Former Secretary of Energy returns to MIT, plans to focus on energy and nuclear threats

Moniz discusses bipartisanship, Iran nuclear deal, new administration

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Ernest Moniz spoke with The Tech from his E18 office about the Iran nuclear deal, the current administration, and what lies ahead.
Vivian Hu–The Tech

Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist who served as Secretary of Energy under former President Obama from 2013 to 2017, has returned to MIT to continue his work in tackling energy challenges and nuclear security.

For Moniz, this means returning home: the Massachusetts native started his career as a professor at MIT in 1973. His illustrious career has spanned both academics and government: in the past he was a Founding Director of the MIT Energy Initiative, the head of the Physics Department, and Under Secretary of Energy in Department of Energy (DOE) under former President Clinton.

As a post-tenure professor, a paid position at MIT, Moniz will spend around half of his time on energy innovation and climate change policy work. The other half will be spent outside MIT as co-chair and CEO of the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Moniz plans to keep busy. His other commitments include serving as a special advisor to MIT President Rafael Reif; being a non-resident senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; writing a book involving his nuclear security experiences; and starting a clean energy non-profit.

On Monday, Moniz sat down for an interview with The Tech. Highlights include his views on how he secured a rare unanimous Senate confirmation in 2013, what it was like to co-negotiate the Iran nuclear deal, and the way his approach to climate and nuclear threats differs from that of Noam Chomsky and others.

Moniz also touched upon the new administration, Rick Perry, and the disconnect he’s seeing between agencies.

On getting started in government

The Tech: What interested you about work in government, in comparison to the research you were doing here at MIT?

Moniz: Well, it was advancing the public interest. You find out whether you do or do not have it in your blood. And I've got to say, it's in my blood.

The first step into government was OSTP [Office of Science and Technology Policy], and that was only for about 15 months after I got confirmed. I told them directly that I would only serve [as Associate Director of Science] to the end of the first term, and then for the second term they should go find somebody else. And I was true to that. I was confirmed in October ’95 and stayed until January ’97. I left, and my view was at that time, that was it. I did my government service.

I came back to MIT, resuming my position as head of the Physics Department. But then I was only back two months, and I got a call about the Under Secretary job at DOE. And you think about it, DOE and its missions of being, in many ways, the key part of the foundation for physical sciences in the United States, energy (clean energy, technology and policy), and nuclear security — all three areas that I had worked in. The opportunity just suddenly appeared … I think the response was, “Oh what the hell, I'll do it.” And so it happened.

I want to make it clear: this was all rather serendipitous and none of this was seeking the positions. It’s something I think is important for students. In my view, if something interesting comes along, don't be overly conservative. “What the hell” is a good attitude.

On bipartisanship

The Tech: Let’s fast forward to 2013 when you were appointed and confirmed as Secretary of Energy. In an increasingly partisan environment, you had a unanimous confirmation in the Senate. How do you think you were able to reach both sides of the aisle?

Moniz: I think the issue of bipartisanship involves a number of things.

A very important one — to be quite frank about it — is a bit of the MIT pedigree and the approach of being fact-based, analytically-based, and candid. In fact, Senator [Lisa] Murkowski from Alaska, the chair of the of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, my confirmation committee, said in her opening statement publicly: You have a reputation, and I've seen it, of being very candid, and we like that. That's part of it: not trying to twist everything into some kind of political message. Sometimes it's uncomfortable in that it may not fully align with the political message, but if it's based upon facts and analysis, well that’s what I did.

Secondly important is: God gave you one mouth and two ears for a reason, as opposed to the reverse. So you should use all of those instruments in that proportion.

It’s very important to listen and understand the positions, whether they're Democrats or Republicans. It doesn't mean you respond in ways necessarily that they like, but it really helps so that you can understand where they're coming from, and where you might be able to find compromise.

Third, I am a person who prefers pragmatic steps and compromise, rather than some kind of purity which doesn't get you anywhere. Of course, those pragmatic steps only work when in fact there are partners to do that, and I certainly found that was the case with the Department of Energy.

Fourth, there's an art to it as well. The art goes back to talking and listening, but the art is in developing relationships. Politics is about relationships, in the end. Trust. If you have the trust of a member, and vice versa, you can get a lot done even if it's not public, because people understand you're good to your word.

That means not going to visit a member just when you have a problem. It means establishing a relationship so that when you have a problem, you can do that. That is time consuming, and frankly, some people just don't like to do it, and some denigrate it. I think just the opposite. I think it's the job. And to establish relationships early on, that required going up to Congress very often, for example. Sometimes just having a social occasion. But those all pay off in building trust and building relationships.

So, it's everything from that back to the scientific approach — fact-based, analytically-based. Putting that together as a package … well I think the results were there to see.

The Tech: On the Iran nuclear deal, do you mind talking a little about what it was like to be the number two negotiator and also negotiating with another MIT alum?

Moniz: What does number two mean?

The Tech: I don't know. It means pretty high up there.

Moniz: It's called a co-negotiator.

The Tech: Co-negotiator, OK! I was saying that from The New York Times headline, but they were wrong. Sorry about that.

Moniz: Well, look, just to make it clear, DOE was always involved. Our labs were the ones who were providing all of the technical, analytical work — that also came out in a New York Times article. We had seven laboratories and two nuclear sites that were essentially the support team in, what I would call, the traditional role of DOE — supporting negotiation as appropriately led by the Department of State.

But in this negotiation, which one way or another had to roll back the Iranian nuclear program very substantially, it turned out not much has been accomplished up to February 2015. There was a pause in Iran's program as part of the negotiation, but nothing in terms of a final agreement had come together. Until in a very unusual arrangement, [MIT alumnus Ali Akbar] Salehi on their side, and me on our side, were put in to negotiate the nuclear issue.

The Tech: As co-negotiators.

Moniz: Yeah, so we had these two tracks then going on: [Secretary of State John] Kerry and [Foreign Minister Javad] Zarif negotiating the political, economic parts, and we negotiated the nuclear parts. On both sides, we were quite close together. Kerry and I already had a relationship, but we got very close. The last phone call I just had before you came in was from John Kerry … and it did not deal with Iran.

It took this unusual negotiating arrangement to move forward. And on the flip side, I might say in retrospect, it seemed like an awfully long time that we were negotiating. The last session was 19 days straight. Pretty unusual of itself. But the reality is that it was from the middle of February to the middle of July: only five months and the entire nuclear thing came together after years and years of really not getting anywhere.

Once again, it was a relationship, trust. We had very different agendas. But our common MIT background, as you were referring to, really was a big deal. It allowed us to very rapidly develop a feeling of trust.

Again, trust is never to be equated with agreement. It's just that we had trust in our being honest with each other. Direct.

And once we did a good MIT analysis of what we each really needed in the negotiation, pretty early on — I mean this was probably not a typical way diplomats negotiate — we kind of mapped it out, and we realized that there were not fundamental conflicts between our key issues, so that a solution should exist. And then we just started to work out the solution, and piece after piece we found compromises, trade-offs, here and there. It was really quite interesting.

That was July 14, the final agreement. Then came a period until Jan. 16, 2016, which was called implementation day. In other words, on Jan. 16, the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] declared Iran had taken all the necessary steps in rolling back its nuclear program.

Yet, none of these things are on autopilot. One of the things that we did, which was a bit of a political risk — to put it mildly — is that on behalf of the Department of Energy, I basically said we would buy 32 tons of heavy water to get them under the limit on heavy water. We had a good reason: frankly, we ended up having a really cheap solution to upgrading the intensity of the neutron spallation source in Oak Ridge [National Laboratory] by 20 percent with some of this heavy water.

Talking about how pieces have to fit in and trust comes in, I might note that the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is from Tennessee, and we took it to a laboratory in Tennessee. Senator [Bob] Corker and we had a phone conversation, and I explicitly told him what was happening, and he understood. It caused some political issues, but it was manageable because we had trust and communications.

Then came Jan. 16, 2016 to Jan. 20, 2017, and we got through that year with IAEA giving passing reports every quarter. And again, it was still an ongoing negotiation to see how the implementation goes forward.

It's going to be key now to see as this administration gains its footing, as Iran goes to a presidential election next month … it will remain then to see who is in place in Iran, and who on both sides will be able to carry on that discussion. Right now, things are kind of on hold, I think, until they have their election, and then we'll see.

On his plans going forward

The Tech: Your title is now post-tenure professor here, and for a lot of students, we don't know what that means exactly. Can you talk about you see as your involvement with MIT? I know you are involved with many things with the nonprofit, with Harvard, and as a special advisor to the [MIT] president.

Moniz: Well, first of all, if you didn't see, I've now been named the co-chair and CEO of Nuclear Threat Initiative.

The Tech: That’s separate from MIT, right?

Moniz: Yes. That's like a half-time position. It was understood when I came back [to MIT] that was likely to happen, and now it's happened. I'll pick up the position in June.

My plan remains that, roughly speaking, half my time will be one way or another on energy innovation, climate change, and half my time will be on nuclear security.

I'm also looking with some colleagues at establishing an independent organization to do a variety of work in the energy innovation arena. Things that I feel I can do better outside of MIT, well, outside of any other organization.

So, those are kind of the three pieces.

On his pragmatic approach to nuclear and environmental threats

The Tech: I recently attended this talk by Noam Chomsky on what he thinks are our two existential threats —environmental and nuclear — which is exactly what your work has been on.

Moniz [jokingly]: I'm a full-threat guy.

The Tech: And I think for a lot of students who went to that talk, and heard it…it was almost apocalyptic. It was not encouraging to hear the outlook, and there was a lack of a sense of agency. I'm wondering what kind of advice you would give to students or faculty here who want to work in these two areas —ways they can feel like they're going to help our world in the future.

Moniz: Well certainly, particularly with regard to the nuclear security side, I think that for obvious reasons, there really is not enough awareness among young people and millennials. That’s not so much a critique of young people and millennials.

If you're 25, 30, or 35 years old, you didn't grow up in the [height of the Cold War]. There was no issue. Nobody talked about it, other than the kind of the inside baseball of “let's get this stuff cleaned up, reduce the number of weapons, get these materials under control or eliminated.” But suddenly now — there's no doubt about it, we made a lot of progress on many issues — but in some ways the problem has gotten worse in the last years.

A lot of people feel that the risk of a major nuclear war — let's say between the United States and Russia with the two biggest arsenals — that risk is probably greatly diminished.

And yet the risk of a nuclear weapon being used again is probably higher, with many different issues. You've got India and Pakistan, you have North Korea. It's gotten really complicated.

The Tech: Is this your belief as well?

Moniz: I think that's true. I think the risks are greater of that as opposed to the old idea of 10,000 missiles going back and forth. I'm not saying that the issues are only India, Pakistan, North Korea. There are issues with Russian developments. All across the board.

So, the issue of getting more young people now tuned into these issues and ready to contribute in the next 10, 20, and 30 years is in fact very critical. Whether it's [former Secretary of Defense] Bill Perry's book or Chomsky's lecture, certainly having young people attuned to this is very important.

It is important that there are those who are giving the clarion call about the major risks posed in both arenas.

On the other hand, we also need people — and frankly I am personally in the group — who are always looking for practical steps to take that go in the right direction. We have to understand what we think is the right direction, what the problem is … and I don't think any less than Chomsky, Perry, [Bill] McKibben, Al Gore…

The Tech: Jerry Brown.

Moniz: Jerry Brown. I'm on the same page with all of them in terms of the importance of both of those problems, but in the end I'm the kind of a person who thinks a long range plan is a bunch of short range plans put together that all go in the same direction.

You've got to take steps. You've got to build confidence. Certainly in the nuclear regime, that's critical. In the climate change regime — maybe it's because of where I sit and where I come from — but getting this innovation agenda to move forward, step by step, in the United States and elsewhere, continuing innovation and cost reduction of the technologies we see around us, is absolutely critical to reach the Paris climate goals in the 2025, 2030 timeframe.

I didn't say they're major, whole new Grand Slams — just that keeping at that agenda is very important, the way we have seen it in solar cost reduction, wind cost reduction, etcetera. Storage cost reduction, we're still not there, but that's coming down nicely.

However, in my view, the Paris goals are a critical, important step towards much more ambitious goals in the mid-century time. The next generation from the Paris goals is where the progress has to be, if anything, accelerated. For that, we need dramatic innovation to go forward and that's the kind of the agenda that I personally want to try to advance.

On tackling climate change at the local level

Moniz: When we come to the United States — an area that I'm again very interested in and will be focusing on — to reach [those climate goals] that I'm talking about, we need to focus more tightly on cities, states, and regions for very different solutions in different parts of the country.

Solutions that also address the dislocations — the worker dislocations, the community dislocations. The one talked about mostly has been in coal communities, but it's much more than that. … If we go to an energy economy that has 90 percent reductions in CO2, that is going to have big changes at the local level. Sometimes very positive; sometimes negative.

So, I think that politically, if we want to get on a fast pace of reaching long term deep decarbonization, you can't do it unless you're bringing everybody along.

On one hand, I have this big picture — the big technology breakthrough and large-scale carbon management — but you have to also look at it at the local levels, where the challenges and solutions are going to look very different. And we won't win in the end, I'll exaggerate, if innovation happens only in Boston and Silicon Valley. We need that. But we need a lot more distributed [innovation] throughout the country. Those are the kind of solutions that I want to at least help look for.

On Rick Perry and the future of ARPA-E

The Tech: Do you mind talking about the transfer of information between you and the current Secretary of Energy Rick Perry? Is there a transfer of information? What's that like?

Moniz: We've talked a number of times and exchanged communications. I'm not going to go into those communications, but I will say that if you look at his statements in his confirmation hearing and his statements subsequent to becoming Secretary, he has been extremely strong on the importance of the laboratories, of R&D, of science.

Look, he said it in his confirmation hearing, in his opening statement, that he had made some statements in the past about eliminating the department. He said, “Now that I've seen and understood much better what the department does, and the incredible work it does, and on important missions, I was wrong.”

He just said that; so as far as I'm concerned, he did the homework — and some of our conversations may have been part of that — but fundamentally he did the homework, and he came quite correctly to the opposite conclusion.

Now I'll have to be honest, however, that the problem may be the disconnect that seems to be happening between departments — not just the Department of Energy — and agencies like the OMB [Office of Management and Budget].

Secretary Perry quite correctly put out a tweet in early March on the importance of the innovators being supported by ARPA-E [Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy].

ARPA-E is a tremendously successful program. It's almost the face of innovation at the Department of Energy. There a lot of other stuff going on, but ARPA-E really has a special role. It was created in law in a Republican Congress in 2005. It got implemented when the Recovery Act provided some funding in 2009 to get it going, two hundred million dollars, but it had been established in the 2005 Energy Policy Act.

So Secretary Perry came out with that — right on the money — and then a week later or two weeks later, the OMB puts out this budget with very little detail, but sufficient detail to say we're going to zero out ARPA-E.

Now I don't think the Congress will go will go along with that, because Congress appreciates, I think, ARPA-E. Secretary Perry apparently appreciates ARPA-E. But these mixed signals just have got to get ironed out, because research innovation does not do well in a start-stop environment. You need to have the confidence that you're going to be able to — if you commit yourself to one of these hard problems — that you're going to be able to get through to the end. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn't. But that's what entrepreneurs and researchers do.

Secretary Perry has certainly made very strong statements about that. He's also made strong statements about how he's come to understand the critical role of the department in national security. So now it's a question of execution, and certainly I think OMB needs to be on the same page with the agencies.

Editor's Note: The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.