Former U.S. Energy Secretary Moniz caps first day of nuclear reaction commemoration

Ernie Moniz
Ernest Moniz, former U.S. Secretary of Energy, speaks Dec. 1 in Mandel Hall. His keynote address capped the first of a two-day UChicago symposium commemorating the 75th anniversary of the first chain reaction.
Photo by
Jean Lachat
University Communications

Former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz capped the first half of a two-day commemoration of the first sustained nuclear chain reaction achieved at the University of Chicago 75 years ago this week.

Moniz detailed the complex challenges posed by nuclear weapons in the current global security landscape as well as continued ways to harness benefits from nuclear technologies.

In his current work heading the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative, Moniz said, he’s focusing on practical steps toward managing risk and reducing threats. “It is for us to think clearly about those, and to work at solutions to be ready when the opportunity appears,” said Moniz, a physicist and professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who served as energy secretary from 2013 to January 2017.

Moniz’s talk concluded a half-day exploration through discussions and art of the legacy of Chicago Pile-1, the experiment on Dec. 2, 1942 that produced the first controlled chain reaction.

Augusta Read Thomas, University Professor of Composition, debuted a work written for the commemoration, “Plea for Peace,” a five-minute wordless arrangement for soprano and string quartet. Civil rights attorney and former WBEZ talk show host Gretchen Helfrich moderated three panels on different aspects of the nuclear legacy, in which experts discussed what nuclear energy could offer the fight against climate change, the greatest threats from nuclear weapons to world security and the evolving field of nuclear medicine.

“It was a very interesting event—it really helped lay out how we need to decide what to do with the technology as we go forward,” said Jared Kerman, a second-year student in the College. “I think it’s really emblematic of the commitment to rigorous inquiry here at the University, that we don’t talk about nuclear’s incredible benefits to humanity without also discussing the consequences.”

As energy secretary, Moniz oversaw stewardship of the nation’s nuclear weapons and national laboratories as well as helping to broker the 2015 agreement to halt Iran’s path toward developing nuclear weapons.

He said creativity and open dialogue were both key toward continuing to reduce risk from nuclear proliferation: Many aspects of the Iran agreement were novel, and could form a basis for future agreements with other countries with nuclear aspirations.

But given the right course, nuclear technology also could play a role in alleviating another existential threat to humanity, Moniz said: climate change. He called for testing innovative ideas in nuclear energy. “We’ve got to find out if that dog hunts,” he said of new concepts in advanced nuclear energy, such as “small modular reactors”—small-sized enclosed reactors that may offer security, cost and economic advantages over full-sized plants.

The CP-1 commemoration will conclude Dec. 2 with a day of arts programming, including a pyrotechnic artwork piece by internationally renowned artist Cai Guo-Qiang, followed by a 28-minute piece for carillon entitled “The Curve is Exponential,” by UChicago PhD candidate Ted Moore, which will be performed by University Carillonneur Joey Brink.

Saturday’s events also will include a movement piece by Emily Coates, choreographer and adjunct professor at Yale University; Young-Kee Kim, the Louis Block Distinguished Service Professor and chair of the Department of Physics; and Sam Pluta, assistant professor of composition; as well as new music by PhD candidate Ted Moore, Amelia Kaplan, PhD, Clifton Callendar, PhD, and graduate student Kevin Kay; and a performance by the University Symphony Orchestra.