Former Energy Sec. Ernest J. Moniz on Nuclear Threats and Climate Change
We talk with former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz about the threat of nuclear weapons and strategies for strengthening nonproliferation policies. We'll also discuss his work on a dramatic plan called "Clearing the Air," which describes how to remove many gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Air date: Jan. 27, 2020
Ernest J. Moniz - Former U.S. Secretary of Energy from 2013 to January 2017, Moniz is co-chair and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an organization that works on projects designed to reduce global threats, including nuclear and biological. Moniz, who has proposed a sweeping initiativeto remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, is also CEO of Energy Futures Initiative. Moniz was founding director of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) and director of the MIT Laboratory for Energy and the Environment.
Former Secretary of Energy Moniz will be speaking at a World Affairs Council of NH event at Southern New Hampshire University the evening of Jan. 27, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. You can register for that event here.
This is a computer-generated transcript, and may contain errors.
Laura Knoy: I'm Laura Knoy. And this is The Exchange. When the Iran nuclear deal was finally reached back in 2015, our guest today was a key member of the U.S. negotiating team. We're talking this hour with former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. He's in New Hampshire this week for a World Affairs Council event aimed at raising awareness of nuclear threats and at putting this issue on voters minds this presidential campaign season. Meanwhile, Moniz is also working on another subject very much on many voters minds, climate change. And we'll start with that as we talk with Secretary Moniz.
Laura Knoy: Secretary Moniz, welcome to New Hampshire. Welcome to The Exchange. Let's start with climate. This is a big, big issue for many New Hampshire voters this year. Your organization, the Energy Futures Initiative, has a report on how to remove gigatons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere over a 10 year period. You call this CDR or Carbon Dioxide Removal. Let's define this first, Secretary Moniz. I find this fascinating. How is this different from decarbonization, which we hear a lot about, or carbon capture, or maybe it's all kind of the same thing?
Ernest Moniz: Well, first of all, of course, addressing climate change at its core will be about having a clean energy transition, one in which carbon dioxide is not allowed to go into the atmosphere. That can be through using technologies that do not emit carbon dioxide. Solar energy would be a good example. Nuclear power would be another. Or by taking CO2 that is emitted, let's say, by a natural gas power plant, for example, and capturing it before it goes into the atmosphere and putting it underground.
Ernest Moniz: Now, having said that, we clearly must work at all of these what are called mitigations to prevent carbon from going into the atmosphere. However, you know, as more and more we are seeing a climate crisis, we see more and more that the goals that we feel are important let’s say by 2050 are being ratcheted up. 80 percent reductions were agreed to in Paris. Now we're talking about net zero. Now the word “net” is very important. In fact, it essentially says we're also going to need some negative carbon technologies
Laura Knoy: Because we're going to keep emitting less, but some.
Ernest Moniz: Getting all the way to zero is going to be very, very hard. And those last tons will cost a lot.
Laura Knoy: I was wondering as I was reading through all your materials, seems like some of the technology is already out there. Some of the research is already out there. You've been doing a lot on this through both your organization and M.I.T., where you're professor emeritus. Why aren’t we doing this already? Some of it seems pretty simple, like these big filters that can basically suck carbon out of the air. That seems like an easy, no brainer way to start.
Ernest Moniz: Well, because today the costs of doing that, it's controversial, but I would say we are north of 500 dollars per ton, whereas in the political environment, one talks about maybe trying to get to taxing carbon emissions at, say, $20 a ton. Well that’s a big gap? So we have a major innovation requirement that will drive those costs down. But what we emphasize, as well, is getting carbon dioxide that's already in the atmosphere, out of the atmosphere -- that's what we call a negative carbon technology -- is going to require many, many pathways. So one is what you said. It's called direct air capture. And you can, as you said, put something up there that sucks the CO2, kind of vacuums the atmosphere.
Ernest Moniz: And that's difficult and expensive because, of course, what we know is that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now over 400 parts per million. That's very high in terms of global warming, but it's only 400 parts per million to do the cleaning of the air. So that's why right now we need a lot of innovation to get to get the cost out. Well, we also emphasize, however, is there are multiple ways of getting carbon out of the atmosphere. One would be natural processes. Simplest example: plant trees. Another, technology of the type that you mentioned. But a third category we call technology-enhanced natural processes. So that could include modifying plant systems, new cultivars, which have very, very deep roots and fix a lot more CO2 out of the atmosphere. We actually had 27 different portfolio elements in what we recommend should be a very high priority research and development program now, so that by 2050 we can have those billions of tons per year globally taken out of the atmosphere.
Laura Knoy: Well, it's so interesting. And I want to ask you about what the report calls terrestrial and biologicals. So that's what you just referred to. Basically, plants. We did a show, I don't know, four or five months ago, about fungi, what many people call mushrooms. And the scientists we talked to said that fungi actually have a pretty amazing ability to suck up carbon. Is that part of this terrestrial and biological pathway that you talk about?
Ernest Moniz: Yes, it is. Although, again, our focus is more on getting plants with very, very deep roots.
Laura Knoy: Trees.
Ernest Moniz: Or other kinds of plants, as well, and especially if you can get these plants to grow in marginal land. So they aren't competing with, say, food production and the like. Lots and lots of work to do. You know what's also very interesting, Laura, I think here, is the players who are coming into the innovation space for climate are broadening. People, institutions, you don't normally associate with this. For example, on this question of the modified plants, a great program is at the Salk Institute. Remember polio, et cetera, medical technologies, but they are saying, gee, you know, what we know about genomics and the like can also lead to breakthroughs from, again, those who have not been participating in energy, per se.
Laura Knoy: Let's talk a little bit more about that Secretary Moniz. Who else is considering this seriously, investing in it seriously, in circles outside of institutes like yours and the Salk Institute, academia, maybe some big thinkers in high tech, but who else is getting interested in this idea of carbon dioxide removal?
Ernest Moniz: Well, for example, we are seeing private capital right now going into startup companies that are building pilot projects for direct air capture, the kind of thing you mentioned earlier,
Laura Knoy: The vacuum cleaner.
Ernest Moniz: The vacuum cleaner, that's right. And it's private capital doing that. In fact, if I may divert somewhat, the amount of private capital supporting innovation is very, very surprising. One arena where you might be surprised, where there are tens of companies on private capital, is in nuclear technology, which has always been associated more or less with, you know, government activities.
Ernest Moniz: But in both nuclear fission and nuclear fusion, we are seeing large amounts of private capital. This is really high risk, from the point of view of success, high payoff kinds of technologies going in there. So that's very important. But we do think, and the report that you alluded to, our Energy Futures initiative put out last September during Climate Week, that really calls as well for a major government research and development push. We ended up with a kind of a bottom up estimate concluding that we need on average, roughly a billion dollars a year over the next 10 years to kick start this area, because if we don't work at these things in the next 10 years, we won't have them available at large scale in 30 years.
Laura Knoy: One criticism I've heard Secretary Moniz of this focus on carbon dioxide removal is that it gets people off the hook for continuing to waste carbon. As in: ‘Crank up the air conditioner. Why not? All the carbon spewed out to power those air conditioners that are freezing office workers every summer will be sucked up anyway. So, no worries.’ What do you think about that?
Ernest Moniz: Many mention that as a moral hazard. But I take a very pragmatic view. Anything that keeps carbon out of the atmosphere or takes it out of the atmosphere, we have to pursue. In fact, the point is that not only do we aspire to net zero, let's say by mid-century, we actually aspire to negative zero overall in the atmosphere, because, to be honest, it's very, very difficult to see that we will be able to prevent CO2 emissions fast enough and at a large enough scale to stop at, say, one and a half degrees centigrade, which is the target being talked about. And so if we can't stop there, it would be very good if we could at least get back there by addressing the carbon emissions from the past.
Ernest Moniz: So clearly, we should never stop focusing on the mitigation aspects -- keeping CO2 out of the atmosphere -- because in fact the best balance will be to get as far as we can there and then perhaps have these negative carbon technologies kick in. And, you know, it's easier to give a reason for that. Now, earlier, I clearly advocated that we have to have many, many pathways to getting CO2 out of the atmosphere. But let's imagine your favorite vacuum cleaner approach; after you have captured that CO2, you've got to do something with it.
Laura Knoy: Well, I was going to ask you that.
Ernest Moniz: Now, the ideal thing would be to be able to turn it into products, cement and other kinds of products. Well, today, again, we don't really the cost effective ways of doing that. That's part of that research agenda, okay, that is so important. So today, if we were capturing these large amounts of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, or out of the emissions from power plants, from industrial facilities, no matter what you do right now, it's called sequestration, putting it underground and storing it for hopefully a very, very, long time, locking it up underground would be the approach.
Ernest Moniz: Now, the problem is, if we are going to approach billions of tons of doing this globally, the amount of CO2 you're dealing with to put underground is at the same scale as the global oil industry. That's how big it is. And you know how big the oil industry is globally. That's why going as far as one can with mitigation, hopefully leaving only 5 percent or 10 percent to be accomplished through these removal technologies is really the way to go. And then, as I say, keep going and even go into negative carbon territory.
Laura Knoy: Ok. A bunch more questions for you. This is really interesting, but I want to remind our listeners that you can join us. This hour on The Exchange. We're talking with Ernest Moniz. He was U.S. Energy Secretary under President Obama from 2013 to 2017. Today, he's the CEO of two organizations, the Nuclear Threat Initiative and Energy Futures Initiative. He's also professor emeritus at M.I.T. Right now, we're focusing on a project that he's been working on: carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere. Later on, we'll talk about nuclear security, especially given that Secretary Moniz was a key negotiator of the Iran nuclear deal back in 2015.
So to use an overused metaphor, we need an Apollo project on this CDR getting carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. What's the financial incentive for the private sector to do this? Because I have heard from many climate scientists that we're not going to solve this thing until, you know, the private sector gets involved and sees that it can make money.
Ernest Moniz: Well, you're absolutely right. Until there's some way of monetizing this, it will be difficult. But I might say that the Congress, bipartisan, which is not common these days, a few years ago, in a bipartisan way, passed financial incentives for the sequestration side of the problem, whether it's from direct air capture or from a power plant. There is now something, technically it's called a 45 Q tax credit that would pay up to $50 a ton for sequestering carbon today. So that's a way of trying to kickstart this and, in particular, right now, there are many industrial facilities. For example, when I was Secretary, we supported ADM, Archer Daniels Midland, to do carbon capture and underground storage.
Laura Knoy: A big agricultural company correct?
Ernest Moniz: A big agricultural company. And they were doing this on a major ethanol plant in Illinois. And the reason I mention that example is because many of these industrial facilities allow the carbon capture to be done at a price at which that tax incentive would make it viable. And so we need to kick start this. Frankly, we have a few projects that are pursuing this carbon sequestration, but it's not really getting to the scale that we need.
Laura Knoy: What's the impact, Secretary Moniz, of putting all that carbon underground? Pardon my lack of technical expertise. But if it's up in the air now and we put it all underground, does that cause some disruption in the earth's subsurface?
Ernest Moniz: Well, today, it may surprise you that there is a lot of CO2 being put underground for something called enhanced oil recovery. So the idea is, very old wells that have been depleted and their pressure has been reduced, CO2 is being pumped in and producing about 300, 000 barrels of oil per day. Now, in those cases, the CO2 is in some sense replacing what was in those reservoirs. But for the future, what we want much more is to put carbon dioxide into very, very deep, what are called saline aquifers, salty water, basically, way, way down in the pores of various rocks. And so the idea is to pump the CO2 in there, obviously monitoring, making sure that the pressures are within control, if you like, of the reservoir. And the estimates are that we have an almost unbounded amount of geology capacity in the United States for handling our CO2 storage requirements.
Laura Knoy: One other pathway, as your report describes it, in addition to the direct air capture, the sort of sucking it up and the terrestrial biological, meaning the trees and plants and so forth, is coastal and oceans. You write that these are huge carbon sinks. How would you use those to capture carbon, again without disrupting the very important animals and creatures and natural processes that are going on in the ocean right now?
Ernest Moniz: Well, for example, and in the coastal case, just really expanding things like mangrove forests. They are very effective carbon dioxide uptakers.
Laura Knoy: Interesting. So swampy areas are good at sucking up carbon.
Ernest Moniz: Yes, and the mangroves are under stress in many places. We really should be preserving those ecosystems. In the ocean, I would be honest, I think it's less clear, and we have to be very careful about not having unintended consequences.
Ernest Moniz: But we do endorse a research program as part of that earlier portfolio that I mentioned in which one looks at getting especially the CO2 out of the upper oceans, somehow permanently sequestered in the deep ocean, which then allows the ocean to be up-taking more of the atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Laura Knoy: So fascinating. And I'm going to ask you a couple more questions after a short break. Also, how this all fits in to another project that you’ve been working on Secretary Moniz: What you call the Green Real Deal. So we'll talk about that after a break. I also want to remind our listeners that you can join us.
Laura Knoy: This is The Exchange, I'm Laura Knoy.. Today, former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is here. He's in the state for an event tonight at SNHU. This hour, we're talking with him about two initiatives he's working on now, climate change and nuclear weapons. And Secretary Moniz, let's go to our listeners. Mike, who is calling from Dover. Hi, Mike. You're on the air. Go ahead.
Caller: Well, thanks for taking my call. This comes under the heading of all of the above. I like the ideas of carbon sequestration. I'm a little worried about nuclear, but that's another discussion. Two points I'd like to make, One: What about deep energy retrofits for houses? Houses are a big investment. And if we could have local jobs that come through weatherization, we could save a lot of energy there and produce less carbon. And TWO: on that is dear to my heart: If we just eat less meat. Agriculture is the largest polluter in the country. And if we eat less meat, we have less CO2 going into the air and methane.
Laura Knoy: Mike, I'm so glad you called. And he's making a point that I've heard a lot of people make Secretary Moniz that so far a lot of this debate is focused on the electricity sector. But he's right. Buildings emit lots and lots of carbon. So I'd love your thoughts there.
Ernest Moniz: Oh, absolutely. Those are both very, very good points. And just to reinforce what you said, Laura, the discussion about getting to low carbon often reverts to an electricity discussion. That's very important because electricity is the sector that will most rapidly decarbonize its orbit. That's already a fact. And secondly, there are many opportunities for further electrifying the economy with low carbon electricity. That, in fact, is one example of taking us to Mike's point about buildings. Buildings use about two thirds of the electricity in the United States for example.
Ernest Moniz: So decarbonizing electricity is already a big part of addressing the question of houses. But there's more than that, of course. Here in New England, we know we have a lot of, for example, natural gas or propane in some parts of New England for heating. And those are very, very important to address. Making buildings more efficient, as was suggested, is kind of a no brainer, to be perfectly honest, in most cases. There are other technologies that can be employed. I employed one of them in in my house down near Boston recently, which is heat pumps, which is again changing to an electrically driven way of heating and cooling. Then, in terms of cooking, another thing that we have done is gone to what's called induction stove tops. It's like charging up your toothbrush to heat up the pots. It's too expensive right now, frankly, as a broad technology. But all I'm saying is there are a lot of examples of ways of going towards more electrification and, again, using low carbon electricity. That plus the efficiency measures is really what we need very, very, very, very dramatically. The second point about meat is also very important. First of all, broadly speaking, the agricultural sector arguably may be the most difficult to decarbonize. It's not so easy to do industry, not so easy to do heavy transportation either. But agriculture is certainly very, very difficult.
Laura Knoy: Why is that, Secretary Moniz? Because in a way, you talked about biologic pathways to pull carbon out of the air. So that sounds like agriculture.
Ernest Moniz: Well, first of all, we're talking in general here about other greenhouse gases from fertilizer and the like. There are things one can do in terms of tillage. But making those permanent is very, very difficult. That's where the other plants come in, etc. But you can't compete with food, which is one the issues raised many times. But I would say that what is unsustainable, frankly, is for the level of economic development globally to reach the kinds of levels, taking people out of poverty, et cetera. Historically, we all know that as a GDP per person rises, protein consumption rises. Well, we're not going to be able to get all that protein for 10 billion people at the middle of the century from meat. It just isn't possible. So looking at other ways that are, of course, attractive to people to get their protein intake, will be extremely important.
Laura Knoy: Well, great question, Mike. Thank you so much for calling in. Let's go to Ted in Holderness. Hi, Ted. You're on The Exchange with Secretary Moniz. Go ahead.
Caller: Hi. Thank you for taking the call. Secretary Moniz, I'm a big fan of removing carbon from the atmosphere, but I'm also a big fan of carbon pricing, such as carbon fees and dividends. And my concern is that when people who think that climate change is inconvenient latch on to a technology about removing carbon in the atmosphere, they're going to say, OK, well, that's the panacea. Now, we don't have to do all the hard work about reducing our carbon pollution.
Laura Knoy: Ted, I appreciate the question and sort of what I asked you earlier, Secretary Moniz, Does this give people an excuse to crank up the air conditioner?
Ernest Moniz: Yeah. It's again, that moral hazard question. But if, as Ted suggests, there is in fact a price, and to be honest, eventually a significant price on carbon emissions, I think that that is fundamentally the answer. Ted raised something very interesting in passing. Let me just elaborate on it. He mentioned also not only pricing carbon emissions, but he mentioned the word dividend. There is a proposal made by former Republican secretaries of state George Shultz and Jim Baker. There are others like Hank Paulson on the initiative, which is called a tax and dividend. What that means is: Put a price on carbon dioxide emissions. They suggest starting at about $40 a ton, which is a lot of money. In the United States, that would be over $200 billion a year. But then they say, ‘Don't.’ And I'll just quote George Shultz. ‘Don't let Congress get their hands on this money.’
Ernest Moniz: And instead, they say, divide it up into equal amounts as a carbon dividend that goes back to every person. And what I like very much about that is that if you run the economic models, you find that this is actually a progressive way of putting a tax, a revenue neutral way, of addressing carbon that is yet progressive in that the models indicate that the lower 70 percent of the income distribution would come out net ahead.
Laura Knoy: So this is an idea that we've heard on the Democratic presidential campaign trail among some candidates. Carbon tax with that dividend. But you're saying it was promoted also by former top officials of Republican presidential administrations?
Ernest Moniz: I believe it originated with them several years ago. And I think it is getting some traction. I do caution that another part of their proposal is that with a carbon emissions price, they argue that many other clean energy incentives and regulations could be removed. And I believe that is correct. But I believe very, very delicately. And one reason is that we already mentioned the fact that some sectors are much more difficult to decarbonize than electricity, for example. So if you have the $40 a ton that Schultz and Baker and others have recommended, that would have a profound effect in accelerating electricity decarbonization. In the, let's say, automobile sector, it would translate to 40 cents a gallon. Now, that's not trivial, but we've seen swings in gasoline prices a lot more than 40 cents a gallon that have not fundamentally changed how we drive cars, etc..
Laura Knoy: It would be a political liability, though. No politician wants to say, ‘Hey, remember that 40 cent increase? That was mine.’
Ernest Moniz: No, no, no, exactly. But all I'm saying is if we want to get to low carbon, while we're at $40, we're still going to need some regulations like efficiency standards for automobiles.
Laura Knoy: And perhaps some help for the agriculture sector, as you said, which is the most difficult to decarbonize. Great questions from our listeners. Let's go to Hanover, where John is on the line. Hi, John. You're on The Exchange. Go ahead.
Caller: Thanks for covering this. Well, I just wanted to follow up on Ted's comment and say there was an article published in The Wall Street Journal in the beginning of last year -- an economist statement on carbon pricing, and they recommended the same thing. They didn't talk about the dollar amounts, but I wanted to talk about a bipartisan bill that's now in Congress that uses the carbon fee and dividend approach, but with different numbers. The bill is the Energy Innovation Act and it starts at $15 a ton of CO2 the first year and it rises by either ten or fifteen dollars a ton every subsequent year. And so emissions are down to 10 percent at 2017 levels. So this would send a significant price signal throughout our whole economy. And it would rebate all the money collected, as you said, back to Americans, one share per adult and a half a share per child. The other great thing about this policy is the border adjustments. We put that carbon price on imports and take it out of exports based on the difference in carbon price between the US and the other countries that we're doing trade with. That protects U.S. jobs.
Laura Knoy: I've heard about this, John. So go ahead, Secretary Moniz.
Ernest Moniz: Actually, again, the Shultz-Baker plan, etc. I mentioned three pillars – price, dividend, and reduction of regulations, et cetera. There's actually a fourth pillar, and that is exactly the border adjustment that John mentioned. I think there is lots and lots of support in principle for that. That is, if we put in place a carbon price, then we have to level the playing field in terms of imports. The only problem there is, I have to say, is that I don't think we yet know how to actually implement that border adjustment in a way that really reflects the carbon content of the supply chain. But it's a very, very important thing to work on, to get it right, because we will need that border adjustment to, as John said, to try to protect jobs, for example. And clearly, the Energy Innovation Act he described is, again, one way of implementing the dividend, different starting point in terms of price, but escalating to effect low carbon. These are the directions I believe we need to go in.
Laura Knoy: I want to take one more question from a listener, Secretary Moniz, about carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere, this whole decarbonization and removal that you're talking about, and then I do want to ask about nuclear power, because I know that's a big point of discussion for you. But let's go to Susan in Lebanon. Hi, Susan. You're on the air with Secretary Moniz.
Caller: I've been working on this carbon tax idea for some years as a legislator. But there is one major problem with the dividend that I want to get through before I go off the air. That is hat the economists are not looking at how that dividend could be spent in the lower 30, 40 percent of our income range. There are fixed costs involved in reducing your carbon footprint. The poor have drafty houses. It costs a lot of money to weatherize them.
Laura Knoy: I think we're losing you, Susan. Sorry about that. Cell coverage sometimes isn't what it should be, but I think I get her point, Secretary Moniz, that lower income people, you know, may not run out and put solar panels on their houses if they got this carbon dividend.
Ernest Moniz: Yes, again, Susan raises a very, very important point. And clearly how the funds are used, as I've already said, is a major issue. And I did use the word, which I think is very critical here, and it's fundamentally what Susan is saying, “progressive.” I certainly strongly support the idea that these funds are used in a progressive way. Again, I keep mentioning the Shultz Baker as probably the most prominent proposal out there. It just says equal dividend. There are clearly different ways of doing it. But in my view, we must maintain the progressive nature of that approach.
Laura Knoy: Susan, thank you for the call and sorry we lost you there. I'll direct you and all listeners to our Web site for more links and information about some of these projects that Secretary Moniz has been working on. Secretary Moniz, I do want to ask you about nuclear energy and then transition into what you are going to be talking about tonight, which is nuclear threats, especially given rising concerns about Iran. But first of all, what role do you think nuclear energy should play in this zero carbon future that you're painting for us?
Ernest Moniz: Well, first of all, nuclear power, we all know as a fact, has been the largest contributor to zero carbon technology in the United States for a long time, still representing nearly 20 percent of our electricity. So the fate of current nuclear power plants is certainly an issue, but it's an issue for maybe another 10 to 20 years, if you like, in the sense that if you look at the age of our current nuclear reactors, and if you say they go for 60 years, then the big wave of retirements starts coming in the 2030s.
Laura Knoy: Well, it's already coming here in New England. We've got Vermont shutting down and Massachusetts shutting down.
Ernest Moniz: And other parts of the country we've seen as well, iin the Midwest, for example, and California will be completely out of nuclear power in about 2025. And clearly, that's a lot of zero carbon production that needs to be replaced. Now, of course, there's also an initiative to try to go to 80 year lifetimes. If that happens, obviously you push back things to 20 years. But whatever the case, we have a major challenge in really getting to zero carbon. The electricity sector is particularly critical. And I would say that the advanced nuclear technologies that are now being developed could be a major contributor. First of all, most of them are what are called small modular reactors. The one that's most advanced right now in the licensing process is only 60 megawatts compared to the thousand plus megawatts plants that we have seen.
Laura Knoy: And why is that important, Secretary Moniz, small versus large?
Ernest Moniz: It could be very important. And let me just first say that these technologies tend to have very, very good safety characteristics. But why the smallness can matter is that the cost overruns and the schedule overruns that we have seen on these gigantic power plants are really a major impediment to expanding the technology. The small ones -- the entire nuclear guts of the reactor -- can be built completely in a factory and shipped to the site and plugged in, if you like, to the turbines, et cetera. So the traditional benefits of having a manufacturing environment -- the quality control, the stable workforce, et cetera -- could be a major financial advantage as well for building these smaller reactors. Another advantage is imagine someone wants 600 megawatts by doing 10, 60 megawatt reactors. Well, you don't have to do them all at once.
Laura Knoy: You can crank them out.
Ernest Moniz: You can crank them out. And my God, you might actually be able to make some money from the first ones while you're building the last ones.
Laura Knoy: I've got a lot more questions about that after a short break. Secretary Moniz. Stay with us.
Laura Knoy: This is The Exchange, I'm Laura Knoy.. This hour, former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is with us. And we're talking about nuclear security, nuclear weapons, nonproliferation and the role he sees for nuclear energy in this country. So, Secretary Moniz, just before the break, we were talking about small modular reactors. You were talking about some of the economic benefits of these. But we live in a world where everything seems hackable. So how can the public be guaranteed that there won't be a nuclear crisis with one of these smaller reactors?
Ernest Moniz: If you'll forgive me, I'm going to make one other comment first. The reactors we were talking about are so-called nuclear fission reactors, of the type that are deployed today. But I do want to emphasize, and I will declare in all honesty that I am on the board of one of these startup companies with private capital in the nuclear fusion space, and there is a surprising amount of innovation there as well. And if the fusion approach can be realized for providing power, then the issues of long term nuclear waste, the issues of any possibility of a safety incident would be resolved. It's a very, very tough technology. We've been at it for a lot of decades, but it's also kind of a holy grail in terms of in terms of zero carbon electricity.
Laura Knoy: Well, and you can see you've piqued my interest. So let’s just go there for a minute. So just to clarify, you jump in if I'm wrong, fission is what we do now. That's where you bust the atom up. Right. Fusion is, as you said, the holy grail. That's where you smash it together. Why is that better? Safer?
Ernest Moniz: It's because in the fission process, when you split, say, uranium, you have typically two major pieces left, each of which is radioactive. And that radioactivity persists for a long time, whereas in fusion, you do not have that.
Laura Knoy: Why is that so hard to figure out how to do? People been talking about this for a long time, as you said.
Ernest Moniz: Well, because you have to get what's called a plasma of the materials to be fused. Typically, it's different forms of hydrogen. And the trouble is, you have to create a temperature that is greater than the sun's temperature. And typically, you know, materials do not like such temperatures. So you have to keep them away from the walls, magnetically suspend, typically. And so I think there's been some remarkable progress being made now. And I am, of course, particularly enamored of some novel approaches that these private companies are pursuing. And I actually believe that we will know the answer in this decade in terms of whether or not we're going to be able to get there. And if we can. Boy, it is a game changer.
Laura Knoy: So come back when you have that. Let's go back to our listeners. I want to go to Cindy in Dover. Go ahead, Cindy. You're on the air.
Caller: Yes, I wanted to challenge your very educated speaker’s use of the term zero carbon for traditional fission nuclear power. You know that the mining and management of all the materials associated with getting the uranium is not at all zero carbon. So the electrons that come out of a nuclear power plant are not at all carbon free. And so we have to consider those life cycles. And then there's also the investment that has to occur in terms of safety management and avoidance of terrorism and so forth for those materials. So I think we have to see fission, traditional nuclear, as very definitely a carbon and infrastructure cost that's quite substantial and sometimes incalculable when we consider our terrorism components.
Laura Knoy: Well, Cindy, I'm really glad you called because I wanted to ask about the safety aspects for sure. That's a big part of your discussion tonight at SNHU. But first to her point that others have made. So I appreciate it, Cindy. The idea that we're often presented with nuclear is that it's carbon free. She's saying, by the time you do all the work that it takes to create one these plants, it's not carbon free. Can you address that?
Ernest Moniz: Well, that's absolutely correct. First of all, I might point out we use the word zero carbon, not only about nuclear, but about solar, about wind, as in the production of the energy. But all of them have, of course, today, carbon footprints in their supply chain. That's true for all of them.
Laura Knoy: Some of these turbines, for example, for wind are enormous. So you need enormous trucks to bring them to the site.
Ernest Moniz: And for example, one of the very, very large offshore wind turbines now, 8 or 10 megawatts, would require a ton of just some particular rare earth metals. In fact, rare earth mining in the United States basically shut down because of environmental impact. So we have a lot of work to do in the supply chain to lower carbon. So when I say zero carbon, you're absolutely right, it is net low carbon. But we have to work to get the carbon reduction all the way back through the supply chain. One way of doing that, which is kind of interesting, and we could follow this rabbit hole if you wish, is something called the circular economy. That is, we really need to go much more towards being able to recycle, design technologies, whether it's nuclear, wind, solar…an electric vehicle has a very significant supply chain emissions component, for example. But let's design all of those so that the key materials can all be can be recycled. That is called the circular economy. And in fact, last week I was in Davos and one of the sessions that I moderated was, in fact, called the Circular Economy for Automobiles. So there's a lot of work we need to do there as well, because Cindy is right that we can't ignore the supply chain for this. By the way, this also goes back to the issue of why these border tariffs are a little bit complicated. Because it's the whole supply chain you have to understand.
Laura Knoy: Well, there was a lot of discussion about that when President Trump put tariffs on China. And then there was concern about the U.S., Mexico, Canada trade agreement and what that would mean for the supply chain. What about Cindy's other very good question concerning the security of nuclear power plants? Wouldn't they make a tempting terrorist target, Secretary Moniz?
Ernest Moniz: Well, certainly we think that both safety and security of nuclear power plants, of course, have to be addressed. First of all, we should keep in mind that in the United States, there has been no public impact of any significance in terms of nuclear power plant operation, which includes Three Mile Island, in which the reactor, of course, was lost. But there were not significant public health consequences, unlike Fukushima or in Chernobyl. And we could discuss those. But let's just say that, as I mentioned, the new technologies that are being developed really have tremendous safety characteristics. Now, on security, it's very, very important to protect the materials. And I think what you were alluding to earlier as well, to address new risks like cyber risks. In fact, at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, we have initiated something we call the Cyber Security Forum, in which we are convening nuclear operators from around the world to come together and talk about establishing norms for cyber security. Up to now, the cyber intrusions to nuclear power plants have really been on things like administrative systems. We have to make sure that the safety systems, for example, are not compromised in this new world of cyber threats.
Laura Knoy: So that's interesting. So, 10, 20 years ago, the threat to a nuclear power plant from some terrorist organization might have been them trying to physically strike it with a missile or something. Now you're saying, no, nobody's going to go that low tech.
Ernest Moniz: There are these new risks, like cyber.
Laura Knoy: So getting into these security systems of a nuclear power plant and causing the gates to open, so to speak. In the few minutes that we have, Secretary Moniz, nuclear non-proliferation is a big part of your work, the topic of your talk tonight at the World Affairs Council at SNHU. And as I said at the outset, you were part of that key negotiating team in the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. You were right there with Secretary of State Kerry. How has the U.S. killing of Iran's top general changed your whole nuclear threat calculus?
Ernest Moniz: Well, first of all, I think the killing of the Iranian General Soleimani, one can argue, has not had a material effect on what we are talking about now. Specifically, just to get the facts on the table. Two days after his death, Iran announced that it was ending all of its constraints on nuclear activity. But that was a date that had been set long ago. From May, they had said every two months they would be taking five steps, reducing their commitments. And so that step was the fifth step. It was long anticipated, long scheduled. It would occur on that Sunday and it did.
Ernest Moniz: I think it's very important as well to explain, the Iran agreement at its highest level really has two pieces. One piece was significant constraint on Iran's peaceful nuclear activities for 15 years, meaning developing its nuclear power program and the surrounding technologies like enrichment and the like. After after 15 years, those constraints would go away. What you might say is what they announced a few weeks ago is basically getting to that point now rather than after 15 years. And that's very serious. And we don't want to in any way underplay that. But what I really want to emphasize, and I have been very consistent on this since we signed the agreement in 2015, that the more important part of the agreement was the verification measures. That is, the ability of the international inspectors to do things in Iran that they do not have the license to do anywhere else -- extraordinary verification measures. And what is very interesting is that, to date – and Iran claims it will continue with this, but proof will be in the pudding -- to date, they have not interfered with the international inspectors’ role and its verification that they are not doing a nuclear weapon effort. That is the key. That is, the confidence of the international community is based upon the ability for the inspectors to carry out their jobs anywhere, including in places that Iran has not officially declared as nuclear sites. So if Iran continues with that verification program, that will go a long way toward saying, okay, we lost the deal, they are rebuilding their domestic infrastructure that they had to really tear down much of in the agreement. But, quotes, we feel very confident they are not pursuing a nuclear weapon. That's a big deal.
Laura Knoy: So when President Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018, that was one partner. Who are the other partners, Secretary Moniz? And are they still in this?
Ernest Moniz: So the other partners are the three European countries, U.K., France and Germany, Russia, China and the EU as kind of a convener of the entire group. So, just to make it clear, it was an agreement of these six countries, the E.U., plus Iran. But the United States in the negotiation had the responsibility uniquely for being the face to face negotiator with Iran, which means we also had to negotiate backwards with the other countries. And, you know, to think about how remarkable it is: the agreement was signed in July of 2015. Well, the troubles with Russia over Ukraine started in early 2014. So we already had, frankly, a pretty bad relationship with Russia. And yet for keeping Iran away from a nuclear weapon, we absolutely worked together as well as with the other countries. So everybody agrees Iran must verifiably not have a nuclear weapon.
The fear now is if the verification regime is lost, then we kind of lose a lot of our insight into what is going on. And that's exactly what could lead to miscalculations, blunders, escalations, potentially nuclear proliferation throughout the region, so it’s a big deal.
Laura Knoy: It's heartening to hear you say that there still are eyeballs on the process, so to speak, in Iran. But is everybody else still involved who was involved in the original deal; we're the only ones who've pulled out?
Ernest Moniz: Everyone else is engaged, is supportive, frankly Iran claims it's still within the agreement. Even though it is by announcement violating the peaceful nuclear constraints.
Laura Knoy: Well, you said you're here in New Hampshire because you want New Hampshire primary voters to put this idea on the table when they talk to candidates. What's one question you would like Hampshire voters to ask candidates about this?
Ernest Moniz: Well, again, it certainly isn't just about Iran. I mean, this is a broader issue, of security. For example, U.S. and Russia have 92 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. We are not discussing these things at all. So one question is, how would a candidate as president address the issue of the existential threat of Russia and nuclear weapons? Would they support continuation of the arms control regime that we've had for a long, long time? And may vanish two weeks into the next administration. That's an example of a question. How would they deal with denuclearizing North Korea, for example? How would they express the commitment to, in our view at NCI, start to diminish the role of nuclear weapons in our national security posture and not elevated it, etc. And New Hampshire voters, they're so close to the candidates, they are special in terms of being able to raise issues and elevating priorities.
Laura Knoy:Secretary Moniz, it's been really good to talk to you. Thank you so much.
Ernest Moniz: Thank you.