’ a great job and have more impact. So that was certainly an area. And in general, I think science was an area where I really would’ve liked to have seen more. But also, you know there were things like, let’s say nuclear energy R&D. RD&D. When the budget, when the RD&D budget, not the full office budget, but when the RD&D budget is something like $300 million dollars in nuclear, you just don’t have the space to do a serious initiative let’s say, on Gen IV reactors. You know, you don’t do that on $100 million a year. You’re talking about a billion a year (laughter). To really do it and be able to get to the demonstration level and all of that. So, what I would say is it wasn’t nickel and dime, it was structurally the budgets were not in the right place.
And that’s still the case, I would argue. There’s been progress. But it was said then. I think the American Energy Innovation Council, which was a group of CEOs, not from the energy industry. Bill Gates was one of the major movers of that. Xerox was there. You know, big American companies. They came out—I think it was in 2010—arguing for a doubling or tripling of the Clean Energy Innovation budget. And so, when I was there, that was still in the wind, but the budgets weren’t there to do it. That’s still an issue today. And I guess I’m optimistic or at least very guardedly optimistic that somehow in this decade we’re going to be able to see a major push towards that kind of goal. Which will be a gamechanger for what you can do in areas like nuclear. In areas like innovative fusion. In areas like carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere. And I don’t mean just direct capture. All kinds of pathways. Terrestrial pathways. Biological pathways. And EFI, Energy Futures Initiative, we published a big study on carbon dioxide removal last year. It’s getting great traction. Frankly, a lot of those relationships that I built up when I was in government are still very, very helpful now. For example, Murkowski and Manchin who are now the chair and ranking members of the Senate Energy Committee, they called a hearing specifically from our report which they want to turn into legislation. In that report, what we said, it was for the portfolio of CDR activities which we believe is absolutely central. You know, it’s negative carbon technologies. It’s absolutely central to having any chance of meeting things like net zero goals. We came out with a $10.7 billion budget over 10 years to really do that portfolio. So, another billion a year. So, you know a billion here, billion there and adding another $5 billion to the Clean Energy Innovation Budget would make a big structural difference in terms of what one can do. So, I’m hoping that’s gonna happen. With budget sequestration, it’s clear that there’s not a lot of room in the appropriations budget unless you call it stimulus. In which case there’s apparently lots of room. And so, one possibility is, you know, it’d be very analogous to ARRA. There’s probably still going to be a big stimulus package. Right now, it’s looking like that may very well be only in 2021. We’ll see. If it is, maybe this clean energy is going to be part of that because there’s the evidence that putting money into the clean energy direction is a good job creator. Another route is maybe we get a carbon pricing. Carbon emissions price. You know, the George Shultz, Jim Baker whatever approach. Well, if it’s a carbon emissions price, then the government is collecting a lot of money. If you start at say, $50 a ton, we’re talking near $250 billion a year. Well, if you do that, sure, Shultz/Baker argue that every penny should go back to the people as a flat dividend. The labor unions argue every penny should go into building infrastructure and creating jobs. Well, in the end, nobody’s going to get every penny. And you know, maybe $10 billion out of $250 billion a year will look like a pretty good investment in clean energy technology (laughter). For example. You know, a third way that was tried and never succeeded years ago, when I was undersecretary, was a very small charge. Like 1 mil per kilowatt hour electricity. You could never find a mil in your electricity bill. A mil per kilowatt hour. You know, average cost of electricity in the United States is around ten cents. So, you know, it’s…tiny, tiny piece. And where I’m sitting in Boston, it’s a lot higher than that. So, one mil per kilowatt hour, let’s say for energy innovation, that’s $4 billion a year. I mean, the energy system is big. It doesn’t take a lot to scale that to something that is extremely material in the R&D world. So, anyway, one way or another I think that there’s pretty good bipartisan support. And I think that this might just happen now in this decade.
And this optimism, Ernie, that you feel about what can be accomplished in this decade. You’re saying that that’s not particularly contingent on the outcome of the election?
Uh. There’s some dependence, but the reality is there’s strong bipartisan support. The reality is that during the Trump administration, these budgets have gone up you know, pretty well, given the budget constraints. That’s despite the fact that the administration has consistently proposed forty percent cuts. This has all been in Congress. Bipartisan congressional action. And that’s why, sure, if Biden wins the election, he’s almost certain to propose an increase. Which is a better starting point than minus forty percent. You go up. But I’m saying that no matter who wins the election, I think this is one area where I would be somewhat optimistic. Which obviously is completely different in the policy arena where Biden versus Trump presumably will be day and night.
Right. Right. Ernie, last question for our time together today. When you arrived at DOE, what was your sense of how well the applied energy R&D programs and the Office of Science interacted? Was that a good working relationship? And what opportunities did you see for improvement in that regard?
Obviously, there was some, but it was not nearly good enough. And the thing I did there which immediately helped was to combine into one, to have one person as the undersecretary for science and energy. The history here is something I don’t think I’ve described before. It’s quite interesting at least for inside baseball. When the Department of Energy was formed, it was kind of strange that there was only one undersecretary. For a department with so many missions. Cause usually it’s an undersecretary per mission, roughly speaking. But there was only one. And this proves to be very important when you fast forward to my assuming the role of secretary. Because since there was only one, the position was called simply, the undersecretary. And there were no responsibilities stated because there was only one. Then in the second half of 2000, there became a second one. The Undersecretary for Nuclear Security, also the NNSA administrator. And that was actually the configuration that intellectually, I always favored. One undersecretary for the civilian side, and one for the security side. However, some of our best friends, called physicists, led an ill-considered initiative a few years later to create a third undersecretary for science. And I said, “This is stupid. Why would you have an undersecretary with one office reporting to it?” And that’s all it was. It was the Office of Science, which had traditionally had a very strong director. Someone with substantial research experience, etc. You know, when I left as undersecretary, we had Millie Dresselhaus in that role. When I came in as secretary, I had Cherry Murray in that role. I mean these are…and then Bill Brinkman had been there with Steve Chu. I mean these are huge figures in the physics research enterprise.
And they didn’t need to have an undersecretary to report to. I testified against it when I was not in government. I testified not having the third undersecretary. But what I did say is, in that testimony, but if the Congress does decide to do the third undersecretary, do it in a different way than is being proposed. You have nuclear security of course. Then have one undersecretary for science and energy, so that you can maximize the synergies there. And that undersecretary will then have thirteen of the seventeen laboratories directly reporting to him or her. So, the great majority of the laboratories. And then the third undersecretary would be for environmental management and departmental operations. And environmental management is essentially, a contract management role. All these contractors, etc. So, the physicists still wanted their undersecretary for science. So, in the end, and this was Jeff Bingaman’s committee. What they did is they said okay, we create the undersecretary for science, but the undersecretary for science can have other duties assigned to him or her according to the secretary’s prerogatives. So, when I went in, I said, “Okay. I assign the energy responsibilities to the undersecretary for science and energy.” That then left me with the original undersecretary position to fill. But it had no definition.
It wasn’t for energy.
Didn’t have to have energy there. I could put it somewhere else. And so, in fact, I put my configuration in place. And that third undersecretary was for environmental management and essentially COO, even though technically the deputy secretary was the COO. But this undersecretary would really manage operations for the department. The main thing here is the energy and science undersecretary. It really worked. It brought in a first-class person, Lynn Orr, from Stanford. Lynn Orr and I had a long running argument since like 2005, 2006, as to whether the MIT Energy Initiative that I led or the Stanford Energy Initiative that he led was the top university energy program (laughter). I always introduced Lynn by congratulating him on running the second-best university energy initiative program. Anyway, Lynn’s a terrific guy. Lots of experience. Kind of the parallel experience to what I had at MIT, at Stanford. And he came in as the undersecretary of science and energy. Lynn, with thirteen of the labs, the NNSA and environmental management easily understood that their four labs should meet with Lynn Orr when he was meeting with the other thirteen. So, he really had the entire lab system. He is the one who ran things like the ideas program I mentioned earlier, looking for novel approaches. New approaches. He ran the Quadrennial Technology Review that we did where he could use science, energy offices, and laboratories all together. And Congress loved it. And inexplicably, probably only because we did it, this administration chopped it up again.
And it’s a real, real loss to the programs. So, it’ll come back. And I believe when it comes back, I believe Congress will put it in statute. That it’s the undersecretary for science and energy.
Good. Alright, Ernie. On that note, it’s our time. So, we’ll leave it there. And we’ll pick it up next time.
Okay, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is November 9, 2020. I’m delighted to be back with Professor Ernest J. Moniz. Ernie, let’s start today with, I want to ask you about the degree to which you saw to orchestrate the roles of applied R&D, ARPA-E, and the loan programs. How did all of those things work before you arrived and what did you want to do with regard to making them work better as secretary?
Well, first of all, I think they all worked pretty well under Steve Chu and certainly when he established ARPA-E using the stimulus funds in 2009, he chose a terrific first director in Arun Majumdar. Arun had worked with him at the Berkeley Lab when Chu was the director. So, again he chose just a terrific person. Similarly, in the Office of Science, he had Bill Brinkman, another very, very, seasoned, and very, very, well-known physicist heading the Office of Science. I would say the one place where there was a bit of a shortcoming, I would say was in the Under Secretary for Science. Not because of the person. The person was outstanding. Steve Koonin. The problem was organizationally, it made no sense to have an undersecretary with only one office reporting to it. And that office was the office headed by Bill Brinkman, who did not need an intermediary between him and the secretary. So, I think it was organizationally unfortunate. And so, the thing that I then did which I consider to have been a major improvement, was to add to the statutorily required Under Secretary for Science position, the responsibility for the energy offices. Not ARPA-E, because that was by statute a direct report to the secretary. But all of the applied energy offices then went through the Under Secretary for Science and Energy. And there, as usual, getting outstanding people was critical. For the ARPA-E, I successfully recruited Ellen Williams, a very distinguished physicist from the University of Maryland. She, by the way, in addition to her scientific credentials and energy and science interests, is today also the chairwoman of the Jasons. So, she’s again a very, very, prominent scientist. For the Office of Science, we recruited Cherry Murray from Harvard. Another very distinguished physicist who also is very prominent in some national security areas in addition to basic science. She had a prominent role at the Livermore Laboratory, for example. She was dean of applied science at Harvard. And then for the combined science and energy position, I had Lynn Orr from Stanford. And Lynn is a very well-known geoscientist. But he was my corresponding person at Stanford in the sense that I was director of the MIT Energy Initiative, and he was director of the corresponding Stanford Energy Initiative. And so, he was extremely well positioned to coordinate energy and science. And specifically, he had with the combined position thirteen out of the seventeen laboratories reporting to him. It was a very small additional step to have the additional four laboratories—the three NNSA laboratories, so-called “weapons laboratories,” and the environmental management laboratory in South Carolina, Savannah River. They all came to Lynn’s laboratory meetings, so that you had the entire system having regular meetings at the undersecretary level and quarterly meetings with me. And so, I think the step forward was doing much more integration of energy and science.
And so, Ernie, from your perspective, from your vantage point, to what extent did you view ARPA-E and R&D and the loan programs as an opportunity to have a unified strategy of technology development and commercialization?
Well, yeah, so it did lead to some concrete programs, for example, more follow through on having some successful ARPA-E projects. After their, say, three years of ARPA-E funding, novating, and setting picked up for the next stage of development by the applied energy programs. The loan program was obviously on the deployment side. So, I think one could see kind of the spectrum of RD&D, you know, more as a whole in the department. And I think that’s what we need more of.
But we also need a lot more funding and a lot more focus on major demonstration projects to get these technologies to the place where the entrepreneurs, the investors, the policy officials, etc., kind of all know if these technologies are ready for the marketplace.
And how would you compare the degree of technical scrutiny that goes into the decision on the loan program? Compared to ARPA-E’s, you know, unique program management insofar as that it’s much more hands on in its technical scrutiny than other grant programs?
Well, the loan program had, and again, the person that I recruited to that position was Mark McCall, who came from the Lime Rock investment world. And he and, also before him, Peter Davidson, who was recruited by Steve Chu, I think did a terrific job of establishing a strong due diligence culture. And I think frankly, they kind of became the gold standard for due diligence for companies in the loan program, which in turn helped the private investment sector, in judging its own investments. One thing that’s not known, it did not come to pass, but it gives you an idea of I think how successful they were. A lot of people would be incredulous that the OMB would think that the Department of Energy loan program was so outstanding in its management that they tried to have the DOE program become the executive agent for the U.S. Department of Agriculture loan programs. And Secretary Vilsack, so I went over actually, cause our offices, were you know, just a long block apart on Independence Avenue. My office was at 1000 Independence Avenue and his was, I don’t know, 1200 or so Independence Avenue. He was for it. That they would maintain, of course, the programmatic responsibility to decide where to go with loans. But that our apparatus was, frankly, the best in the government. Well, secretaries come and go, but career officials are there all the time and let’s just say it didn’t work in the end. But I think it does show I think that the professionalism that was instilled in that office was something that was recognized even by the OMB. Which is a strong statement.
(Laughter) Ernie, overblown or not, I’m curious the extent to which the Solyndra episode decreased your appetite for more risky adventures through the loan program.
Well, it certainly did that in Obama’s first term. And Steve Chu was clearly kind of backfooted by it because Solyndra was also the first loan. And when I came in as secretary, it remained the largest default by far. Roughly $550 million out of the total of about $800 million of defaults. And when I left, Solyndra remained the largest default out of the roughly $800 million. And that was with $30 billion deployed. So, when I came into the role, the first thing I did with meeting with the loan program was to state that we were finished playing defense. We were playing offense on the loan program because it had an outstanding record, as a portfolio. And I think it was quite remarkable that as soon as we took that attitude, all the Solyndra noise stopped. It just went away. And you stopped hearing it as a punching bag for the Republican Congress. And so, I think just that kind of raising the headlights completely changed the path forward.
Ernie, I know, you know, since DOE, you’ve suggested that it would be advantageous not to have separate applied energy offices. You know, separate renewables, nuclear fossil, electricity, and so on. Was this a view that you had as secretary? And did you take any steps to further that perspective during your time at DOE?
Well, first of all, let me say. It’s not that I said we shouldn’t have those offices. It’s that I think they should be reorganized. More nearly around what you might call the end use sectors. You know, transportation, electricity, industry, and the like. So, it would be a different crosscut than what you might call a fuels-oriented approach. And I did have that view when I was secretary. I had it before I was secretary. But I just determined that especially being a second term secretary, that it would be organizationally too big a lift. So, I did some organizational changes, like the Under Secretary for Science and Energy. And just decided that I would manage through crosscuts in the energy offices. Which in turn, was helped by having the Under Secretary for Science and Energy. So, it was a tactical decision that, you know, you can only do so much in terms of a reorganization. It creates a lot of churn. And in particular, a lot of groundwork needs to be laid with the Congress. Because the congressional committees are all accustomed to working on certain programs in certain ways. And now you’re asking for a complete reorientation. And coming in in the second term, I just felt that there would be too much entropy generated. And I had programmatic fish to fry. And I felt it was better to do that within the existing organizational structure. Even though I did feel, technically, conceptually, I thought it could be improved. But it would’ve just taken up too much oxygen.
To what extent did the energy frontier research centers and energy innovation hubs serve as a vehicle for connecting Office of Science work to the DOE mission goals? And more generally, to what extent did you want the Office of Science to be mission driven?
Well, the EFRCs, first of all, I thought were an absolutely terrific construct. Now, using the language of the famous book by Don Stokes, Pasteur’s Quadrant, I certainly felt it was very important to maintain the Bohr’s quadrant work in the Office of Science. And I don’t know if that’s familiar. But Bohr’s quadrant meant very basic research looking at understanding the laws of nature. That was Niels Bohr, of course.
You have the Niels Bohr quadrant, so-called. Pasteur’s quadrant was the mission driven basic research. The idea was Pasteur made very fundamental science breakthroughs, microbial science, and the like, but it was driven by applied ends. You know, pasteurization of milk and the like. And so, the EFRCs were essentially an explicit manifestation of what I would call Pasteur’s quadrant because they were, each of the EFRCs was addressing a science program that was defined by a specific energy technology challenge. And so, with the stimulus funding in 2009, that allowed the EFRCs to be put into action. And I believe 47, that’s an amazing number, I think 47 were created going forward with something like half of them having their full three-year funding of say, $2-3 million a year each. Typically, at universities to have their entire three-year funding covered by the stimulus funding. ARRA funding. Whereas the other half were funded through the standard appropriations process. In the Bush administration, Ray Orbach, headed the Office of Science, and the Under Secretary for Science position was created. And as I said earlier, I saw no point in having that position filled with only one person reporting to it. And so, I think the Bush administration did the second-best thing. The best thing is, in my view, what I did. Which was to combine the energy and science there. But the second-best thing was to double hat Orbach and make him both the head of science and the Under Secretary for Science, which effectively just meant carry on. And as I said earlier, I think the third option was the worst in which you actually did what the congress legislated and had that redundant position. So, anyway, Orbach, I think under his leadership, they did a terrific thing. The Bush administration, in creating a library if you like, of documents, each of which came from workshops involving a real cross section of the external research community. Both labs and universities. Each volume defined the fundamental science challenges that you needed to overcome for breakthroughs in energy technologies. The EFRC’s RFP, the request for proposals, was fundamentally to come forward with a proposal that addresses any one of the scientific challenges across all 10 volumes or so of the library of energy technology basic research challenge. It was a terrific construct. The construct was established I would say in the Bush administration and executed at the beginning of the Obama administration. Then when I became secretary, it was time to renew. The EFRC was typically $2-3 million a year for five years. And possibly renewable for a second five years. So, when I came in, the first five years was up in 2014. And the program that ran the EFRCs, Basic Energy Sciences, did not have the money to carry forward 47 projects. So, they had it roughly cut in half. And most of them were going to be renewals. Second five years. And I said that that was unacceptable. That this kind of a program needed more idea flow. And so, we modified it, added a few more centers. So, shifted some funds to a few more EFRCs. And renewed a few less. And made some of the renewals more short-term. Not for five years. Maybe a three-year renewal or a two-year renewal. And the idea was that we had to create space for at least half of the EFRCs. The smaller number of EFRCs in the 30s. We had to make room for say, half of those to be new. So, that’s how it went forward there. Tremendously successful. Huge number of published papers. Huge number of patents. Even though it was basic research. Huge number of startup companies. I know that just from MIT. MIT had two of the original 47, for example. And they were just terrific. So, I think I am very high on ARPA-E. I’m very high on EFRCs. And I’m very high on the innovation hubs. At least most of them. I was actually very involved in the first innovation hub during the Obama first term. When I was not in government. Well, I was on PCAST, but I didn’t have a government position as such. And the very first hub was at Oak Ridge, called CASL. Consortium to Advance Simulation of Light Water Reactors. It was an innovation hub that was to take advantage of Oak Ridge’s leading position in supercomputing. And its historical leading role along with Argonne in nuclear reactor design. And so, the idea was that this innovation hub at Oak Ridge, of course involving a number of other institutions, including labs and universities. But that its job was to develop the very large-scale computational approaches to understanding nuclear fuel design, nuclear safety, etc. And incorporated into regulatory proceedings and the like. And it was just enormously successful. In fact, it had a five-year renewal, which was the maximum. It went for 10 years. And it’s just now ending. And in fact, as we speak here, within a couple of weeks or so, I will be speaking at the valedictory set of discussions on CASL. I got involved. I was the initial chairman of the board of CASL back in 2010 because I had played also a major role going back to when I was undersecretary in advancing of the large-scale computation agenda. And so, I played a role in that until I became secretary. But still viewed it as kind of a very healthy young child, you know?
(Laughter) Ernie, back on the question of the reorg, did you have any difficulties realigning the undersecretary roles to create a unified Under Secretary for Science and Energy? Particularly with respect to satisfying the underlying statute? And of course, as you well know, the underlying statute was cited in the Trump administration as a justification for undoing your reorganization.
I didn’t have a problem, but it was creative. But let me say that in the middle of 2000 is when the Under Secretary for Nuclear Security was created. The Under Secretary for Nuclear Security was also by statute, the administrator of NNSA. The National Nuclear Security Administration. Before that, there was only one undersecretary. So, when DOE was formed, and I don’t understand why, to be honest. Cause it defies reason, to be honest, for a department which combines, if you like, the civilian science and energy portfolios with the nuclear weapons national security portfolio. You would’ve thought that there would be at least two undersecretaries. One for each of those different missions. And in fact, it was always my view that that would be the logical alignment. And that then naturally, that you would have one undersecretary combining the energy and science missions. But, for whatever reason, when the department was established in the 1970s, there was only one undersecretary for the entire department. And I was the last of the unitary undersecretaries. Which I have to say, I did not intellectually, think that was the right organization. But it was very helpful for me when I became secretary because it meant as undersecretary, I kind of had the policy responsibility across the entire department. But since there was only one, in the enabling legislation, there was therefore, no need to specify any responsibilities at all for the undersecretary. Because the undersecretary had all the responsibilities, if you like. So, now if you fast forward. Okay, in 2000 the Under Secretary for Nuclear Security gets added. The original undersecretary role was still there and remained undefined. So effectively, of course, in the definition of the new undersecretary role, the existing undersecretary role clearly did not have nuclear security. But the law did not specify what it did have. It was just a blank slate. So, then comes 2002 or so. And you know many of my best friends are physicists, but it does not change the fact that some very good friends of mine were among the group of physicists who lobbied hard to create a third Under Secretary for Science.
They were, in my view, very mistaken in doing that. For reasons I said earlier. They created it to have one office under it. And the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee was the place where they had their foot in the door. Jeff Bingaman was the chairman. Good friend. And he called a hearing on the proposal to create the third undersecretary position. His senior staffer was the person with the pen. And the communications with the physicists, which by now I’m using in a pejorative sense.
And they asked me to testify, knowing that I was not favorable. So, I testified and said I was not favorable. I thought it was a mistake. But I knew that there was a real momentum for it. So, I did suggest a third, another alternative. I said, “But if you insist upon having a third undersecretary, then make it for science and energy. Not just science. And label the original undersecretary position as having responsibility for environmental management and many of the operational elements of the department. You know, human resources and all of that. And then you’d have three undersecretaries with orthogonal responsibilities that covered the map of all of the department’s activities.” Well, they did go ahead and pass the new law, creating the third undersecretary. And I would say I did not get that change. That was a leap too large. But I do think, you know, with my testimony probably playing a major role, some very important words were added. Namely that it was the Under Secretary for Science who could be assigned other responsibilities by the secretary. Undefined. So now when I come in—again, let’s put aside Under Secretary for Nuclear Security. That’s clear. But on the, let’s call it now, we have the civilian side, and we have science to which I could add energy. It was my prerogative to add the energy portfolio. The Trump administration, saying that the statute meant they had to do only science. That’s crazy. It was a choice. And they made a very strange choice. They made the Under Secretary for Science and Environmental Management. Which really has no intellectual sense. And the original undersecretary then had energy. Whereas I in effect, put into place the recommendation I had made in 2002. I moved energy to science and energy, and I had the original position for environmental management and operational activities. In effect, I wanted that undersecretary to take as close to all of the COO role as possible. Unfortunately, by statute, the Congress had the deputy secretary also playing the COO role. I thought that was also a mistake because the deputy secretary should be the deputy secretary. You need a deputy secretary who’s with all the policy stuff, etc. So, I felt that the undersecretary would still be in some sense supervised by the deputy secretary in the COO role, but operationally would effectively carry out most of the day-to-day work there. So, I was able to do that without changing the statutes and frankly, the Congress fully supported the combined science and energy role.
Ernie, how did you understand all of the obstructionism surrounding DOE presidential appointee confirmations in the Senate? Did you see this as unique to DOE, or was this just a casualty of you know—larger political partisan divides at the time?
I’m not going to go into this in detail and name names. But let me say that first of all, my confirmation was held up for a few weeks by Lindsey Graham. And he was very upfront with me. He said, “You know, I’m going to vote for you. I think you’ll be terrific as secretary. But I have some business I need to transact with The White House. And this is the only way I can do it.” So, he was (laughter) very upfront and delayed my taking office for about three weeks. Then subsequently, I think what you’re referring to is I had some disappointment in my original nomination, first of all, for the Office of Science. Which was Marc Kastner, who eventually decided he was tired of waiting and went on and took a different job. But in particular, that undersecretary role that I just described for environmental management and operations. I lost both of my nominees to the exhaustion of waiting for what was a very long obstruction to their confirmation. Two outstanding people and it was a shame. All I will say is, it had nothing to do with partisan divide.
And I’ll just leave it at that.
Okay (laughter). The grand challenge—
When all the players are dead, I’ll leave a note behind to explain it.
Okay, good (laughter). Ernie, the Grand Challenges innovation models that were favored by The White House. How effective did you feel they were with the R&D initiative? You know, thinking of initiatives such as SunShot and how did it focus R&D in ways that it otherwise wouldn’t be?
Yeah, I think SunShot actually is an example of something that I would say was successful in kind of putting out there what were viewed as stretch, techno-economic goals. Which of course proved to be shortsighted in that they were exceeded substantially in reality. But I do think it played a good organizing role for pushing the frontier of techno-economic performance. I mean, some other ones, not so much. I mean for example, in solar going back to the Clinton administration. Million solar rooves for example, was not particularly effective. But SunShot was much more focused on the R&D agenda than the deployment initiative of a million rooves.
In your last DOE budget request, there was an inclusion for a lot of mandatory funding. Why did you take that approach for that final budget request?
Well because the discretionary budget was pretty constrained (laughter). And I think that frankly, starting in 2021, we need a big-time innovation budgetary push. Not for the faint of heart. I mean, billions of dollars per year. And we need it as a sustained push over this decade. Where’s the money going to come from? It’s very hard to see where it comes from within the normal budget process. Unless the caps are removed. And frankly, especially if the Senate—I mean here we are at a time where this interview was occurring when we all believe we have a President-Elect Biden, uncertainty as to control of the Senate. But most people betting that it will remain a Republican majority Senate. Again, depending on the runoffs of the two seats in Georgia. I mean, that’s where we are today as we do this interview. So, let’s assume that we have a Biden presidency and a Republican Senate. Very, very narrowly. Either 51 or 52 seats, at least for the next two years. I think that means it is extremely unlikely that the Congress will lift the budget caps. I mean, to be perfectly honest, I mean the pattern has been very clear. The Republican majority really likes budget caps when there’s a Democratic president.
And is far less committed to them when there’s a Republican president. I mean, that’s just an irony that is true over the years.
And there’s no reason to think it’s going to be a different pattern in the next years. So therefore, where’s the money going to come from for what is also the innovation push that I believe there is bipartisan support for? But it’s like a rock and a hard place. So therefore, you gotta look for other vehicles. One vehicle is another round of stimulus funding that does something like the ARRA funding did in 2009. Namely a big chunk for the energy program, which could include for example, energy infrastructure. I mean, I think both parties are looking for a big infrastructure package. You know, that could be part of a stimulus package and include a lot of energy infrastructure. So, I mean where we are today, since we defined the political landscape today, we also have to define a COVID landscape today. The slope is very, very unfortunate as we head into the winter. So, to me, we’re going to have another stimulus package. Either it’s going to be in this lame duck period, or it’s going to be very early in the Biden presidency. It’s déjà vu all over again of 2009 where the Democratic president comes in with an economic mess. In this case an economic mess caused by the COVID. And needs a big stimulus package. So, anyway, so that’s one direction where you know, the budget caps would not prevent that. But another is mandatory funding. And there you could imagine for example, a one mil per kilowatt hour on electricity would generate. And a mil per kilowatt hour. I mean, you know, it runs into the tax increase hysteria. But the reality is one mil per kilowatt hour is completely unnoticeable within the fluctuations of electricity prices. And yet, we have roughly four trillion kilowatt hours of electricity production in the United States per year. Well, that means four billion a year. Which, I meant dedicated to, let’s say, to innovation. And similarly, a very small additional tax on liquid fuels is another four billion dollars. So, suddenly you’re talking about exactly what we’re talking about (laughter). With a dedicated energy charge that you know, is so small that I think even the issues of it’s not socially progressive, the increase is such that it’s not a big impact. And frankly, it would be even better if you found a correction that made it more progressive. Maybe an additional tax break for lower income people to cover the marginal additional costs in fuels or electricity. So, I think that’s again, that’s another way of going about it. It’s frankly, the way that I would favor. Especially if some of it is combined with novel management approaches. For example, I would take some of that funding, not all of it, but I would take some of that funding and create regional innovation centers. So, let’s say you do raise $8 billion a year more for innovation. Put $2 billion or $3 billion of that into regionally managed innovation centers. I think it’s good policy and it’s good politics to do that. Sweeten the pot, basically. You know, to be perfectly honest. And gain support. Similarly, another idea that I’ve liked for a long time. Take some of that money and take a billion dollars a year and create a quasi-government corporation to manage large scale demonstration projects across the board. But it’d be managed as an independent corporation with a board of directors. And have the kind of money, a billion or $2 billion a year to do big sequestration projects. Big nuclear projects. Big carbon dioxide removal projects. Big massive offshore wind projects with 10, 12 megawatt turbines of floating platforms. etc. So, a corporation that decides where it can best put its money to get into the deployment phase of these major new technologies. So, anyway, I think with a little creative thinking there’s a lot that can be done. But it does require some china to be broken and we’ll see. Certainly, it can more easily be done at the beginning of a new administration than in the middle of an administration. So, now’s the time. And who knows? Maybe there’s a deal to be had with a marginally Republican Senate and a Democratic House and a Democratic Presidency. We’ll see. But I think that would be a very interesting direction and very important for the climate challenge to get that kind of an innovation push now and not be waiting for 2030 to start to develop the technologies we need in 2030 (laughter).
Ernie, even before President Obama took office in January 2009, the costs of renewable energy and energy efficient technologies in general were already dropping. And so, by the time you became secretary, what were the trend lines and how did you want to adjust this reality to your strategy in complimenting industry?
Well, first of all, as you said, they were dropping substantially. Although, I should say as a caution, often the costs being cited are following the discount of tax incentives. And eventually, for real scaling you have to get beyond the tax incentives as part of that. But of course, I started as secretary obviously in 2013. And you know, we’re now going to be almost eight years beyond that, and the genuine costs have continued to drop very, very dramatically. No question about it. This is terrific that these costs are dropping so rapidly. But you know, I want to think about the scaling when wind and solar are 50%, 60%, 70% of the electricity supply where storage has to be integrated with it. And not just for a few hours, but for days and weeks and maybe seasons. That the real all-in system costs, when you include all of that, is much higher than the costs being quoted for naked wind and solar which cannot make a reliable system when their penetration is much larger. So, I think we should temper a little bit, those discussions, while of course, acknowledging them and encouraging further cost reductions. But I think we need now to graduate to a more sophisticated discussion that enables penetrations, not just of 10% or even in California where solar is a maybe 16% including rooftop, because I’m going to be releasing a study a week from today on looking at New England’s options for getting to essentially zero emissions by 2050. And we’ll be talking about 70% wind and solar, a big part of that for New England being offshore wind.
So, we’re not talking about 10% or 15%. We’re talking about a much bigger deployment. And that in turn means that we’re going to have to really think about how you have FIRM, clean electricity as the complement. You know, electricity that you can call upon anytime you want, independent to the weather. Or the time of day. That could be nuclear. It could be carbon capture. It can be more. In the New England case, it can be a lot more Québec-Hydro for example. So, I think there’s too much focus on the cost of just the generation versus the cost and reliability of the system viewed as a whole with the reliability that has to be 365, 24/7. You can’t have an electricity system that’s even two nines, you know, 99% reliable. It’s gotta be four nines, five nines. And that’s a different kind of a system. We also have, this is what I’m getting away from your question, but we also have to get to the place. And this will be clear in the study next week. I’m going to have to say look, even what we’ve put out here is going to depend upon permitting significant infrastructure. It’s going to require at least a new very high-capacity transmission line from Québec to bring in that Hydro. Well, it hasn’t proved so easy to build these lines. It’s ones you need in an elaborate infrastructure to bring all that power in from offshore. It’s going to need, frankly, some new gas/hydrogen infrastructure to provide some of that FIRM power. And fuels. And we often forget that that’s there’s electricity sector. And then there’s the fuel sector. And in New England the fraction of emissions from the transportation sector is well over 40% of total emissions. Whereas, nationally, it’s about 28%. So, the transitioning of the mobility sector to low carbon electrification, low carbon fuels, etc., etc., is also going to be extremely critical for New England. And frankly, I don’t think we have real line of sight as to how that’s going to go to the very, very low level of carbon emissions that we will need. So, anyway, those are the kinds of questions that I think we need to look at. And to circle back to the question about the regional innovation centers, again, the different regions are going to have very, very different challenges. If New England was one of the regions for its regional innovation center, well, it wouldn’t be doing very much research on decarbonizing industry, because we don’t have any, to first approximation (laughter). Whereas, if you go to the upper Midwest, wow. How are they going to do that? If you go to other parts of California, you’ve got a big cement industry, for example that you have to decarbonize. So, I think again, this all comes to nudging a coherent vision. Ha! And that that’s why the regional centers are also, not just good politics, but good policy.
Because they will have different portfolios of emphasis that are critical to their decarbonization.
Ernie, what impact, if at all, did Fukushima have on the DOE’s shift to focusing more intention on advanced reactor R&D?
Um. To be honest, I don’t think that much. I mean, Fukushima was obviously a horrible, horrible accident. But, you know, one wants to remember that there have been three major nuclear accidents/events. The first was Three Mile Island. Late 1970s. Three Mile Island, fortunately, had essentially no public health consequences. So, what was lost was a lot of investor money. It pointed out the risks, especially of human failure because ultimately humans did not prevent a worse accident. The engineered systems prevented a worse accident. So, it was a major issue. It deserved and did receive major regulatory change, etc. But nuclear went on. Then came Chernobyl. So, you go a decade ahead and you have Chernobyl. There, of course, dramatic public health consequences. And there, however, recognition also that the reactor was a very primitive design. Never would’ve been licensable in the West. And an accident, again caused by egregious human error. Which again, is an important lesson. Let me go to Fukushima. So, that’s kind of like more in the present. And but there it had nothing to do with either nuclear error or failed technology. It was certainly failed human judgement in having permitted such a low wall to defend against tsunami. The issue had been raised in Japan and brushed aside, in effect. When the evidence is there and has been known that roughly a thousand years earlier there was a tsunami of the same magnitude in the same place. And the regulatory apparatus, which in Japan did not follow what for example, the United States did in forming DOE or more precisely ERDA, before DOE. Where the regulatory functions and the nuclear promotion or development functions were separated. They had been together in the Atomic Energy Commission. And when the AEC was then replaced, then you had both ERDA, Energy Research Development Administration and the NRC separately formed. And by the way, you also had FERC formed in that same period. So, this idea of separating the regulatory functions, not that complicated a thought, nevertheless had not been done in Japan. And that certainly may have been a contributor to why the regulatory apparatus did not put in place the kind of risk approach that you would’ve expected. So, again, going back to your question. It was not the reactor technology or the reactor operators who created the problem in Fukushima. And I think that’s part of why there clearly was a global response. Including in the United States. The NRC looking at much more stringently at seismic criteria, for example. Adding, which adds operational costs, looking at evacuation plans, etc. But in the government, at least, it did not really, I think deflect that much from the programs to develop advanced reactors. Now the advanced reactors, the Gen-IV reactors, of course, most of the designs do pursue passive safety. And that may have been given a little bit of a bump by Fukushima. But again, those Gen IV reactors were being promoted also before Fukushima. To me, the interesting development is the combination of Gen IV with small modular. I think that that’s the new frontier. You know, molten salt reactors. Some of the gas reactors. And I’m very eager to see those demonstrated to see what their techno-economic proposition really is. Which will either lay the foundation for the future or cloud that future if the cost equation cannot be improved.
Ernie, in light of some of the managerial issues—
I would just add to that, by the way.
Let me add to that. That there’s never been so much innovation in the nuclear space. So much private capital going into these novel concepts. And that includes not just fission, but fusion. That there really are novel concepts with an unprecedented amount of private capital. We’re talking a billion dollars having gone into novel fusion approaches, just in the U.S. and Canada.
In terms of some of the managerial issues you experienced with ITER, I wonder if you could describe the balancing act that you experienced between on the one hand, putting pressure on ITER and on the other, keeping the U.S. and specifically Congress on board with the project?
Well, what I was keeping Congress on board with, let me be very clear. I was keeping Congress on board on honoring our obligations through the burning plasma milestone of roughly 2026. So, Congress. There was a very, very strong movement in Congress to just cold turkey, stop funding ITER at all, when I became secretary. And just to be clear, I was not fighting to sustain the full U.S. commitment to ITER through 2040, you know, roughly speaking. Again, the one milestone for ITER in its plans is a so-called burning plasma in I think it’s ’26. But ignition only, I think it’s in 2035. I mean, it’s a long way off to get there. And I’ve said to everybody, including the ITER director general, Bernard Bigot, who is a good friend, that I just have…I think ITER can make its milestones with the new leadership that Bernard Bigot has provided. I think it will do, in meeting its milestones, it can do a lot of very interesting science and technology. But I also say I have a very hard time envisioning how that device can lead to any kind of economically viable power production source. So again, therefore, what I managed I think to convince Congress about, and the OMB, was that what we should do is honor our commitments again, through the burning plasma phase. Because it would be really unfair to have been in it for all that time to have essential responsibilities. You know, you can’t build ITER and have one magnet missing. This kind of thing. And so, I think we got there. Bigot, and I told him in my office semi-facetiously; he knew I was kind of joking that he really screwed up our plans by bringing finally, good management to ITER (laughter). It was all looking so simple. And now it wasn’t looking so simple, because I actually believe that we’re going to meet their milestones. And what Bernard did, by the way, it was a very important lesson. That too often these giant international collaborations in science projects became international projects versus science projects. That it was somehow, it was the international element that was important, you know? So ITER, for example, had from its beginnings, always had the major responsibilities divided out among the major blocks internationally. As opposed to simply being run as a very complicated, tough project. And I think Bernard succeeded in making that a condition of his appointment. And I think he’s been doing a very good job. Doesn’t change my view that I just don’t see it ever being economically viable. So, anyway, I think now whether the United States does or does not resume full engagement is up in the air. And I just don’t know. But I still hope that we will at a minimum honor our responsibilities through that burning plasma phase.
Broadly speaking, Ernie, what are your views about the prospects of fusion energy? And specifically, do you think ITER still has the promise it once did, in light of newer, less expensive private ventures that have come online?
Well, first of all, I have to be transparent in saying that I’m on the board of one of these private fusion companies. With a novel technology. And so, you can say I’m not objective. Or you can say, I know more. As I said earlier, and it applies to fusion with these largely private companies, that there’s never been so much innovation. MIT has a spinout that’s getting a lot of attention based upon Tokamak design. But dramatically changed design, dependent upon success in a new set of very high field magnets. The company that I’m with, it’s called TAE technologies. Tri Alpha. A very, very different reverse field configuration. And the aspiration to have aneutronic, so no neutrons in the fusion. Which is a big science challenge, but a major engineering simplification, if you can get rid of the damn 14 MeV neutron that’s flying around. So, anyway, what I think is that these various approaches, and then there are others. General Fusion is another one in Vancouver, for example. And there are others. The change in my view is that these alternate approaches, I think show real promise for answering the question whether this will be a viable power producing technology in this decade. I didn’t say be deployed at any kind of scale. And there’s still the issue of the engineering of the fundamental fusion power plant to the grid, etc. So, that will take longer. But I think there’s good reason to think that in the second half of this decade, mid to end of this decade, we’ll have a good chance to answer the question. And the answer being yes, is a credible answer. I’m not saying it’s guaranteed, but it’s a credible answer. So, we’ll see. I’ve become an optimist here.
Okay. Let me ask you about your views on the structure of DOE’s fossil energy R&D portfolio. And particularly, how you viewed the balance between energy technologies and carbon reduction.
Well, I think the focus of the fossil fuel portfolio should be carbon sequestration. Carbon capture. Carbon capture utilization, sequestration, and some elements of carbon dioxide removal. Specifically, those elements that require CO2 utilization or sequestration. Which is largely direct air capture or BECCS, bio-energy, with CCS. And I think that because those are the directions that would allow the continued use of some level of fossil fuels while getting to low carbon. Actually maybe, I would add to that. I would add to that blue hydrogen. Again, going to a hydrogen economy through the CCS route. So, I think that’s what the fossil agenda should be. It’s all about enabling low carbon while still having some utilization of fossil fuels. And that’s not because I somehow want to preserve fossil fuels for the sake of preserving fossil fuels. But it’s because that can be one of the routes, for example, to FIRM clean energy. That can be a route to developing the hydrogen economy, which I believe is essential in the next fifteen, twenty years and beyond. So, I think that’s what the fossil office should be focused on.
Ernie, last question for today’s session. On the issue of carbon sequestration, carbon capture, given the troubled history of the Texas Clean Energy Project and now that the Petra Nova facility seems to be mothballed indefinitely, what do you see as some of the big difficulties in developing successful carbon capture projects?
Well, first of all, like Petra Nova, that’s not a technical issue in the mothballs. It’s that the oil price is too low. And the Petra Nova, like every other CCS project in the United States, but one, is based upon enhanced oil recovery. And so obviously the oil price is part of the equation. By the way, the one exception is the large ADM ethanol plant in Illinois that captures about a megaton of CO2 per year. This is a large ethanol plant. And sequesters the CO2 deep underground in a saline aquifer. Now, they had some DOE support for getting there. But the reason it works, really, is because the capture cost for an ethanol plant is very, very low. In fact, in a study that we released, we again, Energy Futures Initiative released, since we’ve already dated this discussion, I can say about three weeks ago we released a study on California CCS. And what we found is that there are ethanol plants in the California valley. And because it’s so cheap to capture CO2 from an ethanol plant, the existing low carbon fuel standard in California would make capture and CCS from those ethanol plants way in the money. So, that would be very interesting to move forward on that. However, in my view, if CCS, and by the way, I should really add that CCS has mostly been talked about up until recently as something to apply in the power sector to coal plants or natural gas plants. And that is indeed a way of providing again, firm low carbon electricity. However, I think that more important is the application in industry. Because a lot of industry, we don’t really have alternatives. A good example—like in California—if I stay with California. California’s got significant emissions from cement plants. Well, cement plants do not qualify for the low carbon fuel standard because they don’t produce fuel (laughter).
And so, they’re not in the money. Because you know, it’s obviously always cheaper to release CO2 than to capture it and bury it. Until at least we have a carbon price. So, I think the long-term future, if there is one for CCS at scale to be a material part of the solution to climate change, it’s going to be when carbon emissions have a significant price. And when the sequestration is focused on deep aquifers. And not depend on an oil price which may never recover. And when frankly, a lot of state and federal permitting processes for CCS are finally resolved. In fact, today there is a tax credit. It’s called 45Q tax credit which would provide $50 a ton incentive for deep aquifer sequestration. But there’s a lot of shortcomings. First treasury took years before putting out any guidance as to how to implement the tax credit. People think, “Oh, Congress passed it. It’s done.” Not until the IRS gives the tax rules. And even then, many feel that the rules they finally have put out a couple months ago are still not adequate to really give a lot of confidence to project developers. So, there remains a lot of work to do, but I think that’s the future. Straighten out the rules. Deep saline aquifers. And particularly, early application to industry where the capture costs are generally, substantially lower than they are for a power plant.
Okay. Well, Ernie, excellent as always. We’ll cut it there and we’ll pick up for next time.
Absolutely. OK. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is November 23rd, 2020. I’m so happy to be back with Professor Ernest Moniz. Ernie, my first question for today is I’d like to talk a little bit about the long shadow of the SSC. And how that may have affected your perspective on American leadership in high energy physics. Absent the SSC as an Energy Secretary, what options were available to you to ensure that the United States remained you know, at the center of high energy physics worldwide?
Well first of all, we should remember that the SSC went down in 1993, as I recall. That was a long time before I was secretary.
And the Higgs was found…I’ve forgotten now. When was that? Also, before I was secretary.
2012, I believe.
Yeah, maybe something like that. So, the residual of the SSC that was an issue for me is that the way the SSC went down with kind of internal fighting among members of the community domestically and of course, with CERN. Carlo Rubbia was not exactly a big help there. That had never healed. And I think the high energy physics community was kind of splintered. For well over a decade. And so if I’ve already talked about this then just stop me. But so, when I became secretary, I had a visit from members of the high energy physics community. You know, seeking support for the field. And you know, I guess as is my custom, they asked a question, I gave them an answer. And the answer was that of course I supported particle physics and cosmology and I mean, particle astrophysics and the like, intellectually, very, very strongly. But as secretary I was not going to support them unless the community came together on a set of priorities and a commitment to not then immediately start you know, the losers start undercutting the winner. Cause I said, “Look. You know, the reality is your budget is going to be flat, if you’re lucky, until you get your act together. And then I’ll support you like hell. But anyway, I think that straight forward exchange had some impact. I think the community did get its act together. And I think they’re doing much better now than they were before. There’s still issues of you’d like to see maybe a linear collider or the full commitment to neutrino physics that’s kinda there, but not fully. Not quite. But I do think that they did a good job coming together making essentially a new long-range plan and having the community behind it.
And how central was the P5 to unifying the voice in high energy physics?
Remind me. The P5?
Of all of the…it’s the one that starts with “P.” (Laughter) Let me get all of the words correct. [typing]
Yeah. I seem to remember the words, but I can’t quite associate them with—
Particle. Here. Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel.
Yeah. That’s what it was. Right. That’s what I’m referring to that did kind of the new long-range plan.
I see. So, you’re specifically saying the P5—
Yeah. That is what we’re talking about.
Right. Right. And to what extent was P5 designed? I mean, best case scenario, would high energy physicists come together with such a unified voice that you could see a budgetary proposal that would support something as large as an SSC? Or was that a nonstarter at that point?
No. I was certainly prepared to at least start. I mean, those things take a long time to at least start the train rolling for conceivably a few billion-dollar project, with some international cooperation. Don’t forget, one of the SSC’s problems was, in the end, they did not do a very good job in terms of drawing international support. And that was partly self-inflicted. So, I think drawing international support is very, very important in the same way that our support for CERN. For LEP and for the CERN project is so important. And so important for our community as well. I don’t have much more to say about it than that. I mean, I think you know, that did help I think turn the corner. Put away the knives. And you know, if you contrast that with nuclear physics, which did a better job. In the nineties, I was the chair of NSAC. The equivalent of HEPAP. And we always had discipline. You know, the five-year plans were done typically every six-years with a new set of priorities. And once we had it out, the community stood behind it. And I think the nuclear physics community was treated much better because there was in fact, that kind of unity. It’s always much easier to stop something than to get something done.
And so if you have the community at odds, it’s very, very hard. SSC, frankly, never had that community kumbaya feeling.
(Laughter) Right. Ernie, on the point of strategic—
There is a famous story that Leon Lederman liked to tell. Cause he was director of Fermilab at the time. And that was part of the competition there against Texas. When Leon decided it was time to go down to Waxahachie and kind of make peace with Roy Schwitters Leon tells the story that as he drove into town, he suddenly got a little bit nervous. And stopped at a fast-food place. A Burger King. And just went in to ask the young woman who was working there, “How do you pronounce the name of this place?” Cause he didn’t want to screw up in his peace mission. And her answer was, “Burger King.” Anyway.
Little Leon Lederman story.
That’s great. Ernie, on the question of strategic planning. To what extent did the Decadal Survey that NASA used with the National Academies, to what extent was that a framework that was useful for you at Energy, thinking about strategic planning?
Well, I think it was a very valuable exercise for the community. For DOE, it helped a little bit. But obviously DOE was not the main funder through the high energy physics program, the particle physics program. There was certainly activities going on. Fermilab was a good example of building a pretty substantial experimental and theoretical cosmology group. With the SLOAN Foundation there was the significant collaboration with Fermilab. But I don’t know. I guess in my view it was terrific and helped, but not really so central at least to the secretarial level discussions.
In thinking about nonproliferation activities at the DOE, what did you see as areas where you had essentially continued on your predecessors’ work? And what were new areas in nonproliferation for you to take on?
Well, first of all, as a reminder, I was both DOE Under Secretary and Secretary. And frankly, as undersecretary, was a period when my nonproliferation activities were very intense.
Because that was the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic distress in Russia. So, all those things like the HEU agreement were you know, kind of tottering and had to be held together. We had to create new programs of collaboration with Russia. With the Russian weapons labs. It was a hectic time in terms of trying to keep nuclear materials safe. Keep the Russian enterprise, which ironically of course, was our “enemy” for decades. And then we were desperate to keep it together. So, when I became secretary, then it was a very, very different issue. I mean, it is true that the HEU deal finished when I was secretary. So, in ‘98/’99, I had led the team, for example, that put the HEU deal back on the tracks. And then at the end of 2013, the last shipment was coming in when I was secretary. And Kiriyenko flew from Russia so that he and I would go together to Baltimore to welcome the last shipment of HEU. And then he came to my office, but there was a blizzard outside and so we had to cancel the trip. We had a good talk instead. But it was a very, very different period and especially because the Crimea, the Ukrainian incursion, was early in 2014. February of 2014. And frankly, most channels of cooperation then got pretty much shut down. So, frankly, there was, regrettably, far less activity when I was secretary than when I was undersecretary. I mean, regrettably because, not that I wished we had the same instability as in the ‘90s, but there was so much more we could’ve done. We still did some things. For example, we collaborated on getting HEU out of Vietnam, for example. So, we collaborated on that. But then I collaborated a lot with again, Kiriyenko, when he was heading Rosatom. We collaborated a lot on the implementation of the Iran agreement. There was no one more helpful in having the Iran agreement successfully implemented than the Russians with Kiriyenko. And I have to say there once again, there was some pretty old relationships that really helped. I think I had mentioned before that I had met Kiriyenko when he was prime minister with Al Gore. But also, there were members of the staff that I had worked with as undersecretary who were still there, now supporting Kiriyenko. And they were just extremely helpful. So, that was in the end, I would say that was the biggest focus was from middle of ’15 to early ’17, working with Russia to successfully implement the Iran deal.
Now, what about the fact of there being highly enriched uranium in the United States? To what extent did you look at that within the broader context of nonproliferation and international security?
Well, obviously the United States, like Russia, has got large reserves of weapons grade HEU, 90%+ enriched. Today, so we’ve blended down some of that for nonproliferation reasons and agreements. But also, we’ve had to keep a lot of it and keep using it because the stockpile that we have is the only source of HEU for the nuclear navy. In this country, I think it’s scandalous and I’ve never been able to move it over the hump. We literally have no capability to provide enriched uranium for national security purposes. Neither low enriched uranium. You might ask, why do we need low enriched uranium for national security? It’s because one of the commercial power plants owned by the TVA—of course, the TVA is a government agency. A lot of people don’t realize. It’s a federal agency. One of its commercial power plants is used to make tritium for the nuclear weapons stockpile. And consequently, the LEU that is used to make the tritium must be American origin uranium, enriched using American technology. Secondly, there’s the HEU, as I mentioned, for the navy. The United States has zero capacity today to enrich uranium, LEU or HEU, using American technology. So, the only thing we can do is live off the stockpiles of enriched uranium that we already have. By definition, at some point that has to change (laughter). Unless we have no more nuclear weapons, and we have no more nuclear propulsion of aircraft carriers or submarines. I think the latter is even less likely than the former. So, at some point, we have to produce American centrifuges or some other enrichment technology. I’m of the view that we should build a national security enrichment facility using the one American technology that’s been demonstrated, which is a giant 40-foot-high centrifuge in a building that has already been built in Portsmouth, Ohio. It cost a lot of money to build that building to be able to house these giant centrifuges, which were developed at Oak Ridge. And tested at this Portsmouth, Ohio facility. So, I think right now, we should rebuild that supply chain. We should build this to a scale of supplying the national security enrichment needs. That scale is way, way smaller than a scale for a commercial enrichment facility. And so, this facility would not be commercially economical, at least not initially. But it’s a national security need that we have to meet. And knowing how long it takes to build any kind of nuclear facility, just sitting around and saying, “Oh, we’ve got fifty more years of enriched uranium” does not impress me (laughter). I think we should get going right now with that kind of a facility.
And so, to be clear, these are political limitations you’re talking about. Not technical limitations. This could happen tomorrow.
Correct. Well, yeah, because when I secretary, we supported until 2016 a demonstration program for a small number of these centrifuges at Portsmouth. And there had been some problems. There were technical problems to resolve. But frankly, they were resolved. And so, I said, you know, “I can no longer support a demonstration program for a technology that’s been demonstrated. Now let’s build it.” But it’s never been built.
So, besides procrastination and thinking that fifty years is plenty of time, what did you perceive as the entrenched political interests that were blocking this initiative when you’ve been calling for it?
OMB does not want to spend $5-$6 billion.
That’s pretty simple. It’s in the budget. Right?
Was this something—
Budget constraints. I mean appropriations budget constraints. Lead to a lot of mañana.
But of course, the OMB is responsive to the directives coming from The White House. Was there not sufficient support coming from The White House to get the OMB to direct funds toward this effort?
No. Let the next administration do it.
A-ha. MONIZ: (Laughter) And soon we’ll have another administration. And we’ll see. I’m gonna go beat the drums again and see if we can’t move this.
Where is reactor conversion in all of this with HEU? Is this the barriers to reactor conversion? Did you see this more as a matter of R&D or was it investment?
There’s a fair amount of R&D required for each conversion because they’re all a little bit different. And it depends upon how much flux you’re willing to give up, etc. For example, for research reactors. So, I think it’s been—I mean there’s no question—it could be speeded up with more money. Significantly. I would say it’s again the financing requirements have had it as a pretty slow program, having to really do significant design and development for every single conversion, basically.
What was DOE’s experience with the mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility? Did you see the project as being misconceived or was it more about management issues?
Well, I always thought of it as ill-conceived, to be honest. But when I went in as secretary, you know it was already being built. $4.5 billion had been spent. But really as part of my focus on project management and project approval and project execution, one could see that the project just was not going anywhere. So, I put together a very good review team. And did an honest evaluation of where it stood and what it was going to cost. And the sticker shock was ridiculous. Basically, including building and then operating, it was going to be essentially a billion a year for fifty years. For thirty-four tons of plutonium. And so, the team came up with that. And in the end what I said to Congress—and then the team also looked at alternatives. And one alternative would be much faster and cheaper. Neither fast, not cheap. But faster and cheaper. And that was just to dilute the weapons grade plutonium in a classified matrix and bury it. And so, that’s called dilute and dispose. And we already do it. A lot of people don’t realize that we already have; I’ve forgotten now the exact number. But I think we have something like—it’s between four and six tons of plutonium already disposed of at the WIPP site in New Mexico—using exactly this dilute and dispose approach. That’s plutonium that came from Rocky Flats—when Rocky Flats was shut down. And so, all I’m saying is—alright, we have another five or so tons, I’ve forgotten the exact number—that I signed out to be dilute and dispose from Savannah River, already planned to go to the WIPP site. That’s happening right now. We bought a couple of additional glove boxes, and they are working on that right now to send out. But that is not part of the 34 tons agreed to with Russia. So, that’s in addition to all of this. And that’s where the agreement with Russia comes in to burn it as MOX fuel. But the problem is, it’s one reason why it’s so expensive, is that disposing of plutonium in thermal reactors doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s a very slow process and in some sense, it doesn’t get you there because roughly speaking, you put in your weapons plutonium. Let’s say you put a ton into a full reactor load to use as MOX fuel. How much plutonium do you think you get when you take the fuel out? Roughly a ton. It’s just that its isotopics aren’t so attractive. But you haven’t eliminated plutonium. So, the Russians however, asked us for permission. Because it was not in the original agreement. And we granted it. Because it made sense…that since they have a fast neutron reactor program anyway. We don’t, but they do. Using that MOX fuel in fast neutron reactors makes a lot more sense. But for us, if we have to invent an entire fast reactor program just to burn the 34 tons, it would still be the same price because of the extra costs of doing the fast reactors. So, what I said in the end to Congress was, “Look. Congress, you seem to want to appropriate every year roughly $300-$350 million for MOX. At that appropriation, it will never converge. You just keep giving $350 million a year to Savannah River in South Carolina and never get there, basically. So, either kill it, take your losses. Or fund it at a billion a year. Personally, I don’t think it’s worth a billion a year. But at least it’ll get done in fifty years. You gotta decide whether you wanna have the priority of spending a billion a year on this when you can dilute and dispose for your $300 million a year for a shorter number of years.” And so, the Congress and the administration, I mean, were all bought in with the exception of South Carolina. And they, in particular, Senator Graham, kept it on life support for quite a few years. Accomplished nothing. And finally, in the Trump administration, they finally just said, “It’s over.” Now, obviously, when we were discussing it, when the Trump administration was discussing it, there was always another part of the discussion. What we would do? And we had a, let’s just say, substantial offer on the table. That would’ve at least, it would’ve been job preserving in terms of total numbers. I don’t mean every individual, necessarily, but it would’ve kept the number of jobs there. It would’ve done other things. But there’s a long history of plutonium going into the state for this purpose. And Senator Graham, he was heroic years earlier in having the state accept the plutonium. So, you know, I mean, he had reasons for where he was and for digging in on it. But it just wasn’t—the physics was never going to work, basically. And so, now the MOX plant is shut down. They are the Trump administration committed to building a major facility for nuclear weapons plutonium pit production at Savannah River. And that’s kind of where it finally ended. But it really should’ve ended in 2014, not in 2019.
Ernie, I want to move on to feasibility studies with regard to climate diplomacy. I want to ask you to what extent were you involved in the questions about how feasible it was that the United States could go into the Paris Climate Accord to make pledges to reduce carbon emissions that were both technologically sound and economically realistic?
Oh, we were quite involved. In fact, I mean, DOE is where essentially the modeling got done as the administration led by The White House was trying to get it’s NDC together for Paris. And you know, we talked about what we thought was doable, what we thought was a stretch goal. And then we agreed that maybe we stretch a little bit more to get there. But, yeah, we were very heavily involved in all of that modeling and those discussions. And then finally signed off on the Paris goal.
What did you see as the most promising technological solutions that would make the pledges we made at Paris realistic?
Well, number one was going to be to dramatically accelerate the electricity decarbonization. And that’s, in fact, happened. We’re down 32% already in the electricity sector. I’ll remind you, the Paris goal was 26-28% by 2025, economy wide. So, the 32% reduction in electricity is 9-10% economy wide. Something like that. Now clearly, we’ve got a ways to go to 2025 yet. So, we could get that lower. Maybe you get half of it out of electricity, but the other half has not come along. And clearly, if you have a COVID year, you get a drop in emissions for the wrong reason. But, you know, we’ve not made progress really in the transportation sector or the industrial sector. Or sufficiently in the building sector. I mean, we made some progress through CAFE standards in the transportation sector, but not nearly enough. And of course, the Trump administration created a lot of confusion there as well. So, I think with the Biden administration coming in, there’s going to be a need for a new aggressive NDC for 2030, or 2035. And that’s going to have to include multisectoral reductions pre-COVID—electricity is responsible for 27% of emissions. So, if the Vice President’s very aggressive goal of electricity net zero by 2035 is the case, well, okay. Well, there’s 27% (laughter). But if there’s to be an NDC in 2035, economy wide, it’s probably gotta be in the 60% range. Some would say higher. But even if we say 60%, we’re not quite halfway there. Even with full success on the President-elect’s electricity objective. And so, the question is, if electricity is the easiest sector to decarbonize, where are you going to get the other half out of the remaining 73%? You still need to get 40% out of these difficult sectors. So, it gives you an idea that this is the kind of challenge that we’re facing. But the only way to get there is to start now (laughter). And so, that’s what we should be doing. We did a study for California reaching its climate objectives. And one of the objectives for California is a 40% economy wide reduction by 2030. Well, so now let’s look at some numbers. Okay, and in California by the way, by far the biggest sector for emissions is transportation. It’s essentially 40%. Compared to the United States, is 28%. Here in New England, however, it’s 42% or 44% transportation as the dominant sector. But let’s go to California. Say 40% reductions. And transportation at 40% of the emissions. Well, California has got what has been viewed as a fairly aggressive EV target. Five million EVs on the road by 2030. And today California has about 30 million light duty vehicles on the road. So, that’s a sixth. But there’s a little catch. The projections for the number of LDVs on the road in California in 2030 is 35 million.
So, the 30 million internal combustion engines is unchanged. Maybe they’ll be more efficient with the new CAFE standards presumably being reinstated and put in place. So, ideally you know, I mean, of course those standards are applying to new vehicles. Not on-the-road vehicles. So, in 10 years you’re still going to have a lot of the current vehicles on the road. So, you know, maybe you save 20% if you really push it by 2030. Twenty percent of the 40%. So that’s 8%. So, you gotta find a lot of stuff to add up here.
Ernie, I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the way that the climate accord, the Paris Climate Accord, it was certainly perceived in the media and in the public consciousness as a game changer. But if you view it in the larger context of the overall conference of parties, COP framework, you can make the case that it was the next logical, incremental step in what nations were pledging to do. How did you view this in real time? Did you see the Paris Accord as a quantum leap in climate diplomacy? Or was it simply the next round of negotiations?
As both. And because there’s going to have to be a whole bunch of quantum leaps. But the reason it was a big leap forward is not the numbers of the NDCs. I mean, the numbers of the NDCs, obviously it’d be very helpful if we could really reduce emissions 30%, let’s say, by 2030. That would be a big deal. But the biggest deal to me was the breakthrough that every country in the world accepted responsibility. They may have had different, even structures, of their commitments. For example, some were like the United States, with carbon targets. Some, like China, was carbon intensity targets. So, in China’s case, they would be lowering CO2 emissions per unit of GDP, significantly. But their actual goal on carbon emissions quantitatively was that they would peak by 2030 with the hope that they would peak earlier. And frankly, most of us think that China could peak in carbon emissions by 2025. But from 2015, that’s still 10 years of rising emissions of the world’s biggest emitter. This is the way negotiations go. You go back to Kyoto. And I have to admit I was never a fan of Kyoto. And the big problem with Kyoto was it drew a bright line between those who were responsible and those who weren’t, so-called. Well, fine, if that’s supposed to reflect somebody’s view of a historical record. Well, it sure does that. But as a solution, it’s totally without merit.
Right? Then, so I’ll give you my iconoclastic theory of COPs. So, Kyoto I felt was a bad start, to be honest.
Because countries like India and Brazil said it’s not fair that the West is imposing these limits now?
They did not have responsibilities.
Right? It’s crazy. And of course, the United States Senate before the agreement was reached—the United States Senate voted unanimously—I forget, ninety-seven or 98 to 0, on the Byrd-Hagel Resolution that said whatever you do, don’t go to Kyoto and sign an agreement that lets China off the hook. If you do, there ain’t a chance in hell that we’re going to approve it. So, okay. That was the first step. Not what I would call a quantum leap. The second step was the much-maligned Copenhagen. And the Europeans still cannot speak of Copenhagen COP without swooning or doing something else. My contrarian view is that Copenhagen was a great success. They hate it when I say this. Which I tested not so long ago. And it was still the case that they hated it (laughter). Because if you remember what happened there was that President Obama was there for the last day of Copenhagen, as were other national leaders. And he parachuted into the meeting uninvited. To the meeting of China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. [pause] And he left with a very slim piece of paper. Two pages I think it was. The Copenhagen agreement. Signed by those five countries. And then later signed up to by almost every country. Reluctantly.
I mean, those who did not were, I think it was Cuba, Nicaragua, and Somalia. All of whom, of course, were expressing their feeling that the climate objectives were not aggressive enough. That’s a joke.
And the reason I say that, to me it was a necessary breakthrough is precisely because the United States, China, and India and Brazil and South Africa, all signed a piece of paper about addressing climate change. And so, my view is it did the necessary job of breaking the Kyoto bright line. And by the way, it also introduced some other interesting aspects which are less talked about. It introduced the hundred-billion-dollar climate fund for developing countries. Not that it’s ever been funded, but it introduced the idea of adaptation. Especially in developing countries. That little piece of paper, I mean, actually had some interesting seeds in it. But clearly, that meeting with that process was not going to really move the world forward. But I think it cleared the way for Paris. And so, in Paris, step three, you actually got every country in the world, basically, making some kind of commitment to lower carbon emissions. At least relative to what they would’ve been. And that was the big step. And by the way, the French deserve a lot of credit for also learning a lesson from Copenhagen. Of course, they were among the ones who hated it because they weren’t in the room. I mean the European Union viewed itself as the leader of the world and they weren’t even invited into the room where the thing was scratched out (laughter). But the French learned whatever you do, don’t have the national leaders there for the last day. Have them there for the first day where they can’t screw up the negotiations (laughter).
And so, did it come to pass. And so, my baby there, Mission Innovation, therefore got announced by the leaders on the first day. Whereas the foreign ministers or environment ministers, depending upon which country, they were the ones who closed the deal for the Paris Agreement itself on the last day. So, interesting.
So clearly, it’s Copenhagen that breaks the logjam from the disaster of Kyoto in your mind.
That’s my view. And no one else…well, certainly the Europeans in particular will not admit that. But that’s my view, and I would suggest the data are on my side (laughter).
Ernie, without the root surprise of the Trump administration pulling out of the Paris Accord, in what ways were you looking ahead? In other words, if Paris stood on the shoulders of Copenhagen, where did you see Paris at the time that this was being negotiated? What would’ve been the next COP, logically, to build on the progress made by Paris?
Well, 2020 was to be a review meeting. See how we’re doing. That’s been postponed to 2021, quite sensibly. Of course, COVID had something to do with that. But now, in the new administration, with a Biden administration, that will take on obviously a very, very different tone. So, Glasgow now at the end of 2021 will be very, very important. And Biden will have almost a year to have…try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again domestically. Which will be a prerequisite for being able to really establish a level of international leadership. So, I think the road to Glasgow now will be very, very important. And I think the United States is gonna have to be ready to go there. And push hard. If nothing else, with its own unilateral, new, and more aggressive NDC. Kind of like, look, we’re back in and here’s our giftbox for coming back in. A much more aggressive 2030 or 2035 goal.
And what was your—
Which is backed up, backed up.
By a dramatically changing U.S. domestic program. And a lot of that will start by the President-elect presumably very early having a big set of executive orders to both roll back some of Trump’s rollbacks and to add some new dimensions. And a great empowerment of the states and cities that are way, way out ahead of any federal program. You know, almost, well, I forget the exact number. But a large number of states in the United States have adopted net zero targets by midcentury. Net zero emissions, by midcentury. But in almost all of the states that do not have such a commitment, all but like three states, the biggest cities in those states have made net zero commitments.
Now, what a net zero commitment means for a city in a state that doesn’t have it or what it means for a state to have it, when the country doesn’t, you know, there’s a little bit of ambiguity there. But it kind of tells you where things are going. You know, I think in physics if you would see the map of all these states and big cities all over the country, you would say that you’ve got a percolation program going on here. And pretty soon it’s gonna percolate and paint the map. So, I think with Biden now aligning with those states and cities, rather than opposing them, I think we can see a lot of things happening even if the Senate majority remains Republican. And getting comprehensive climate legislation will be extremely difficult.
Ernie, of course with climate diplomacy, you get squeezed on both sides. You have progressives who say, you know, it’s not nearly enough that’s necessary to avert you know, humanitarian catastrophe. And on the Republican side of things, you say that this is gonna be an economic disaster for the United States. So, first on the progressive side, to those that would say, big deal, so you’ve got all of these countries to sign a piece of paper. To the extent that you were in a position to offer a counter narrative to that, what was your response?
As I say, look, it’s step by step. You know? And now the next step is to get not only more serious commitments, but also more serious action. But it’s step by step. And the issue is, can we speed up the steps? (Laughter) You know, the…okay, what you are calling the progressives, which apparently doesn’t include me, even though I consider myself a progressive—you mean those who are even more progressive, so-called?
That’s right. I would say you’re a realist.
Yeah. A realist, progressive. Yeah. And I don’t mean just on climate issues, by the way.
Of course. Of course.
Anyway. Look. We need voices. We need voices of young. Especially the climate issue where it’s their future more than mine. That’s for sure. But we also need people on the same team—now here’s where I would put myself in—who try to get it done.
And understand that, you know, I’ve always focused on getting it done. You know, sometimes it’s pretty. Sometimes it’s ugly. But just gotta get it done. And the transition that we are talking about to let’s say a net zero economy by 2050. Thirty years from now. Is an enormous change with enormous implications for the planet and the environment. But you have to remember, which sometimes those who you are calling—I have to be honest—who you are calling even more progressive, don’t think of the human toll that is taken. And to speed up this transition without doing it with a focus on social equity, turning it around, it’s not goin’ to speed up. If we don’t take care of our social equity problems and job dislocation and community dislocation, if we don’t do a hell of a lot better job on that, than we are now, guaranteed political headwinds. Bring everybody on board, or almost everybody. Build a big coalition. Labor and business and NGOs and environmental groups and financial institutions. And you know, we could go on and on. And religious leaders and military leaders and certainly social justice advocates, etc. If we don’t get everybody kind of on the train, the train ain’t movin’. We know that. I mean, that is political reality, and it always has been. Why is it going to be different this time? So, instead, what we say is look, we need those voices for sure. We also need the voices who are reminding people about the social justice, you know, social equity issues. The jobs issues, etc. We have to do what is really hard work. Building coalitions among those different groups with, in the end, at least a close enough alignment towards going in the direction that we need to go and go fast. To be perfectly honest, and this is critical of some others. So be it. It’s a lot less comfortable to be trying to build that coalition than it is to talk in an echo chamber.
And it’s the former that gets the job done. Although again, having voices that keep reminding you of the stakes, etc., is really helpful. If I’m negotiating, I want those voices. Ha! Over my shoulder, you know? To be pragmatic about it. That’s what it is. So, you know, so I’ll give you an example where it plays out. I’m a big advocate of saying we need every tool to address low carbon. We can’t throw any tool out if it gets to low carbon. Because for one thing, every one of those tools will be important somewhere. Many of them may be unimportant in many places. For example, carbon capture and sequestration does not look like, to me, having a big future in New England (laughter). California? Texas? Upper Midwest? Midwest? Many, many opportunities. Okay? And I can go through other cases. So, that’s one reason. But a second reason is let me talk about, which I do, the portfolio of carbon capture and sequestration, carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere and maybe upper oceans, a multisectoral hydrogen economy, and low carbon liquid fuels. What’s the commonality of that portfolio? Well, first of all, every one of them has at least some possibility of being enabled through geological sequestration of CO2. Secondly, every one of them utilizes the skillsets, the capabilities, the workers, of the oil and gas industry. Some harshly criticize this: “Oh! All you want to do is support fossil fuel companies.” No. I want to give those companies a vision where they are part of the solution of low carbon. The message is: “Look. Evolve your business model towards this big portfolio. Big business. You can succeed in here. Stop being an enemy. Stop being part of the problem. Be part of the solution.” That’s what I call coalition building to get there faster rather than slower.
Of course, Ernie, this means that you fail the purity test in progressive politics.
What I’m doing is, at least with my own calculus, is I am trying to speed up the pathway to low carbon as much I can. And keeping all the tools on the table and giving everybody a chance to be part of that future is how you get there faster.
The same worker who is doing you know, oil extraction, can be doing CO2 sequestration.
You know? What’s the game? Pump up, pump down, you know? Etc. And so, if we are looking sensibly and if we have some magic way of controlling these things, you know, this is an evolution that can happen a lot faster than people think if those companies want to come along with their workers realizing, “Yeah, okay. I know where my good paying job is going to be.” Where communities are not looking at falling apart through job loss, etc., etc. So, that is the difference in the discussion. And I think we need, I think the President-elect, Biden, has had a history, clearly, for decades as was pointed out, in working across the aisle. And building coalitions. So, I’m hoping that he’ll be able to bring these threads together and actually make real forward progress. Including with the Republicans in Congress. So, I don’t know. I think you know, to me it’s roll up your sleeves. I mean, let’s keep working.
What opportunities did you see given Republican opposition to the Paris Climate Accord? What lessons did you learn, or opportunities did you see to build those coalitions with Republicans who were dead set against it, even in concept?
Well, there was never an objection against Mission Innovation. The innovation agenda has been bi-partisan, and I think will go forward well. The other thing is, by the way, in terms of looking forward where I imagine there will be strong bipartisan support. The infrastructure can is not going to keep getting kicked down the road. One way or another, money will have to be found for a big infrastructure program. And that will include energy infrastructure, grids, and EV charging networks. And you know, CO2 pipelines, hydrogen storage and transportation is going to be…we just finished a study published two weeks ago from this discussion on New England’s pathways to low carbon. Well guess what? Twenty-two thousand megawatts of offshore wind will be a big part of the answer.
So, all you have to do is place more than 2,000 ten megawatt turbines out there in the sea, get a backbone of transmission to bring it to the shore, etc., etc., distributed. I mean massive infrastructure. And that’s not even talking about imagine the supply chain for putting 2,000 ten megawatt turbines out in the water. The docking facilities, the hundred-meter blades getting moved around. So, it’s huge. Huge. From this point of view, also, opportunities for a 21st century infrastructure with tremendous job possibilities going forward. So, this is the vision that we need. I think the Republicans are moving there. And maybe I’m Pollyanna-ish, but I think that the Republicans in Congress, first of all, have already moved a lot. Sometimes they take actions that make no sense unless it’s to address climate change without ever using the climate word. Like bipartisan support for carbon capture and sequestration. Why would you capture the carbon at a significant expense if it wasn’t to keep it out of the atmosphere? So, I think we’re going to get there. It’s just that we don’t have the time to, you know, we can’t spend a decade more you know, kind of taking baby steps. It’s step by step, but we gotta take bigger steps more quickly. And that’s where I think using all the tools is so critical. Because otherwise you’re not gonna bring everybody aboard. And if they ain’t aboard, they’re holding you back.
Ernie, last question for today. It’s obvious that securing Republican buy in requires you know, emphasizing the economic opportunity of these policies. But where is climate change denialism in this? You know, go all the way back to 2014/2015. To what extent is Republican opposition simply about not believing the science of climate change and therefore, not believing that this is an urgent issue? And fast forward to where we are today. How much has the Republican party changed as we look forward to a Biden administration and to the next round of COP talks?
Of course, there was always the Al Gore joke about denial is not a river in Egypt. But anyway (laughter). Look. The issue is deeper. It’s got nothing to do with not believing the science. Because let’s face it, the majority of people expressing that conclusion have no clue about the science.
Right? The issue is historically on issues like that, I mean what you do about it is something else. But in terms of the issue of denial, historically, until fairly recently, that was always a question of what the scientific community stated. And now, you have the scientific community certainly at the level of conviction and proof needed for prudence in addressing climate change. We’re way, way past that point. Right? Clearly, within the science there’s always going to be frontier questions that can be questioned. There’s clearly, we still have a ways to go to get to regional resolution that we’d like for the impacts of climate. Clearly, we’re not at the place where we can really predict what might be highly nonlinear. You know, so called tipping points. Highly nonlinear events. Which of course our uncertainty there, our inability to have any reliable predictions there is just one more reason for prudence. You know? It’s elementary risk management. So, I think this is part of a much more fundamental issue where facts, science, are being questioned. Or not so much being questioned as being not accepted. It’s like, you know, my own facts are fine. I get them on whatever social medium I choose to listen to. And then to have something like this furthermore go into a political divide. Like facts are different for Republicans and Democrats is…this is very, very fundamental to what a democracy is and how it can function. So, I think it goes way beyond climate denial to a manifestation of something that is much, much worse. But, you know, when people in the Gulf region, they may be in denial. But not when the damn hurricane comes (laughter). Etc.
And of course, these are issues that are more deeply related to suspicion about government and why people don’t want to wear masks during the pandemic.
Correct. Exactly right. It’s the same thing. I mean, and in particular now, as you’ve seen, that it is like the six states that have no discipline. Masks and dining, bars, and the like. They are having COVID cases just going through the roof.
People are dying around them and they are saying, you know, there’s no issue here. It’s unbelievable. And very, very troubling for the future of this country. And more broadly for the kind of democracy that we’ve come to stand for over a long time.
Well, on that happy note, Ernie, I’ll let you go. And we’ll pick it up next time.
Alright. OK. How many more times is there gonna be?
Thanks, Ernie (laughter).
How about one more time?
We got to get to the present. We’ll see how long it takes. Alright thanks, Ernie.
Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is November 30th, 2020. I’m so happy to be back with Professor Ernest Moniz. Ernie, today I’d like to round out our discussion of your tenure as Energy Secretary by focusing on nuclear security issues. Specifically, a few questions on NNSA and of course, the Iran nuclear deal. So, to start and this might require going back to the Clinton era, what were your overall impressions of the semiautonomous construct of the NNSA at its inception?
At its inception, I thought it was a bad idea. Becoming secretary, I thought it was a bad idea. And today I think it’s a bad idea.
Okay (laughter). Consistent approach. How did you manage its relationship given the fact that you thought it was a bad idea, but it was also still an administrative reality?
The first thing is to, quite frankly, have a secretary, me, with experience in the nuclear security realm. I have been in one way or another a consultant or a sabbatical visitor to Los Alamos, for example, since 1972. I chaired the physics visiting committee for Los Alamos National Laboratory. That included some of the weapons-work that went on there. And of course, in the Clinton administration, not that it was the plan, but it became the reality that I ended up spending probably two thirds of my time on the nuclear security agenda, particularly with Russia at the time. So, I think you know, for one thing it really helped to have…it was not the norm to have the secretary with real experience in that dimension. Secondly, as if that weren’t enough when I became secretary, Dan Poneman was the deputy secretary. I asked him to stay for a year for continuity, which he did. Dan had been, going way back to the H.W. Bush administration, had been a National Security Council staffer. So again, he had chops in the arena prior to coming to DOE. And then when Dan left, I chose to replace him with another person with national security experience, Liz Sherwood-Randall, who came directly from a senior role at the National Security Council. So that all helped. Then I had as an NNSA administrator, General Klotz, retired three-star Air Force general, who had put together a global strike command. Very professional. Not surprisingly, elevated substantially the DOE/DOD interaction. And you know, frankly I think as a military person, understood what I was doing with management. And in no way fought against the idea that you know, well, there was a chain of command which is in the law as well. But that when it came to crosscuts—like having all the labs meet together—there was no resistance, like you know, my three labs are NNSA and they’re separate, etc., etc. So, I think it all worked out. It wasn’t that Frank did not have within his organization a number of career people who liked to always highlight the semi-autonomy. But for example, forming the NNSA, in the law there is a provision that the NNSA administrator/Under Secretary for Nuclear Security would have his or her own general counsel. And I would say that general counsel often liked to assert the prerogatives of a semiautonomous agency until I said to Frank Klotz, “Frank, this makes no sense. Anything that comes to me from NNSA that’s got anything to do with a legal issue or interpretation—what’s the first thing I’m gonna do? Send it to my general counsel for the department. It sure would be a lot easier if your general counsel just talked with the general counsel and got anything resolved before it comes to you or me. Why do we need the trouble of having it come up, go down, possibly go down again back to you, back to your general counsel, and keep going back and forth until there’s convergence? Let’s just get it done before you or I waste our time.” He thought that was a pretty good idea. And so, things of that nature. But it really helped that we had the standing in effect, to do that. And also, the relationship with DOD was not good when I became secretary for a variety of reasons. The Weapons Council was kind of running amuck. It had been expanded since when I was on the Weapons Council, when I was undersecretary in the Clinton years. At which time it had its original constitution, which was only three people. The undersecretary from DOE, the undersecretary of acquisition from DOD, and the vice chairman of the joint chiefs. By the time I became secretary, others were added. Head of STRATCOM, for example. You know, not that any of it was unreasonable in principle, but it did make a very different balance between DOD and DOE. And the semiautonomous nature of NNSA encouraged DOD to think that they somehow had the prerogative of setting the budget for the NNSA. And so, we had to get rid of that idea. It’s come back, unfortunately, now that we’re in 2020. It’s come back and there’s another mess, frankly, to be resolved by the next secretary in 2021. And so, we did a lot of repairing of that relationship. And then it also helped that I was a member of the National Security Council obviously because of the nuclear security responsibilities. And then the fact that I was very active in that area and then became even more active with Iran, for example, it really led to a lot more interaction and again, particularly of relevance in this context of these interviews, then it really helped when Chuck Hagel was the Secretary of Defense initially when I was Secretary of Energy. But then I forget the exact date, but then Ash Carter came back as the Secretary of Defense. And then it must be the first time in the history of the republic that there were two Ph.D. theoretical physicists on the cabinet and in the Nuclear Security Council. So, you had cabinet discussions were easily turned towards integrodifferential equations, and Ash and I would be on the same wavelength. And of course, we knew each other from Cambridge. Him at Harvard and me at MIT, for a long time. So, you know, it was again, pretty fortuitous situation. It was very symbolic of the restored relationship between DOE and DOD, where the NNSA nonsense did not get in the way. Until it reared its head again in the Trump administration. Towards the end of the Obama years, Ash Carter decided to award me the public service medal of the Department of Defense which is their highest civilian award. And normally that is done in the auditorium at the Pentagon. Maybe with a couple of awardees. Typically, with one, but in the auditorium. And I thought what Ash did was really classy, and terrific. He said, “No, no. A, I’m giving you the public service medal. B, we’re going to do it in your auditorium at DOE, so that all of the NNSA people can be there and feel like it’s their award too. And celebrate the relationship of the departments.” So, Ash Carter turned up. Frank Klotz was the master of ceremonies. Head of NNSA. His folks filled the auditorium. And Ash came over to make the award and brought with him a color guard (laughter). And everything else. The military band was there (laughter). And so, it made it a terrific, an absolutely terrific day, I think in the life of DOE and DOD. Unfortunately, now I have to say, at least for the moment, it was the high point.
And now there’s a mountain to be climbed again.
Ernie, there were some news reports additionally with regard to the budget and NNSA between DOE and OMB. Specifically, that you were advocating for a higher topline budget for NNSA. Was that true and how did that play out?
First of all, DOD and DOE were on the same page. By the way, I assume you mean when I was secretary, not when I was undersecretary.
Yeah. Cause there were two different episodes. So, when I was secretary, well the problem was that OMB, you know—which always wants to defer everything that it can—because there’s nothing more important than this year’s budget as opposed to kind of, frankly, a longer-term view. And so, we had a bunch of real needs that were unmet. One, which I didn’t particularly want to meet—which I think we discussed already—I believe, is on the plutonium MOX facility where I said, “I’ve got to tell Congress if you want to keep funding it at $300 million a year, then kill it. If you want to fund it at a billion dollars a year, I’ll get it done. My priority would be to put that money elsewhere. But Congress, you gotta call it one way or the other.” Well, OMB in the end would’ve choked if they had chosen the billion. Another issue was that what is now part of the modernization program—you know, there’s a lot of dispute over the complete nuclear weapons modernization program—including delivery systems and everything else. New submarines, new bombers, new missiles. Everything. That’s now—people will quote different numbers. Let’s call it $1.5 trillion over maybe thirty years. About $100 billion of that is Department of Energy. And that’s something that I was fighting for. It was not called modernization program at the beginning of this. But nor was it $100 billion. But it was a couple of facilities that I just felt you gotta spend the money it takes to get the job done because we cannot live with people; for example, at the uranium facility in Oak Ridge doing very high hazard work in a 1960 building. And so, it’s well known that the building had literally, inside for example, some ceilings fell down. Well, fortunately it wasn’t where there were criticality issues going on. So anyway, so I just felt that look, we gotta pony up the money for this. Another area where I would’ve liked more funding—but could never get the time of day—was that I felt that by 2016, the so-called American centrifuge had been demonstrated finally in a specially designed building in Portsmouth, Ohio. And thought it was time to fill that building up basically for national security purposes. It would’ve been $5-6 billion project. And the argument was always, which is true, “Oh, we’ve got many decades of inventory that we’ll just keep drawing down.” Well, you can’t do that forever. And my view is, why don’t you start with a national security facility first. So, I felt that there were just a lot of real needs on the DOE side that needed to be met and we always had those arguments. And then we did invoke the DOD project planning office to look at the budgets of like, for example, the uranium facility upgrade in Oak Ridge. Because you know, if they weren’t going to support it as being a proper project plan, then it would make it even easier for OMB to dismiss it. In the end, that UPF at building is being built, but it’s being built after I made a red team that was chaired by the director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. It’s kind of all one big site, but it’s actually very, very separate. The laboratory is run by the Office of Science and obviously UPF so-called Y-12 is run by NNSA. But I had the director of Oak Ridge, who is now the director of Los Alamos, and a few other people join a red team to look at the UPF planning because there was a lot of concern that it was gonna get a few billion over budget. And they made a terrific suggestion that I accepted which was to change the design which had been put in place before I was secretary. And to modularize the complex. And that was very important because when it was like one big building, the security standards for the entire thing were set by the one piece that had the highest security requirements. This separated that out so that those security requirements were on a much smaller enterprise, and you had other modular pieces. And so, that brought the costs way, way down and the schedule and so that’s going forward. It was always this give and take, back and forth. And again, it certainly helped that I was kind of in the business to be able to win some of that, at least.
Ernie, let’s move on to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA, popularly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. And my first question there was your sense of the timing of how much activity was going on within the Obama administration before you were named Energy Secretary. Obviously, there was a tremendous amount of activity with the IAEA up to that point. But when you assumed the position of Energy Secretary, was this something that was on the horizon or was it sort of already actively being engaged that the United States was going to take an intensive and leadership position within the P5+1 framework?
No, it had been going on since very early in Obama’s first term in terms of background, what were then secret meetings going on. If you remember there was a famous incident at the UN general conference in September, I think it was 2013. And then when Rouhani—so Rouhani getting elected and appointing Zarif as his foreign minister—Obama took as a signal that maybe because they were relatively more progressive, shall we say? And open-minded. And that was following Ahmadinejad, who was certainly not viewed as a reformer. And so, you may remember, there was a famous incident in which Obama essentially offered a telephone call with Rouhani while he was in New York.
And in fact, on the way to the airport. And that call never connected. But it was the beginning of an understanding that there could be an opening towards diplomacy. And then that led to the various “back-channel” discussions within the government with Iranians. And then that kept building up, building up, until there was eventually kind of a formal negotiation. Which led to the JPOA. Not the JCPOA. The JPOA, which was a preliminary agreement with baby steps and baby sanctions relief with a timeclock to negotiate a real agreement—which would become the JCPOA by July 1, 2015. Now, we made it on July 14, which is you know, pretty good for government work. But certainly, when I became secretary in 2013, I mean, I was involved in the Iran discussions at then, National Security Council from the beginning. And a reason for that of course, is that DOE was engaged in the negotiations all along because DOE was supplying the technical competence, if you like. So, DOE was not “a negotiator,” but was the bench for any of the questions on the technical side. On the nuclear side. The change came in February of 2015 when I was thrust into it as a co-negotiator with John Kerry—at the same time that the same thing happened with Salehi on the Iranian side. And that’s of course when it became public that DOE was involved. Somehow nobody ever realized that DOE was always involved in the negotiations. But obviously, we were involved in a very different way once I was tapped to pack my bags and get to Geneva in three days.
Ernie, to set the stage for exactly where Iran was with its nuclear capacity. Of course, going all the way back to the early 2000s and you know, Republican conservative circles. There’s always been a great deal of hyperbole and scaremongering that Iran was always on the brink of developing a nuclear arsenal. It was just one year away from that breakout capacity. So, once you got your sea legs as Energy Secretary with all of the assessments, what was your sense in actuality, not with hype, of where exactly Iran was in its capacity at that point?
Well. So. Iran as the IAEA has said and as U.S. intelligence said in a public document—and as was confirmed by the Israeli borrowing of the Iranian archives—they had a nuclear weapons program. Until 2003. Now, that program had made significant advances. First of all, let’s remember one thing. A nuclear weapon is not hard to make if you have enough nuclear fissile material. So, let’s say in particular, 90+ enriched uranium. The IAEA so-called significant quantity. I’m not saying what you need for a bomb. But I’m just, to give a reference point, the IAEA significant quantity of HEU is 25 kilograms. And you know, with HEU in particular—the simple gun device that was used over Hiroshima—it’s public, it’s trivial. In World War II, with Hiroshima, the bomb had more at the order of double that amount of HEU. They didn’t have quite the technology that one would today. But, if you got the material, it’s not complicated to make at least a relatively crude bomb. I mean again, a reminder, the bomb used in Hiroshima was not on the tip of a missile. It was in a big bay of a bomber, etc. So, you know, it’s a different issue to get all the way to compact, miniaturized, high yield explosives that can survive especially an intercontinental ballistic missile trip with very, very challenging reentry and all of this. That’s something else. But to get a bomb, if you have the material, that’s the long pole in the tent. So now going back to Iran. What’s interesting is 2003, they had done a lot of work around bomb relevant technologies. But the one thing where they had made no progress, and it’s kind of a mystery, was in producing the material (laughter). They had no material!
And frankly, I’m not sure we understand to this day why they would have a structured weapons program and not make the material. Various kinds of explanations, but that’s the fact. So, going to your question. In my view, 2003 was a major missed opportunity for reaching an agreement. The ground truth is they had basically nothing in terms of enrichment. But the Bush administration, the W. Bush administration, insisted that an agreement would have to have Iran renounce forever its right, according to how they describe it, its right to do enrichment. And they wouldn’t do it. And the result of that, is instead of having the ground truth of nearly zero centrifuges—they had gotten some help from the Khan network—the ground truth was that they had 19,000 centrifuges and they had almost 10,000 of them doing enrichment. Well, that’s kind of a different ground truth. And there are those who still now want, now that the Trump administration withdrew from it, there are still those who want to go back and negotiate that again Iran gives up permanently its right to ever do enrichment. Well, that’s another formula for next time around having 200,000 centrifuges going. So, anyway, so I think Obama made the right choice of realizing that getting to zero was not credible and that we had to do other kinds of, put other kinds of guardrails around it. I’ll note that one reason the Iranians give, and you know I don’t want to give extra credence to this argument. But you got to admit, there is a logic to the argument when they say, “Well, look, 1979, we were building a nuclear reactor at Bushehr with the Germans. And the revolution took place.” And in their argument just because the revolution took place to have a new form of government, why does that mean we couldn’t have a nuclear power plant? And Germany killed it and would not provide fresh fuel. Everything was dead. And so, their argument is, “If we’re going to have nuclear power, we gotta have some kind of security of supply because we can’t trust the rest of the world to not concoct some reason”—again, their argument, not mine— “concoct some reason why suddenly our fuel is cut off.” I might say as an aside, we have—we NTI, Nuclear Threat Initiative—we have somewhat addressed that concern actually, after the fact. In 2017, so a year after I was out basically, late in 2017 Sam Nunn and I—Sam had been the CEO of NTI—I was then the CEO of NTI. We went to Kazakhstan to celebrate the official ribbon cutting of a LEU bank—which is now fully operational. Fully stocked with LEU. The idea here is that there is an IAEA owned facility. It’s located in Kazakhstan. But it’s an IAEA facility. It has in it quite a bit of low-enriched uranium, appropriate to a power reactor, like 4.5% enriched. And NTI conceived of this and NTI contributed $50 million which was money put up by Warren Buffet. If it would be matched 2:1. Because the estimate was $150 million to build the facility and to stock it. And to operate it for quite a while. That was done. The U.S. put in $50 million to match and then other countries together put in $50 million. And it operates. And again, the concept is that any country that is in good standing in terms of meeting its nonproliferation treaty agreements, its safeguard agreements with the agency, is eligible to draw LEU from that bank if their fuel supply is for whatever reason, cut off. So actually Iran, if they were in compliance with all of their agreements—which they’re not today. They were until Trump pulled out. They would have access to that uranium if there were ever a cut off. But whatever the case, temporarily this doesn’t all work out nicely. And so, now it’d be very, very difficult I think to ever go back. So, anyway, so that’s, I forget now the original question (laughter). But that’s, we’ve covered a lot of ground on there.
(Laughter) Ernie, on the international, diplomatic framework side. Among the P5+1 countries, which were most in line with U.S. policy and which countries were most at odds with the Obama administration’s policies?
You mean with regard to Iran?
No, all the P5+Germany. Well, first of all, the negotiators were the P5+Germany or E3 EU+3. However, you want to cut it. So, the Europeans, Germany, France, UK, United States, Russia, and China. And 2015 was certainly a period when we were already in a very bad relationship with Russia because Ukraine had happened early in 2014. And Syria was growing as a problem. Russia’s military intervention didn’t happen until September of 2015. We signed in July of 2015. But there was a challenging period between July 14 and January 16 of 2016, which is when implementation of the agreement started. Because in those six months, Iran had a lot of work to do to get into compliance with the agreement. And then from January 2016, that’s when the clock started on the JCPOA. That year to the end of the Obama administration also had a number of challenges. I mean everybody was trying to make the agreement work. But things always come up that are a challenge. And I went through all of that just to say that not only after Ukraine, but even after Syria, through that period of implementation, Russia was the most helpful country of all in getting it done. A pretty strong indication that everybody in that negotiation understood any ambiguity about Iran having a nuclear weapon was very destabilizing and it was not in the interest of anybody.
Were you involved at all in managing Israel’s opposition to the Iran deal?
I mean, look, everybody’s involved on different levels. And one of the things is, whether it’s Israel or others, adversary or friend, Congress, etc. Frankly, you know, I think largely because of my physics background, etc., I was probably the most trusted voice in terms of how the agreement really worked and how it accomplished the objectives that Obama had laid out for us. So, certainly at the technical level, for sure. At the nuclear specifics level. But, you know, I think it’s very important to keep in mind that when I entered the negotiation, which was six months before, it was at five months before it was over. I mean. The other thing I have to say, you know you gotta remember when Salehi and I went into the negotiation, it was kind of stuck. And five months later we had a signed agreement.
I mean, that’s pretty good government work.
You know. To get there. Whether it was Israel or Republicans in the Congress. Or whatever. You know, nobody really complained about the negotiation because they thought it would never work. Once they saw, uh-oh, it seems to kind of be working, then all hell broke loose. You know, Obama didn’t change the terms of the negotiation. Since when they were started. And they were not secret. Intellectually, that’s when they should’ve objected. No, no, no, no, no. We object to doing a negotiation strictly on the nuclear issues. You also have to solve at the same time missiles and Houthis and Hezbollah and the like. Nobody said that. It’s only when, “Oh my God! They actually got an agreement!” (laughter)
Then the agreement was no good because it was too narrow. And it had so-called sunset clauses which were exaggerated, etc., etc. And so then after July came a very intense effort. I was in the middle of it. To prevent at a minimum, to prevent the Senate from stopping it. Not winning them over, necessarily, but prevent them from stopping it. And that meant we had to get 41 votes. Cause it would take 60 votes to overcome it. And then lot of classified briefings on the Hill. Sometimes for a large caucus. Once for the entire Senate. The entire Senate at once. Many other times, individual members who wanted to get clarification. And very importantly, something that I did at the Department of Energy, but not my idea. It was the idea of Diane Feinstein, who was very, very strong in our getting over the hump on this. And she called me up and just said, “Look. Here’s what I think you should do. Have many dinners that you host at your office in the Department of Energy for say, five to six senators at a time. All Democrats because no Republicans would want to go. And we ended up, and she came a couple of times, we ended up with I think it was twenty-seven different Democratic senators came to at least one dinner. Some came to more than one. And those dinners were nothing but explaining. It was a complicated agreement. And explaining it in detail. And some of those who came were votes that we frankly didn’t expect to get. And we ended with 42. And Diane Feinstein has now on multiple occasions when I saw her after that, she always smiled and said we ran the table twenty-seven out of twenty-seven. Everyone who came to the dinners for the agreement. So, that was really critical. I think we probably did move a few through those dinners who would not have voted for it. And we didn’t have a lot to spare. We could’ve lost one more vote and that was it. So, that was really important. And as I said earlier, Russia was the most helpful of the countries involved. But then what’s important is so when the vote came, we lost in the Senate. All the Republicans. I know of two Republicans, at least, who really wanted to vote with the deal. But in the end, the caucus dynamics were too difficult. [pause] And by the way, and so many countries, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Emirates, certainly didn’t want the deal to be done. But when it came time after January 16th to implement, I would say the fair-minded Republicans in the Senate were basically helpful. But more important, when Trump was rattling the cage to leave the deal in May of 2018, huge numbers of both Democrats and Republicans who had opposed the deal spoke out for him to stay in the deal. And there were others in the administration in the same way. Jim Mattis, the highly respected Secretary of Defense and former Marine general, there is no love lost for Iran with Jim Mattis. Because Jim Mattis commanded troops who were killed in Iraq by Iran supplied munitions. I’m pretty sure he was against the deal. But when it came time to leave it, he went to the mat to save it.
Because these were people who all recognized, look, okay, we understand. You oppose the deal. But the reality is now, we’d gone from July 2015 to May 2018. The deal was working. There was no doubt that Iran was complying with everything and that left essentially no doubt that they did not have any kind of reconstituted weapons program. And there’s no evidence to this day that they have a reconstituted weapons program. And so, I think you know, these people were, I mean, they had their own reasons for opposing the deal, which I can respect. I think they’re wrong. I mean, I think the reality is the deal was a good one to move forward on. But once it was in, they also could overcome that and support it. And at the same time, as Trump was doing that, there was an enormous number of for example, former military and intelligence officials in Israel who came out publicly the same way. And say, “Look, water over the dam. It’s working. We’re better off with it working than without it.” And now of course, then when Trump did pull out, that whole dynamic now has changed again. So, President-elect Biden has got a hell of a job on his hands to reengage diplomatically with Iran in now what has been a much more complicated situation.
Ernie, how stove-piped or not were your responsibilities with regard to negotiating major aspects of the deal? In other words, were lifting sanctions and opening trade with Iran part of our portfolio and conversely, would things like enrichment verification and centrifuge reductions, would those have been a part of John Kerry’s portfolio?
No, it was a bright line in a sense. I mean Ali Salehi and I were fundamentally the chief nuclear officers of our countries. And John Kerry and Javad Zarif were the chief diplomats of the countries. And so, we basically ended up with two parallel negotiating channels. But I don’t know what the Iranians did, but John and I certainly compared notes every day. So, we were, it was like stove-piped in the sense of the direct negotiations. But we certainly viewed ourselves as a team and always compared notes as to where we were and the like. I’m thinking it was pretty good and I think for John, I have great respect. John and I became much closer as a result of the negotiation. Because for one thing, even though the President wanted us, involved in that way, you know, you can imagine human nature might be, “Hey. Wait a minute. I’m the Secretary of State.” You know? And John right from the beginning, he viewed this as providing a better chance of getting the deal done.
If it gave a better chance of getting it done, he was all for it. So, it was terrific.
Did you develop a personal rapport with Salehi? What was his negotiating style and what value might that have had in reaching the deal?
It had tremendous value. It didn’t take long to get a very good relationship with Ali. You know, mainly because of our shared MIT background.
And he and I were on the campus at the same time when he was a Ph.D. student, and I was a professor. But we were in different departments. And I certainly had never met him at MIT, previously. But, his thesis advisor, Mike Driscoll, is a very good friend of mine. And when I cochaired the Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle study as one of our many Future of… studies at MIT, when I chaired that, that was published in 2011. Mike Driscoll, Salehi’s advisor was a member of the group. And he and I, in particular, were the two who were just over the top on deep boreholes as a waste management approach. And then the cochair of the study was a professor named Mujid Kazimi who was from the Middle East. When Salehi was a graduate student, Mujid was just starting as a junior faculty member. And Mujid was a great friend and a great person. Unfortunately, deceased. But, even when Mujid was a junior faculty member, according to Ali—'cause I didn’t know Mujid either back then in the 1970s—he was kind of the mentor for essentially the Arab students in the nuclear engineering department. But Ali said, “You know. A Persian or two is fine as well.” And so, Ali kind of was a part of that group that Mujid really helped. A student group. And in fact, Ali said that he had taken part in Mujid’s wedding. And had just all the respect and admiration in the world for Mujid as well as Mike Driscoll. And it was interesting and tragic. When we were in the negotiations, I forget exactly when, what month it was. But he and I, after negotiating, you know, we’d often spend a little time chatting and we were chatting about Mujid and what a great guy he was. And the next day I had to tell Ali that Mujid had died of a sudden, massive heart attack while at a conference in China. And the first thing Ali did was ask me to give him Mujid’s home telephone number so he could call Mujid’s wife. So. Anyway, it was a tough, tough event, but I guess you know, we had a lot of bonding in various different ways through the MIT connection. Also, Ali’s first grandchild, a granddaughter was born in our second session in Switzerland. And again, I won’t take credit for my wife’s brilliant idea was to go back not just with a MIT beaver doll for a baby, which is like what I thought of. But she had the much better idea of going to The Coop store. You know, the Harvard co-op, so-called “Coop.” And she went in and looked around and came out with, it’s a famous story. It went in the New York Times. A pink onesie for the granddaughter. You know what a onesie is?
Right? Okay. I just make sure. And it was like MIT nerd heaven. Which is how I described it to Ali before he opened it. I said, “Ali, this is gonna take you all the way back to MIT, because where else would you find a onesie like this?” So, he opened it up. And it had the symbols of two chemical elements. You know, one here and one there. And it was copper and tellurium. And that’s CUTE, of course.
Right. Of course (laughter).
So, it was perfect.
Yeah. So. Anyway.
Ernie, question on internal, political…no. Go ahead.
No. Go ahead.
Oh. Okay. A question on internal, political dynamics in Iran and your sense of them. Was your sense that Rouhani had ultimate authority on decision on the JCPOA? Or that really was Ayatollah Khomeini’s decision? And parallel to that—
We always assumed that the Supreme Leader needed to sign off. That was it.
Right. Right. And then parallel to that, to what extent was Rouhani constrained kind of in a mirror political situation among the hardline mullahs in Iran? And their opposition to the deal?
I think in the end it comes down to the Supreme Leader. I think it was convincing him that mattered. And I think, frankly, my impression is that the two people from the reformers, if you like. The negotiators, etc. I think the two people who had access were Rouhani and Salehi. Salehi because, well first of all, many in this country either forgot or maybe never knew that Salehi had been the foreign minister as well. He was the foreign minister preceding Zarif. So, in other words, he had a high political standing as well. But more important is that apparently, he worked with the Supreme Leader before he was the Supreme Leader. Back in the eighties when Khomeni was the Supreme Leader. Apparently, he had some relationship with Khamenei going back to the eighties, is my understanding. So, I think that they were connected. But Supreme Leader, obviously, also I think, was hearing from revolutionary guard side probably against it. But in the end, he obviously decided to roll the dice. He obviously approved it. But he also made the public statements that, “You can’t trust them. But let’s see.” And then sure enough, in May 2018, we pull out.
And our credibility badly damaged. And I don’t just mean with Iran. I mean with our allies. Especially when put in the context of also pulling out of Paris. Dissing NATO. Now, you know, withdrawing from WHO. Quitting the INF Treaty. Quitting the Clear Skies Treaty. I mean, it’s just one thing after another.
Pulling the rug out on the Pacific Trade Deal. We haven’t shown ourselves particularly sensitive to how much political work our allies had to do internally in many cases to get these things accepted. And then after they do it, just pull the rug out arbitrarily. So, we have a lot of rebuilding to do.
Back in Washington, Ernie. Given the cabinet level involvement of the Iran deal and the preparations, what was the main meeting forum within the Obama administration? Was it NSC meetings?
Yes. Sit room meetings and sometimes electronically. Again, there’s a great photograph that was released to the press of Kerry and me in Vienna as we’re getting close to the end. You know, sitting under a makeshift tent made out of bedsheets. White noise generator going on in the background, you know for security reasons. With a secure video link with Obama on the screen (laughter). In front of us. So, you know. Obama was very clear in giving us directions. Did not micromanage. But as we got close to the end, you know he wanted to make sure he understood exactly on the key issues, where things were going. And so, we always kept him informed on that. And so, and he always said, “Look. You guys deliver this deal with these red lines and then it’s up to me, Obama, to sell it.”
Right. Right. And within the DOE, who were the key people who were reporting to you in helping you prepare for various aspects of the deal?
Well. [pause] I’m not sure I’m going to name names. Let me just say that my own kind of national security advisor, of course, and the person who travelled with me were quite important. But more than that, there was a strong working group, some of whom sometimes travelled to the negotiating site. But mainly were the coordinators of the national laboratory contributors to the analysis. And some of them were on leave from their laboratories to the Forrestal Building, some of them were still in their laboratories and it was internet connections, etc. But it was a substantial group and absolutely terrific group. And we had the advantage given the time difference that when Kerry and I were negotiating in either Switzerland or Austria— when we ended our day negotiating, even if it was like 9 p.m. at night or 8 p.m. at night—well it was still two or three in the afternoon in D.C. And you know, 11 a.m./Noon in Livermore, California, and other points in between. Argonne and the like. And so, we could have all kinds of model runs because there were so many moving parts in the agreement that all had to fit together. And that we could have a tremendous amount of modeling done while we slept at night and then woke up in the morning in Europe and had the answers ready for that day’s negotiations. So, it was really a great, terrific support.
And in Europe, Ernie, what was the rhyme and reason to negotiations being held at Vienna vs. Geneva? What delineated the negotiation site?
Well, I don’t know. Vienna, I mean, site of the IAEA. It just was kind of understood to be the place where a final agreement would happen. Whereas the period up to the interim agreement in April something or other. So, those negotiations were all in Switzerland along Lake Geneva. Geneva, Montreux, and mainly Lausanne where we finished the interim deal. The last two meetings were in Lausanne. I mean, where we finished the framework agreement, so-called. And then that set off the sprint to July 1 or July 14, eventually. And all of those meetings were in Vienna. So, once we had the framework agreement, we left Switzerland to Vienna.
Ernie, sort of a broad question about your understanding of Iran’s ambitions and the way it saw itself on the world stage. As you learn more about Iran’s nuclear program, was your sense that they always viewed a nuclear arsenal as a negotiating chip to achieve other diplomatic and economic goals? Or was your sense that they sincerely desired a nuclear weapons capacity and it’s really a testament to the negotiations that P5+1 was able to reorient those goals?
Look. I mean, I’ve never been to Iran. I would have liked to have gone to Iran; or would still like to go to Iran. But it’s not in the cards right now. But certainly, my impression is that it’s all of the above. That there were—my impression frankly is that there was never—they never quite pulled the trigger in the end to actually go to building a bomb. They did all the steps that would be needed to integrate that, except with that one glaring issue as I said, 2003. No material (laughter). So, you know, that to me is what gives me pause about what factions had what views in Iran. Because I cannot for the life of me think why I would go all out to a nuclear weapon and not have any material. Unless they thought they were going to buy it from somebody? I don’t know? From Pakistan? I don’t know. The Khan network? I mean, I don’t know. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. You do everything except the one thing you really need. And that’s a fact. But they never did that. And I think it’s a fact that they have not enriched up to 20%. I mean they’ve gone up to 20% and not across that threshold, which is the magic threshold for high enriched uranium by definition. And that would be another, a very serious violation of their IAEA requirements. So, it’s weird. So, I think some undoubtedly really wanted to have a bomb. But I think others were saying, “Look. Let’s make sure we have all the pieces together and if we need it, we can do it quickly.” Except, you gotta have material (laughter).
But of course, you know, once you go to 20%, which they were doing at Fordow, I mean 19.75% or whatever. Once you do that, you’ve done almost all the work to get to 90%. You know, you’re 90% of the way there, basically. And so, as they were doing the 20% enrichment, then once again, you could fit that into the idea that, hey look, if we get enough 20% to finish the job and have enough material for one or two bombs, it’s the same thing. Nobody can say they have actually got a nuclear weapon. But they are on the threshold of being able to do it quickly. They have all the designs ready, etc. And only top off the LEU. Or what’s called HALEU. HALEU is High-Assay LEU. Again, the IAEA draws the line at 20%. Below it’s LEU; above it’s HEU. And HALEU is just below.
Ernie, of course, on the run up to July 2015 when the deal is completed, of course it’s a political highwire act. But I wonder on a technical level, were there any moments when you thought the deal was falling apart? And was there anything that gave you specific concern that Iran was hiding something?
Very, very early on when I started in the negotiations, probably after two meetings with Salehi, I think we both concluded that a deal could get done. That our redlines, my redlines, and his redlines were not incompatible. And therefore, there was room for a deal. Whether that deal materialized was not entirely clear until probably late in June, July 1. Something like that. You know, Ali didn’t even come back from Iran until July something or other. Cause he had been very sick in between and had been operated on. We were very concerned that he was not going to be able to finish the negotiation. But fortunately, he recovered and came back for the last, I forget, maybe 10 days or so of the negotiation. So, it might have been even until July 7 or something like that that I think there were still some significant issues to nail down. But we were very systematic in knocking off issue after issue. And sometimes after rethinking it, going back, and I mean. I’ll give you an example. Fairly early on in those last five months, we agreed that there would be a limit on the amount of LEU, the amount of enriched uranium, 300 kilograms. And that it would not be enriched to more than 3.5%. So, I thought we had reached that, which was a very, very, big, major plateau. Very, very, big deal.
Then, I mean, getting to that wasn’t easy (laughter). But we finally got there. And then Ali came back and said, “Can we reopen that 3.5% in favor of 3.67%?” And why? And he had a good reason. And the reason was if you looked at the enrichment of the fuel in the Bushehr plant, the lowest enrichment component of the fuel was 3.67%. And so, from that point of view, the 3.5% kind of didn’t make sense. Because it was not…it was useless. Whereas at 3.67%, at least the argument was, well, we got a little bit, and you know, it can contribute to fuel for the Bushehr plant. So, in the end I said, “Fine.” But it had to come out of something else.
And that’s again where that overnight, the DOE laboratories are running the models (laughter). And where did we make up the difference of 3.5% vs. 3.67% in the overall picture of so-called breakout time. So, he understood. He had to give something else up to do it. And then after I ran the models, I said, “Okay. Here’s what we can do.” And if it washes out, it washes out. And so, we did it. So, you know, there’s an example of a pretty technical issue that we would negotiate.
In March 2015, Bibi Netanyahu famously or perhaps infamously presented to Congress where he asserted that the deal would “guarantee Iran gets lots of nuclear weapons.” I’m not sure if you remember the details of the presentation. But was your sense that this was totally hyperbolic and completely false? Was there anything redeeming about this view that Netanyahu wanted to present before the Congress?
No. Nothing redeeming about it. And fundamentally outrageous. You remember that whole business, I mean, and the President of the United States was not involved in the invitation. I think it’s still the only time in history that a foreign leader has been invited to the Congress without having the protocol of the President being involved in that. But the reason why it has no redeeming value, in my view, is that the idea that Iran or any other proliferant country would choose to do their bomb in declared facilities to the IAEA is looney.
I mean, which of course, by the way, is why the breakout time of a year is ridiculously conservative in the sense that the breakout time that I had to deliver as at least a year was the time it would take Iran to assemble the fissile material for a bomb going all out. No, subterfuge. They would have to use everything at their disposal to get there. Like, you know, it would take maybe 15 minutes to recognize that they were breaking out. But you know, that’s what we had to deliver. And as I’ve always said, the most important thing is the covert program. The covert program, by definition, is not declared to the IAEA. And so, the verification measures were the important thing. And the important thing was not verification measures of what was public to the IAEA anyway. It was things like having access to any site in the country. And having a finite window to be granted that access. To have the modules required to approve the additional protocol with this time period, etc., etc. And the American senior intelligence people were thrilled with what we got because we had extraordinary verification measures that no other country is subject to. And what is important in the declared program is that with the greatly enhanced IAEA access and very importantly use of technologies, use of surveillance cameras everywhere, use of smart seals that can’t be tampered with—or they can be tampered with, but then you know it. That they’re tampered with, etc. Gave 15 years of constraints on what they could do and extraordinary access. And let’s face it. For an intelligence person, that sounds like a good combination.
And so, Jim Clapper, he said this publicly. He was DNI. And he said publicly—he said it in Congress. “As an intelligence analyst, I can never tell you that there is a 100% guarantee we will find any covert activity. That would be a foolish statement. But what I can tell you is this agreement raises the bar so high for escaping detection that the risks in doing so would be enormous. Because let’s face it, if they get caught at this again, 64 tons is gonna come down on them with the international community, etc., etc.”
So that’s exactly the right attitude. You make it a very, very, bad risk calculus, knowing the consequences will be extreme.
So, then, just to be clear. Giving the technical absurdity of Netanyahu’s—
Oh. We’re going to have to stop soon. Yeah. Okay.
Okay. Sure. Last question for today then. Just to be clear, given the technical absurdity of Netanyahu’s claims and in light of the fact that the defense and intelligence establishment in Israel came out acknowledging that the Iran deal was legitimate, do you interpret what Netanyahu was doing as purely cynical politics?
Well, first of all, let’s be clear. I never said that the entire intelligence and military apparatus of Israel wanted to play the deal. No. I mean, I didn’t say that. I said that a large number, particularly of retired, because they can’t speak when they’re in the government, publicly. But the retired, very senior military and intelligence figures were saying stay in the deal. But there were others on you know, the other side. I mean, there’s no question about it. No, I think Netanyahu was trying to engineer a defeat of any deal that materialized in the Congress. In March, it still wasn’t clear that we were going to succeed.
I mean, but it was looking like, you know, we were really making progress. And they seemed to be quite informed of what progress we were making.
So, it was really in terms of protocol, amazing. A foreign leader comes to the U.S. Congress to fight against, explicitly against that President’s foreign policy. That could’ve been done in other ways.
On that note, Ernie, I’ll let you go, and we’ll pick it up for next time.
Alright. See you then. Thank you very much.
Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is December 7, 2020. So happy to be back with Professor Ernest Moniz. Ernie, today I’d like to round out our discussion of the Iran Nuclear Deal. I’d like to start with some assessments of Iran’s compliance in 2013 and 2014. Was there any daylight between the IAEA’s assessment during this time period and that of the United States? ERNEST
Well, I mean the IAEA, of course, at that time did not have any extraordinary verification measures in place. They had a rather conventional IAEA country bilateral safeguards agreement. And that is, you know, it’s a good thing. But it is nowhere near adequate. Namely, it does not permit any inspections beyond where Iran declares a nuclear activity. Even then, they had no access to technologies. They couldn’t use cameras. They couldn’t use seals. I mean, special seals. So frankly, I would say that a collection of other countries probably had more insight than the IAEA at that time. It’s only after the JCPOA, when the agency got special measures of all types. First of all, got a lot more inspectors certified to go into Iran. So, there were more boots on the ground. There were and there are. But again, they could install a whole raft of technologies, assure first that Iran was getting into compliance with the JCPOA requirements. Then have 24/7 camera systems, for example. Twenty-four seven access to any declared facility and access to any undeclared facility because Iran was required in the agreement to adhere to the Additional Protocol, which is a voluntary measure, except for Iran. A voluntary measure for another 100+ countries which gives the IAEA access to undeclared facilities if there is some reason to be suspicious of activities there. But even there Iran has yet another constraint which is that it must provide that access anywhere within a fixed number of days. Just roughly three and a half weeks. There’s a three-step process which runs out the clock in about three and a half weeks. So, with that, we are very confident that any attempt to hide anything—certainly using uranium—would be detected. I’ve said at that time in 2015 in Congress, publicly, that the United States has done experiments at Los Alamos to push the edge on being able to hide uranium and we obviously can’t describe in detail, I mean, publicly, what that is. But the conclusion is confidence that we could detect it. In fact, it was comical that some of the Republicans who were trying to undermine the deal compared the ease of hiding activity to flushing drugs down the toilet. It took some graphic explanation to dissuade them of that possibility. So, the IAEA, it was day and night between their capabilities before and after the JCPOA.
Ernie, to the extent that you’re able to talk about this—domestically within the IC, within the intelligence community—were there any significant disagreements either about Iran’s intentions or capabilities in the runup to October 2015 when the deal was finalized?
Well, the deal was signed in July of 2015. And full implementation came in January of 2016. The period to October, if I recall, actually I think it was September, was the critical period for getting through the congressional hoops. Let’s just say that the IC was always part of the classified briefings of Congress. Of course, they worked with us directly. So, you know, I think we had a very good picture of what was going on during the entire negotiation and subsequently.
And were the intelligence briefings that Congress got, did you see that as vital to gaining the necessary support on the Hill?
Oh absolutely. Sure. That was quite important. And you know, again, things like the Israeli trove that they recovered from the warehouse in Iran were obviously subsequent to all the negotiations. And somehow, breathlessly proclaiming that Iran had a nuclear weapons program added no new information at a high level because first of all, it confirmed what was already public from both the IAEA and from an unclassified U.S. intelligence summary that Iran did have a structured nuclear weapons program through 2003. And did not have one subsequently. Again, it does not mean that there were not some essentially random activities that could be of use to a nuclear weapons program should one be reconstituted. But again, there was no evidence, no suggestion of an organized or again, the IAEA magic word, no “structured” nuclear weapons program.
Even with Iranian cooperation, what were some of the key technical challenges in getting Iran to reduce its highly enriched uranium stockpiles?
Well, I mean, the technical challenge of executing, getting to the limit was not that complicated in the sense that we agreed, and Russia agreed, to simply ship it out of the country. So, the alternative would’ve been to have built a facility for blending natural uranium or depleted uranium with the enriched uranium in order to reach, let’s say natural uranium enrichment levels. But the far simpler thing and what was done was that Russia just sent a ship to Iran. And I don’t recall the exact date, but it was approximately Christmas Day in 2015 that ship left port in Iran and went back to Russia carrying over 10 tons of enriched uranium that included 20% uranium. Which is needed for the Tehran Research Reactor. But the main thing was 10 tons of 4-4.5% enriched uranium, and it went along with the 20%, what are called meats which Iran can withdraw back from Russia when they need it for the reactor. So, only a very limited amount to go into the reactor as fuel. Plus, a lot of scrap material that nobody really knew how to seriously get rid of and probably sitting in some Russian warehouse at the moment. But nobody understanding what the hell to do with it. It’s scrap junk and I have to say I was personally very, very grateful to Russia, specifically to Sergey Kiriyenko who was heading Rosatom at the time. And whom I had known for a long time. And that issue arose as we got into the implementation. We didn’t frankly think about the fact that there was going to be scrap that you just didn’t know what to do with when we signed the agreement in July. So, you know, there’s always a bit of scrambling, so this is an example of a challenge. And frankly, what happened was I had coming up my regular bilateral with Kiriyenko at the IAEA general conference in September of 2015. And it was happening very quickly, so there was no time to provide briefing materials in advance, etc., etc. I just raised it cold turkey at the meeting, and I said, “Look. I know that you’re not going to be prepared to give an answer today because you never heard of this issue.” And frankly, we hadn’t really until the last days before that. But I said, you know, “Please. It’s a favor. Because I cannot see any use of this material.” And I said, “If I could take it, I would. Just take it back to the United States and do it. But we have no legal authority for any kind of nuclear exchange, if you like, with Iran.” And Kuchinov looked at his team, including a very knowledgeable person, Mr. Kuchinov who I’d been dealing with for a long, long time. Kuchinov never heard of the issue. And he said, “OK. We’ll look into this and get back to you.” And within a pretty short order they got back to us and said, “OK. We’ll just take it.” And they did everybody a big favor in doing that. And I often say that people should remember that that is September of 2015. It got put on the boat in December of 2015. And that was during a period when the United States/Russia relationship was already kind of in the tank because of the Ukrainian situation. So, I think it was a great gesture on their part to do that. I mean frankly, the alternative would’ve been one of the European countries having to take it. And that would’ve been a very much more difficult sell.
Ernie, to what extent was this agreement of bonus insofar as it highly limited Iran’s capacity to potentially give highly enriched uranium to terrorist actors to use as a dirty bomb?
Well. No, no. I think you’re mixing up a whole bunch of things there. You certainly would not use HEU in a dirty bomb. That’s a waste of HEU and it’s a lousy dirty bomb because HEU is not terribly toxic, shall we say. A dirty bomb is more from the fission products. So, for example, spent nuclear fuel from a power reactor would be a very, nasty dirty bomb. Medical sources. At NTI, over the last two years, we’ve done a lot of work, and often successfully, in getting major medical systems, including in the United States, to eliminate or at least start the elimination of Cesium-137 sources. New York City is committed to, with one exception at the moment, to replace all the Cesium-137 sources with X-ray technology. The University of California medical system has done so as well. We’ve also, this is an aside, but since you raised the question, at NTI we’ve also brokered two meetings in the central Asian republics involving the IAEA, DOE, Rosatom, and regulators from Russia as well. And the central Asian republics. One meeting was held in Kazakhstan and one was in, I think it was Turkmenistan. I think. It was either Turkmenistan or Tajikistan. Anyway, where they start the process of trying to figure out where these radioactive sources are because they’re from the Soviet days. And clean them up. So, the point here is that Cesium-137, which is of course one of the prominent fission products in a power reactor, but Cesium -137 sources are used ubiquitously in medicine. For example, every blood bank uses Cesium-137 for irradiation of the blood. For sterilization. And those sources come conveniently in nice, powdered Cesium chloride form. And so, if somehow terrorists stormed a medical facility and got that Cesium-137, and explosively released it let’s say, from a skyscraper in Manhattan, for example. Sandia Labs has modeled that. And you really don’t want to know the answer. It is very, very ugly. So, anyway, as a long aside, but again, HEU is not the issue for dirty bombs. So, when Iran has Bushehr spent fuel sitting there, if they wanted to access that, that would be a problem. But of course, the IAEA will have complete inspection of that and frankly, spent fuel from a big light water reactor like Bushehr is not very hard to monitor. I mean, if they want to tamper with that then there’ll be immediate recognition. Furthermore, we are still hoping that the Bushehr spent fuel will after a few years of cooling go back to Russia. So, there’s many, many layers of that. Similarly, by the way, in the agreement, the spent fuel from the redesigned and rebuilt Iraq reactor, that spent fuel would also go out of country. So that Iran does not retain control of that plutonium bearing spent fuel, if you like. So, anyway, I don’t know if you want to rephrase your question?
(Laughter) So, basically then, HEU and dirty bombs, they have nothing to with each other. Let me ask the question like this. Politically to what extent did you see the Iran deal as part—
And Iran. Excuse me, David. And Iran does not have HEU.
Right. Right. [pause] Okay. We’re frozen. We’re back a little bit. Ernie, the last thing I heard you say was Iran does not have HEU.
Correct. So, my question is then, politically to what extent did you see the Iran deal as having broader ambitions of getting Iran to join the community of nations where supporting nuclear terrorism or other kinds of terrorism was simply something that Iran was no longer going to do?
Yeah. Well, again, Iran has not supported nuclear terrorism. They obviously have supported terrorism. Certainly, by our definition. The hope was that, and it was a hope, and we were explicit about this. The hope was that—first of all that we would, with the agreement—take the nuclear weapon threat off the table. Verifiably. So, the international community including the regional neighbors. Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Israel, a little bit farther away, obviously. Geographically. But that they would also have confidence that Iran did not have a nuclear weapons capability. Then what we said is that the deal stands as far as we’re concerned as a good one. If that’s all we get out of it, it’s still a good deal. It’s fifteen years of highly constrained activity and then ongoing verification and transparency measures as the heart of the agreement. But obviously we also said that number one, this is not going to stop us from turning up the heat on some of the other issues that we are very concerned about. The regional issues. And it’s also not going to stop us from using these fifteen years as best as possible to try to bring Iran back into what we would argue is more normal national behavior. But again, but the deal is not contingent on that happening. That was the intention. The hope. Now it’s a little bit of a different situation. And I think that as we speak now, we have a President-elect Biden who has declared his intention to go back into diplomacy with Iran to reestablish the JCPOA. But also, to go beyond the JCPOA. And I think that’s not entirely simple or easy to see in a step-by-step way today, at least. It’s gonna require reengaging diplomacy. And I think needing to go beyond the JCPOA in pretty short order to address some other issues. But it’s going to be really complicated. Even just starting the diplomacy will be complicated because for one thing, the agreement never relieved all of the economic sanctions on Iran. It relieved only the sanctions directly related to the nuclear activity. And there were a number of sanctions of that type over the years. And from the beginning, we understood. And this goes back to the question about the strength of the deal. Again, those who were opposed to the deal never kind of really acknowledged that this was only a partial lifting of sanctions. And we always realized that it was not going to be suddenly a kumbaya awakening of Iran as an investment haven when there was still going to be a lot of sanctions related to terrorism. Related to the regional activities. Arms supplies. All kinds of things. So, I think with a Biden getting back into it, a Biden administration, I think Iran is gonna have a lot of demands and expectations that I expect will not be met. And that will be a little bit tricky because for example, how many of the additional sanctions levied by the Trump administration does one ascribe to the nuclear behavior or to other behavior? Is the Biden administration just going to give a blanket withdrawal of all the Trump sanctions, or only those related to nuclear? Don’t know. That’s up to the Biden administration in their negotiating posture to decide. And of course, the killings this year of Soleimani and Fakhrizadeh further complicate the issue on the Iranian side. So, I think it’s going to be a tough negotiation even to enter negotiations. And then once you enter negotiations, it’s going to have to go beyond the JCPOA to other issues. It’s going to be tough.
From the vantage point of late 2015, early 2016, at the high point, obviously not having the benefit of knowing all the twists and turns that would happen over the next four years, was your understanding of the deal, did you see it as a complete and self-contained agreement that would govern Iran’s nuclear program for the next 15 years? Or did you understand that it would need amendments and adjustments over that time period, even in the best case of scenarios?
Well, we kind of assumed that there were going to have to be adjustments. And that’s why we established this commission as a place to resolve the issues. So, I don’t think we expected necessarily that there would be formal amendments to the JCPOA that needed again, the signatures of all these countries and everything else. But rather what we anticipated would definitely be needed would be a venue where interpretations could get worked out and the like. And there were also restrictions on some dual use imports, for example, that Iran could take to the commission and ask for the ability to import some material. I mean, for example, the JCPOA includes a glovebox restriction. And the idea was that one didn’t want to see Iran under the guise of spent fuel inspection, essentially getting into reprocessing, in effect. And part of that was a limitation on the gloveboxes. But if Iran had a legitimate need for some other reason, then having this commission gave them a venue for saying, “Look. Here’s the case. Here’s why.” They would agree to verification measures, etc. So, that’s where we anticipated that it’s not like you sign it and fifteen years later everything is great. We understood that there were going to be continuously issues of interpretation, etc. If any of those issues touched upon fundamental issues in the JCPOA, then it would get kicked up to the foreign ministers of all of the countries. But the expectation was it would be mostly a kind of a working level group that would address fairly routine issues that would come up.
Ernie, I asked previously the extent to which you saw the Iran deal as part of a broader effort to engage Iran to become more a part of the community of nations. To flip that question on its head, when Iran starting to do missile tests in violation of UN Security Council resolutions in late 2015, did you see this as threatening the viability of the deal? And more generally, did you see the Iran deal to a certain extent allowing Iran more brazenness in the foreign policy realm in nonnuclear areas?
Well, that was going to be a test, really. And I’d say it’s a pretty mixed grade. But of course, the issue is, the reality is there was only a year of implementation before the administration change, when the tone immediately changed. I mean, the Trump administration didn’t withdrawal until May of 2018. But still, in those intervening 16 months, the whole tone had changed. So, what I thought, and this was my personal view. I think it’s consistent with the view of others in the Obama administration. But my view was that it was going to take 3, 4, 5 years of some confidence building before one could really engage seriously in those other issues like missiles and regional questions. And again, there was still a lot of leverage because of all the remaining sanctions. Which again, people forget about. That we still had lots and lots of leverage there. And that leverage, by the way, became evident when Iran found that despite the United States trying to work to get international banks to do some business with Iran, that it just wasn’t working. And a large part of that was the remaining sanctions regimes, plus the opaqueness of Iran’s economy. Its significant ownership by the Revolutionary Guard in nontransparent ways. So, you know, there was a lot of leverage still. I think a lot of people think somehow, we gave away all the leverage. We did not. There was a lot of leverage left. And I think my view was that as Iran a) complied with the agreement and b) saw that their economic aspirations really needed another set of steps, that we could get there. But then of course, that all unraveled when the United States left the agreement in 2018. And so now we are—if one wants to think about this idea again, well, OK. It’s still true. We have leverage to do more, etc. But the level of trust is now even lower than it was at that time in 2015. And one should not underestimate the level of distrust that remained. It’s true that we as the direct negotiators developed personal trust. I mean I did with Salehi, for example. But that should not be confused in any way with trust between the governments, etc. Quite a different issue.
Has Iran made effective use of the low-grade uranium it was allowed to maintain in accordance with the deal?
Not really. It’s not had much use for them. I mean, in the sense that they haven’t used it to fabricate fuel or something like that for the Bushehr reactor. What it’s allowed them is the ability to maintain the JCPOA allowed activity with the rather primitive centrifuges. The IR-1s. To allow them to keep doing some enrichment there within the boundaries. But I wouldn’t say it’s…again, it has not opened up new vistas of civilian nuclear activity. And it was intended to be a primary constraint on Iran for fifteen years in the agreement. So. It was a major, major constraint. Now, today we’re hearing lots of, again, breathless statements about Iran having now twelve times as much enriched material as was the case in the JCPOA. That’s true, and it’s not a good thing. But for context, they had well over thirty times as much material as allowed in the JCPOA before the agreement (laughter). And secondly, if we go back into the JCPOA, getting back down to 300 kilograms again is straightforward either by blending with depleted uranium or by shipping it out of the country again. The excess. So, it’s a few more tons to Russia. Let’s say.
In March 2016, then candidate Donald Trump says that dismantling the deal was his number one foreign policy priority. My question for you is, and either this would require taking him seriously as a candidate at that time or taking seriously that that view was representative of whoever the Republican nominee was going to be. At that point, how seriously did you consider the threat that if a Republican won, if Donald Trump won, that the JCPOA was going to be existentially threatened?
Well, by the way, first of all, you should include in your archive a clip from the Colbert Show in September of 2015 in which I appeared immediately after Donald Trump appeared.
I remember that (laughter).
Yeah. And when I was given a signed copy of The Art of the Deal signed from Donald Trump to me, with the inscription “Better luck next time…” But, in the campaign, I would say in March of 2016 it wasn’t, nobody could predict entirely how far Trump was going to go. Not only on Iran, but on a lot of other things.
And I think very few expected that he would make a principle of trying to reverse anything Obama did. No matter what. I think it was less policy and more, at least in March of 2016, I think that was more kind of the mantra. I don’t believe that other Republican candidates, had they succeeded, would’ve withdrawn from the agreement. Because again, when you look at what happened when Trump was clearly moving towards withdrawing from the agreement in the spring of 2018, the reality is that many, many of what you might call the mainline Republicans in Congress and in the administration. I’m thinking particularly of General Mattis at Defense. They vigorously argued against a withdrawal from the agreement. Their argument was, “Look. We didn’t like the agreement. We didn’t support its being entered into. But here we are. Two plus years after implementation. And it’s working. Iran is complying fully. We know there’s no nuclear weapons program. We know there’s still a big problem regionally, etc.” But they wanted to stay in it. So, I don’t think Trump’s withdrawal represents in any way the fact that Republicans as a whole wanted to withdraw from the agreement once it was proved successful after a couple of years. So unfortunately, I think that a lot of things I have to ascribe to Trump’s simply wanting to reverse essentially anything that Obama did. That was Paris. That was healthcare. The NAFTA became renamed with virtually no changes whatsoever. And suddenly switched from the worse trade deal ever to the best trade deal ever with extremely minimal changes. Certainly, with regard to Canada. It was quite minimal. With Mexico, there were some bigger changes, but that was to a large extent because Mexico was going through a complete change in its energy sector and the deal had to reflect the fact that at that time at least, the Mexican energy sector was quite different. So anyway, so I think that was a big part of it. I think that was a big part of the Iran part as well. Although clearly, I think there’s no secret about the Saudis, the Emirates, and the Israelis all welcoming the Trump reversal on the Iran deal. Whether they will continue to celebrate, that remains to be seen.
Given that it took the Trump administration to back out of the deal, do you ascribe that simply to the fact that it was so successful and that so many people in Washington had come around to support the deal? Or were there specific things that you did and the Obama administration did to Trump-proof, so to speak, the deal? So that it was something that would not be able to be pulled out of immediately?
Well, first of all, when the deal was negotiated and signed, there was no indication about who the next president would be. So, there was certainly no attempt to do that. And in fact, the key there is something which is of far greater consequence. And that is that in our politics, the idea of getting any treaty on anything ever approved is questionable. With the two-thirds requirement in the Senate. And consequently, the agreement is not a treaty. It’s an executive agreement with the problem that any executive agreement can be changed by the next executive. And that’s no different with Trump. Everything Trump had done has been by executive order. Not agreement, but order. And that can be changed by the next president. And that’s of course, one of the problems. Usually, historically, I would argue that the difference between a treaty and an executive agreement has often been exaggerated. But that’s probably not true anymore. With this divided politics, there is a big difference. However, you can’t do it (laughter). And, so, it’s kind of moot. And you’re right back to the executive approach. So, that’s why I think that presidential administration of either flavor really needs to do a lot more spade work than has been the case historically to try to get some level of bipartisan support before getting into the executive agreement. Otherwise, it’s going to be very difficult. And I think for other countries, it’s gonna be very hard to, let’s face it, it’s gonna be very hard to think of the United States as a reliable partner on an agreement that can just be flipped by the next president. So, we’re in a tough spot. And again, that’s not just about Iran. That’s a much, much, broader issue.
Across the board. Right.
In fact, as an aside, it’s one reason why—Sam Nunn and I published a foreign affairs piece, particularly with regard to Russia and nuclear threats. And we’ve pointed out there that the political space for doing any kind of serious discussion has shrunk dramatically. And Congress has been a big part of that. It sounds good, for example, for Congress to look tough. In the Trump administration, there’s been for obvious reasons, a lot of suspicion. I would say on both sides of the aisle in terms of the President’s dealings with Russia. It goes back to the election and all of that. And so, Congress passed some of its own sanctions on Russia. Quite understandable because of Ukraine and the election interference in 2016. But in their enthusiasm and their distrust I would say of the administration, they did not provide the normal exception on the sanctions for the President to waive them in the interest of national security. By the way, as an aside on the aside, I should just go back and remind people that the JCPOA engagement by the United States actually, and this was part of its death knell, because it required the President to waive the nuclear sanctions every three months. So, Obama and then Trump through April of 2018, or I guess it was May. April or May. Whatever it was. Trump, four or five times. He had given the national security waiver of sanctions. Which of course, kind of stuck in his throat, given his position. But he did that. Because it was required. Because the Congress had put down sanctions on Iran. You know, Iran, Libya, Syria, etc. And so, the agreement to have gone on for the fifteen years, let’s say, it would’ve required sixty presidential waivers by multiple presidents, every three months. So, going back to the story then. So, Congress passed those Russia sanctions and did not provide the standard waiver on national security grounds. So, that’s an example of what Sam and I consider dramatically narrowing the political space. Because if you’re Russia, it’s very easy to think if Congress is the one that has to vote to withdraw those sanctions—and it is the case—that’s a vote Congress essentially never takes. And so, if you’re Russia, you say, “Look. I’m in the penalty box and I’m never going to get out. So, that might influence my behavior” (laughter). And as a good historical analog, I think it was in the seventies when the Jackson-Vanik sanctions were put in place because the Soviet Union was essentially blocking any immigration of Soviet Jewish citizens to Israel. We all understood that certainly by the early to mid-80s, they were no longer doing that. But the Jackson-Vanik sanctions went on and on and on. Bill Clinton finally sent Congress a notification that Russia was in compliance. So, fifteen years after they were actually in compliance, because the Soviet Union had fallen, Bill Clinton formally served notice to the Congress. And I think it took 10 more years before Congress finally revoked the Jackson-Vanik sanctions. But they only did it because they simultaneously imposed the Magnitsky sanctions (laughter). So, I think unfortunately that story is not told very often. People don’t understand that what sounds reasonable in an actual diplomatic context creates enormous problems. And this in turn narrows the political space, not just for President-to-President discussions, but for military-to-military discussions, for diplomat-to-diplomat discussions, scientist to scientist discussions. All of which are dramatically reduced. So somehow, I’m going off on another riff here. But somehow, we have to remember that diplomacy—which means talking to adversaries as well as allies—is a tool for our national security. It’s not a reward to other countries for doing what we want them to do.
That’s a pretty big difference. And unfortunately, we’re in the latter situation.
Ernie, as a private citizen during the Trump administration when you were outspoken in your support of continuing to remain in the deal, did you think reasonably that the Trump administration might stay in? Or were your efforts based on a longer game where you recognized that the next Democratic administration would come in and reenter the deal, and your efforts were there to make that reenter as smooth as possible?
We were trying to support the members of Congress and the members of the administration who argued with Trump to stay in the deal. That was really the motivation. And a number of them really went to bat. But, obviously failed. And I think also probably in May of ’18, it probably still was not recognized fully how the Trump administration was rolling the dice completely in support of the Gulf countries and Israel. And that was a pretty stark, again, you can argue about what the motivation was, but it was a pretty stark policy. And a lot of other policies, including human rights policies, etc., were just cast aside.
Two and a half years plus, since May 2018. I wonder if you could reflect on where the JCPOA is now, as a result of the United States withdrawing. I mean, as a multilateral agreement, the United States is only one of several nations that are part of it. And so, with that in mind, in what ways has the withdrawal been irrelevant to Iran’s ongoing commitment to the deal? And in what ways long term has the withdrawal by the United States fundamentally damaged Iran’s commitment to remain a nonnuclear power?
Well, the U.S. withdrawal clearly had major impact because Iran, in fact, then began to systematically violate the nuclear terms of the deal with the argument that has some credence that, “What do you mean? What deal?” Now, I have to say on the one hand, Iran’s violation of the deal has been up to now, at least, pretty measured. For one thing, they did not violate the deal for a full year. And they were very transparent about it. They said, “Look. We’re gonna give a year for the others, especially the Europeans, to stay with the deal and to help Iran realize the economic drivers for why they went into the deal in the first place.” And of course, Europe tried, but certainly by observation not terribly effectively. And not effectively because the United States under the Trump administration decided to play real hardball in ways that have never been done before. For example, I mean threatening sanctions on our allies as well as our adversaries if they in fact did commerce with Iran. And certainly, those additional sanctions have been very effective in really grinding down Iran’s economy. There’s no question about it. But there’s also no question that long term damage has been done to our alliances and that’s gonna take some repairing. And everybody right now certainly understands that a Biden President will be looking to work with allies to restore the relationship, etc. But I don’t believe you simply erase four years and make believe it didn’t happen. Frankly, especially when the overall election results have a certain lack of clarity in terms of the body politic. So, we’ll see. I mean it’s very, very, very complex. But the combination again, of those four years, the Soleimani and Fakhrizadeh incidents, the mysterious explosion in Natanz in July, etc. As I said, it's going to make even the reentry into the JCPOA a very fraught enterprise.
Right. This is all, of course, a great overview on the political complications of the situation. But today, technically where is Iran with regard to its nuclear capacities if you compared today to say, the beginning of your tenure in 2012? Is it closer, further, or about the same distance as then regarding its capacity to develop nuclear weapons?
First, by the way, I should say before getting into that explicitly that when I talked about the measured response of Iran, I should’ve followed through with that. That they waited a year. Then of course, they always announced in advance what their next step would be. And they did not go willy-nilly to kind of pull every centrifuge out of storage and get it running again and they did not start enriching the 20%, etc. And very importantly, they continued to maintain fully the verification regime. What I’ve said ironically is the IAEA became an agency to verify that Iran was violating the deal. Iran told them, “Look. We’re going to do this in violation, and you can watch it” (laughter). And the IAEA, they’d say, “Yes. They did it.” The IAEA is the one that reported the amount of material that they now have and the like. So, Iran was acting in a very measured fashion clearly looking ahead towards the possibility of the deal being revived. And not wanting to make it any more complicated than it had to be. But again, the events of this year, including the recent event with the killing of Fakhrizadeh—and I’m, by the way, I’m making no judgment about these events. I’m just saying they are events, and they are facts. Now is making it more complicated. For example, the Majles, the Parliament clearly had to do something politically in response to these events. And we’ll see if this means anything. But they have, at least the Majles has passed a law. They have a complicated issue about laws being laws or not with the Supreme Leader engagement. But whatever the case, at face value, they are saying, “Well, now the violations are going to get more serious.” By saying, “We must resume 20% enrichment.” And 20% enrichment is sensitive because you’re basically 90% of the way towards weapons grade uranium at that point. Even though it is not disallowed. It is allowed within the IAEA strictures because it’s still LEU up to 20%. But secondly, they also threatened to eject the IAEA inspectors. As a reminder, that’s what North Korea did prior to its withdrawal from the NTP and then nuclear testing later on. So, if Iran does that and the international community’s eyes and ears, the IAEA, are not there, that can be a slippery slope to a very, very, bad outcome. So, this is an inflection point. And where it goes is going to be very, very uncertain come January 20. Now I’ve forgotten what your question was.
So, the question is on the technical side, regardless of Iran’s ambitions, technically where is Iran in terms of its capacity to develop a nuclear weapon vs. 2012?
Well, first of all, in 2015, whatever, Iran had the capability to develop a nuclear weapon. There was no step they couldn’t do if they put their minds to it, which is true for many other countries. Japan would be an obvious one. Germany. You can go through it. Remembering always that the key step is producing enough HEU or plutonium for a bomb. Once again, I think it’s really important to remember, and this is certainly equally true if we were discussing North Korea, for example, as Iran, that building a bomb given enough weapons grade material is not hard. It gets harder, a lot harder, as you talk about not just having a bomb, but having one that is compact, is high yield, can fit on the top of a missile, can survive, especially long range. And ICBM reentry dynamics are not simple, etc. So, again I think we often fail to be sufficiently sophisticated in saying nuclear weapon. What about a nuclear weapon that is big and ugly, but you put on a ship and send it into a harbor? Versus a thousands-of-miles missile carrying a compact, high-yield weapon? The latter, I think one would be much more reserved in terms of capability, as opposed to the former. So, again, you keep your eye on the ball, but the number one issue is it’s the material.
For different reasons, I still have a button from the Clinton administration that reads, “It’s the plutonium stupid.” In that regard, I would say Iran is further ahead than it was and further ahead than it would’ve been under the JCPOA at this particular time, at least. In the sense that the one violation of the JCPOA that they have engaged in since May of 2019 that has an element of irreversibility is resuming the R&D on advanced centrifuges. Again, twelve times as much enriched material, that can be taken care of. That can be reversed very quickly. Again, like, send a ship (laughter). Get it out. You know? So, almost everything they’ve done is reversible, pretty easily. What’s irreversible is knowledge gained. You can’t forget the knowledge. So, the extent to which they have done more work on IR-4s, IR-6s…in the agreement, when we signed the agreement, they already had operating cascades of IR-4s. Those were dismantled. Well, I think they are re-mantled, etc. And the only relevance of that, I mean they had plenty of IR-1s to make enough material for a bomb, if they chose. They would be easily detected. In fact, another point which is worth maybe saying, especially for physicists, is the scale of the amount of work needed to be done to produce the LEU for let’s say a thousand-megawatt light water reactor is—depends how you operate it—but the scale is say 100,000-150,000 SWU per year. I’m not going to go into defining—it’s a complicated thing—it’s the relative sizes that matter. So, you need 100,000-150,000 SWU per year to do the refueling of a thousand-megawatt reactor. The IR-1 does about 1 SWU per year. The Iranians had about 9,000 centrifuges, most of them IR-1s, in operation. So, you could see, they do not have a scale that is anywhere near, at this stage at least, anywhere near that to run a commercial nuclear power program. However, the amount of SWU needed for a nuclear weapon is in the thousands. Let’s call is 5-6-7,000. You know, whatever. I mean, that ballpark. So, they had already the capacity to make a couple of weapons worth per year. However, having to run that huge operation, especially covertly, would be very, very difficult. Now that’s where, if they start succeeding with machines that are four or six SWU per year, well, clearly the footprint starts to get smaller. And the risk, therefore, starts to get higher of a covert operation. Which is why, again, the extraordinary transparency and verification measures of the JCPOA are so critical. That, okay, eventually they may get to six IR-6s, let’s say. They need a thousand of them only for—I say only, but that’s not exactly a trivial number—to do one weapon’s worth a year of HEU. So, you can see how the numbers play out. But I think a lot of people don’t realize that enormous difference between the SWU requirements for a weapons program and for a power program. And obviously it goes in the wrong way in this case. So, anyway, that’s why having again, sustaining the transparency and verification is so critical. And that was our view in 2015. And it remains the view today. That is the most important part of the agreement. And so far, it’s basically held. But clearly the stakes are now very high for the earliest stages of the Biden administration in having a very, very, complicated pathway towards the resumed diplomacy.
Ernie, on that note, as you’ve made clear, it’s much more complicated than the Biden administration simply reentering the deal as if the Trump administration never left in the first place. So, as you said before, what’s required now is something bigger than the JCPOA. What does that bigger look like? And in what ways are the goals that the Obama administration had in 2011-12, in what ways are they the same and in what ways are they different in light of what’s happened in the Trump administration?
Well, first of all, let me make clear. I’m not saying that the JCPOA as is will not be the first step. All I’m saying is it certainly can’t be the last step. And I personally believe those other steps have got to be baked in to rejoining the JCPOA. That is, it can’t just be, okay, let’s just get back into the JCPOA and then we’ll play it by ear (laughter). I think there has to be kind of a commitment to addressing other issues. Whether or not there’s a specific timescale remains to be seen. An analogy that I’ve drawn is that if you go back to the JCPOA negotiation, one should remember that there was an earlier agreement. The JPOA. Which was the first step. U.S. and Iran obviously did not have good relationships. To put it mildly. And the JPOA was a kind of a first step. It gave some restriction on the nuclear program. Nothing terribly onerous. And it relieved some sanctions. But again, nothing terribly important. It was more, okay, confidence that at least we can do an agreement. But with it came a defined scope and timeframe for the next negotiation, which was the JCPOA. Which wasn’t after a break or something. It was a continuous process. So, the JPOA was signed, and the negotiation continued, but continued now on a bigger scope and with a fixed timeframe that the JCPOA was to be reached by July 1 of 2015. And it was two weeks later it was done. Maybe, and this is up to the Biden administration. How they play it. But for example, my view might be to consider the JCPOA as the JPOA of those years, namely it’s the first agreement. But it must be continuously, a continuous negotiation goes on with a defined scope and a timeframe. Now that may be too difficult. But that’s why I’m saying even getting into the first stage is a complex negotiation. And so, we’ll see how that goes.
And an unintended consequence, I wonder if the opportunity now increases U.S. negotiating strategy insofar as reentering the JCPOA might yield other benefits that might not have been available had the United States been in the whole time?
Well, no, I mean because I think if there were a constitutionally unallowed Obama third term, for example, I think those other negotiations would be going on already. So, no. So, I think we’ve lost time and complicated it, by and large. On the other hand, I’m of the possibly contrarian view to some of my colleagues that the place where we might be stronger is having the Emirates-Israeli agreement. You know? I think Iran now has to see a situation in which at least so far, parts of the Arab world and Israel are much more together in terms of the regional issues and certainly in terms of their posture towards Iran. So, to me that may be another negotiating tool on the JCPOA or U.S. side. So, it’s a different dynamic. It’s very complicated. And I think a new administration has a big challenge, but also, I think, has as good a prospect as anyone could have, I think, of trying to make lemonade out of lemons.
Yeah. Yeah. Ernie, speaking of new administrations, when the transition came up—I’ll make this my last question—knowing how single mindedly President Trump was to dismantling as much of the Obama legacy as he could, what opportunity did you see in your position to retain as much as possible in DOE policy going into the Trump administration?
Well, not really a whole lot. I mean, in terms of policy. First of all, on Iran. Well, we’ve just discussed that. Another big deal was Paris in climate change. And once again people forget that at the beginning of the Trump administration, it wasn’t entirely clear that he would withdraw from Paris. But he did. Now the DOE specific major contribution in Paris—I mean, sure we supported the overall negotiation, including with modeling and technical performance of various clean technologies and the like—but Mission Innovation was a very specific initiative that we led. And there, we did take some actions. Specifically, we took actions to help establish a secretariat for—the Mission Innovation secretariat was effectively in DOE. We had put the program together. We recruited the international partners. And we were organizing it operationally after Paris in December of 2015. But, as we got to the end of the administration, we thought it would be a good idea to have that secretariat formally put together and housed elsewhere. And in the end, it was housed in the UK. And IEA also played an important role. So, Mission Innovation could still use a little juice and I think it will get it when the United States rejoins. But that was one example where we did provide some inoculation to what the next administration might do.
Well, Ernie, I’ll let you go on that note. And next time definitely will be our last session where we’ll cover your—
The last time. Okay.
—post Obama years. Thank you so much and I’ll see you next time.
Bye, Ernie. Thank you.
Okay. Alright. Yeah. Cheers.
Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is December 14, 2020. I’m so happy to be back with Professor Ernest Moniz for our 10th and I promise, final session. We will wrap up today covering the years since your term as Energy Secretary.
So, to start, the first question I’d like to ask you is between the transition and wrapping up all of your responsibilities, how much planning were you able to devote to your post-Energy Secretary future before the start of the Trump administration?
Well. I went back to MIT. There were some discussions starting, but MIT certainly wanted me to be back in a part-time Emeritus role. And I agreed to do that. And in MIT fashion I went to visit the vice president for research the Friday after the end of the Obama administration. We talked in general terms and the next day in the email I had a letter of appointment with what I was called, what I was to be paid, etc. We had never discussed that, but it was okay. It was just taken care of. Therefore, that started almost immediately. And there, by the way, so one of my roles is as advisor to the MIT president. And that means the president, the provost, the VP for research, you know? So, helping out in areas where I have some experience. Including dealing with senior bodies that report to the president from outside. I mean, corporate America and the like. But I also—this didn’t happen immediately. Then fast forward—and we can come back to whichever areas you wish, but fast forwarding really a year later. I started a project called the Roosevelt Project funded by the Emerson Collective to try to do kind of a bottom-up case study approach to different places in the country in terms of their future in a low carbon world. Anyway, so that happened. Then I started a discussion with two of my DOE colleagues who had both been MIT Energy Initiative colleagues. I had hired them both. Both commuting from Washington. Melanie Kenderdine, who was the executive director of the MIT Energy Initiative and Joe Hezir, who I had hired for our gas study, initially, and then for other Future of… studies. And we decided—it didn’t happen until the summer—but we decided to form our own nonprofit in the energy world. The Energy Futures Initiative. We did so. We promised we would never grow to larger than seven people, because we wanted it to be…we would just focus on a few areas ourselves. I think now we’re getting up to 14 as we couldn’t resist some growth. But there we do policy-oriented, technically grounded analyses of subjects relevant to a net zero future. And then also, very early on, some discussion started when I was approached by Sam Nunn and Ellen Tauscher who was on the board of NTI. Charlie Curtis, on the board of NTI. Well, retired, but Emeritus, but very engaged and a very old friend. And they convinced me to take over the CEO role and cochairman of the board from Sam Nunn. Sam had been chairman since NTI was founded on January 1, 2001, and they were looking for a successor. NTI is a great organization. Fantastic work over those seventeen years. And now twenty years. And so, in the end I agreed. All of which fits actually rather easily within my work week. So, (laughter) that’s what I’m doing. And it all kind of came together in those months after I left DOE.
How much was the Iran deal and Trump strongly considering backing out of it, how much did that take up your portfolio leading NTI?
Well, of course, Trump—so, I took over at NTI in June of 2017. Trump left the JCPOA in May of 2018. So, that was roughly a year later. What of relevance to that after about six months or so it was at NTI, one of the new directions that I started, new directions meaning giving it much more focus than it had, was on nuclear fuel cycles. And the Iran issue is fundamentally a nuclear fuel cycle issue. So, in fact, the person that we hired to run this program, Corey Hinderstein, is someone who worked with me on Iran at the Department of Energy. In fact, she was leading the Department of Energy’s Iran Task Force. She is very, very familiar with the Iran issues. Then her first major hire, someone named Richard Johnson from the Department of State, and Richard worked with me. I mean, he was at State; I was at DOE, of course. But we worked on implementation of the Iran deal in 2016. So, the only point is, we started a nuclear fuel cycle initiative and two of the four, people involved in it have specific Iran expertise. So, the answer to your question is we spend a fair amount of time trying to think about Iran and regional issues. So, we’ve talked with the Emirates, with the Saudis, with Israel, Jordan. So, we’re trying to think about how to put together a regional fuel cycle initiative which could intercept, potentially, a future American rejoining of diplomacy with Iran. Because we believe, I believe that it’s only a regional solution in the end that’s going to be stable from where we are today.
Despite the starring role of nuclear in the title NTI—and NTI is also involved heavily in biological threats—what are some of the most important biological threat issues that NTI has been dealing with in the past few years?
So, the biosecurity issue is also something, when I became CEO, we made a commitment to rebuild. I should say, historically, as you say it’s named NTI. But it really should be Weapons of Mass Destruction Threat Initiative. But the acronym is a little bit long then. So, starting in 2017, we committed to rebuilding. What do I mean by rebuilding? Well, as I mentioned already, NTI was established on January the 1, 2001. And then of course, came 9/11. 9/11 was not biological. But it focused the American mind very considerably on terrorism. And NTI was concerned about bioterrorism. In fact, one of the original vice presidents of NTI was Peggy Hamburg who went on later to be the FDA commissioner in the first Barack Obama term, I guess it was. And major player. She’s foreign secretary of The National Academies in the United States. Anyway, they recognized the bioterrorism threat. And so NTI and the Sloan Foundation, they jointly funded the first major national academy study on bioterrorism. It’s called the Fink Report, named after Jerry Fink, who is my colleague at MIT. He was head of the Whitehead Institute. And then NTI had some impact establishing surveillance networks, for example, in the Middle East. MECIDS, it’s called. Middle East something or other. Infectious Disease Surveillance. But then Peggy left, and the program was always there but running at a pretty low-level. But when I came in in 2017, the concern was new technology. So, with the developments of synthetic biology and gene editing, the rapidly decreasing costs for using those tools. We became concerned again that this might be a major risk area, particularly with engineered organisms. So, we started building up. The woman in charge of that, the vice president, is Beth Cameron. She was the person who, following the Ebola outbreak in 2014, as a staff member on the National Security Council in the Obama administration, was the one charged with designing and then leading the pandemic response office in the National Security Council. The one that was famously ended by John Bolton in his brief career as Trump’s National Security Advisor. So, Beth headed that program. She’s fantastic. She’s a Ph.D. in biology. And we recognized, of course, that although our motivation was through engineered organisms and the risks that that posed, that the reality was if you had the beginning of a pandemic, the health response would not be different if it was an engineered organism or an organism out of the wild. And so, while we focus a lot on trying to be the convener of the health authorities with the security people, who would be involved particularly with an engineered organism, we knew we had to address the health side broadly. And so, we started a project late in 2017, early 2018, maybe. We decided that we would do the world’s first global health security index. An index literally ranking countries individually with respect to their pandemic preparedness. This was modeled after a nuclear security index that NTI had done several of. In fact, on that aside, when Obama was president, he gave his famous Prague speech outlining all of his nuclear security priorities in March of 2009. And then in 2010, he had his first Nuclear Security Summit. And they were held biannually, ’10. ’12, ’14, ’16, in his term. The first and the last, 2010 and 2016, were held in Washington D.C. And amazing. I’ll go back to biology, but this is amazing that you would have the order of fifty heads of state convening on nuclear security issues. Control of nuclear materials, etc., etc. It was a game changer in this business. NTI became somewhat publicly, but much, much more below the scenes, a huge supporter of the Nuclear Security Summits. Never paid. I mean, we never take a dime from the U.S. government. But helped for example, in one way was then committing to produce for the 2012 summit, the world’s first Nuclear Security Index. Rating countries individually by their control over nuclear materials. With weapons usable materials, then you’re dealing with a much smaller number of countries than say, than the bio. So, the Nuclear Security Index rates the order of 50 countries. But it had had quite some impact. 2012, 2014, 2016. By the way, we just did put out the 2020, recently. But so, on the bio side, we decided to do the same thing, except it’s nearly 200 countries ranked. That came out in October of 2019. Kind of right on cue for COVID.
And first of all, the overall, the world’s average grade for pandemic preparedness was 40 out of 100. So, we stated then that the world is really badly prepared for this, and you’d better change this. But we didn’t know they had to change it within a month.
When COVID really started. Anyway, naturally the COVID coming out right after the index…timing is everything. And so, we became quite in the spotlight, shall we say. And prepared a lot of tools. Which wasn’t really in our mission, to be honest. But we ended up preparing tools for local decision makers, for example, in terms of COVID response. And a lot of that has gone on. But we also have focused on what is in our mission space, which is the long-term preparing for pandemics. And so there, for example, we’ve had a number of meetings and we have a number of partners. For example, the World Economic Forum is a big partner. The Munich Security Conference. We do an officially sanctioned high-level tabletop exercise each year. I don’t know what’s going to happen this coming year. I guess we’ll still do it virtually. So, we do that. We partner with the UN Secretary-General’s office and the WHO. So, for example, right now we have made a lot of progress with the biotech companies. And not only American, but in other countries as well, in terms of trying to get a uniform screening procedure for companies that provide DNA fragments to make sure that they are not being procured for an unfortunate application. And we have gotten a lot of interest. We’ve had high-level international meetings with support to really try to do a gamechanger which is to create a new international normative entity addressing biothreats. Where it would ultimately be placed, we don’t know. It could be within the WHO; it could be within the UN Secretary-General’s office. Or it could be an independent organization that interacts with them. We will see. But that, in turn, I’m gonna use this initiative to now, once again go back to nuclear. One of the models—and this is why by the way, NTI is so effective. It’s not just a think tank. It actually goes out and does stuff. And I could name a whole bunch of things that it’s done, which is why I was interested in being CEO. Much to my surprise, in a certain sense. But over ten years ago, NTI identified a weakness in the international space for securing nuclear materials. So, NTI basically formed something called WINS. The World Institute for Nuclear Security. Funded it to get it going. Located it in Vienna so that it would be close to the IAEA. And once again, it’s kind of like timing is everything. Because then, some years later, the IAEA especially under Amano, and now continuing under the new Director General Grossi, has greatly elevated its focus on nuclear security. Its focus traditionally had been much more on nuclear safety. And so now the WINS, which is now running on its own—I mean, NTI has a board seat, but is not supply funding anymore—they are self-sustaining. They have trained thousands and thousands of people in nuclear security from around the world. And that’s the kind of systemic change we aim for in many dimensions. So, going back to bio, that’s the kind of entity we are looking to form to provide again, normative guidance in this whole question around biotechnology and the risks of especially engineered organisms.
Ernie, I wonder if you can comment. Given how international or multinational NTI’s board of directors is, that gives you a pretty good idea of the way NTI interacts and partners with governments around the world. So, I wonder on that basis, if you can comment on how easily or not it has been for you to partner on various threat initiatives with the Trump administration vis-à-vis how board of director members have interacted with their home governments in their capacity as an NTI director?
Well, it’s public that Sam Nunn, who is cochair of the board still, that was one of my conditions in accepting the CEO role was that Sam would stay on as a cochair.
And Sam and Dick Lugar, for example, did visit with Vice President Pence and President Trump on some issues. After Trump had announced that he was going meet with Kim Jong-un, North Korea, NTI did a paper arguing that the cooperative threat reduction approach, better known as Nunn-Lugar Program for the former Soviet Union, in a modified version might be a good thing to put on the table with North Korea. Frankly, as an incentive for North Korea moving forward. So, when that paper was done and since Dick Lugar had a longstanding relationship with Pence, obviously both from the political world of Indiana, they made an appointment to see Pence. But when they visited him and told him the idea, he just walked them over to the Oval Office to meet with Trump. And they talked a little bit about North Korea, but then according to Sam, probably more about Russia and the whole nuclear arrangements there. So, there was contact like that. And I had contact at the Cabinet level. But you know, I’d have to say that the high-level contacts were nothing like they had been in the Obama or Bush years, for that matter. To make it clear, at the working level, there continued to be interactions. But it was a lot less at the highest levels of government. In the other countries, on our board, the members are people who were senior members of those governments, typically. Not all, but most. And so, there was a natural conduit to the sitting governments. But in particular, we also again, NTI, helped form something called the European Leadership Network (ELN). And the person who was really kind of organizing it, Des Browne, a former defense secretary, if you like, in the UK. He is vice chairman of our board. The ELN is an organization. It’s got maybe eighty members or so from across Europe and Russia. And it is specifically charged with carrying the messages that are developed by the ELN and frankly, again NTI plays a big role in there, to their governments. And that’s been very effective so that we know our messages get to the leaders in these governments. Now that involves Euro-Atlantic issues. But just in the last year and a half, really, we rebooted and are emphasizing now in a similar way an Asia-Pacific Leadership Network. Under new leadership, it’s quite strong. Looking very, very promising. And we hope to be able to have the same kind of outreach in Asia. Especially in Eastern Asia. So, that is the mechanism we use a lot. And for example, in Russia, we have two board members from Russia. One in this vein— I’ll mention in particular, Igor Ivanov—former foreign minister of Russia. He remains very, very well-connected. The current Foreign Minister Lavrov, really, I think Igor was kind of his mentor. And so, when like twice now as NTI’s CEO, I’ve gone to Moscow and let’s just say very high-level meetings have been facilitated through our board. So, you’re absolutely right. This is a big part of NTI with really, extremely strong capacity to get ideas in front of leaders in different countries.
Ernie, I’m curious as a way of quantifying worldwide threats and as a policymaking tool and a tool of raising public awareness, is the doomsday clock that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists puts out, is that something that is relevant to your work? And do you generally agree with their assessments?
Well, anything that gets the public’s attention on these issues is a plus (laughter). It’s not easy. Despite the consequences of something going wrong, and especially on nuclear—well, look. I mean obviously on pandemics, there’s no problem getting in the public’s attention right now. Similarly, I would argue on climate change, getting the public’s attention is certainly a lot easier than it was. And in both cases, it’s because we tried it out.
And didn’t think it was a really good idea. Well, with nuclear, looking for a mulligan is probably not a very good idea. You really gotta stop it. And since the Cold War ended, and I think the public and many of the professionals at that time at least, kind of exhaled and thought, “OK. It’s over.” You know? Well, it’s not over. But it’s very hard to restart public attention on the issues. The doomsday clock certainly, I wouldn’t say it’s reaching 80% of the American public. I couldn’t say that. But still, it gets some attention. The place where I have a little bit of a problem is the very recent past where the Bulletin made the decision to not have the clock focused only on the nuclear threat. To bring in other things like climate change, etc. And I guess some like it. And some like me are too old-fashioned and think that it more muddies the message than anything else, in my view. But that’s, anyway, that’s where I am on that.
What were your motivations in becoming an advisor to Saudi Arabia and the planned mega-city of the Tabuk region?
Well, that it was a…it’s a bold vision. It’d be very hard to fully satisfy but—look. First of all, let me say, I’d gone to the kingdom many times, because with the MIT Energy Initiative, Saudi Aramco was a very, very good partner. Lots of work in renewables and other areas. And Saudi Aramco is run as a western company. They’re a very, very good company. And that was my main connection with Saudi Arabia. But then obviously when Mohammed bin Salman became prominent—but before he was Crown Prince—he announced this Neom initiative as almost a quasi-independent city-state, practically, in northwest Saudi Arabia. Which would also incorporate some of Jordan and Egypt, I don’t mean a national transfer, but I mean as far as the operations of this special city with a special trade zone and a special commitment to advanced technology. Commitment to zero carbon, etc. Tremendously exciting vision. It was integrated into a vision of a different culture in Saudi Arabia, as well. You would not have the gender separation and everything else. In fact, Saudis would need their own passport to enter into Neom (laughter).
Oh wow (laughter).
So, it was really an incredible vision. And so, I said I would agree. I was contacted and I agreed to be on the advisory board. We met once in New York. But then the events in Saudi Arabia led me to suspend my participation in that group quite promptly.
Mm-hmm. Ernie, let’s move on to the MIT Energy Initiative and some of the really exciting things that are happening there. So, we’ll break it down into basic science, policy, and application. So, first on the basic science side, what’s some of the most exciting research that’s happening right now at MIT?
Well, that’s a lot. I mean in the energy space.
Cause, I can’t talk about what happens at MIT as a whole. Well, there’s a huge amount. I mean for example, just to name a few areas. There remains very, very interesting research in terms of very different solar PV technologies. You know, flexible technologies. Technologies that you could put on a window because it’s transparent to visible light but absorbs the photons for PV from the infrared spectrum, etc. Anyway, so all kinds of novel solar technologies, I would say, is an area. Another area is looking at longer duration storage. There’s a lot of interesting work in trying to look at things like flow batteries. And it’s been commercialized in terms of a startup company. Another one that’s gotten a lot of attention recently is the fusion spinout. Commonwealth Fusion or SPARC. It’s got various names. In that case, it’s fundamentally using the tokamak design, but allowing for a completely different modular design and much more compact design based upon a fundamental technology which is not yet fully proved that extremely high field, high temperature, super conducting magnets can be shaped for this application. And then that opens up a whole bunch of design changes that could potentially lead to a viable fusion device. Anyway, there’s lots and lots of stuff, but those are a few areas that could become quite material.
And in the policymaking realm. In what ways does MIT’s Energy Initiative play an influential role in advising the government and encouraging the government to support specific energy projects?
Well, I think the direct advising role was never really kind of a goal. But in particular, the series of Future of… studies was—the foundation for a lot of advice to the government—both administration and Congress. And I think there still remains kind of a genetic disposition towards doing Future of… studies. So, I think the most recent one is called The Future of Mobility. And before that there was one on utilities that I think had some impact. When I left in 2013, I had to step down from the The Future of Solar Energy study, for example. So, I think those Future of… studies are an important start. But in addition, in particular the economists, not necessarily in the economics departments, but for example in the Sloan School, the business school. In the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research. I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff being done there. I’ll give you an example, which actually came out of the Roosevelt Project that I had put together. One of the products in the Roosevelt Project in the first phase was a set of white papers on different subjects. And one of those—one of the economists, Chris Knittel from the Sloan School—did a paper that commented specifically on the CO2 tax and dividend plan that’s getting some traction. And the original proposal from George Shultz who chaired the MITEI Advisory Board until the last meeting. Jim Baker, and others. In their proposal, you tax CO2 and then you create a big pot of money. Over $200 billion to start. And then you return it to people as a flat dividend. And the flat dividend has the advantage of being progressive in that poorer people do better with that. They get more back in the dividend than they pay in the increased carbon price, etc. But then Chris Knittel did an analysis which says, “Yeah. Well, you know, that’s true. However, when you go to the second level, you have to understand that because the coasts of the United States and the cities of the United States are generally lower carbon intensity places, that even dividend differentially favors the coasts and the cities vs. the center and the rural.” Well, that’s a very important political point for policymakers (laughter). So, that’s the kind of thing that’s going on and that I think will influence policy when we finally get around to carbon pricing in this country.
Ernie, I want to return broadly to a theme we discussed previously. And that’s your position that carbon invariably needs to be part of a decarbonized future. And so if we could just go one by one from worst to best. I’d just like to get your take on the prospects say, for the next twenty-five or thirty years on each of these fossil fuels. So, let’s start first with coal. I’ve talked to engineers and chemical scientists at NETL who tell me that with the right management and resources, that sequestration and carbon capture really can make coal safe and effectively mitigated if we had enough commitment to it. So, what is your general response to that? And where do you see realistically coal playing a part of our overall energy framework over the next twenty-five or thirty years?
Well, let me start off by saying, I don’t say that fossil fuels are going to be part of this low carbon future as a matter of principle. I mean, all I say is, I gotta get the carbon out.
Out of the atmosphere. And when I look at the systems it looks to me as though it’s going to be very hard to get fossil fuels totally out of the system while preserving reliability, etc. And that’s why you gotta look at tools like CCS. I mean, if you’re going to use a fossil fuel, you’d better find a way of keeping the carbon out of the atmosphere. And even then, I’d say you’re probably not going to be able to mitigate all the way to zero and you’re going to need in addition, negative carbon technologies to address the carbon already in the atmosphere and in the upper layers of the ocean. So, with coal. First of all, coal is, of course, mainly used for electricity production and the reality is there are other ways of getting too low to no carbon in the electricity sector. It’s much harder in the industrial sector and the heavy transportation sector, etc. Although, of course, coal, metallurgical coal does still have an important role in steel making and the like. So, there are those other areas you gotta take care of. Now going back to coal and electricity production. First of all, I think everyone knows that there’s been an enormous reduction in coal use in the United States in power production. More than a factor of two drop in not so long a time. But some people don’t realize however, there are still parts of the country where coal remains the number one electricity source.
And that includes the upper Midwest, for example. It certainly is not true anywhere in the East or in the South. But it’s true in the upper Midwest. So, if you take places like Michigan, for example. They both have coal still as their number one electricity source and they also happen to be an ideal place for CO2 sequestration. So, again, as far as I’m concerned, it’s up to them whether they want to do coal but with say, 90% capture and sequestration, or they want to change to a different generating mix that doesn’t need it. Again, I think we need technology neutral carbon standards. Greenhouse gas standards, I mean. CO2 dominantly, but other things as well. So, all we are saying is we should have as much optionality and flexibility for the energy sector to meet its increasingly stringent carbon requirements. That’s what’s important. You decide. You know, Utility X, you decide if that’s your best way of getting there. Now, it is true, however, that carbon capture and sequestration on a coal power plant is fairly expensive. And so, getting the costs down is very, very important for anybody to actually choose that as the path forward. So, there I would rather veer off and talk about developing CCS in the first place. And the significant infrastructure you would need to manage CO2 at large scale. And there it’s very clear that the cheapest place to go is to industrial plants. I mean the best of all is ethanol plants. Ethanol makes a very pure CO2 stream anyway. And so, you avoid a lot of the problems and a lot of the costs required. It’s no accident that the United States has exactly one functioning CCS project using a deep saline aquifer. And that is in Illinois at a very large ADM ethanol plant. Again, that region, Illinois and Michigan, etc., they have excellent, excellent geology for sequestration. And in that case, it’s obviously, it’s also ethanol country around there. And so, that’s a good match. We just did a study in California on CCS. And what we found was today about a third of California’s industrial CO2 emissions would be in the money with current incentives, federal and state. They would be in the money and take twenty megatons annual emission into the ground instead of in the air. And by far the most attractive were three ethanol plants in the central valley. They would be way in the money if they did CCS right now with today’s incentives. So, I think what you need to do is—and furthermore, industry is so hard to decarbonize. I mean ethanol, cement, refineries, etc., that I think that federal policy should stimulate in this decade the building of a CCS infrastructure that would, if nothing else, take a big bite out of industrial emissions, which is tough. But in doing so, also can enable other applications like providing firm, clean power. By the way, I should have added that even with coal, you say it’s expensive, but expensive compared to what? Because it provides firm power as opposed to intermittent power, like wind and solar, which needs then some kind of a very expensive, today, storage system. And in addition, if you establish that carbon management infrastructure you also could be enabling at least two of the pathways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. One is direct air capture. Direct air capture is getting lots of attention. But in the public discussions, oh wow! Capturing it out of the atmosphere. But they usually don’t talk about what do you do with it? Right now, that is called sequestration. And a second pathway which is getting more attention is called BECCS. Bioenergy with CCS. So, you combust or gasify biomass which is kind of net zero if you regrow the biomass. But then you also do CCS to make it a negative carbon technology. But again, you need CCS. So, that’s why we argue that CCS should be thought of as a major enabling technology for multiple applications and certainly the area of industrial decarbonization is one that we don’t have a lot of attractive options for right now other than CCS.
And Ernie, is this answer, can it be essentially applied universally both to oil and natural gas as well? Is it basically the same approach?
Sure. Yeah. So, well in particular for the power sector, natural gas, of course. And for natural gas, of course you have less CO2 produced per megawatt hour of electricity than you do with coal. So, removing the CO2, capturing the CO2 has a smaller impact on the kilowatt hour costs than on coal. Roughly a factor of two. And once again, in either case however, you are providing very low carbon, firm electricity which is going to be very, very valuable in the system. I mean, frankly, look, we also just did a study in New England and we could see 60-70% renewables including a lot of building heating and transportation. Especially light duty vehicles going into the electric direction. 70% OK. Unless there’s a big breakthrough on very long duration storage, somehow you gotta find some of that firm electricity to back it up. Like in New England, it could be importing more Canadian hydro. That can be treated as a firm resource. It could be in principle carbon capture on natural gas plants. The trouble is, New England does not have the geology for sequestration. So, that’s why you gotta go other places. This, by the way, is also so important that the solutions are so different in different parts of the country.
And as I said, like that upper Midwest. They have got huge areas of great geology for carbon dioxide sequestration. New England, you got nothing. Well, you’d have to go sub ocean offshore maybe to find something. But it gets a lot more complicated.
What are the prospects for the construction of a new nuclear power plant in the United States?
Well, there are two being built right now in Georgia (laughter). Which are supposed to be finished in late 2021 and late 2022. Beyond that, it’s hard to see gigawatt scale plants being built. So, the question in the United States at least would appear to focus mainly on the smaller modular reactors, none of which has yet been built and deployed. A couple are well along in the NRC licensing process. But you still need a lot of money to deploy the first ones, even if they’re much smaller. So, I’m optimistic that the technology looks very, very good. Very, very interesting. It will reduce costs from these gigawatt scale plants. But it’s not going to be proved unless some of them are deployed. And I think you’re going to need a new private sector government partnership to establish it. There is the rationale to do it at least somewhat, at least it helps, that there is a national security rationale for rebuilding an American nuclear technology supply chain. So, that could be one of the arguments for why the federal government should really step in in a major way with the private sector to at least establish these technologies because if the United States does not have established, if you like, homegrown technologies, it’s a significant problem for our national security concerns.
Ernie, I’m curious if you are surprised at this relatively late stage in terms of technology and development, that Tesla retains essentially a monopoly on the electric car market. That a decade plus after its automobiles have proved viable long term, are you surprised that none of the major U.S. auto manufacturers or European or even Japanese auto manufacturers have gobbled up a larger percentage of market share? And what might this say long term about the prospects of personal electrified vehicles?
No. I’m not so surprised. I think it’s going to be changing dramatically. Because we’re reaching the inflection point where the battery costs are dropping to a place where you will see more reasonably priced options. Where price, it’s not only a question of the absolute number of dollars, the number of dollars for a car of what size and what range? But I think the Tesla, I would turn it around. I think Tesla got a relatively early jump on the market by having a classic strategy of initially knowing that there was a product that could not compete on price. It had to compete on performance. And so, I think people forget when Tesla came out with its $100,000 car, a) it provided great range because the car was like filled with batteries, but b) it was an incredible performance vehicle. And I think that’s what’s often forgotten. That in many ways, the electric vehicle is a higher performance vehicle than the internal combustion engine vehicle. Acceleration and the like. But obviously Tesla was initially for a niche market at that price. But now, it’s come down to where it’s reaching a bigger market. And by the way another thing we should remark on is, if you buy a new car today, in any sense okay to the new car you bought ten years ago, let’s say, in my case twenty years ago. But OK. Ten years ago. You’re not paying any more money. And that’s even without putting inflation in. I mean by any reasonable measure; you’re paying a lot less for a car with a lot more features today than you were ten years ago. It’s amazing. So, Tesla has come down now with their models for the people, you know? But they’re still not $20,000-$25,000 cars. So, that’s why I think it’s harder for a Chevy or a Ford or whatever to come up there. I mean, without subsidies. However, the battery costs really…continue to drop like hell. And I’ve certainly said many, many times that I think there is no doubt that the cost of ownership of an electric vehicle of comparable range and size to an internal combustion engine, the equivalence is going to happen certainly in this decade. You might even argue it’s already happened, depending on how you want to count things. Because the issue is the tradeoff of upfront capital costs vs. operating costs. So, anyway, in this decade I think it’s a gamechanger for EV technology. And that’s independent of California saying you must buy an EV after 2035 or whatever. I think by 2035 it’s going to be hard to argue why you wouldn’t buy an electric vehicle, 300-mile range and the like.
When we do get to that point, is lithium ion, is that the long-term technology? And what problems might we be trading as we move away from gas powered automobiles?
Well, lithium ion has got a very good energy density and so right now it remains very, very attractive. But with all the new chemistries coming about and as system costs come down, etc., I could imagine going to a different chemistry. Especially if the cost differential is not too much and it provides better safety margins. The other thing is that with the expansion of battery use for all kinds of reasons, including electricity storage and the like, what happens to the cost of lithium is a bit of a wildcard. If you need 10 or 100 or 1,000 times as much lithium, what’s gonna happen there? So anyway, I think internal combustion engines aren’t going away, in my view. And certainly, as you get to heavier vehicles and different applications. But I am pretty bullish on EVs becoming a huge part of the scene.
Ernie, a broad question. If we can think about when climate change and carbon emissions really entered the public consciousness. You know, there’s many dates we can choose from. Let’s just say 1988, James Hansen, NASA, and Congress. Just to pick a date out of the hat. If we wanna take that as a beginning point and fast forward all the way to today, of course so much innovation and policy has been stymied by first a small, but vocal group of scientists who question the connection between carbon emissions and a warming planet. Where we are today, do you think that there are any widely respected scientists who continue to doubt that connection?
If there are, I sure don’t know them. And again, this is not to say that there are not scientific questions yet to be addressed.
In climate. That’s going to be a very active field for a long time. And very, very complicated questions. The issue is really is there any real doubt at the level that you would need to be a rational, prudent policymaker? And to that my answer is no. I mean, as you well know, the basic science, the calculation was done for global warming with doubling CO2 in the 19th century.
And it wasn’t off by that much (laughter). The greenhouse effect? It’s obvious. How much CO2 we have in the atmosphere? Measure it. And basically, all of the qualitative phenomena predicted have all been realized. Regrettably, often on the high side of the prediction, rather than the low side. But what I would say is if you were a corporate risk manager and you had the analog of the situation here and said, “Don’t worry about it,” you’d be fired in a heartbeat.
I mean, you know? The same standard isn’t used here. I mean this is about risk management. Frankly, as somewhere of an aside, and I have to say I’ve discussed this with Warren Buffett (laughter). The President of the United States’ job description should be Chief Risk Officer for the United States. And of course, Warren is a great risk manager (laughter). And he fully agrees. You could think it. That’s the job of the President of the United States. The Chief Risk Manager. And it’s not being done.
And yet Republican opposition to sensible climate change policy remains a significant hurdle.
Well, yeah. Because it’s somehow or another, it’s hard to understand how this and some other issues have become partisan issues. It like becomes a description of which party you belong to when nature doesn’t care what party you belong to. This is a science issue. What you do about it is a valid argument. I mean I believe we have to be very aggressive in addressing it. But I would not say it is intellectually bankrupt to say, “Look. I understand we have these consequences, etc., etc. But I just don’t believe the world is going to be doing anything and we know we can’t do it by ourselves. So, I think we have to do more adaptation and take care of the people who are displaced, etc., etc.” I mean, I don’t agree with that. But, if you want to say that that’s your position, OK. Well, I’ll argue why I think it’s the wrong position. But I’m not saying it’s disrespectful to have. But, where we are, the denial is a whole different issue.
Right. Well, Ernie that brings us—
But I’ve also said—just to annoy people. But I’ve also said that I don’t hold the deniers in any kind of high regard, shall we say. But frankly, neither do I hold in high regard people who don’t give any hard thought and propose preposterous solutions.
As opposed to doing what is really hard work. Building the coalitions, etc., that actually make progress. And obviously there are a number of people who have expressed very clearly that they don’t agree with this position.
But that’s my position and I’m sticking to it (laughter).
(Laughter) Ernie, that’s a perfect segue to the last part of our talk. And that is before we get to the response to your work as an advisor to fossil fuel companies, I don’t want to talk company by company, but just sort of broadly conceived.
Wait, wait, wait, wait. Number one.
Let’s get something very straight.
Yeah. The observations, shall we say, that are made frequently that I’m on the board of Southern Company, a fossil fuel company, is ridiculous. Ridiculous. The Southern Company is not a fossil fuel company. It, like every other utility, is a utility that uses some fossil fuels. Do you have an internal combustion engine car?
You do? You’re a fossil fuel company! According to this definition.
Right? So, it is very important to get rid of this nonsense. In addition, the large utilities, including Southern Company, have been the leaders in decarbonizing. You know, it’s an interesting perspective. There were all kinds of sturm und drang over the Clean Power Plan. And it’s demise. Do you remember what the Clean Power Plan goal was…for the electricity sector? No. 32% reduction in emissions by 2030. Where are we today? Thirty-two percent reduction by 2020. And the investor-owned utilities, the IOUs, are at about 45% reduction. That includes Southern, by the way. So anyway, the way you asked the question was suggesting that that equivalence was being made and it is a very, very bad equivalence.
And one that polarizes the argument very, very dramatically.
And where I was going with this is this is the way, unfortunately, it is being presented in the media. Whether it’s true or not, it is being presented this way in the media and my question is, and I was getting to that, is what broadly are your motivations in serving in an advisory capacity to these companies that have diverse energy portfolios that include fossil fuels?
Well. First of all, let me just go on again with Southern Company. I’m not an advisor. I’m on the board of directors. Okay? I will not infer causality. [phone ringing] Sorry. There’s a background phone call.
You can do whatever you want about causality. I will just observe. I was elected to the board in March of 2018. In May of 2018, Southern Company announced its first carbon goals. Fifty percent reduction by 2030. And low to no carbon by 2050. 2019, Southern Company became the first of the utilities for sure to tie part of the CEO’s compensation to performance on quantitative carbon targets. 2020, Next year, Net zero commitment by 2050 and a statement that by the way, that 2030 goal, probably 2025. And I won’t tell you what we now think, since that’s not public. So, that’s the truth. So, I guess you can draw your own answer as to why am I engaged with those kinds of people (laughter). And by the way, furthermore, again I’ll just keep using, cause it’s better to talk about a concrete example, the Southern case. In addition to the commitment now to the net zero by mid-century, in addition the company has launched, now six months ago, significant R&D on negative carbon technologies. Recognizing that the net zero is probably going to require some of those carbon dioxide removal technologies. So, this is putting real effort also behind the pathway to satisfy these objectives. And for the life of me, I just don’t understand people who don’t say, “Geez. That’s what we need more of. Keep the feet to the fire.” But this is exactly what we are asking for. And now, the oil and gas companies, by comparison, are way, way behind. I mean, I want to encourage them to be part of the solution as well. I’m not on the board of any oil and gas company. But again, I think there are many pathways for them to change their business model to become part of the low carbon solution while still using the assets, capabilities, and workforce that they have. And to me, that is a much more effective pathway to actually get to low carbon than to just be in the echo chamber of haranguing the companies.
Yeah. Well, Ernie, then let’s just address the elephant in the room then. It’s December 14, President-elect Biden has not yet named his pick for Energy Secretary. And the media narrative, unfortunately, is such that given that you are on the shortlist, one of the major problems with you is coming from progressives—
Uh. Excuse me. You have no evidence. You have no evidence that I am on any shortlist.
No! I’m not presenting—
All you have is newspaper articles (laughter).
That’s right. That’s right. And that’s all I’m saying. All I’m saying is that according to the media, this is the problem. My question is this. Regardless of who the next Energy Secretary is, given that there is coming from the left this misperception about what you do and what you represent, what does that tell us about what the challenges the Biden administration faces as it moves toward a decarbonized energy future?
Well, look. First of all, Again, believe me this has got nothing to do with me (laughter).
And by the way, the same dynamic of course is played out with many, many other people. And not just in energy but in other areas as well. [pause] We need the voice of the young people who are stating with great clarity their future is at risk because we aren’t acting fast enough. And I agree with them completely on that. And indeed, I mean many of us are dedicated to precisely trying to accelerate the mitigation. Admittedly, with the experiences that tell us that what’s important is going as fast as we can as opposed to abstract statements of how fast we should. It’s important to have those stated cause they are the benchmark in a certain sense. But on the other hand, look. There’s a lot of people, a lot of interests, a lot of politics, a lot of policy, etc. And so, we have to go as fast as we can. Which gets back to our earlier discussion about the companies, etc., etc., being in there. The thing that I really wish we could change quickly, and we’ll see how it goes. When I was asked the other day, I’ll frame it in a homely way. What advice would I give to those involved in this debate? God gave us two ears and one mouth to use in that proportion. I recommend to everyone that little bit of advice.
Yes. Well, Ernie, thank you so much for spending all this time with me. I really appreciate it.