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Weapons & Windmills, Quarks & Quagmires

The Department of Energy’s portfolio is complex, and strong relationships—with other departments, with Congress, and with laboratories—are key.

By Ernest J. Moniz

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The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is a remarkable—and remarkably misunderstood—agency. It is sometimes referred to facetiously as the department of weapons and windmills, quarks and quagmires. And it’s true!

“Weapons” because DOE is responsible for sustaining, without nuclear explosive testing since 1992, a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear weapons stockpile as the foundation of the country’s nuclear deterrent. In addition, DOE leads the nation’s operational nuclear nonproliferation programs and develops Navy nuclear propulsion for submarines and aircraft carriers—key pillars of America’s ability to project power globally.

“Windmills” because DOE leads the government’s development of and support for clean energy technology innovation. Success in reaching the Biden Administration’s and the world’s goals for a low-carbon economy depends on success in this mission, since breakthroughs are needed for transitioning to a net-zero greenhouse gas emission economy by mid-century.

“Quarks” refers to DOE’s central role in America’s world-leading basic science enterprise. DOE is the largest supporter of R&D in the physical sciences. The department provided the impetus and much of the technology for the human genome project, and it continues to lead the development of foundational technologies such as very large-scale computation and particle accelerators. Perhaps most important, DOE’s 17 national laboratories design, build, and operate cutting-edge experimental facilities —too large and complex to be fielded at universities or companies—that are central to the research programs of about 30,000 scientists each year, mostly from academia. This underpins America’s innovation capacity and economic growth.

“Quagmires” because DOE has responsibility for cleaning up the huge radioactive mess left by Cold War production of the nuclear fuel for tens of thousands of weapons. Each waste site presents a one-of-a-kind scientific and engineering challenge that collectively require decades and roughly a half trillion dollars for cleanup, creating almost daily headaches for those in charge. The final geological disposal of the highly radioactive material eventually packaged at those sites is also unresolved, as is the situation for much more voluminous irradiated fuel from more than 100 nuclear power plants around the country. All of this falls to DOE.

The thread that runs through this diverse set of DOE missions is science and technology (S&T). This fundamental thread is supported by a robust DOE-operated national laboratory system that is without peer in the world—a critical asset for developing and applying science-based solutions to those challenging missions. It also supports the S&T needs of other government agencies, especially the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and the intelligence community. This system is largely operated through a government-owned contractor-operated (GOCO) approach, a structure with roots in the establishment of the University of California-operated Los Alamos National Laboratory for Worl War II’s Manhattan Project. This unique structure is a source of enormous technical strength—the government through DOE defines key problems, and the labs generate novel science-based solutions using high-level talent from the private sector. Of great significance, the labs are not neatly binned into working on one of DOE’s missions. Rather, the majority of them cross the mission space. This is a strength for American S&T, providing a regionally dispersed system of multidisciplinary research institutions dedicated to meeting societal challenges and sustaining the scientific vitality of the three labs responsible for the nuclear deterrent.

This set of realities provides the backdrop for successful leadership of the department. A rather hackneyed expression rings true: It’s about relationships—with laboratories, within the Administration, with Congress, with international partners, and more. 

An open, constructive relationship between the Secretary and the 17 national laboratory directors is an essential starting point. When I was at DOE, we felt it was important that the directors be viewed as senior “corporate officers” of DOE, even though the GOCO approach means that the directors are not actually federal employees (there is one exception). The labs can and should provide solutions for DOE’s mission responsibilities and generate new ideas that help DOE not only understand the current S&T landscape but also enable it to “skate to where the puck will be,” especially for clean energy solutions to climate change and cutting-edge foundational technologies that eventually are critical to security, the economy, health, and other key societal functions. 

This is in contrast to the occasional treatment of the labs as “shops” where DOE offices both assigned and micro-managed specific problems. Even worse, the labs have sometimes been expected to produce study results with outcomes expected to support administration policies and preferences—rather than science-based results to inform policy. Such aberrations misuse an extraordinary national resource and diminish trust. DOE leadership must steward the organic DOE-lab relationship constantly.

A department with diverse missions can easily revert to stove-piping of programs in pursuit of different outcomes. But DOE is a cross-cutting science and technology organization and maximizes outcomes by working across program boundaries. An important organizational boost in this direction is having one Undersecretary for Science and Energy (the default option is for separate remits), given that important synergies between these programs enable new outcomes. This organizational principle was put into effect in the Obama Administration but, despite all empirical evidence supporting its merits, was not maintained by the Trump Administration. The Biden Administration should restore this structural approach to most effectively enable the low-carbon energy transition. 

The DOE relationship with Congress will also be very important for advancing the clean energy innovation agenda. The department clearly has a role in energy policy and in setting standards, especially for energy efficiency, but its special contribution at the center of climate change solutions is through its ability to advance clean energy research, development, demonstration, and deployment. The Biden Administration will clearly use multiple tools for advancing its strong commitments to addressing the climate crisis, and executive orders will play a major role. 

The innovation agenda, however, offers  a great opportunity for bipartisan action. This was presaged in the Obama years with broad support for initiatives such as ARPA-E and the Quadrennial Energy Review. The former was embraced as a novel approach to taking energy technology to the brink of commercialization. The QER was based on technically grounded analysis, and its first installment on energy infrastructure led to more than 20 recommendations being fully or partially enacted into law, despite the sharp political divide in Congress. This momentum was carried by Congress into the Trump Administration: Even as the President’s annual budget requests consistently proposed slashing the energy innovation budget, Congress has provided material funding increases each year. To succeed in the ambitious goal of a net-zero emissions economy by mid-century, bipartisan support will be needed for a truly supercharged decade of innovation—a prerequisite for meeting the technical challenges of the energy transition.

A broad-based clean energy innovation portfolio going forward will be needed both to maximize the optionality essential for deep decarbonization pathways in different geographic regions and to build and maintain the most effective political coalitions needed to sustain the agenda. Today, an unproductive discussion is sapping energy from advancing effective solutions by focusing on energy sources, rather than greenhouse gas emissions, and superficial “solutions” that are often divorced from the reality of continuously operating reliable, affordable energy delivery systems while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and enhancing social equity. Ideologically based “solutions” that lack technical grounding and sensitivity to affordability, reliability, and worker and community needs are making it harder to bring together labor and business, NGOs and financial institutions, religious and military leaders, Democrats and Republicans, and everyone who can be enlisted to mitigate global warming. DOE and congressional leaders in the clean energy space should sustain the push toward a comprehensive portfolio of solution pathways, specifically including large scale negative CO2 technologies. Without technologies that remove CO2 from the atmosphere and the upper layers of the oceans, the ultimate goal of a net-negative emissions economy cannot be reached.

Restoring American leadership in the global effort to fight the climate crisis will be another critical task for the Biden Administration. In 2014, after the Russian incursion in Ukraine, a transit country for large amounts of Russian natural gas to Europe, DOE initiated an effort to redefine energy security to reflect changes in the oil-centric definition that had defined U.S. actions since the oil embargoes of the early 1970s. It should be noted that the DOE still plays an essential role in addressing the key oil security issue—economically disruptive volatility in the global oil price—through its stewardship of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. At a meeting of the G-7 and EU leaders, only months after the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the Obama Administration led the effort for a new collective look at energy security. A new set of G-7/EU Energy Security Principles that had been developed at the energy ministerial level was adopted. They reflect today’s energy realities: Mitigating climate change and advancing clean energy innovation are essential to enduring energy security. Since that time, this mantle has been taken up by the International Energy Agency in Paris, which was originally established by treaty as an OECD oil security organization but now is a major player in addressing climate change mitigation as a security imperative as well.

During the 2015 road to Paris and the COP21 conference, DOE led efforts to establish “Mission Innovation.” On the first day of COP21, President Obama and 19 other national leaders took the stage, announcing their intention to double clean energy innovation investments over a five-year period. They were joined by Bill Gates, representing many international investor/philanthropists who committed to investing in high-risk, high-reward breakthrough technology opportunities emerging from the enhanced innovation pipeline. The Biden Administration, led by DOE, can exert global leadership for climate change solutions by rejuvenating Mission Innovation and taking it to a new level of international collaboration.

Returning to the nuclear security agenda, a critical but less understood relationship is that between DOE and the Department of Defense, as enshrined in the statutory DOE-DoD Nuclear Weapons Council. Unfortunately, nuclear weapons risks have not diminished with the end of the Cold War, although the risks have shifted toward a concern for miscalculation, blunder, or incorrect warning systems leading to nuclear use. Sustaining the reliability and safety of the nuclear stockpile well beyond its original “shelf life”—in an era of no weapons testing—is a daunting scientific challenge. DOE and its labs have risen to that challenge, inventing and realizing facilities that inform the science by probing regimes of pressure and temperature never before accessed in the laboratory. These innovative approaches were made possible only through DOE’s focus on S&T and its nurturing scientifically first-rate weapons laboratories.

The dependence of the military and the President, who currently has sole authority to use nuclear weapons, on DOE’s work inevitably leads to cooperation, expectations, and tensions. And the stakes are high: The nuclear forces modernization program being undertaken will cost well over a trillion dollars if fully executed, underscoring its importance to our national defense and attracting considerable political attention. Strengthening the sometimes-fraught DOE-DoD relationship—where competing priorities and budget pressures create inevitable tensions—was a priority during my tenure as Secretary. Close to the end of the Obama Administration, an exclamation point to the success of this effort was a ceremony held at DOE in which Secretary of Defense Ash Carter made the “long” trip to DOE to award me the Pentagon’s highest award for civilians in front of many of those dedicated DOE staff and laboratory personnel (mostly by webcast) who work long, hard, and creatively in support of our joint mission of nuclear deterrence and nuclear nonproliferation. Some recent backsliding in the relationship needs to be reversed by both departments’ leadership.

DOE’s critical role in all things nuclear was publicly underscored in 2015 when President Obama directed me to join Secretary of State Kerry in the final stages of the Iran nuclear agreement negotiations. To be clear, DOE and lab experts had been central to the U.S. negotiating positions from the beginning, supplying analysis and options on complex technical issues. However, reaching an agreement by the established July date was challenging; without direct engagement of the “chief nuclear officers” of both countries, an agreement might not have been reached that satisfied our requirements for blocking any and all of Iran’s routes to a nuclear weapon absent early detection. It was a remarkable and intense six months, but it resulted in a signed, enforceable agreement by mid-July of that year. 

As clear-eyed and informed diplomacy with Iran is revived in the Biden Administration, ensuring exclusively peaceful purposes of Iran’s future nuclear activity while also addressing its aggressive behavior throughout the region, the nuclear expertise of the DOE will again be critical. The department’s leadership will need to be fully engaged in the National Security Council strategic considerations about the relationship with Iran and America’s posture throughout the Middle East.

The Department of Energy will play a critical role in high priorities of the Biden Administration, just as it did during the Obama years. Its contributions will be deeply rooted in science and technology and innovation. There is a great deal of work to be done to restore and revive U.S. leadership in climate change and nuclear security—and DOE has unique capabilities needed on both fronts.

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Ernest J. Moniz was the 13th U.S. secretary of energy. He is now the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and CEO of the Energy Futures Initiative and of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

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