Ep 42: Laura Holgate - Former Ambassador, International Atomic Energy Agency
"Path to Nuclear
How did you enter this line of work?
It started for Laura with the made-for-TV movie, “The Day After,” which depicted the day after a nuclear attack. They chose Lawrence, Kansas, as the setting, which was just a few miles away from where she grew up. Even though she knew it was just a story, it was extra compelling to her. For a lot of people of that generation, it was like the “War of the Worlds.” It got the attention of the public about the risks of nuclear war and the challenges that that creates for the United States. She was a freshman at college and it was her first time away from home for that long of a time. It hit her even harder that she wasn't home to see with her own eyes that her house had not been incinerated and her family was still there. She knew she wanted to do international relations and even before seeing the movie, she had this idea that the US-Soviet battle for Global dominance was the big International question of the time. She arrived on campus thinking she wanted to be a Sovietologist. She started taking Russian and she took some Soviet foreign policy classes, but she did terribly at all of them and was kicked out of Russian class. So she decided to broaden her focus to international relations, looking at how do you end wars, what causes terrorism (terrorism circa the 1980s, that was a very different kind of terrorism and big-picture around international relations. This was at Princeton University She then did a Masters at MIT in Defense and Arms Control Studies--it's now called the Security Studies Program. It was a perfect degree for someone who wanted to go to Washington and save the world, which is what she wanted to do. But all the advice she had gotten was that she needed a Master's degree to do that; that was a place of entry. She found a program with classes that were exactly the things she wanted to learn about. She got to learn about budget battles at the Pentagon and the history of arms control, and she wrote a thesis on the chemical weapons destruction program and the tension that created with the arms control peace community and the environmentalist community. It was very fascinating research and it was a great time to dig in and pack her brain full of useful knowledge. Nuclear was a fairly general topic in the national security field when Laura finished her Master's degree. This was the late 80s, early 90s, and there was a nuclear standoff between the US and the Soviet Union. She started working as an administrative assistant at what is now the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. It was led by Ash Carter, and some of the work that he did with Bill Perry at Stanford involved watching the Soviet Union stumble towards collapse. They started thinking about what that collapse would mean for the weapons of mass destruction that were there? They laid the intellectual groundwork to recognize that the weapons of mass destruction threat from the Soviet Union was going to be more about their weakness then their strength and we needed to think about not confrontation but cooperation as a tool to manage that challenge. Laura was part of the research team (the most junior part of that research team) working on how to reduce the weapons of mass destruction threat in a cooperative way. The thinking was that we needed to put money on the table to make that happen, that the United States needed to work with these countries to provide resources--financial but also expertise--to make sure that they comply with all the Soviet-era arms control. They' were also very worried about the warheads that were in Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan at the time that the Soviet Union fell apart. The number one US policy at that time was to make sure that there was only one nuclear successor state to the Soviet Union. All of those warheads had to go back to Russia, and they had to do it quickly and safely. That was one of the earliest things we were able to do with the Russians--we worked with them and their Ministry of Defence to safely and securely remove all of these warheads on trains from Minsk, and the Black Earth country of Ukraine, and the steppes of Kazakhstan, over millions of raill miles, to make sure they weren't harvested by terrorist groups or separatist groups and that there weren't any accidents because they were moving too quickly or unsafely. We provided a lot of safety and security equipment to support that removal.
De-Nuclearizing Post Soviet Union
How did it come together and what was the timeframe to move all these materials?
It was between 1992 and 1995. Ukraine was the last stuff to leave. The Russians had started even before we started helping them. The US got to the point of having the resources to help and the legal authority to help through Senator Sam Nunn and Senator Richard Lugar from different sides of the aisle, both committed to bipartisan, statesmanlike, national security. They took the research done by Ash Carter and Bill Perry and the teams at Harvard and Stanford, and they turned it into legislation which bears their names, the Nunn-Lugar legislation. That became the beginning of two decades-- and still going. That was passed in the fall of 1991 and it was kind of being implemented then, and some pieces were still being implemented in the late Bush administration. When the Clinton Administration came in, Ash Clinton came into the Pentagon, Bill Perry came into the Pentagon, and we’ve had the opportunity to really build the program and live it out. At that point, the program was four hundred million dollars a year, which is decimal dust in the Pentagon sense. But it was always extremely politically fraught. Not everyone in Congress got onboard with the notion that helping Russia was in our security interest. That was a very quick spin that many in Congress were never able to make. Getting the money from Congress was a big challenge and building a program from the bottom up was a challenge. In the early day is President Clinton would go out and make a speech in Kiev and say “we're going to spend 240 million dollars over the next three years to help denuclearize Ukraine” and that meant you had to work from the top down, you had to solidify the political instinct inside the country to take the steps we needed to take. But over time, if it was going to be more than just a two or three-year program--and it turned into a couple of decades--then you need to say, “next year, here's the stuff that we really need to do, here are the top-priority things, here are the things that are next in line, this is the right sequence of things, and to do that's going to cost x amount of money,” It started out being a hundred percent in the Defense Department then the Defense Department would send pockets of money to the State Department and the Energy Department for them to do things that they were good at that Defense wasn’t. Over time, a decision was made that the State Department would budget and ask for its own pot of money and the Energy Department would ask for its own pot, and that allowed the program to grow from something like four hundred million dollars in the early days to over 2 billion dollars at its peak during the George W. Bush Administration. And to work across not just nuclear, but also chemical and biological weapons. We did get a single nuclear state coming out of the breakup. There were three countries besides Russia that had strategic weapons that could have reached the United States. These countries didn't have the wherewithal to actually use these weapons in any serious way. It was a matter of security that they be removed so that they could be properly stored, managed, and ultimately dismantled inside Russia. So we achieved a single nucleus succesor state, which was our top priority. Russia also continued to comply with all of its strategic arms treaties, even when they didn't have the money to spend on it and the US provided resources. The program didn't write checks to Russians or Ukrainians or Kazakhstanis. The US provided assistance in kind and expertise and services that would be paid for out of accounts in the Pentagon, the State Department, and the Energy Department, so it's not like the money could have been diverted because there was no money, but there was assistance and on-the-ground activity. That led to not only carving up missiles, shutting down factories, and blowing up silos, but also locking down nuclear materials and making sure there’s a more modern approach to securing nuclear materials. The Soviet approach had been all about hiding them, and they were all in secret cities--the populace wasn't even supposed to know about it. They allowed underbrush to grow around them, they were situated in forests, and they weren't on any normal map. Their big fear was a NATO attack. So shifting that in a post-Soviet phase and then a post-9/11 phase--when you're talking about non-state actors, insiders who maybe pilfering material and bringing it out-- you come to a whole different way of thinking about how to prevent unauthorized access to this material.
The Changing Nuclear Threat
It's interesting how, over time, the threat has morphed. It seems like we have to stay constantly vigilant to adapt to the new considerations of each era.
Right. The Threat Reduction Program was able to do that. They were able to evolve the underlying authorization legislation to expand to new threats and to give new authorities to different departments. The Energy Department's budget and activity level went up very high as the big hardware stuff that the Defense Department was good at doing wrapped up, and the Energy Department's materials work became the driver of the program, particularly after 9/11 where we realized, these are not the terrorists from the Red Army Brigade or Shining Path. These are terrorists who are organized, wealthy, and apocalyptic, who say that they are owed 2 to 4 billion deaths as compensation for crimes perpetrated by Crusaders over the millennia. There's only a few ways to achieve 2 to 4 billion deaths, and a nuclear bomb is of them. In some of the caves Al-Qaeda was hiding in, there are some bomb designs that weren't as far off as you would want them to be. IOt was and continues to be an enormous concern, moving from arms control compliance to secure material. And not just secure material in the former Soviet Union, but globally. We looked at things we used to think were normal, at the intersection of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy and nuclear research. We and the Soviets had oursleves proliferated, if you will, during the Atoms for Peace program, dozens of highly-enriched uranium research reactors all over the world, never thinking that would have anything to do with a nuclear bomb. Post-9/11 we realized that highly enriched uranium research reactor could be stolen. The security levels of the University are not particularly high at MIT. They have a highly enriched uranium research reactor on campus. It’s had some security upgrades since 9/11, but it's mainly at the Cambridge Constabulary that provides the physical protection for that--that's not what we think of as the kind of protection that nuclear weapons have. After that work Laura worked at the Pentagon for five years on those kinds of programs. She moved to the Energy Department and worked on the sister program where their focus was on how to get rid of US and Russian plutonium that was coming out of nuclear weapons. As she was leaving government in 2001, she had seen evidence that there was an interesting movement going on amongst her friends at the Energy Department and some of the nuclear related NGOs. She heard that Ted Turner was starting to get interested in nuclear. Then she heard that Senator Sam Nunn had been brought in to be part of this. She was invited to some brainstorming sessions and she thought, “This is going to be cool. I want to be part of this.” The nuclear threat initiative was launched in January of 2001. She was scheduled to leave government that month and she really, really, really wanted to be part of this nuclear threat initiative. She was fortunate to come on as one of the founding Vice Presidents. She focused at that time on the former Soviet Union and Russian new independent states. It was a way to say, “we're going to take this Nunn-Lugar concept as a central idea, that you deal with threats through cooperation instead of conflict. And we're going to do the private sector version of this. We're going to unshackle ourselves from the federal acquisition regulations, from the federal appropriations process, and from government lawyers and their cautiousness. We're want to work on those same goals and in some cases with some of the same people, both in the United States and overseas, and in a way that is more flexible, more creative, and more active, and we’re really going to be be a do tank rather than a think tank.” It was both a scary and heady time. Ted Turner had given us what was, at that time, valued at $250 million. Ted Turner became interested in this topic because he's always had a global vision, and a couple years before, he had pretty much bailed the US out of our United Nations arrears. He had created a UN foundation by writing a personal check for something like 3 million dollars. He said, “This is crazy. The United Nation serves United States interests, not on a tactical basis but on a conceptual basis. We should pay our dues. Maybe a large private donors can make a difference on these big cosmic things that are otherwise seen as government responsibilities.” He joked about buying a nuclear weapon so he could sit at the arms control table and say, “everyone should give up their nuclear weapons.” He had out of the box thinking, a global, long-term perspective, and the financial wherewithal to empower people with gravitas and reputation like Sam Nunn and with on-the-ground performance like Laura. He said, “let's go change the world.”
What were some of the ways you set out to change the world?
What were some of the program goals?
We recognized the challenge of highly enriched uranium and reactors and civilian institutes globally. The Energy Department at the time had four or five different programs that were doing different pieces of it, but not motivated from a national security point of view. There was one facility outside Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia--what was then Serbia. It had 80 kg of highly enriched uranium and fresh fuel. During the bombing of Belgrade during the Balkan War, the Russians who had provided that material during the 1950s called the United States and let them know to stay away from that. The US had sanctions on Serbia at the time resulting from the the Balkan War. There was not an opportunity to engage with them. Those sanctions came off about a year later, and Laura went there and met with the head of the lab at the research facility, their air regulator, their foreign Ministry, and someone from the IAEA who had been visiting and sponsoring research at the facility. It turned out that the Serbians weren't concerned about the highly enriched uranium, even though it was not well-secured. When Laura went to visit, no one checked her papers, no one challenged her when she drove up, and there wasn't much fencing. They said that the HEU is performing fine, but we can't run the reactor because we have an overflowing spent fuel pool that was not intended to last for 20 years of storage. When the Soviet Union fell apart, they stopped taking back the spent fuel. They had HEU mixed with LEU. The HEU was giving off a lot of radiation, and though the LEU was not, it was all mixed together in the pool. They believed they didn’t have a bomb problem, they believed they had a radiological problem. They also had dumps of radiological mess, part of which had been part of the cleanup post-Chernobyl. There was no one in the US government who was willing to say, “this is a national security threat.” What NTI did was identify and pull together all the different programs available across the US government that would address this, and then filled in the gaps to make a whole coherent package. They had a letter of intent signed by seven different entities--including entities inside Serbia as well as the US government and NTI--that describe the basic steps to address the Serbians’ problems. That problem was, from NTI's point of view and the US point of view, to get the highly enriched uranium out of there. If we hadn't been there to actually find out what the issues were, to do the research on all the programs that could help, and to serve as the filler in that mix, that material would still be there. Not only were we able to say, “that's four bombs-worth of material that's now gone and back to Russia to be blended down and secured,” but we created a model. NTI can’t afford to do this for everything, but we've now shown that there are different pieces of this puzzle that can be applied to these other things. A year-and-a-half later, the Energy Department set up a program that brought together all of these separate strains into a single mission that was focused on environmental terrorism, called the Global Threat Reduction Initiative. That became the launchpad for dozens of removals and several security upgrades at facilities that hadn't been understood as proliferation challenges.
Path to Ambassadorship
How did this lead to your appointment at the IAEA?
Laura was at NTI for 8 years when then-candidate Obama was talking about nuclear security as a priority. As a Senator he had made himself an understudy for Senator Lugar. He was already on board with recognizing that this could be a real problem. On April of 2009, after his inauguration, he laid out the Prague Agenda about his vision of a world without nuclear weapons. In his view it had four pieces. One was reducing the number and role of nuclear weapons in US National Security-- that was the arms control agenda. It also involved revitalising the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and a mechanism to deal with rogue states. There was securing nuclear material around the world, and that was the nuclear terrorism part of the agenda. And there was developing a new framework for global nuclear energy collaboration which was the peaceful uses part of the agenda. She was very interested in going to work for this president who had such an interest in the things she cared about. She was asked to join the White House in February, but she wasn't able to take up the post until July of 2009. She spent seven years at the White House working on the National Security Council, running the four different nuclear security summits, dealing with the whole range of weapons of mass destruction issues including wmd terrorism, she dealt with the Syria chemical weapons challenge, and she launched the global public health agenda--she was not bored. In the second half of Obama's second term, the US Ambassador that represented the us in Vienna to the IAEA and the other UN agencies was called back early to a very senior post at the State Department, and Laura went to Susan Rice, the National Security Advisor, and said, “Susan, geeks like me don't get a lot of shots at being an Ambassador, but this is a job I can do. I've been working closely with the IAEA closely since my time at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. I know the mission and the people. Is this is something I can have a shot at?” She said, “yeah, let's do that!” Iit took about a year for Laura to get nominated and then it took another seven months for her to get confirmed. In July of 2016, she took a post in Vienna as a US Ambassador. She walked in with familiarity of the actors. Many of her fellow ambassadors had been involved in the nuclear security summit process. She knew the leadership at the IAEA. But she knew a very narrow piece of them--she mostly focused on national security and there's more that the IAEA does. She was mainly focused on the Iran deal. She made sure the IAEA had the resources needed to carry out its verification role. They had to invent some new technology and new methods. She had to make the US National Laboratory system available to answer their questions as they encountered unexpected things in the course of their role. She made sure that people got along at the political level. She did a lot of behind-the-scenes work with ambassadors.
The Iran Deal
Did you sit between the IAEA and the US government?
Laura did, but she wasn’t the only voice. She was the formal official voice, but her counterparts at the State Department and at the NSE all had their own relationships with the IAEA and senior ambassadors in Vienna. It was important that they had trust in each other and were well-coordinated. It was important to Laura that she never be undercut. She managed that through good process and good will. It doesn't do Washington any good if their ambassador is a step behind on policy. Laura was not involved in negotiating the Iran deal-- she has spent most of her non-proliferation career saying she doesn't do Iran! But she had to learn Iran to go to Vienna. There were days it seemed that officials there weren't going to get the deal done. It took that whole, diverse team-- not just in Vienna but also back in the US-- to allow the work to proceed 24-7 on the technical backup to the policy and the scientific negotiations happening in Vienna. Some of the people who worked on the Iran deal are at NTI now. We’re all thinking about how to use what we learned in Iran in our work in North Korea. A lot will translate, and a lot won’t. North Korea has as many as 60 actual bombs; Iran had no bombs. You work backward from there. It will be much more complex. Plus, there are chemical and biological weapons programs in North Korea that are strong. You can’t reduce the nuclear threat without taking on the chemical and biological risks that are there.
Materials Security as Risk Management
Other than North Korea what are the other challenges the organization looks at?
Laura is focused on moving materials security from a threat reduction model to a risk management model. Think about the Belgrade example: whatever risk was at that facility was no longer there once we moved the material. But it’s not like that for the 22 countries that still have that material-- that includes countries with nuclear weapons like the US, Russia, the UK, France, China, plus Indian, Pakistan, Korea, and whatever you believe to be true about Israel. That’s 9 countries. They’ll have nuclear materials for the foreseeable future. They’ll have long term stewardship issues. It's not about removal of materials, it’s about risk management. We need to stop thinking exclusively about the notion that threat begins and ends, and that you reduce it through a binary. We need to look at it as an enduring problem. That risk will exist whether its terrorists risk or other kinds of risk that we haven't perceived. The risks change. Your ability to manage those risks is the hallmark of success. Are we adjusting our thoughts to those shifting risks? Are we dealing with those risks over decades or centuries rather than just the next appropriation,, the next security summit, the next short term goal? There's a belief that we’ll end the nuclear security work. But we can’t get rid of all the material. So how do we set up security culture in our energy and weapons facilities?
American Nuclear Influence
How can we bring nuclear energy ot a country so that the IAEA is present and thus reduce the nuclear weapons risk?
Laura does think about this. Going back to Atoms for Peace, US nuclear commerce has been understood within a narrow community as a piece of our nonproliferation strategy. That’s why it was part of President Obama’s Prague Agenda. When the US sells technology overseas, it comes wrapped in A package called a 1-2-3 Agreement that contains a number of non proliferation commitments that the recipient country makes. It gives us visibility and access to their peaceful nuclear energy program. It gives us a chance to transfer our high-quality security culture, our safety culture, our quality operations culture. It helps these countries utilize nuclear energy in a safe, secure, and economically viable way. It also gives us visibility at the ground level. IF someone starts talking about separating plutonium or fast reactors or closed fuel cycles, or anything else that raises alarm bells, then we have visibility. You become aware of research done in an associated lab that might be concerning. And you can see where the materials are going. Anything the US sells we have a veto vote with regards to onwards transfer, with regards to whether they change the form of that material. And that applies to all the material in the country, not just what the US ells. These are very powerful nonproliferation tools. The challenge we face today, is the US doesn’t have enough attractive nuclear commerce that make it worthwhile for countries to wrap themselves up in this. We don’t have a product offering that would help us forge that relationship where we can have a nonproliferation role in their future. We don’t have an attractive nuclear offering. We still have the largest fleets of nuclear power plants in the world, even though they’re declining and not being replaced. But this is a wasting asset. IF we don’t figure out how to get back in the game on nuclear commerce, we’ll lose those nonproliferation influence tools. That’s why Laura is so committed to the advanced reactor opportunity. If we can do it right, both from a commercial promotion point of view but also a national security point of view, we can look at that diversity if advanced reactor designs in the US. We have the chance to do it right. It’s time we get serious about that."