Sec. Moniz on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher”

Sec. Moniz on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher”

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Bill Maher: First up is the former U.S. Secretary of Energy, my old job, and CEO of Energy Futures Initiative, Ernest Moniz. [Applause] Doctor, how are you, sir? Good to see you again. I wanted you here because you know all things nuclear, and I have been hearing that word a lot more than I’ve heard it, maybe ever. I mean, I was too young to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I feel like that’s the last time we all in America had this much anxiety about nuclear war. We keep hearing about this. So I thought, you’re the perfect guy to talk about this.

Sec. Ernest Moniz: Cheerful (Laughter).

Bill Maher: Maybe it will allay our fears, or maybe we’ll all shit our pants and jump out the window. But you’re head of something called the Nuclear Threat Initiative. What is that? Are they helping? This is about the worries we have now, right?

Sec. Ernest Moniz: First of all, we don’t promote nuclear threats. We try to remove them.

Bill Maher: Oh, I understand.

Sec. Ernest Moniz: But you’re absolutely right. There’s no doubt that a lot of people — I just saw an article: Gen X is reliving their childhood concerns about nuclear war. This has all come about because of Putin’s rather reckless language in terms of possibly using nuclear weapons. It’s the most dangerous period…

Bill Maher:And what is your organization doing about it? That’s what we’re worried about.

Sec. Ernest Moniz: Well, we have been working, for example, we had a success in January that was rapidly overturned. We had a success when Putin, along with Biden and the leaders of China, the UK and France, signed a joint statement – for the first time – that nuclear war cannot be won and should not be fought. Well, two months later, Putin says, “Hey, if things aren’t going well, you know, maybe I’m going to use a nuclear weapon.” They have a doctrine called escalate to de-escalate. And what it means is that if things aren’t going well, they might use what they call a small nuclear weapon – five kilotons. Oklahoma City was two tons, for example, to give you a scale.

Bill Maher: It was not nuclear.

Sec. Ernest Moniz: And it was not nuclear. And no radioactivity.

Bill Maher: Right, that’s what we worry about

Sec. Ernest Moniz: Well, the blast as well. I mean, depends where it lands.

Bill Maher: Yes, but you wouldn’t want to be in the blast. But the vast majority of the world would not be in the blast, but we would worry about radioactive fallout all around the world.

Sec. Ernest Moniz: Exactly. And so the idea is that they might use one, if things are going badly. I might note: things are going badly. And the idea is that, the enemy would back off. But the reality is, we think that there is at least as good a probability, that it would escalate to a full-fledged nuclear war.

Bill Maher: What I worry about even before this is, you know, there are lost nuclear weapons. We don’t know where they all are. There was a movie. I remember it. I think it was with John Travolta called “Broken Arrow.” Ever see that movie? The line that I remember that was so chilling was that, the guy says, “I don’t know what’s scarier. The fact that there are lost nuclear weapons, or that there are so many, that we have a term for it.” That’s what a broken arrow is. Since 1950, I think there’s like 32. Six of them, we’ve never recovered. One fell off an aircraft carrier into the bottom of the ocean. It’s there now. Somebody has the ones we haven’t found.

Sec. Ernest Moniz: Well, hopefully it’s still sitting at the bottom of the ocean.

Bill Maher: Well, that one might be.

Sec. Ernest Moniz: Unfortunately, American weapons fell in North Carolina, for example.

Bill Maher: How do you lose a nuke? I mean, it’s really, you know, it’s big.

Sec. Ernest Moniz:  It’s considered very poor military practice. [Laughter] But, the biggest story there really is, when the Soviet Union fell apart, there was really no inventory of weapons, but even more so of the material — the uranium and plutonium to make weapons — because they never bothered to count. And so, we went in, we, the United States and other countries, we went in hard, the so-called Nunn-Lugar program in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, to try to nail down all of those materials, because the last thing we want is getting them into the hands of terrorists.

Bill Maher: Right? Well, they probably used nails. That’s my issue is that, you know, when I see how incompetent this Russian military is, it makes me worry. It makes me almost nostalgic for the days when we thought we could shoot them down. Remember Star Wars? I mean, it was what was the official — SDI? It was under Reagan, but they called it Star Wars. But the idea was, we don’t have to lock them down anywhere because if they come over, we can shoot them down. Now that never happened and it never could?

Sec. Ernest Moniz: That’s a myth. I mean, we could perhaps shoot down, you know, like, one…

Bill Maher: But Israel shoots down conventional missiles.

Sec. Ernest Moniz: Yeah, those are much, much shorter range.

Bill Maher: I understand. But the technology exists to intercept something, no?

Sec. Ernest Moniz: Well, the Patriot defense…


Sec. Ernest Moniz: We could probably shoot one down, maybe from Iran or from North Korea. But, you know, if we have hundreds of Russian missiles coming in, intercontinental, there is frankly no chance to defeat that. So it’s all deterrence. That would be a suicidal mission, because we would do the same to them.

Bill Maher: What do you think about nuclear power, in general, as something that we need in this country? I think now, I mean, I was always on the fence about this. But as I see countries around the world and here in California, people who give up their nuclear power, wind up using more fossil fuels, because they have to make up the difference somehow. People want their energy. Now you’re part of something called the Green Real Deal, which is different than, we know what the Green New Deal is. What is different about your approach?

Sec. Ernest Moniz: The Green Real Deal has the same objective in terms of getting to zero greenhouse gas emissions, if you like. And to do it with social justice. But what we emphasize is things like: you got to use all the tools, including using some fossil fuels and you capture the carbon, including using nuclear power; there are many tools. And this job is so hard, it’s foolish to throw away any of the tools that we can use today.

Bill Maher: So you are for using nuclear power?

Sec. Ernest Moniz:Look, today, nuclear power supplies 20 percent of our electricity. If we were to eliminate that, I don’t know how…

Bill Maher: But we are, I mean, California, as we speak, is decommissioning Diablo Canyon.

Sec. Ernest Moniz: Yes, and I wrote an article in the L.A. Times against that – without success, of course. But, we need that, and we also need to build a new generation of nuclear plants. This is carbon free. It’s been safe, and we don’t have a lot of options, especially when wind and solar are going to grow, but they are intermittent, and we need also a strong baseload of carbon free power. That’s what nuclear gives us. And right now, there’s never been more innovation in this space than we see today.

Bill Maher: And nuclear is splitting atoms, right? Whereas fusion is smashing them?

Sec. Ernest Moniz: Right.

Bill Maher: So we’re not close — fusion would be the best, am I right?

Sec. Ernest Moniz: Correct.

Bill Maher: But we’re not close.

Sec. Ernest Moniz: We’re closer than you think. Well, let me just first say that you can generate lots of energy by splitting heavy atoms or smashing light ones. On the fusion side, you need to reach enormous temperatures. 100 million degrees is like entering table stakes.

Bill Maher:100 million. How much is the sun?

Sec. Ernest Moniz: About 15 million.

Bill Maher: So more than the sun.

Sec. Ernest Moniz: Yeah, seven times, let’s say.

Bill Maher: Hot.

Sec. Ernest Moniz:  It’s very hot. And that makes it very challenging. But I believe that there is a very good probability that privately financed companies are going to demonstrate what we need in this decade. And then in the next decade, we’ll have power plants.

Bill Maher: Let’s end on that because it’s positive.

Sec. Ernest Moniz: It’s very positive…

Bill Maher: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.

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