Secretary Moniz’s Interview with CNN’s John Berman Regarding Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant

Secretary Moniz’s Interview with CNN’s John Berman Regarding Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant

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JOHN BERMAN: Joining us now is Ernest Moniz, Energy Secretary under President Obama and co-chair and Chief Executive Officer at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. He’s also a physicist. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for being with us this morning. I guess the good news is we are continuously told here, regularly told that there’s not an elevated level of radiation coming from this. No serious damage to the reactors. That’s the good news. But the good news might stop there. I mean, still the threat to these plants it is immense. What do you see?

ERNEST MONIZ, ENERGY SECRETSRY UNDER PRES. OBAMA: Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. There’s no evidence of reactor core damage up to the moment. But the issue is there are so many collateral systems, if you like, that are much more exposed, for example, backup power generation would be absolutely essential if the grid electricity were cut off. You have the fuel supply for that. So these systems are much less hardened. And in the chaos, and the fog of war, as troops are coming in, those are the systems that are particularly vulnerable.

But of course, there’s always the option as well, the possibility of a stray, you know, artillery shell or something coming into the spent fuel pool. These could be real, real catastrophes.

BERMAN: What about the human toll? I mean, these are human beings that run these plants. And we were told that when the Russians took over Chernobyl, that the Ukrainians running were working under duress, we were told literally yesterday, that the station managers at Zaporizhzhia were working at gunpoint. Is that a safe situation and the nuclear plants?

MONIZ: Well, of course not. I mean, obviously the operators are absolutely central to the operation of the plant. And particularly, if the operators are under that kind of difficulty, shall we say, while one of these other systems that I mentioned like backup power goes out, or something trips with regard to the reactor, those people have to perform. And these are not the conditions, obviously, in which one would expect, you know, top of the line performance.

BERMAN: You can’t just leave it be, right? If the Ukrainians don’t show up to work at these plants, what happens?

MONIZ: Well, the reactors really need to be shut down as much as possible. That of course then turns off a lot of electricity in Ukraine. I think it’s something like 50% of their electricity comes from nuclear power plants. So there are all kinds of interacting difficulties here and certainly maintaining power to the nuclear power plant itself is absolutely essential. You have to keep cooling the core, you have to keep cooling the ponds where the where the spent fuel is stored.

And as I said, you have to keep the backup systems operating the fuel, there’s a lot of fuel there to keep the backup systems going. If a stray, again shell hits that you’d have a catastrophe.

BERMAN: You know, in your professional life, even in the Secretary, you dealt a lot with the Russians. How much do you trust Vladimir Putin at this point to respect the safety and integrity of these plants?

MONIZ: Well, I don’t think anyone sensibly could say that we’re going to undermine a nuclear power plant and causing major accident. But what I’m hearing, what I’m concerned about is that, again, it’s the fog of war. You have military units out there, we have no idea how reliable their communications channels are. We have no idea what they know about a nuclear power plant, and what to avoid. So it’s really the — it’s this idea of an accident, a miscalculation could happen at any time, and have catastrophic consequences.

BERMAN: You know, just one last question. It was a couple nights ago, this was all going down. And we saw the pictures of this plant on fire. I’m just curious what was going through your mind as you were watching this?

MONIZ: Well, it was harrowing. We were terrified, again, that particularly through a miscalculation, a stray shell, hitting a critical system, that we could have had a substantial radioactive release. I do want to emphasize one thing, though, that, of course, this is the country where Chernobyl occurred. I just do want to say that the Chernobyl reactors were of a very old and not very safe design, from the Soviet times. These reactors, all the other reactors now operating in Ukraine, at least have a more modern design with better safety systems. So that is at least some comfort, but not sufficient comfort, to make us stop worrying about a terrible accident.

BERMAN: Yes, indeed, not sufficient comfort at all. Secretary Ernest Moniz, thank you so much for being with us.

MONIZ: You’re welcome.

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