WASHINGTON, D.C.—Last week, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) announced that former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz, 72, will lead the Washington, D.C.–based think tank starting on 1 June. The longtime Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge physicist earned accolades for his diplomatic efforts in hammering out the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. Science caught up with Moniz earlier today to discuss how he will address nuclear threats in his new role. This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: NTI has sought to galvanize global support for a vision of a world without nuclear weapons—a vision embraced by U.S. administrations since World War II. At the Carnegie Endowment’s nuclear policy conference last week, National Security Council Senior Director Christopher Ford indicated that the Trump administration is reviewing whether it will continue to support such a vision. Will you help NTI make a better case for it?
A: I am among those who support the vision of a world without nuclear weapons, and that was part of the Prague set of proposals that President Obama set forward [in 2009]. Certainly that vision is decades away [from], hopefully, being realized. What I think is really critical, what NTI has done as a do tank as opposed to a think tank, is advocating for and facilitating practical steps that can be taken in the near and medium term to reducing nuclear threats. Things like the Nuclear Security Index, catalyzing the establishment of a nuclear fuel bank in Kazakhstan, and more recently, initiating a dialogue with hospitals about reducing dirty bomb threats by replacing radioactive sources with x-ray sources.
Q: Last October, the Russian government suspended an agreement with the United States on nuclear R&D cooperation and terminated another on retooling Russian research reactors to no longer run on weapons-grade uranium. How important is it for nuclear scientists from the two countries to work together? What more can NTI do?
A: The dialogue with Russia is absolutely critical. In the worst moments of the Cold War, we had a very active dialogue in the scientific channel. But another channel, very important then and now, and unfortunately not being exercised, is military-to-military discussion. If a crisis were to emerge, everybody knows whom to phone. That is an example of something that needs to be corrected. On the scientific side, in my view, we could be doing more. When I was secretary, political constraints driven by the Ukraine situation prevented us from doing more.
NTI recently published a set of roughly 50 practical steps to elevate nuclear cooperation even in the present, very strained relationship. Those potential actions have been presented to the highest level of government in both countries. Now, it’s a question of keeping up the momentum to get some of those started. We have to expand the boundaries of dialogue and collaboration to make sure we are reducing threats to both countries.
Q: NTI recently has worked to strengthen nuclear engagement between China and the United States. What would it take to resurrect cooperation between the two countries’ weapons labs, frozen nearly 20 years since the U.S. Congress accused China of widespread nuclear espionage?
A: The lab-to-lab program [with China] has always been more challenging, no question about it. There are other areas [where] we could do a lot more. We need to keep for the moment a focus on dirty bombs and radiological sources and other kinds of threats. For example, we could open a dialogue—discussions, guarded at first, for sure—on cyber threats to nuclear facilities.
Q: Speaking of cyber, an emerging threat is the possibility of hackers sabotaging our nuclear weapons command and control systems. How should this be tackled?
A: This is a hard one, no doubt about it. Cyber is a very delicate issue, and clearly it will have significant boundaries in terms of information sharing. But I think it could start out on a general level both for nuclear facilities and for nuclear command and control. NTI can come in and at least start the dialogue in ways that hopefully can reach at least a common understanding of and appreciation for the nature of the challenge. I think it is an enormous challenge. The cyber risks for command and control are a fundamental challenge to strategic stability. In a certain sense at NTI we have the advantage of not having access to classified information, [so] in the initial stages [we] can open up a dialogue in terms of more societal awareness of the significance of the challenge.
Q: Perhaps your best-known achievement as secretary of energy is the Iran nuclear deal. What do you see as the most important elements of a follow-on agreement, and when is the right time to start talking about it with Iran?
A: The question is an extremely important one and one that for understandable reasons up until now has not received a lot of focus: What and when do we start the dialogue, assuming of course there has been full compliance. My view is that the deal stands on its own in terms of getting this 10- to 15-year set of constraints and restrictions on any possibility of Iran moving to a nuclear weapon. We’ve never been coy about it: It would be wonderful if the agreement started a process about having an evolving and more constructive relationship with Iran on a broader set of issues in the region. It’s a question of taking on the big issues of how we envision the future nuclear fuel cycle internationally in ways that would not exacerbate and ideally improve our global nonproliferation posture. Not surprisingly, a strong personal interest of mine is to see NTI start laying that groundwork for that.