Aug 9, 2019

Ep 176: Daniel Poneman - Former Deputy Secretary of Energy, U.S. DOE

Former Deputy Secretary of Energy
U.S. Department of Energy
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Show notes

Dan Poneman’s Interest in Energy

Q: Tell me your story and how you ended up in energy?

Dan Poneman is the former Deputy Secretary of Energy and a senior fellow at the Belfer Center, which is a part of the Harvard Kennedy School. He developed an interest in policy during a summer internship in the office of Senator John Glenn during university, when he was given a research assignment into Nuclear Proliferation Treaties. Throughout his studies, he developed an interest in European nuclear policy and wrote his undergraduate thesis on why France had more success in creating nuclear policy than Germany.

Poneman’s graduate thesis was focused on the European side nuclear policy during a time when the developing world was interested in acquiring nuclear energy as well. The question at that time was whether these countries wanted nuclear weapons or nuclear energy for other purposes. These questions were the motivation for his first book, Nuclear Power in the Developing World, written in 1982.

Transition to Policy Work

Q: Where were you working in 1982 and what compelled you to write that book? (6:47)

Poneman had just finished at Oxford and had spent some time at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London where he produced the book. He was still in law school at that time so, after London, he returned to the US to finish his law degree. Argentina had been a case study in his first book so after completing his degree, he expanded that case study into another book. Afterwards, he returned to the US again and practiced law for about four years.

His upbringing in Toledo, OH gave him very little exposure to Latin American culture and history, so when he arrived in Argentina, he became enthralled. He wanted to understand the history of how military conflict and political power struggles had prevented such a sophisticated and intelligent people from achieving everything that they could have by that time regarding nuclear energy policy.

After writing the book, he practiced law for about four years and was still fascinated by national security, foreign and energy policies. He was invited to join a White House Fellowship and landed in the Energy Department. His first big project was the Pressler Amendment which required that the US president annually certified that Pakistan did not have a nuclear weapon and that US was aid was not contributing to any nuclear program.

The US gathered too much evidence of nuclear activity in Pakistan at that time for President George H.W. Bush to certify the country per the agreement. After that, Poneman was recruited to the National Security Council as the first person assigned exclusively to nuclear non-proliferation in ten years. Many hot topics were being discussed at that time such as the denuclearization of Iraq and others, and many of those recruited to the council were assigned from other governmental agencies.

Transition to Clinton Administration

Q: Why did you survive the transition from Bush to Clinton? (15:06)

After Clinton won the election, the National Security Council staff was interviewed by the transition team about imminent threats. Poneman informed the incoming administration about the ongoing negotiations around the Megatons to Megawatts program with Russia. This was a deal with Russia to blend down 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium to commercial reactor fuel for purchase.

Tom Neff of MIT developed the written theory that helped develop the program because there was fear at the time that the break-up of the Soviet Union would result in four nuclear states. There was an effort in the administration to deal with what was called “hemorrhage” of fissile materials, intellect, and technology. The stability of policy on proliferation provided a playbook to governments and militaries on how to negotiate and develop a successful plan. At that time, It was a bigger challenge to demonstrate the benefits of nuclear energy, particularly in climate change, because of the negative perception borne of things like weapons and radiation.

Q: How long were you deputy secretary and where did you go from there? (21:36)

Poneman was asked to negotiate with the Iranians in Vienna on the Tehran research reactor issue. Then-Secretary of State, Bill Burns, had already finished negotiations in Geneva and the government wanted to hold more technical discussions. Mohamed ElBaradei was the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency at the time and was hosting the talks between France, Russia, Iran, and the United States.

All of the countries were able to agree to ship out low enriched uranium fuel in exchange for a foreign supply of 20 percent enriched uranium to go into the Tehran Research Reactor, which was a source of medical radioactive isotopes. The agreement was ad referendum, so each country had to get approval from their governments before the agreement was finalized. Due to internal political power struggles, Iran was the only government not to sign on in the end.

While at the Department of Energy, Poneman also worked on the Energy Coordinating Committee which focused on resilience against storms, cybersecurity and more. In preparation for Hurricane Sandy, the CEO of Edison Electric invited the Department of Energy to join the calls and lend support from the federal government. President Obama also joined these discussions and began conducting daily sessions to ensure that power could be restored quickly after the storm hit land.

The direction from the White House was that the president’s priority was an immediate risk to life and power restoration, and Poneman had to work with CEOs of energy companies to create a solid plan for how to manage that. It was a great lesson in leadership from President Obama and also in the importance of building trusting relationships with CEOs in the private sector for these types of projects.

Q: Why was there no urgent “get it done” moment for the administration on climate change? (30:24)

If a leader has enough monetary and political influence, they should not need public support to accomplish something significant. The MIT study on climate change demonstrates that incremental changes are no longer sufficient and deep decarbonization will require leadership on drastic measures.

When airplane production became a priority in the United States, the manufacturing increased exponentially. People feel a sense of urgency about climate change, but there is still too much anxiety in the public about nuclear energy to create that type of rapid growth. Partially, this may be from the fear of weapons and radiation mentioned earlier, but it is also impacted by how the industry communicates the message of nuclear energy.

When professionals in the field discuss hazardous waste and safety too much, it implies that there is something about the energy that people should fear. Terminology used may heighten fear instead of discussing the benefits and highlighting the reasons why it may be safer than other alternatives.

Far more money has been spent on the Hanford cleanup site versus fixing the water crisis in Flint, MI. This prioritization implies to the public that the Hanford site is more dangerous than lead in public water systems. Part of the reason why nuclear energy is so expensive is because of the requirements for the cleanup process. The As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA) standard forces standards beyond what is reasonable. Rather than clean up to the point of being harmless, the requirements are to clean to the point of being like glass.

This failure to accurately communicate from the nuclear energy community has created such a false sense of fear that it has resulted in populations seeking out energy sources that are less clean and safe. The industry needs to find a way to communicate what they internally understand to the public to effect change.

Dan Poneman’s Recent Book, Double Jeopardy

Q: Let’s talk about your book a little bit, what inspired it? (38:48)

The question that is asked in the book is whether or not society can benefit from the atom while still keeping nuclear weapons development at a minimum. Although nuclear reactors around the globe are being closed, there are innovative and exciting technologies in the field of nuclear energy like advanced generation reactors.

Poneman is now running an energy company that has joined with the Department of Energy in investing in some of these new technologies. They are building centrifuges in Ohio that will provide 19.75% high-assay, low enriched uranium that will be ideal for advanced reactor developers. These centrifuges will allow for a new combination of fuel, coolant, and moderator to enable advanced fuel cycles and create higher density. The production of uranium for testing from this project will begin in about three years.

Q: Let’s talk about the Paris Accord targets (45:07)

The agreement is a stepping stone, but it does not address the existing carbon in the air and how that will increase heat over time even as the changes in the agreement are implemented. The target of two degrees is far too high and will continue the climate crisis at that level, including the loss of coral reefs. Not only would these ecosystems be impacted, but there are communities of people that depend on these ecosystems as well.

Many in the environmental policy community still have negative opinions on nuclear energy themselves. Due to so many conflicting agendas, it has been a challenge to have intellectually honest discussions about what needs to happen on climate change. Solar energy, for example, is easy to accomplish up until a point, but it needs nuclear energy to be included for solar energy to reach its full potential.

The Paris Agreement is not all of what we need and there is no enforcement included in the agreement. Therefore, even if compliance is assumed by each country it will still not be enough to counteract climate change entirely. It has to be combined with a policy that changes things institutionally like a carbon tax and economic policies that continue to drive growth. The Montreal Convention is an example of how environmental policy can be effective without limiting economic growth.

Ponema’s new book’s purpose is the give policy recommendations that are rooted in history as well as economic and scientific data to make a change for current and future generations. He hopes that it inspires people to act and helps demonstrate that with some more support and innovation, nuclear energy policy can make the impact that the earth needs for decarbonization.

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