We are Ernie Moniz, Co-Chair and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and former Secretary of Energy, and David Grae, Executive Producer for the CBS hit show Madam Secretary. We are discussing the role of science in policy, politics and culture. Ask us anything!


EDIT 2:37 This is David Grae, signing off. Thanks so much for all the great questions, it was a blast. Be sure to tune in this fall for Madam Secretary's 5th season (fortunately, not post-apocalyptic!)

EDIT 2:15 This is Ernie Moniz. Thanks for all the great questions!

EDIT 12:58 ***PROOF*** Ernie (nti_wmd) & David (also nti_wmd)

Hi Reddit – we’re excited to be here!

Ernest J. Moniz: I’m Co-Chair and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and I served as the 13th Secretary of Energy under President Barack Obama. As Secretary, I oversaw the US nuclear arsenal, helped promote a clean energy economy, and helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal with a team that included former Secretary of State John Kerry. I have a PhD in theoretical physics from Stanford, and I care deeply about the role that science can play in improving diplomacy and public policy—and television shows.

David Grae: I’m an Executive Producer and writer for the CBS hit show Madam Secretary. I started my career as a staff writer on Joan of Arcadia and have worked on shows including Without a Trace, Gilmore Girls, and Castle. For Madam Secretary, I help develop storylines that combine entertainment with civics lessons.

We are here to answer your questions, and discuss the role of science in policy, politics, and culture—and last night’s Madam Secretary season finale!

Nuclear Threat Initiative

Madam Secretary’s Barbara Hall and David Grae talking nukes

Do you feel MAD is still as applicable as it was back during the Cold War? Or has that changed?


Deterrence remains a key to our national security policy with the goal being that no nuclear weapon is used. However, we do need to face some new realities, such as cyber threats, nuclear terrorism and the current low level of communication between the US and Russia. These factors can lead to failed deterrence. Madam Secretary caught this in a very gripping way by showing how misinformation could lead a president to a very hurried decision based on wrong data. This alerting issue has got to be folded into a modern deterrence posture. EJM

What do you think are the most promising paths for people with STEM degrees to get started in policy careers in the US, especially when it comes to energy/nuclear issues? In terms of having the greatest impact, should one focus on NGOs or on the US federal government? If the latter, the executive branch or Congress?


First, let me say that the policy world would benefit from more participants with strong STEM backgrounds, and indeed, we are seeing a number of universities advancing technology and policy programs. To start off in this field, you should first dig into a policy issue that is of great interest to you and that has strong scientific and technical dimensions. Whether a future might lie in with the executive or legislative branches or with non-governmental orgs or universities depends on opportunities that pop up. Success in one area will create more opportunities. EJM

How do you feel about the US and France pulling out of the Iran Nuclear deal? What lasting effects from your standpoint do you think it could have?


First, let's clarify that France has not pulled out of the deal. France is working hard with the other signatories and with Iran to preserve the benefits of the Iran agreement. The agreement rolled back Iran's nuclear program substantially and even more importantly put in place a unique, tough verification regime that would go on forever. What are the effects of pulling out? Hard to know until the situation is resolved, but if Iran ends up without the exceptional verification regime in the agreement, we will have no way of knowing if Iran is engaging in covert nuclear weapons activity. If you pull that string, the results are not pretty. EJM

What is the likelihood of something like a hair trigger launch happening? And when you're developing a science/policy TV show, which is more important: the science or moving the plot?


Hi there. I'll leave the likelihood of a hair trigger launch happening to Secty Moniz, although I'd say, of course, it is possible, and, like any potential tragedy, the policy goal would be to reduce the odds of it happening, and that's what last night's episode dealt with. As for the science in relation to plot, that's a great question! We want to tell engaging, dramatic stories, but it's important to get the science as right as possible. So we have to make sure the plot doesn't stray outside of what is possible.

--David Grae

Hey david... what are the limitations in the writing under this gov... and do you feel that writing for tv could influence real life gov. decisions?


Hey there. We don't feel any limitations at all. Madam Secretary started in the midst of one real life administration and continues under the next. But the very nature of the show is not very political -- because it's about the State Department, which is not supposed to be political. It simply acts in the best interests of the country. At least that's the mission. We purposely never declared party affiliation for our fictional administration. And when our fictional president ran for reelection, we had him run as an Independent. That said, we certainly pay attention to what is going on in the world, and we like to try to guess where things might be going. We try not to do "ripped from the headlines." We prefer trying to create our own. So we ask "What if?" a lot. What if X, Y, or Z happened? What are the dramatic possibilities? As for tv influencing real life decisions, I'd say our job is to entertain, not influence. But we have found that the civics lesson in many of our episodes is a big part of what's entertaining. Our viewers often enjoy learning something about government that they never knew before -- like the fact that our nukes are on a hair trigger, which I imagine many people did not realize before watching last night's episode.

-- David Grae

Ernest - How realistic was the show last night? It terrified me!

David - How much research and prep goes into making one episode like this?


We researched last night's episode to within an inch of its life. We not only consulted with Secty Moniz, but also Bruce Blair, a former ICBM launch officer and leading expert on this very issue, among other experts, including those on both sides of the issue. Beyond that, our production team worked with experts to make sure we got the physical details of the episode right -- or, as right as you can get top secret materials and areas, like the contents of the nuclear football and the inside of an ICBM launch Center as well as US Strategic Command and the Pentagon War Room. Like most aspects of television, it was a big team effort. --David Grae

Ernest - How realistic was the show last night? It terrified me!

David - How much research and prep goes into making one episode like this?


Regrettably, the show was quite realistic in showing how the president can be provided wrong information and yet have almost no time to respond. We had the opportunity to discuss these kinds of scenarios with David and his team. In fact, the scenario is not terribly different from historical reality. It would be wonderful if the program also proves correct in finding a fast path to an agreement to reduce this risk. You can check out close calls here: www.nti.org/closecalls EJM

Hello Mr. Moniz, thank you for doing this AMA!

On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1920 being 1 and Cuba Missle Crisis being 9, where do you think the world (not just the US) is in regards to risk of a nuclear strike?


I am not prepared to assign a number to today's risk. However, my colleagues and I at NTI judge the possibilities of nuclear weapons use, most likely by miscalculation, to be higher than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. EJM

Mr. Grae,

Great season finally last night! I’m interested to hear what your favorite storyline you’ve created for a show is, and why? Thanks.


Thanks! I guess I'd say last night's episode is my favorite storyline because it was so ambitious and one that we kicked around for a while before figuring out how to crack it. We didn't want to make it just about the nightmare scenario and scaring the crap out of our characters. We wanted our characters to have an emotional connection to the story. The big breakthrough came when Barbara Hall (Madam Secretary creator and Showrunner, who I co-wrote the episode with) came up with the idea to separate Elizabeth (Tea Leoni) from the President and his in-the-moment decision-making about whether to retaliate with a major nuclear strike. Instead, we put Elizabeth with her family, and we mined her emotional connection to them once she got wind of what was happening. That emotion morphed into her passion to change our policy. And it emphasized a major theme of the episode -- that we all just want to live our lives without worrying about the threat of nuclear armageddon. To spend lazy weekends with our families and walk our dogs in the park and play tennis, etc. Once Barbara came up with that, everything else fell into place, and we found our ending -- Elizabeth sharing with Henry that she wants to run for President to make sure what she achieved remains in place.

-David Grae

What might be some strategies for making people understand the difference b/t science and belief? It seems that there are a whole lot of folks who are willing to enjoy the benefits of science (advances in healthcare, the digital world, weather prediction) but insist that elemental aspects of science theory are simply bogus.


Democracy is founded on fact-based dialogue among our citizenry. Part and parcel of that is confidence in the results of scientific inquiry and analysis. The trend towards dismissing science in many of the current political discussions is very dangerous for our future. EJM

Under the nuclear provisions in JCPOA, there’s a set of transparency and confidence building measures to ensure the efficacy of the deal. However, despite an assured “long-term IAEA presence in Iran,” much of the specific IAEA monitoring provisions expire between 15 and 25 years from JCPOA’s implementation (C.15). Knowing the IAEA – and UN in general – doesn’t really have an enforcement arm, what is there to assure the United States that the JCPOA is more than just buying time, during which we may gain some intelligence, but the Iranian regime also strengthens? Also, why shouldn’t the JCPOA be judged by what happens when it expires just as so much legislation pending in Congress is judged?


The key monitoring and verification provision in the JCPOA is Iranian adherence to the Additional Protocol (an agreement that allows IAEA inspectors to go to sites that Iran has not declared) and to provide access to any suspect site in less than 24 days. This provision has no expiration date, and as such, greatly raises the bar of detection should Iran ever decide to go back on its permanent commitment to not develop nuclear weapons and to not pursue weaponization activities. EJM

Why don't you invest in mining thorium?


Hey, not sure this is for me, but I'd say I prefer more traditional stocks and bonds. :) -- David Grae

Why don't you invest in mining thorium?


Uranium is inexpensive and there is an ample supply. EJM

The show mobilized the public to build momentum to get a nuclear treaty signed with Russia at a warp speed. Does the public actually have any influence on nuclear issues? (and can a highly technical treaty actually get agreed in a month?)


Yes, the public can have influence. During the Cold War, the public mobilized at many levels (including the scientific community) and spurred elected officials to pursue and indeed, conclude nuclear arms control agreements. Today, the same would be true with heightened public engagement on these issues. With regard to successfully reaching a treaty on the ICBM alert status, we could, with political will, develop the basic framework quickly while also being prepared for some extended negotiation on specifics, such as verification. EJM

The show mobilized the public to build momentum to get a nuclear treaty signed with Russia at a warp speed. Does the public actually have any influence on nuclear issues? (and can a highly technical treaty actually get agreed in a month?)


Hey, it's David here. Yes, we understood that things unfolded incredibly quickly here. But we certainly believe that big changes can happen when the public is mobilized. And in the wake of such a terrifying event -- as dramatized in the episode -- we believe it's certainly possible that people could protest and get the attention of public officials. As for the technical aspects, we always say to ourselves in the writers' room, is it possible? Based on discussions with our advisors, we concluded that although it would be unlikely for such a treaty to be reached that quickly, it would be POSSIBLE. As long as it's possible, we give ourselves the leeway to go with it. Is it a bit aspirational? Sure.

Hello and thanks for doing this AMA.

I’ve heard that once a country is able to refine uranium for energy purposes, it doesn’t take much more research to further refine to weapons grade, is this true, and if it is do we have to worry about countries who simply want nuclear Tech for energy as well?

Also when opponents of the Iran deal say it’s too “weak” what part of the deal are they specifically taking about, and is their criticism warranted?


In enriching uranium, roughly half of the effort in producing weapons-grade uranium is expended in reaching enrichment levels for power reactors. This is one reason why the int'l community places so much emphasis on limiting the spread of enrichment facilities and on monitoring them through regular international inspections.

When opponents of the JCPOA say it's weak, they are usually referring to what the deal is not. The deal was always intended to take the risk of Iranian nuclear weapons verifiably off the table, while the United States and its allies would work to curtail Iran's regional and missile activities and human rights abuses. For more on the deal: www.irandeal.nti.org EJM

David: How do you choose which kinds of civic lessons you weave into the plot of Madam Secretary?


Hey, great question. Because we are all about civics lessons! The short answer is that we pick the ones that have the best dramatic possibilities. The civics lesson on our nuclear posture is certainly more exciting than the civics lesson on our parliamentary procedures in the Senate (we haven't done that episode yet). Earlier this season, we did one on the 25th Amendment, which made for exciting drama, and I learned something new -- that the Cabinet is an actual voting body along with the VP and can vote to remove the president, which also presented exciting dramatic possibilities. So it's really about what policies are most interesting "on their feet," by which I mean in action, dramatized. Last night's episode worked (inasmuch as it did) because we put the issue on its feet. We showed what a mistake in our nuclear response policy might look like. And that provided a nice dramatic engine for the episode --- all based on our current, actual policy.

-David Grae

Dr. Moniz, what is your favorite success story regarding your work to promote a clean energy economy as Energy Secretary?

Also, the four DOE Bioenergy Research Centers are now switching their focus from bioethanol to advanced biofuels—can you talk about why these alternate fuels will be important for transportation in the future?


It's really hard to focus on only one. One major result was how the DOE loan program kick-started the deployment of photovoltaics at utility scale. Another was building the innovative ARPA-E program; it has already led to well over 50 start-up companies in the clean energy space. Internationally, we helped build the Mission Innovation Initiative that put technology innovation at the heart of addressing the climate change challenge. EJM

Last night's episode was chilling, and based on realistic possibilities. But it was also very US-centric. What are your concerns or the risks from other scenarios like India-Pakistan, Russia-China, China-India? And could we use popular culture there to inform and capture people's attention?


First of all, we know that Russia has also had close calls based on bad information. Beyond that, tense regional situations between nuclear armed countries, such as that of India-Pakistan, create a context for miscalculation that could lead to nuclear weapon use. Perhaps we need Madam Secretary in all of these countries! EJM

Secretary Moniz,

What does nuclear electricity production and desalinization look like worldwide in 2050? That would include fuel cycles, reprocessing, safe waste sequestering, SMR, diversion to weapons, and construction & operating costs; producing electricity at today's equivalent of about $50/MWh?

What is your opinion of when and the probability of commercially successful fusion: inertial confinement laser, magnetic confinement or LENR?

Mr Grae, the show is well written on a great cast. State as well as NGO's are fertile material for short and long form. Thanks!


Hey, thanks! So glad to hear you are enjoying the show. I'll get back to you about electricity production and desalination in 2050... in 2050 when I have read up on it. :)

-David Grae

Mr. Grae, Madam Secretary showed the main character's role in having a person tortured to death before she became Secretary of State. The portrayal was unusual. She was not outed so she escaped any consequences, but since it is fiction, it seemed like a narrative decision for her to remain arrogant about what she did. Viewers never saw any expressions of remorse or regret and there were no non-adversary characters revolted by torture.

What role do you believe fiction plays in the evolution of the norms of society? Given that we seem to be in a unique political environment, where people support political teams over political philosophies even more than they did in the past, it would probably be unfair to say that works like Madam Secretary and Zero Dark Thirty are why torture is such a non-issue in confirmation hearings, but it is still treated differently than it was in past.


Well, that's an interesting and important question. Although I don't doubt your takeaway from the show, I would point out the we never said the character involved in the torture that Elizabeth was connected to died. Also, she was not directly involved, though she didn't rail against it at the time. These may be subtle distinctions, but I think they are important. We also never come down on the side of torture. We simply acknowledge that it happened, and that it was complicated and an awful time full of disturbing ambiguities. The specific scenario that we dramatized was about a terrorist who admitted to killing children, and there was another threat unfolding as Elizabeth went in to question him (in a flashback, where she did NOT participate in any torture). Again, I think the idea you are raising is important. And maybe I am being a little defensive, but I just don't think that our portrayal on Madam Secretary contributed to normalizing torture in our society. I think we acknowledged it as an issue -- a horrible, painful one -- that is a part of our past. But maybe we should revisit this issue and clarify a few things. Thanks for the question. You have gotten me thinking,

-David Grae

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