Energy Secretary Moniz on Nuclear Deal

September 21, 2016

On September 19, U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz discussed the status of the Iranian nuclear deal and progress on implementation at the Council on Foreign Relations. The following are excerpts from the transcript of the conversation moderated by Graham T. Allison, Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. 


GRAHAM ALLISON: So, one year into the Iranian nuclear agreement, when I’m asked why was this a big deal I tell people, remember five numbers: 15,000, 12,000, 10, five, and zero. If you know the questions to which those are the answers, you will get an idea why this is a big deal. Fifteen thousand, the amount of pounds of low-enriched uranium neutralized. Twelve thousand, the number of centrifuges eliminated. Ten, the number of months added to the breakout time for Iran. Five, the number of bombs-worth of low-enriched uranium eliminated. And zero, the amount of the opportunity for Iran to pursue a plutonium track to a bomb. So that’s in five numbers. Ernie, why is it a big deal? 

MONIZ: Well, you’ve just given an answer, but let me answer it a bit differently. Look, first of all, obviously the president, the administration, committed to a negotiation specifically on the issue of the nuclear—a potential nuclear-weapons program and rolling that back very, very significantly; rolling it back in a way that would be transparent, verifiable, and provide adequate reaction time for the United States and our allies and friends should the Iranian program deviate from the commitment to a purely civilian nuclear application. 

Now, obviously that’s against a background of a lot of international distrust, because, after all, without that there would not have been what proved to be an extraordinarily effective economic-sanctions regime. In fact, it’s an important part of the theme that we should not underestimate how international collaboration on that sanctions regime was really quite extraordinary. It certainly wasn’t just, you know, the P5+1 or the—in the EU, et cetera, but, you know, in terms of oil receipts, et cetera; you know, Japan, India. You can go on and on. 

So the situation was one of substantial distrust. I will not say that that distrust has been dispelled, but the point is the agreement is not based upon trust, as we’ve always emphasized. 

So what is the agreement? I think it’s maybe worth repeating in broad terms what the agreement is. There’s two fundamental pieces. One is a very large and growing Iranian nuclear program is dramatically rolled back and constrained for 15 years. I want to emphasize that there are many, many different time scales. It’s very confusing; 159 pages of reading, if you’d like to try that, because there’s many, many different time scales. And they were all in there as part of a construct that was critical for strongly constraining the program 15 years. 

I will note that in particular the limitation to 300 kilograms of very low enriched uranium versus, by the way, the 12,000 that they had, including 20 percent enriched uranium, which is all gone, and metered back in small amounts to service a research reactor. For 15 years that is a very, very significant constraint in terms of how the program can operate and is very important in terms of what we define as the breakout time. We can do that—go into that in more detail. But fundamentally, that’s the issue. 

I would also add—and you said it, Graham, but let me highlight it—that—and what I’ve just talked about really, in some sense, is the enriched-uranium pathway to a weapon, because, as you’ve said, the plutonium pathway is very, very—with belt and suspenders is really cut back. The core piece of their reactor is filled with cement. We’re helping them redesign a reactor with very, very small plutonium production, order-of-magnitude less, but in addition, sending out the spent fuel from that reactor for the life of the reactor, et cetera; so 15 years, highly constrained program. 

Second part, transparency and verification. And that, one can argue, is kind of a forever thing in the sense of a commitment to the additional protocol. Many other elements, including novel elements, like, for the first time, uranium supply-chain transparency, 25 years; centrifuge manufacturing transparency, 20 years, et cetera. 

Additional protocol, which I think this audience knows, is the basis for the IAEA going to undeclared facilities, sites, with a timeframe for response added, which again is very important in the regime. 

And unprecedented. So that’s really the combination of strong constraints on a civil nuclear program for 15 years, long-term extraordinary transparency and verification. 

I’ll add two other things. One is another dimension that is a first is that while NPT countries, of course, say that—other than the P5 and in terms of in the NPT—you know, will not build nuclear weapons, will not have nuclear weapons. There is no constraint on doing research on weaponization activities like special kinds of neutron generators and the like. That is, a number of those key elements are also off the table for Iran permanently. So that’s important. 

And the last thing I’ll just add is this agreement, precisely because of its detail, its scope, and its scale, does put enormous and, in some cases, novel requirements on the IAEA, because they are the eyes and the ears. Obviously they are the international inspectors. We obviously are supporting an increase in their resources to manage this. But I will say that—well, actually, Graham, we’re now—there’s many different dates. We’re roughly approaching a year from adoption day, but implementation day was January 16th. So we’re now eight months into the implementation. 

The IAEA did a really good job both in certifying Iran’s compliance for implementation day and now subsequently in doing that. But I do say—I do caution that the very success of having certain regimes in place for, say, 25 years also means you’ve got to pay attention for 25 years. (Laughs.) So we are going to have to collectively—the United States, our partners—we’re going to have to stick with this for a long, long time and support the IAEA, because they’re—you know, we just can’t afford to have a weakening of interest and attention on this. 


Q: As you know, after an agreement is done like in a situation such as this, suddenly other experts begin to appear who begin to take exception to some of the things that was done. Recently we’ve had one expert who discovered that there was the sludge that was left on the nuclear production and some of the contaminants in the labs was not included in the sum total and that somehow secretly this gave Iran a precedent or an advantage that was not included, one, on the secrecy of the thing, and two, on whether you can build a bomb out of sludge remains and contaminants in the lab; whether this was, in fact, considered. And since you were there, I thought you could probably speak to this better than anybody else. 

MONIZ: Yes. The assertion is incorrect. The—we—it’s well-known, including the Iranians, very explicit, in terms of our breakout time requirements of a minimum of one year. We have a technical working group of the P5+1—and, of course, IAEA is involved in all the verification measures—about evaluating any uranium—enriched uranium-bearing materials. 

The question is, do they in any way contribute to a potential breakout? Is there a practical pathway? Sometimes the answer is yes and it counts, and sometimes the answer is no. One clear example, which is already embodied in a position paper, is, for example, what happens when material is irradiated? Well, we have a quantitative standard. And if it’s irradiated to that standard, it does not count, because it is not practically usable in going towards a nuclear weapon. So those are the kinds of judgments that are made and holed up in the EUPP plant and across the board. 

So there’s no relaxation of the 300 kilogram, up to 3.67 percent. That does not mean that there are not technical judgments about when material does or does not count in that 300 kilograms. The criterion is, again, very simple. Is it usable? If it is, it’s in. 

Q: Mr. Secretary, thank you for all you’ve done for this agreement and for so many other things. I agree with Graham that your role as a scientist-diplomat is important. And I’ve followed this rather closely, what you did. And one—I have a number of questions, but one specific one was how was the plutonium deal worked out? My understanding was that we and maybe the Chinese were involved in redesigning the plutonium reactor by closing off the core, but allowing them to continue to have a functioning reactor, and that there was even a memorandum between the United States, China, and Iran on how to do this. Did this involve Iranian, and Chinese, and American scientists working together? And how much role did you play in that? 

MONIZ: So let me clarify the situation. Iran was close to completing a reactor that made—would have made a lot of plutonium per year. So what’s happened is, again, the calandria, a piece—part that kind of holds the core—was taken out, filled with cement. So that design is not going forward. Now, what’s going forward is—so they do not have a functioning reactor there, and it will take some years. So what’s happened is that in different parts of the agreement, you know, different countries—especially among the P5+1, although not exclusively—Norway, for example, has been a big contributor to implementation of the deal—but here different countries picked up various tasks. Russia has gotten a whole bunch of them in terms of removing the 12 tons of material, for example. 

So the United States and China co-chair a P5+1 working group to oversee the redesign of the Arak reactor. Make no mistake about it, Iran owns the project. And China is the liaison from our oversight group to the Iranian project management. So that’s now going on. And so, you know, there were designs, I mean, worked out in general terms during the negotiation so that we could define the parameters of the new reactor. But now it’s getting into the detailed design, and ultimately, of course, getting into something you can actually build something off of. So that’s going to take a little time, but that’s what’s going on. 

Click here for the full transcript.