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US energy secretary talks arms control, nuclear budget boost and Iranian cyberattacks

Joe Gould

MUNICH ― With backing from several influential Republican lawmakers, U.S. President Donald Trump is requesting a 20 percent increase in the budget for the federal agency that oversees the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile, which falls under the Department of Energy.

Energy Secretary Dan Broulliette ― a former lobbyist for Ford Motor Company, and the deputy secretary until he was confirmed in December ― is supporting the National Nuclear Security Administration’s $19.8 billion budget, which must still receive congressional approval.

Here’s part of his conversation with reporters on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on Saturday.

Why hasn’t the Trump administration made a decision about whether to extend New START, the only treaty that constrains U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, set to expire next year? What engagement with the Chinese on arms control has there been here, and what’s the dialogue between administration officials and European diplomats?

I’ve heard bits and pieces of conversations in the hallway about perhaps bringing the Chinese into a larger conversation around START. I’d have to defer to my colleagues at the State Department and other places as to whether or not that makes sense, or whether there is even interest on the part of the Chinese in doing something like that.

I fully suspect — or, I’m optimistic, if you will — that we’re going to get to some agreement worldwide with the Russians and others on a new agreement. What that looks like and when that occurs is not something that I can really comment on with any sort of precision or insight.

The NNSA budget proposes a 20 percent increase. Could you talk a little bit about the justification for that increase and where the additional $2 billion would go? Much has been made about it being funded by the subtraction of one Virginia class submarine from DoD’s budget request.

Well, the precise accounts where DoD pulled the additional funds from to cover the increase, I don’t want to say precisely because I don’t know. I can tell you that DoD is covering the cost for this increase. And I can tell you the purpose of the funding is to not only continue the life-extension programs already underway, it’s to build out perhaps more aggressively the infrastructure around the NNSA complex ― Oak Ridge National Laboratory in particular.

We look at the lithium processing facility, we at look the need for tritium down the road, and we look at the timetables in which we need them — it’s very important that we start now. And the president made the decision that he wanted to move up these projects and start them now. So that’s been our direction. That’s been our mission. And that’s what we’re going to do.

In order to do that we are going to front load some of this funding and work with Congress to achieve a $19.8 billion dollar request. How [lawmakers] react to it we’ll know in a couple weeks when the hearings start. We’ll know even further when the appropriators put the pen to the paper as to whether or not they’re actually going to appropriate the funds. But it is our request.

We think we’ve made a strong case, especially with regard to the infrastructure, that the work needs to start now, or we’re going to be in a position in five or 10 years that we’re going to regret.

The Department of Energy has some role in the analysis of Iranian nuclear intelligence. What’s your take on where the situation stands right now, whether there’s any kind of follow-on in the works to the Iran nuclear deal, or JCPOA? Where’s Iran at, where’s the administration at?

We do play an important role. We work closely with our colleagues in the interagency process, all of the three-letter agencies as well as others who collect information. We provide the technical analysis through our laboratory system as to whether or not these things are accurate.

The state of play, in Iran now is that what you see in the open source reporting is concerning. [Senior Iranian leaders] announced that they want to increase enrichment. We think that they’re serious about that threat. To the extent that they are, we will validate whether that’s true or not. And, you know, from the standpoint of American policy, the maximum pressure campaign will in fact, continue.

I think what we’re starting to sense is more and more interest in the part of the Europeans and others, to collectively come together and address the issue of not only JCPOA, but the other activity that we see all throughout the Middle East, primarily driven by Iran. The most recent attacks in Saudi Arabia are the latest example and perhaps maybe the most dramatic example.

But the cyber activity in Europe is beginning to be a concern to many of the countries here. If that continues, I think you’re going see an additional effort on the part of the Europeans to come together and look at a post-JCPOA approach to Iran.

As the concerns go up, I think the anxiety levels go up. And the time to act is now.

What signs are you getting from European allies here?

You know, after the attack in Abqaiq [a Saudi oil-processing facility], we saw a short spike in oil pricing worldwide. But it came right back down, so the economic impact was not nearly as large [as it could have been]. But with cyberattacks in particular, we’re starting to see very targeted, very, very direct, very effective efforts to shut down portions of a banking system or shut down portions of the telecommunication system.

When that happens, the effects are acute, and they’re noticed. I think it’s starting to draw attention in places like Berlin and places like London, other places here in Europe, where it’s going to force some activity and force some conversations.