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Publication date: 
1 September 2015


In a 3,400 word speech yesterday at the University of Colorado Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz outlined the role his department played in negotiations with Iran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The speech reiterated points Moniz made on Capitol Hill following the announcement of the Agreement. When Congress returns next week the House and Senate will consider legislation disapproving the Agreement. President Obama will veto this legislation; it is uncertain if there will be enough votes to override this veto in the Senate.

In his speech Moniz described how the agreement “is built upon a foundation of deep nuclear science and technology,” highlighting DOE’s historic work in areas such as high performance computing, innovative testing technologies, and other programs at the national laboratories. A selection from his speech, under the heading Science and Nuclear Security is below. The entire text of this speech is available here; the DOE has additional information here.

“It’s important to first note that the Nation’s nuclear security agenda was clearly articulated by President Obama early in his Administration during his 2009 Prague speech. It emphasizes two complementary facets:
     •Ensuring a safe, secure and effective deterrent based on a nuclear weapons stockpile sustained without nuclear testing, even as we pursue the long term goal of a world without nuclear weapons;
     •Securing weapons-usable nuclear material around the globe, eliminating such materials when possible, and cooperating to avoid further production of such materials.

“These are both critical DOE missions pursued principally through science and technology.  Nowhere is this better highlighted than in the Department’s programs to meet the first item in the President’s nuclear security agenda -- deterrence achieved by maintaining a viable nuclear stockpile without testing

“The last U.S. underground nuclear test took place almost twenty-three years ago -- but leaders of the DOE national security lab weapons programs say that we know more about how these weapons work today than we would by continuing the testing paradigm relied on for decades.

“The reason for this enhanced understanding: extraordinary scientific innovation, manifest in the ability to simulate nuclear weapons - highly engineered systems that perform at extremes of pressure and temperature that stress materials  like no place else on Earth - using high performance computing.  This program has helped push the simulation frontiers by a factor of a hundred each decade, keeping up with the stockpile needs as we move farther away from tests.  This could not have been accomplished by simply applying “off-the-shelf” technologies to the science challenges.

“As an aside, in the intervening years, the simulation capability developed in DOE’s weapons program has now become critical in science, energy, industrial and medical applications as well. That’s why President Obama on July 29 announced the National Strategic Computing Initiative, which includes a DOE goal of yet another factor of a hundred within the next decade.

“Major breakthroughs were also needed in laboratory capabilities. DOE scientists invented new technologies that could reach the extreme conditions of nuclear weapons, such as a temperature of 100 million degrees, and provide real-time images of materials under conditions analogous to those in a nuclear explosion.   The scientific ingenuity displayed in the DOE system brought these and other capabilities on-line in little more than a decade. 

“Science also underpins everything the United States does to counter nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism.  The results of this investment in science-based non-proliferation programs are nothing short of heroic:  securing nuclear materials globally, including removal of all HEU from 26 countries...the development of novel technologies to discover foreign nuclear weapons development activities, detect nuclear detonations, and strengthen monitoring and verification... the characterization, detection, and defeat of the range of nuclear or radiological devices potentially available to a rogue state or terrorists.

“The totality of this extraordinary knowledge and experience directly translates into the skills, analysis and expertise required to structure the Iran agreement and monitor its implementation.  Our nuclear expertise is unmatched in scope and scale.  It inspires confidence in the soundness of the nuclear dimensions of the Iran agreement.

“It is worth elaborating on a concrete example of nuclear materials elimination with some lessons for evaluating the Iran agreement.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, at American initiative, the US and Russia reached an agreement, sometimes called the HEU deal, sometimes the Megatons to Megawatts program.

“Under this arrangement, Russia would blend down 500 tons of high enriched uranium (HEU) from weapons to an enrichment level appropriate for US nuclear reactor fuel, which we then purchased. This provided Russia with needed resources, the US got fuel for its nuclear reactors, we accomplished our nonproliferation goal of eliminating a massive amount of nuclear weapons material, and the world is a safer place.

“The agreement ran for twenty years, 1993 to the end of 2013!  To appreciate the scale, the resulting nuclear power plant fuel supplied 10 percent of US electricity over twenty years from nuclear material for twenty thousand weapons.  The agreement required strong verification measures to assure us that the weapons material was in fact the origin of the materials we received.  Our laboratories came up with new technologies to do real time enrichment measurement as the HEU and depleted uranium were blended.  Similar technology will be part of the Iran deal verification almost two decades later.

“Of course, such complex agreements are subject to bumps in the road.  Indeed, in 1999, when I served as DOE Undersecretary, the agreement came to a halt because of a failure to implement a component of the agreement that dealt with returning natural uranium to Russia.

“Negotiations to restart the program were highly complex with multilateral aspects involving three foreign uranium companies.  At then- Secretary Richardson’s request, I led a small negotiating team to restart the deal.  Members of that team included a key Department of State colleague deeply engaged in the recent Iran negotiation, as well as my current lead senior advisor on nuclear security at DOE, testament to the deep experience of our Iran team.  

“While each situation is different, the Iran agreement can be viewed through the lens of this earlier program for some key lessons.   First, it was successful in reaching its objectives over a long time period, spanning two decades and three US administrations.  By following the technical terms of the agreement, our Cold War adversary received substantial commercial revenues that bound their self-interest with our nonproliferation objectives.  It required strong verification supported by advanced technologies, developed by the DOE laboratory system.  Finally, challenges were inevitable during the implementation phase, but because these challenges did not mask the underlying self-interests of the parties, they were ultimately worked through to successful conclusion.”