That DOE Article in Vanity Fair

Michael Lewis has an extensive article on the Trump administration’s approach to the Department of Energy. It’s worth reading.  I’ll add some observations and objections.

The biggest thing I object to is the framing of scary. Nuke stuff is always framed as scary. There’s some basis for that, particularly in the time of Trump, but being scared is not the best way to deal with problems.

Some things in the article are not entirely new. Back during the transition, there were many news articles about people who had no idea what the Department of Energy did and, more generally, about the surprise on the part of the Trumpies that they might have to learn what any of the executive departments did. Some of the Trump appointments, like Betsy DeVos, proclaimed that they didn’t need to know what her department did because she had an agenda.

That’s dangerous, because all parts of the government affect our lives, and the people taking over are irresponsible if they don’t care to understand that.

Every new administration learns that providing electrical energy is the smaller part of the Department of Energy’s mission. Some are surprised that the main part of the mission is nuclear weapons. What’s new in this administration is the lack of interest in learning anything of substance.

There is also some robustness built into the executive departments. Most of their employees are civil servants who feel their job is to make the country better. They will continue to do their jobs as best they can. But the Trump administration is damaging the functions of those agencies through their ignorance and ideology.

Even if you know that the DOE mostly makes and manages nuclear weapons while dealing with civilian energy issues on the side, there’s still a lot of detail you might not think of.

A lunch or two with the chief financial officer might have alerted the new administration to some of the terrifying risks they were leaving essentially unmanaged. Roughly half of the D.O.E.’s annual budget is spent on maintaining and guarding our nuclear arsenal, for instance. Two billion of that goes to hunting down weapons-grade plutonium and uranium at loose in the world so that it doesn’t fall into the hands of terrorists. In just the past eight years the D.O.E.’s National Nuclear Security Administration has collected enough material to make 160 nuclear bombs. The department trains every international atomic-energy inspector; if nuclear power plants around the world are not producing weapons-grade material on the sly by reprocessing spent fuel rods and recovering plutonium, it’s because of these people. The D.O.E. also supplies radiation-detection equipment to enable other countries to detect bomb material making its way across national borders. To maintain the nuclear arsenal, it conducts endless, wildly expensive experiments on tiny amounts of nuclear material to try to understand what is actually happening to plutonium when it fissions, which, amazingly, no one really does. To study the process, it is funding what promises to be the next generation of supercomputers, which will in turn lead God knows where.

A couple of cautions about exactly how scared you should be. Several of the adjectives in this paragraph are overdone (terrifying, wildly expensive), and a couple of sentences are framed with unnecessary fear.

There is very, very little “weapons-grade plutonium and uranium at loose in the world.” The figure of 160 nuclear bombs probably comes from the conversion of research reactors in several countries from highly enriched uranium to low-enriched uranium. That’s a good thing to do, and it makes diversion less likely, but those reactors were pretty well secured in the first place, hardly “at loose.” The amounts of fissile material picked up that are genuinely “at loose” are tiny in relation to what is needed for a bomb. The one exception to that was at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site, where metallic plutonium was scattered around. But Semipalatinsk is pretty hard to get to, and the plutonium has been cleaned up.

Another little-known fact: Nuclear weapons modeling requirements have driven increases in computing power. That’s less true now than during the Cold War; modeling for oil exploration and climate change also drive computing power, but for IBM, Cray, and a few others, nuclear weapons were the motivator.

The part of the article that I suspect mostly scared readers was the interview with the former risk manager. Bringing in a risk manager was a good idea of Moniz’s. I would have liked to hear more about risks within the organization, but the article is pretty long as it is.

“At the very top of his list is an accident with nuclear weapons”

This is a legitimate concern. I would like to know more about why it is first; presumably he is talking about an accident that leads to a nuclear explosion. The example given is one from 1961. In 1961, nuclear weapons had been engineered quickly during the big buildup of the 1950s, but even so, they had safety features. Since then, design changes have made them more resistant to accidents. Also, B-52s were regularly flying with nukes, ready to head for the Soviet Union. We don’t do that any more.

North Korea is the second risk on his list. Iran is “somewhere in the top five.” Recent news illustrates why.

A significant contingent of national laboratory personnel were at the talks to develop the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran deal. Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz was gracious enough to recognize them publicly. As I read the material coming out of the talks, I could envision them working through the night, calling back to colleagues. They did an incredible job. National laboratory personnel advising on nuclear treaties. They are the ones who know what is needed to make nuclear weapons.

The safety of the electrical grid is the fourth risk. It’s a big one, and we’re not doing anywhere near enough about it. But Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP), the favorite of Newt Gingrich and rightwing think tanks, is not one of the dangers. If I haven’t raved enough about this yet, ask in the comments. Here’s what Jeffrey Lewis has written about it.

And the fifth is project management. This one looks inside the DOE. The example given is the Hanford cleanup. It is a mess, and the managers, all the way back to the Manhattan Project, have not brought credit on themselves. I have many thoughts about both project management and the cleanup.

Lewis rephrases the fifth risk as “the risk a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risks with short-term solutions.” That’s a nice way to put it, and it characterizes the way Congress deals with far too many issues. The budget and debt-ceiling fights we will see in the next month or so are an illustration. Since Newt Gingrich institutionalized those fights in the mid-nineties, they have contributed to the DOE’s inability to deal with anything in a long-term way.

Imagine being a project manager for an environmental cleanup and not knowing what your budget will be after the end of September. Not knowing whether you can keep heavy equipment on the job, or whether you will have to store waste on site rather than send it to an approved disposal site. Or trying to schedule requests for proposals so that you can evaluate them and get contracts in place before the budget collapses. That’s where a lot of people are today. I’ve been there.

Lewis makes a big deal of classified information, but he’s managed to write a fairly detailed article without any. This is something that overawes people. The big issues are the important ones, and you don’t need classified information to understand them.

Most DOE employees, like those of other executive departments, are career people. They are still on the job. How much the Trump administration will damage them remains to be seen.


Image from the Vanity Fair article: Looks like a waste trench at Hanford.

A similar article appears at Balloon Juice.