Thank you for meeting with us once again. To begin, could you tell us a little about yourself and how you came where you are today?
I think that’s all my parents’ blame. In terms of…I’ve always had an interest in science and became a scientist probably due to a number of things, the scientific background of my family, in college there was a debate on whether it was going to be mathematics or physics. I Majored in both but I decided by the end of my sophomore year I was going to go into physics, I was going to go into theoretical physics. But you know, to make a long story short I became a scientist. I had no interest in politics, I had no interest in policy, I had no interest in any of those things. But, maybe around year 2000, maybe a little earlier I reading as a late person some things about climate change and thought maybe there’s some truth in this. Got more and more concern that there may be some truth in it, and I see it as a risk, we don’t really know what’s going to happen and for that reason I decided to take this job at Lawrence Berkeley lab. I’d been approached a couple of times, I said I’m not interested in it, but in the end if I could get more of the scientists at Lawrence Berkeley lab interested in that, I would do my part. And so, that was the long slide downhill into administration. There’s where I met a whole bunch of people at Lawrence Berkeley like Arun Majumdar. Then I was going to step down after five years, go back to being a faculty member, then mid November I was called and asked if I would consider another job and I took that one too. But I’m very glad to be back here at Stanford doing, starting my research again. I still have a real interest in energy, sustainable energy and climate change. But I try to do this in the background; I try to move things. But I do love research.
Could you tell us about the blue ribbon commission and other work related to nuclear issues while you were secretary of energy?
Yes. The issue there was that we were at a bit of an impasse on what to do with nuclear waste. It was a sadly the decision to store at yucca mountain was a political decision more than an engineering decision about what the best site was and It was handled politically I think from start to finish. It is not the best site. And I thought well, I think I know what to do but I would need some wise people to also decide independently what they would suggest, and it was a surprisingly good report, a good committee. They came up with a few things I wasn’t thinking of which was great, it was great to have a committee. But its really to try to say What do we really need to store this spent fuel, what are the things we really need to do… And to try to develop a different way of trying to decide where repositories will be. There could be a temporary, there could be a permanent, there’s these other issues instead of trying to cram it down the throat of a state that didn’t want it. And, I certainly, the time we started this, I knew that Sweden had done it completely differently They had started also in the 70’s and 80’s, they actually had three bidders who were vying for the site and they had to give a consolation prize to the people who lost, namely the people who didn’t get the storage site. This is proof that you can actually make it so it brings wealth to the local community, brings wealth to the local state in the United States, and you can try to find the best geological site, which is the most important. So they, that was a very good report, that’s how it came to be. I was a little sad that...it was a family decision to step down as secretary, but in any case, I hope it does go forward. In the last year, year in a half, the four members, highest ranking members of the energy water committee and senate were on board, this is something we need to solve, we need to depoliticize it, we need to find the best site. Now, in closing let me just say that there are two things: first you, under current law, you go for a ten thousand year site, but then the supreme court of the united states has ruled that if it shows that you need to extend that time it could be up to a million years. Now there is nothing humans have made that lasted ten thousand years, let alone a million years, and so the storage has to be dictated by the geology. And, what people found once they started drilling Yucca Mountain, is that the rock was saturated, you started drilling tunnels and it was dripping water. This is not a good place to be dripping water. Dripping water meant it would eventually be corroded. The fix was to put a multi, multi billion dollar titanium shield in the mountain but that’s not going to last a million years, that’s probably not even gonna last 5000 years. That too will corrode. So it was not a good site. There are geological sites that we can date that we know have not moved, and there’s no water for the last five and ten million years, so there are much better repositories.
Could you tell us a little bit about your work regarding nuclear weapons and maintaining the stockpiles in the Department of Energy?
You’re right -- the Department of Energy forms the technical basis for guaranteeing the safety and security of the stockpile. We, in Bush 1 decided not to do anymore underground testing, which I am very much in favor of. Many of the weapons were designed in the ‘50s and ‘60s, maybe ‘70s, they have exceeded their design lifetime. You want to ensure that first they won’t go off unless you want them to go off, and if you want them to go off they will go off, and if a terrorist ever gets to them there’s no way they can ever make them explode. That’s also designed into our weapons. So the Department (of Energy) does the technical things, but beyond that they also did a lot in securing nuclear materials around the world. The DOE played the lead role in making sure that a lot of nuclear materials that were in the former Soviet Union -- many of the countries, including Ukraine -- shipped all the nuclear materials back to Russia, so it was locked, secured down. Because if the nuclear material itself, if terrorists, for example, got a hold of it, would be bad. So the DOE did a lot of things like that. And then finally, it also goes into civilian use because once you have a nuclear reactor, if you’re a nation state intent on developing nuclear weapons and willing to spend lots and lots of money, you can do this. So the other issue that I worked [on] with my counterparts in other countries was to make sure that if that countries have nuclear civilian technology and want to sell reactors and things of that nature to other countries, it's very important that we try to get other countries that do not have a nuclear capability to really say ‘we’re not going to reprocess, we’re not going to enrich.’ In fact, it doesn’t even make economic sense. The only reason I think if you’re a country that wants to reprocess fuel or enrich fuel/uranium, it’s not for economic reasons.
Do you think it's possible to have a civilian nuclear program with a reasonable level of nuclear risk? Is it possible to get that balance?
I think it is. One of the things I was pushing the whole time I was Secretary of Energy was to actually get countries like UAE to sign on to say ‘we’re not going to do this. We just want it for the power.’ So how do you do this? And where are they going to get the fuel? Well, countries that now have the technology -- the United States, Great Britain, Russia, China, a few others -- and they say ‘We can supply you with the fuel for your civilian nuclear reactors. After its time to refuel, we’ll take it back, we’ll process it away.’ Now, [some countries], let’s say, the United States or Korea, will not want to say that -- they’ll want to put it somewhere. ‘But we’ll give it back to you in a form that will be very, very difficult to turn into a nuclear weapon.’ And it makes more economic sense to do it this way. You need several countries willing to do this, because if I were UAE, Jordan, Vietnam -- countries that might want nuclear technologies -- they would want different suppliers. They can’t be beholden to one country, or two countries, so they would have access to several countries, just for their own energy security. So if one could arrange that and all the countries that current have that technology are willing to put in, say, ‘We’ll export nuclear reactor technology, but please agree to that [previous reprocessing plan].’ It’s a work in progress. Some countries say ‘yes, that’s alright,’ other countries say ‘We’re not going to do this, but we don’t want other countries telling us that we can’t do it.’ So its an issue of diplomacy and other things as well that one has to work through.
Going back quickly to the stockpile, do you think the world is safer with nuclear weapons, or would it be safer if we were able to achieve disarmament? As a follow-up, do you think complete disarmament is practical and achievable?
I think that if the world did not have nuclear weapons it would be safer. Unfortunately we do have nuclear weapons, and that’s the conundrum. The biggest secret of nuclear weapons is that it actually can be done. And that secret’s out of the bag. In terms of disarmament, or partial/most disarmament -- that was the goal of the Kennedy administration, that’s the goal of previous administrations -- there was a time, in the ‘60s where the Soviet Union and United States had roughly 70,000 warheads pointed at each other. And each warhead in those days had a bigger yield. I’m not sure of the calculations but I seem to remember maybe the equivalent of 10,000 pounds of explosives for every man, woman and child in both of those countries. That’s how crazy it was. You do not need 35,000 nuclear warheads apiece. It was difficult even finding targets. And what was driving that? It was kind of the closest thing to real, pure insanity. It was very expensive for both countries to do this, there were environmental consequences of doing this. And so you want to take that down to ideally, I think you can take it down to a few hundred, and there’d be no risk. We’re not there. The issue is you have other nation states that are having nuclear weapons and then there’s always some of the newer nation states that have them and some of the ones that are trying to get them, you’re always worried about that. I think we stepped back from the brink from the Soviet Union, China never wanted to have thousands of nuclear warheads. They just wanted to have enough that if in the process of them being nuked they could make the other person hurt a little. And you don’t need that many. So that’s one of the issues. Where we are in the foreseeable near term future, I think there are going to be nuclear weapons. The last thing you want is more and more countries to say this is a badge of respect and honor and people are going to treat us differently if we too have a couple dozen nukes. The more people have it, the more unstable a country could potentially become. That means something really stupid could happen -- not the nuclear holocaust that was facing us during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but still some really bad stuff, some stupid things.
Just on the hot note, what do you think is the most pressing threat related to nuclear issues?
It’s more and more countries feeling that they want to have the weapons as a matter of national pride or ‘you can’t push us around anymore’ or things like that. I think that it’s not in their economic interests, it’s not for the wellbeing of the world - these are real threats and they have to be taken seriously.
Do you think that nuclear weapons states are in compliance with their obligations under article six of the NPT? Article six requires nuclear to pursue good faith disarmament.
Well, in terms of good faith I think we are trying to do that but not everybody in the United States feels that - they might feel a little bit too exposed even at a few thousand nuclear warheads. So, it’s a difference of opinion. As I said, I don’t think we’re going to be too exposed, but that is not shared by all the policy makers in the United States.
I think nobody would say that if other nation states have these that we should give them up, but, at least, we should in good faith work toward that goal and I agree that the United States and Great Britain, Russia, France… There’s India, Pakistan. China has made very clear that they’re not going to develop a huge arsenal, but then we have North Korea and Iran… It something where you don’t take your eye off the ball. It’s still an issue and still a threat, and given the political instability in the world today it’s something you want to be very conscious of.
One of the more frequent arguments we’ve heard, especially here at Stanford, against disarmament is that if we get rid of nuclear weapons it’ll make conventional warfare easier. Do you think that’s true?
No, I don’t think so. Right now, having been at the brink and having realized this is really nuts, we still have conventional warfare and unconventional warfare. If I just try to imagine a world without nuclear weapons, and therefore you’re more willing to go to war with conventional weapons… I don’t really believe that.
The world right now is going through some really tough times in many places. It’s not as though one would have been more willing to go in if we didn’t have nuclear weapons. So, I’d disagree with that.
We got back from the Marshall Islands last night and we were at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories this morning. We were wondering if we could ask what your opinion of nuclear testing in general was under the Department of Energy?
Again, it’s part of our legacy of this arms race and there are long-term consequences. People in the Marshall Islands are still not inhabiting that atoll. It’s a long-term issue, but if you think about the nuclear testing that was going on in the 60s and 70s in the atmosphere, that was also something that’s not really talked about. The amount of radiation that we were spreading was significant, dispersing it all over the world. It was pretty serious stuff. There was a PBS documentary that, if you haven’t seen, you should see this. It’s on nuclear weapons… The US made a mistake in the first hydrogen bomb. There was a miscalculation and it turned out to be fifteen megatons, instead of five — I think — which they were designing for. And then immediately the Soviet Union says ‘we’re going to do better’ and they wanted to make a hundred megaton bomb and drop it from an airplane to show that their up with the technology. At the last minute, Sokorov backed off and made it fifty, but from the plume from that people thousands of miles away - you know, they’re spending their night - and all of a sudden lose their hair from the radioactivity.
To tell you how serious the size of these bombs is — any bigger and it doesn’t matter because it just blows a hole in the atmosphere. This is really crazy and so the amount of radioactivity that we were spreading by doing that stuff was really kind of crazy and again had nothing to do with military security at this point. It was ‘who had the biggest and the most?’ So, that’s what we did with the Soviet Union. I’m very thankful for no more above-ground testing, I’m very thankful that unilaterally Bush One said we’re going to stop underground testing as well.
One thing we’ve noticed is that there seems to be a huge generational disconnect about nuclear issues, and the public, especially young people don’t seem to care as much. What do you think are some ways to engage the public about these problems?
Well they don’t care because they didn’t grow up like I grew up. I mean, we used to have air-raid drills in grade school. In preparation for nuclear attack they would make us go underneath our school desks. In all seriousness — I mean, we live twenty miles away from New York City — knowing what I knew today of the yields and everything and what was going to be targeted and fallout shelters and things like this… People in my generation grew up with that and then historically when you look back in history you know that a couple of times we got really close. There was a real stare down a couple of times. I don’t know… I think it’s always good to look back at history even if you didn't grow up in that. It’s good because knowing about history will make it at least a little less likely you will commit the same mistake. Right? Because if you forget about it, then that’s what happens. Consider something — earthquake safety. If you think of a major earthquake in cities in ancient history, and if an earthquake happens every one hundred fifty years, and there’s ample evidence they go back and build in the same spot another hundred-hundred fifty years another earthquake that devastates the city. And they build on the same spot. And there are layers because they forgot. You know, it’s good to study history for a lot of reasons.
We were in the Marshall Islands recently. Could you tell us about any sort of project that the DOE did there?
No, I don’t know in detail but I know that there are DOE projects to try to see what’s really happened, how the land is bouncing back, how the islands are bouncing back, and what is happening given this very high exposure to radiation. And so those are some of the things — because again we had this experience, we said it was safe to go back and then we said no it’s not, it was still highly contaminated — and so I think the Department of Energy ‘experiments’ are really monitoring what’s happening to the plant life, the animal life and these other things. Because there are long-term consequences.
Do you know if there are other projects monitoring human health as well? Or is it more focused on the environmental? There are projects monitoring human health. One of the issues though is that we don’t really know what ‘safe’ radiation levels are. So there’s a nominal background level, but the actual background level can vary by a lot depending mostly on the radioactivity of the rocks in various places. You can be in places where you get 200 millirem a year or you can be in places where you get close to a rem per year. There are places in India that are a couple rem per year. And then if you look at the incidences of cancer in these places there doesn’t seem to be that much statistical increase. So we don’t know at the very low levels what is ‘safe’.
We do know biologically that ionizing radiation — which is what this is about — if it damages the DNA we have enzymes that repair the DNA. At a certain level you kind of can patch things up. Now, if you get a big, sudden dose you can get sick, you can get cancer. These things do happen. You know, the big doses were the ones at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The big doses are, I think, Chernobyl: first a bunch of people died of radiation poison immediately but there will be some more that will have developed cancers. But at the lower level we now are assuming a linear extrapolation that only depends on total dose. There is evidence that maybe goes sub-linear. But we don’t know. And at those very low levels it becomes a political hot potato also. The instant* becomes so low that you need a huge number of statistics, but if you extrapolate out an entire population it could be a significant number but if it’s sub linear it could be very different. And so, that goes to a lot of things and a lot of expense to go to these other levels. But I think that’s a debate, something that I would urge science to be studying to try to really find out dispassionately what are the danger levels at these very low doses.
At the higher doses, where some of this really heavy duty nuclear testing was going on, there was no question about it that it was a hazard. There is no debate about that. But at the very lower, you know two times the “background”… If you really are worried about it then you shouldn’t be living in brick houses, you shouldn’t have granite countertops. Here’s one thing that we’re beginning to appreciated: the CT scans are significant doses and so you have to be careful about willy-nilly getting lots of CT scans.
With all the mess in Congress and the international community do you have hope that people can come together and figure out these issues?
I do have hope. It’s important. The spent fuel issue is not a technical issue — it’s a political issue. There are natural geographies for the spent fuel. Quite candidly, if you look at the dangers of other forms of energy — the per terawatt hour of electricity made, you compare nuclear with coal and about 6,000 times more people die from coal than from nuclear. Oil: roughly 1,500 times more people die from oil per terawatt hour than from nuclear. Nuclear is actually very, very safe. Including Chernobyl. No one has died in the tsunami in Japan. How many cancers there will eventually be is not determined yet, but it’s not that many. And this is not discounting the new rise in air pollution, especially the small particulate matter in coal (the less than 2.5 micron particulate matter). There’s a whole generation of Chinese that are being exposed to this at unprecedented levels. There are already young kids and older people already showing early signs of walking black lung diseases — little kids, one and two and three year olds. The likelihood that that will bring more premature deaths is quite high as they get to be forty, fifty, sixty. This is not part of the dialogue when you consider civilian nuclear power (coal versus nuclear versus natural gas - even natural gas is more dangerous… I think solar is pretty good).
What is your opinion of the claim by the Marshall Islands that the nine nuclear weapons states have failed to meet their obligations under article six of the NPT which is to pursue good faith disarmament? It depends on what you say is good faith. If you look at the United States, there are more conservative people in the United States who say we can’t go below this certain amount. Well, we were on a trajectory — both Russia and the United States wanted to do this — for just economic cost reasons. To maintain the stockpile (there’s an active stockpile and then some backup stuff), just to maintain that, the diligence required to keep that safe and secure is a lot of money. And so it makes no sense. It is not adding to our national security. But not everybody in the United States and not all the policymakers feel that way. Is 4,000 too many? Is 1,000 too many? Or enough? Generally speaking, we went from 35,000 to a whole lot less. But going to an end goal and saying this is are goal, but saying how do you get that when there are still other nation-states who still want to get them. I don’t know what it means to say in good faith…. so I’ll take a pass on that.
What is your most memorable day of your time in office? Oh, i don’t know. There quite a number of memorable days. Some fun days, some not so fun days. I think the couple months I spent helping BP stop the oil leak was, on the one hand, me actually getting there as an active scientist with a small group of people I hand picked to actually try to solve a technical problem, and that was fun. You know, most people think ‘Oh, that must have been horrible,” and I say, “No, no no,” it was me as a technical person getting in there and learning about oil and oil safety, but also helping them because we were off the manual. This was an unusual event.
I put together a couple of groups another one in trying to clean up what the nuclear legacy of the cold war and WWII and Hanford Washington because some decisions were made, they weren’t the right technical decisions. Then they were made around 2000 to put together a really good group of people to say, look we need to make a mid course correction. They were building a facility whose final cost was first was going to be six billion, then it was going to be eighty, then it was twelve, and it was going north and may not have operated correctly, safely for the time. The total costs, you know we’re spending between five and six billion dollars a year in cleaning up the cold war legacy and it predicted now that at five or six billion dollars a year for the next 75 years you will have to have flat funded and then it will start to decrease.
So the total cost on as spent dollars today would be something like a third of a trillion, but by the time its done it may be half a trillion. But, this is where research can dramatically…this is real money. A half a trillion dollars, a third of a trillion dollars, is real money and there are better ways of doing it I think and I think science can do that and so I hope I started them on this trajectory. They took that five and six billion dollars and they shrunk the R and D down to 0. And then putting, having better glass formulas, having better things, having better ways of solidifying it, making it safe, could’ve, you know—ten billion here, a hundred billion there, this is real money. And this is something, you know I was telling people in the laboratories, hey if you’re a scientist and you want to get into this and you’re worried about funding, this is not going away and its an important problem that people have to work on. And it’s a responsibility the department of energy has and has to live up to.