This article originally appeared in the August 1979 issue of playboy magazine.
In October 1959, our very first editorial statement, “The Contaminators,” warned against the dangers of radioactivity–in that case, from nuclear-bomb-test fallout. In the intervening years, we have provided a forum, through the **Playboy Interview** and elsewhere in the magazine, for proponents of soft-energy alternatives to nuclear power: environmentalist Barry Commoner, actor/solar-energy crusader Robert Redford, actress/activist Jane Fonda. Now, in the wake of “The China Syndrome,” the near catastrophe at Three Mile Island and, in the biggest demonstration since Vietnam, the march of some 65,000 persons on Washington demanding that nuclear power plants be shut down, it seems an appropriate time to probe the other side of the argument. We have chosen to present an interview with the man who is perhaps nuclear energy’s most outspoken advocate, Edward Teller–the so-called father of the H-bomb. An almost Strangelovian figure to his detractors, Teller is a man of archconservative views who is now considering a race for the U.S. Senate.
Teller’s twin passions are nuclear energy and nuclear defense. He is convinced that atomic energy is both needed and safe, and he is a leading proponent of new and more potent weapons for the U.S., including the proposed neutron bomb. Because of these stands, he has been castigated by his enemies as a mad scientist playing with dangerous toys.
His supporters, on the other hand, see him as the savior of American economic and military might, as a Cassandra warning the country of impending energy starvation and terrible defeat at the hands of a powerful Russia.
In this post-Vietnam, ecologically sensitive era, Teller’s ideas are often unpopular. The pointed manner in which he expresses them causes even greater resentment. Yet his influence on national military and energy policies has been felt through eight administrations, and he retains close ties with many persons in political power. His unquestioned ability as a scientist lends considerable weight to his beliefs. In Washington, Teller is thought, of as one of the last of the Cold Warriors, and somewhat eccentric, at that. But even those who oppose him ideologically respect his professional opinions.
Teller, a lawyer’s son, was born in 1908 in Hungary. His early aptitude for mathematics and science was encouraged by a first-rate education, culminating in doctoral studies at Leipzig and postdoctoral studies at Göttingen, Germany. Two notable things happened during his youth. In 1919, Hungary was briefly taken over by a Communist government. That harsh period incubated Teller’s severe distaste for the left and his lifelong Russophobia. And while a student in Germany, Teller lost his right foot in an accident.
As World War Two approached, Teller fled to the United States. He was an academic, a purely theoretical physicist–until he was called upon to join in building the first atomic bomb. At Los Alamos, the country’s first weapons laboratory, Teller played an important but not central role in the making of the A-bomb. That weapon was based on the principle of fission (splitting an atomic nucleus to release large amounts of energy), but during the war, Teller became intrigued with the idea of a potentially far more powerful explosive, a fusion bomb (in which atomic nuclei are united to form heavier nuclei, releasing huge amounts of energy), and set the theoretical groundwork for it.
After the war, Teller was left with the preliminary plans for his superatomic weapon. In vain, he sought the support of the Government and of fellow scientists, but Hiroshima had spoiled the appetites of would-be bomb makers. Then, in 1949, the Soviets tested their first nuclear weapon. The West was frightened, the Cold War was on and. Teller got the support he wanted. In 1951, the first thermonuclear bomb was tested. It remains the most powerful weapon ever devised.
About the same time, the Russians developed their own version of the hydrogen bomb. The creator of the Soviet weapon was Andrei Sakharov, whose public life is a curious counterpoint to Teller’s. The Russian physicist has been the most visible of his country’s political dissidents. His outspoken opposition to repressive Soviet policies won him. the Nobel Peace Prize. But neither Sakharov nor Teller has won the Nobel for physics; the H-bomb seems too hot to handle, even for the committee that oversees the fortune of the inventor of dynamite.
In 1954, Teller became embroiled in a controversy that changed his life, as well as the nature of the relationship between scientists and the Government in the United States. J. Robert Oppenheimer, a brilliant physicist and a major contributor to the development of the atomic bomb, was denied continued security clearance on the basis of very casual acquaintances with leftists. The hearings on the Oppenheimer case were steeped in the spirit of McCarthyism. Teller was called upon to testify against him, because Oppenheimer had long been opposed to the H-bomb and other Teller projects. Teller denied that the accused was disloyal but testified that he would prefer seeing the reins of power in other hands. In the end, the charges of disloyalty were struck down, but Oppenheimer still, lost his security clearance and his career was effectively ended.
The scientific community saw the affair as a vicious attack by political yahoos on a great scientist, with Teller as the hatchet man, a traitor to his own kind. Teller and Oppenheimer made personal peace after some years, but Teller has still not been forgiven by many of his colleagues.
Despite those resentments, Teller has been a productive man in his field. He has always enjoyed support from some politicians and industrialists–most notably, the late Nelson Rockefeller–which has been vital in achieving his goals. He created the nation’s second weapons laboratory, the Lawrence Livermore in California, and developed numerous ideas for the peaceful implementation of nuclear power.
Although he did not continue to concentrate on theoretical physics, Teller was not a one-shot scientist. Even his political foes admit that his intellect is superb; his friend, Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner, has called Teller’s mind the most imaginative one in modern physics–and he was not forgetting Albert Einstein.
Outside of the Pentagon, Teller is America’s most outspoken supporter of increased weapons research. For decades, he has decried what he sees as the regression of the United States as a world power. That view made him a popular man in the Fifties, a villain to the youth of the Sixties and a subject of renewed controversy in the Seventies, playboy sent, writer Gila Berkowitz to interview Teller. She reports:
“The initial request for an interview was squelched by a growling, Hungarian-accented ‘No!’ I parried with examples of pre-eminent men who had been subjects of the ’Playboy Interview,’ men like Jimmy Carter and Jerry Brown. It was the worst possible argument. Edward Teller disdained the offer because liberals such as Carter and Brown had been interviewed.
"It is a measure of the man that several weeks later, he changed his mind. Colleagues at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University’s repository for Nobel laureates, professors emeritus and right-leaning thinkers without portfolio, had persuaded him that playboy was, after all, an appropriate forum for his ideas. One colleague insisted: 'More scientists read playboy than any of the professional journals.’
"Teller is 71 years old, and looks it, but he does not look as if the years have diminished his powers. Of course, the great drooping eyebrows, the shock of hair are far less forbidding now that they are white. But the biting wit is consistent; his brittle irony and stinging opinions do not mellow after hours of interviewing.
"And yet, for so vigorous a personality, Teller is also remarkably defensive. He clearly hates being branded a Dr. Strangelove, a reactionary, even if it is by those for whom he has little respect. His place in the history books is already sealed, but he cares about what his peers think now. In the midst of describing his most controversial views, his most unyielding positions, his face will suddenly melt into a poignant little smile, as if he’s asking for approval.
"Teller, of course, can also be imperious, stubborn and abrupt. He dismisses his opponents with facile one-liners and glosses over the faults of his favorites, whether they are people or ideas.
"By the time we concluded our last session, I regretted having to leave. To know Edward Teller is not necessarily to be persuaded, but it is certainly to be spellbound.”
[This part of the interview was conducted within five days of the nuclear accident at the Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.]
What do you make of this catastrophe?
I would not call it a catastrophe; I would not call it a disaster; I would not call it an accident. I would call it a malfunction.
If I undertake something really dangerous, such as driving a car, and the car stops and I can’t make it work, but no one is hurt, that is called a malfunction. If someone is hurt, that is called an accident. In the Three Mile Island malfunction, no one was hurt.
But there is great fear that people will be hurt in the future.
I am very confident that no one will be hurt. Should I be invited to visit there, I would do so, and I wouldn’t feel like a hero, as I have every confidence that I would be all right.
In the functioning of many reactors, health-damaging accidents have been avoided. There is no exception. It just so happens that the antinuclear movement, lacking a real accident, has latched on to this one, promoting it into something that it isn’t.
Nevertheless, it is the most serious malfunction–if that’s what you want to call it–that has occurred so far.
Indeed. I estimate that the financial damage will be even greater than it was in the Browns Ferry malfunction, which cost $120,000,000.'My hunch is this will cost even more.
For which, of course, the utilities’ customers will be paying.
If we don’t have nuclear reactors, the utilities’ customers will be paying much more, because even counting in these costs for shutdowns, nuclear reactors are still cheaper than the next cheapest source of electricity, coal, and much cheaper than oil or gas.
A $500,000,000 loss, while it may hurt the customers in the long run, has an immediate and severe impact on the utility concerned; it will suffer loss, compared with other utilities. Therefore, the utility has the most direct financial interest in seeing that such a malfunction never occurs again. Right now, there are enormous numbers of responsible engineers who are carefully analyzing the questions: What has gone wrong and what other things may still go wrong? When the story is over, we will know how this kind of nuclear plant might malfunction, and therefore, we will know more about how to keep it safe. Utilities will be more careful in seeing that every component is safe, that instruments are employed in the reactor that will appropriately inform the operators, so that wrong judgments can be avoided. They will train operators to avoid mistakes that may have been made here. So, as a net result, we will have bought added safety for our money, without sacrificing human life or human health. [This portion of the interview was conducted several weeks after the Three Mile Island accident.]
When we were speaking just after the Three Mile Island incident, you refused to call it a catastrophe or a disaster. You would concede only that it was a malfunction. What do you say now?
It was an accident. People have cried wolf so often that when I heard about the catastrophe, I thought it was a false alarm. It turned out that this time it wasn’t. The accident was quite a bit more serious than ever before. There’s one very important point, however. Absolutely no one was hurt. Now this, of course, is exceedingly important in itself, because of the value of each human life and the health of each individual. But it is also important for another reason. Since no one was hurt, in the long run, I believe it will be possible to discuss this accident in a detached manner with some objectivity and without any exaggerated emotions–emotions that, of course, would be there if people had really suffered.
According to the information that you have now, isn’t there a possibility that people could have suffered, or might in some future accident?
From each accident, we learn how to avoid its repetition. This was an accident that, in a way, I expected. Many years ago, when I was chairman of the first Reactor Safeguard Committee–more than 30 years ago–I came to the conviction that nothing is foolproof. If you believe that it is, it will turn out in the end that the fool is bigger than the proof. The Pennsylvania reactor turned out to be even safer than we expected, but the operators seemed to be less prepared than we hoped.
What do you mean by that?
Well, nobody knows exactly what happened yet. To learn that, one has to cool down the reactor completely, inspect the parts, make measurements and reconstruct everything. It will be a long process, and I believe it wrong to prejudge what will be found. But I want to take the risk and tell you that from the way I can piece the information together, I have now a good guess as to what happened. Not only did the reactor work well but the instruments connected with the reactor worked, on the whole, reasonably well. The valve in the reactor should have closed at a certain moment. It did not. People should have been prepared for that possibility. There is evidence, however, that on several occasions the reactor operators made the wrong decision. They did so, I believe, because they were not well enough informed. It should be relatively simple to install some additional safety equipment, but the major change should be to install better-paid, more highly qualified operators.
Are you claiming that the problems were mostly of human error?
There was, it seems to me, an accumulation of human errors–human errors that are completely understandable, because I don’t want to use the word blame. These people worked under stress. The comparison that comes to my mind is that not very long ago, over Flint, Michigan, an airplane lost a wing flap and went into a spin. The pilot took over at once and, thinking very fast and very ingeniously, doing much more than working by the book, managed to bring the airplane under control and saved the plane and the passengers. Now some pilots, I guess, are being paid $100,000 a year. Reactor operators, I have inquired, are being paid $25,000 a year. We are not as careful in selecting and training reactor operators as we are in training pilots. We could, and should, have really excellent people at each plant. These people can be found and more can be educated. This is a situation where mistake after mistake is made simply because it seems the job is too hard for the people presently there. It is very clear that we need more competence and I’m sure we can get it.
As a young man, I was a liberal; today I feel I am a conservative. But I haven’t changed; the world around me has changed.
We pay pilots well and accept the risks of air travel because the advantages are obvious. But are the advantages of nuclear reactors so obvious that we should take the risk of having something so susceptible to human error, in which the possibilities of disaster are so great?
First of all, reactors are not so easily susceptible to human error. On Three Mile Island, insult after insult was suffered by the reactor; yet not a single person was hurt. The estimate of the damage now stands at approximately $500,000,000, but no human life was taken. Now, if we didn’t have reactors and if we did not build more, what would we have? It has now been proposed, by Jane Fonda and other experts, that all our reactors be shut down. If they were, we would pay six billion dollars per year more for imported oil. The dollar would depreciate further. All of us would be even more dependent on the tender mercies of OPEC. If we continue to build reactors, there’s a much greater chance to break the monopoly of OPEC–a monopoly that would never be tolerated in the United States, incidentally.
Now, you may ask, Why not coal? The answer is the health hazards of coal–in coal mines, by accidents, by black-lung disease, by air pollution to the general population–are almost 100 times greater than any accident associated with the reactor. In the operation of the reactors themselves, there have been no health hazards.
Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano would dispute that. He testified in front of a Senate subcommittee that because twice as much radiation was emitted from Three Mile Island as originally estimated, at least one to ten cancer deaths could be expected among the 2,000,000 people living near the power plant.
Secretary Califano wasn’t speaking about real expectations but about the worst possible case. The procedures for making those estimates are difficult and are not based on direct statistics. The committee of the National Academy of Sciences that came up with the estimate was split when it rendered its opinion, and it may even now be reconsidering the latest estimate. But taking all that into account, remember that out of a population of 2,000,000, some 325,000 cancer cases are expected normally. In the worst possible case, ten more people might contract cancer along with the 325,000. So, although even this cannot be verified statistically, Califano’s statement will have the effect of making any of those 325,000 people think, Maybe I’m one of the ten. I believe this an improper use of scientific hypothesis and an improper way to inform the public.
It nonetheless suggests to us that the nuclear plant poses a greater health hazard than you were willing to admit. And you can’t deny that radiation poses a danger to pregnant women and children, can you?
Pregnant women, or, rather, their offspring, are in greater danger. Small children are in less danger, old people like myself are in least danger.
Airline hostesses regularly get excess amounts of radiation because cosmic radiation at the 30,000-foot altitude at which jets fly is much greater than it is at sea level. The airlines used to have a policy of grounding hostesses when they got married. The hostesses protested and took the matter to court, and the courts decided that they must be allowed to fly. Nobody bothered to enlighten the hostesses that if they should get pregnant, even in the period before their pregnancy is recognized, the excess radiation might be damaging to their children. They are exposed to amounts larger than those the protesters are protesting about. This kind of double standard makes me feel that the reasons that the protesters are protesting are a little more complex than they appear to be.
Governor Jerry Brown asked to shut down the California plant that is a replica of the T.M.I. plant. Don’t you think that was a prudent, justified move?
I am quite sure it is unjustified.
If Governor Brown succeeds in getting that plant shut down, there will be a need for another 30,000 barrels of oil a day. [The Rancho Seco nuclear plant in California was shut down on April 28.] We can’t have that unless there is a good reason for it, and from everything I know, there is no such reason. There may be some real or imagined political advantage for Governor Brown, who is exceedingly nimble in jumping on any band wagon, of any description, going at any speed.
How did you react when you first heard about the T.M.I. incident? Didn’t it strain your confidence in nuclear power plants?
I thought: Nobody has been hurt so far, nobody will get hurt, we will learn something. It will cost something, but it’s worth it.
But that mass hysteria should have reached this proportion, that it should have remained top news for as long as it has, that is unprecedented. And it is a thoroughly unhealthy sign; it shows that we have lost all sense of balance.
The very thing that makes reactors safe–that we worry in detail about possibilities–gives fuel to the antinuclear propagandists, who have exploited these worries literally to scare people stiff. For example, detailed calculations lead to the probably correct conclusion that in the Pennsylvania reactor there was a gas bubble. Its existence was not proved but, on circumstantial evidence, is highly likely. The newspapers were full of the term time bomb. They said maybe it would go off in two days, maybe three.
It was reasonable to say, “There appears to be a bubble; it might be hydrogen; it conceivably may lead to danger; let’s get rid of it in the most cautious manner possible.” All those statements are reasonable. That this should feed headlines, should give rise to petitions and marches, is not as reasonable. I wonder: The energy industry lost, say, $500,000,000, but did the newspaper industry make $500,000,000? Was that money siphoned off from the energy industry, which needs the money badly, and given over to the amusement industry, which served the public by amusing it in a somewhat perverse way with horror stories?
How do you assess the danger of living near a nuclear plant?
According to my daughter, this is a male-chauvinist-pig story, but anyway, it is told that at the hearings about a certain Illinois reactor, Dresden III, one of the protesters, a Dr. T., was confronted by a young man from the Atomic Energy Commission. The man said, “Dr. T., what do you think you get more radiation from, leaning up against an atomic reactor or sleeping with your wife?” Dr. T. didn’t know and was confused by the question. So the man from the Atomic Energy Commission said, “I don’t want to alarm you, but all human beings have radioactive potassium in their blood–and that includes your wife. This reactor may have more radioactivity but much greater shielding. If you compare the two for radiation, you get just a bit more from Dresden III than from your wife.”
That’s why I do not advocate a law forcing married couples to sleep in twin beds, but from the point of view of radiation safety, I must warn against the practice of sleeping every night with two girls, because then you would get more radiation than from Dresden III.
The postscript to this story is that we had a very hard winter, a coal strike, oil barges stuck on the frozen Ohio River. Illinois did not get into trouble, thanks to Dresden III, which was able to supply the energy needs of neighboring states.
What about the Government’s reaction to the Three Mile Island accident? Has it been to your satisfaction?
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission made a great effort, an honest effort and a useful effort-but perhaps not a sufficient one. I think that agency should be strengthened. However, President Carter did one thing that I think–at least I hope–will have a healthy effect. He appointed an 11-person commission. On the commission, there’s not a single person representing the utilities or the nuclear industry. There’s also not a single person representing the antinukes. I don’t see how one can do better than follow the old legal procedure of appointing people who have open minds.
Despite your assurances, the dangers of radiation are what people fear most from both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Does the need for nuclear energy justify the harm that it has done or may do?
There has been one and only one test–on February 28, 1954, in the Pacific–that did hurt some people. That test was carried out by the Los Alamos Laboratories. I had nothing to do with it, since I was working at Livermore Laboratories at that time. Some of the islanders got overexposed and 100 of them were affected. They would have gotten no ill effects had they known to wash off the fallout. As it was, they were taken care of and all of them recovered. This unfortunate occurrence happened because the bomb was exploded when there was a change in wind direction. Not enough caution was taken–but the mistake has never been repeated.
During that same test, patrols were sent beforehand to see if there were any ships in the area, but they missed one ship. One member of the crew became very sick and shortly afterward he died. We don’t have the records to prove the man died of radiation, but I believe it would be highly probable.
That death invoked terrible reaction, and rightly so. First of all, a single human life is important. But there is more to it. It was, in my mind, not justifiable that we should have bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki before giving the Japanese warning. If there had been a warning, if there had been a demonstration, we might have been able to end a horrible war by showing the power of science without killing people. If that had happened, all of us now would have a different impression of science, of the atomic nucleus. We would all be safer and happier.
I don’t want to criticize: There were strong reasons for the bombing, to end the war as soon as possible, a war in which many people had died. Those bombings may have prevented other events that would have been even worse. But I still regret that we did not try a warning explosion.
At that time, however, there was no protest. Here is a remarkable contrast: more than 100,000 people dead in Hiroshima and Nagasaki–incidentally, very few of them, comparatively, from radiation. They died from the shock, from fire–practically all of both cities burned. The immediate physical effects were much more devastating than the physiological effects of radiation. The fact is that very many people died and there were no widespread protests. Later, in contrast, one person died and there were all these protest marches. It was a remarkable psychological situation: I believe it was a delayed reaction to Hiroshima.
You’re talking about radiation from a bomb blast. What about the reports of harmful effects from lower levels of radiation?
These low-level radiations have not proved to be harmful, and the scare stories are just that, scare stories. They are exaggerated, they are unproved. People are easily frightened by what they don’t understand.
The fact is, the whole human race and the whole living world has been exposed, during all of its existence, to radiation. The low-level radiations that are permitted by Government regulations are no greater than those we get from natural sources of radiation.
We have much more, and much more thorough and systematic, information about the effects of radiation than we have about the harmful effects of practically any other harmful agent, chemical or otherwise. Furthermore, radiation can be detected in exceedingly small quantities, and that is cause for safety, because when you see one millionth as much as is dangerous, you are already warned. But remarkably enough, these warnings, instead of reassuring people, excite them. There seems to be nothing as frightening as a ticking Geiger counter.
You have been quoted as claiming that more people have been harmed by the fear of radiation than by radiation itself. Why do you say that?
It is a very real problem. Radiation has extremely important medical applications, and people are now scared away from these treatments. Things have gone so far that people refuse even medical chest X rays. I know of a case where a woman became pregnant and a chest X ray was recommended. It is right to say that embryos should not be exposed to radiation; they are more sensitive to it than adults. A chest X ray, however, properly shielded, separating the upper part of the body, would not have affected the embryo. She refused the X ray and thereby an early diagnosis of tuberculosis was missed. I don’t know the end of the story, but I do know that she was affected for the worse because of the radiation scare.
But it’s been shown that excessive irradiation for such things as skin conditions has produced cancer. Isn’t it irresponsible to downplay the dangers of radiation?
That too much radiation is bad is quite clear. What scares me more is that people will not dare use radiation where it is justified. This normal radiation to which we are all exposed may have some adverse effects, or it may have some beneficial effects–we don’t know. There are some experiments on rodents that have been exposed to 100 times the maximum permissible dose, and on the average, they lived longer! People have objected to these animal experiments because these colonies of animals tend to be infected by pneumonia. What we know is that the life expectancy of pneumonia-infected colonies has been improved by radiation. But whether or not radiation stimulates something in the body that counteracts pneumonia, or what the connection is, we don’t understand.
That there is no harmful effect from very little radiation, I don’t know. That there is no beneficial effect from very little radiation, I don’t know. And, furthermore, others don’t know, either.
What about the recent reports of leukemia incidence among children in St. George, Utah?
There was a big population exposed to some low-level radiation many years ago in Nevada, near the Utah border. A study has been made of the civilians who were exposed, with a peculiar result. I said that embryos are more sensitive than people. It is also true that children are more sensitive than adults, and particular emphasis was placed on investigating those who were children at the time of this radiation. We know that strong irradiation does have delayed effects and therefore is difficult to find out. But we are beginning to find out.
Now, with regard to these Nevada results, something very remarkable has happened. Thousands of people, I think even tens of thousands of people, were exposed. Among these, there was an incidence in the exposed population, as there is in all populations. In regard to leukemia, the incidence seemed rather greater; in the case of the other cancers, it seemed rather less. If you added up all the cancer cases, the effect was zero, but the media’s reporting of the study was selective. The fact that there were more leukemia cases was reported; the fact that there were fewer other cancer cases was not reported. Whether or not either of these observations is significant, whether or not either has anything to do with additional radiation, we don’t know. But there is an enormous amount of guessing and an enormous amount of fear. I cannot tell you with absolute certainty that those experiments may not have caused a dozen additional leukemia cases; they might have. I don’t believe it, but they might have. I can tell you that the radiation scare has hurt tens of thousands of people.
What about the case of Karen Silkwood, who, some suspect, was murdered to prevent her from telling what she knew about health hazards in the nuclear plant in which she worked?
Karen Silkwood had a conflict with the establishment that ran the place in which she worked. It was claimed that she was murdered and this was covered up. If you want to believe, as in the movie The China Syndrome—-
Did you see it?
I didn’t see it, but I know its plot. If you want to believe that our public companies are at least as bad as the Mafia, then this is a sad situation. I don’t believe it. I doubt that many people seriously believe that, but this has nothing to do with nuclear energy. It has to do with common questions of decency and of law enforcement. We share a respect for decency and law enforcement in this country that not even the President can escape, much less a company executive.
Many people would consider that a naïve confidence on your part. Are you really as happy as you seem with the accumulation of power in the hands of those who run the utilities?
I didn’t say I’m happy about it. I am not. Utilities are, however, under rigorous control. One can argue as to whether they are under wise control or unwise control, but, at any rate, utilities, which provide many people with needed energy, have in their systems something of the checks and balances of the American way of life. Power concentration in our society does occur. It is far greater in the automobile industry and in labor unions than in the utilities. Whenever and wherever these concentrations of power occur, they should be scrutinized.
Chinese nuclear testing has resulted in fallout over American urban areas. Do those incidents, this time executed by a Communist power, worry you?
They don’t worry me in the slightest. I do know that nothing terrible has happened from fallout apart from the one incident in the Pacific, when nearby islands were exposed. It never should have happened; originally, I wanted such tests to go on in Antarctica. But if you disregard this one case, the worst other case of fallout, at the time of much more frequent testing, was an increase in radiation to some parts of human bodies in some places by ten percent over the normal level. In 1958, a friend, Albert Latter, and I wrote a book, Our Nuclear Future, in which we analyzed these cases in great detail. I have not seen the figures on recent Chinese explosions. I am quite sure that the fallout will not have added significant amounts of radiation received by anybody. And by significant amounts I mean more than what he would get by means of one year’s normal radiation, more than what he would get by a few round trips from California to the East Coast.
You cannot say with any certainty that nobody has been hurt by these small amounts of fallout. But I know that if somebody has been hurt, we can’t find him. Furthermore, it is an honest statement that the effect of low-level radiation–adverse, beneficial or otherwise–is something we don’t know. Probably, it’s more adverse than anything else; that is at least a cautious assumption that I would be willing to make and most other people do make. But I don’t worry about it more than I’d worry if I were more than two percent overweight. Unfortunately, I am more than two percent overweight, and I am absolutely certain that is a more significant health problem.
Since there are so few experts on this subject, perhaps we should ask you for your thumbnail explanation of the nature of radiation–and its effects on humans.
In the case of radiation, the only thing that matters significantly is the total amount of energy delivered to a tissue. If we know that irradiation has occurred, or if a radioactive substance has been taken up by the body, has carried radiation into a specific tissue, like the thyroid gland or the bone marrow, then we know that the effect of this radiation is directly related to the amount of energy delivered to that tissue. The paths of these radioactive substances in the body can be easily studied and have been carefully studied: therefore, we know the amount of danger. We know the effect is similar to the effect we get from background radiation, but we don’t know whether or not the effect is dangerous in small quantities.
What we are afraid of in fallout, what people talk most about, is radiation taken up by the bone marrow through a particular kind of an atom, strontium 90. When we say that there is no unusual danger, we say that the bone marrow, which is most exposed in this case, is still exposed to much less radiation than it is from cosmic rays.
Cosmic rays affect the whole body; so do some particles of radiation that drift over after an explosion. But important effects of nuclear radiation usually affect only a small part of the body. Our regulations say that no part of the body must be exposed to more than our whole body will get in the normal course of events.
I probably shouldn’t say this, since it’s a joke, and my intent might be misinterpreted, but you know people are worried about genetic effects, and there is no doubt that radiation increases the rate of genetic mutation. It is also true that without mutations, we would still be in the slate of an amoeba. All changes in the living world have been due to mutations. And while most of them are harmful, without mutations there would be no adaptation and no development.
One view of very ancient history is that during the ice ages that occurred in the past million years or so, people were driven into caves. Radiation in those caves is known to be greater than in the open. That the human race developed faster and became human may be due to radiation. But now we are out of the caves, we have stopped developing and we are becoming, therefore, stodgy and stupid. Now, please don’t take this seriously! This is not a good argument–but it is no worse than the arguments people use to try to scare you about radiation. That this argument is no worse than their arguments is no great claim.
The question of nuclear energy is critical because of the energy crunch. Since you’re so adamant about the scare tactics used against radiation, do you find that the energy crisis has been similarly overstated?
The energy shortage is very critical. It is due to a great extent almost exclusively to lack of foresight. Years ago, it was perfectly clear that the shortage was coming, and we did nothing about it. Today, we still do too little about it.
There is no single solution. What we need to do is use every possible available energy source that can be had at a reasonable price and without unreasonable pollution. That means fossil fuels, hydroelectric power, development of solar power in some forms, nuclear power, which has been developed and continues to be cleaner, safer and, very practically, less expensive than any other form of power; and that is still not the end of the list. My most recent book is titled Energy from Heaven and Earth. By that title, I mean that we need energy from wherever we can get it, as long as it is reasonable. People who capriciously and unreasonably object to a particular energy source, be it coal or nuclear or oil, really do the community a very serious disservice.
Incidentally, the people who will be hurt in the worst way by the energy crisis are the poor people in the Third World. Without energy, the developing countries cannot develop, and without energy, we can’t produce the fertilizer that their increasing populations require.
What about waste products from the production of nuclear energy? There is great concern over nuclear end products that can’t be disposed of safely.
Waste disposal has been practiced in the nuclear-weapons program for decades without accident, even though during the war, disposal was not done nearly as carefully as we are doing it now.
The American Physical Society conducted an extremely careful study on waste disposal and it published the results in January 1978. Now, the American Physical Society is not especially favorable to any particular form of energy. Its findings were unanimous: Waste disposal is a completely solved problem. Its implementation in civilian reactors has been delayed by our bureaucracy, and this delay is just plain wrong. The best characterization of this issue has been given by a very wonderful lady, now the governor of Washington, Dixy Lee Ray, who was chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. “Waste disposal,” she said, “is the biggest contemporary nonproblem.”
That’s a rather abrupt dismissal of an important issue. [See “Waste of the Pecos”] Are you referring to temporary storage of waste disposal rather than permanent storage?
I’m referring to both. Temporary storage is being practiced by putting the burned-out fuel elements into big ponds. The water cools them and stops the radiation. The temporary storage elements are easily supervised and extremely safe. After a flue element has been in temporary storage for, let us say, ten years, then we are ready to reprocess, to extract from it the valuable, long-lived, heavy elements, such as plutonium. Those elements stick around for more than 1000 human generations, but we can burn them up in other reactors within a few years. We can reuse them and get rid of them. As to what remains, those elements should be incorporated into an insoluble mass and buried a mile underground. They will never again be in touch with anything that’s alive.
What about reports that those waste products can contaminate the water table–and eventually our drinking water?
One puts the waste in a layer that is geologically stable, that has no water to carry away anything. And if there were water, the material is not soluble. You then wait for the few hundred years that radioactivity keeps diffusing, and by that time, it will be less than the radioactivity found in a uranium mine.
I want to add one thing: The military has worked on the disposal of its products–a very similar situation to what’s left over in a reactor. Actually, the amount of the material the military has disposed of is, at least for now, greater than all the material from the reactors. There never has been any serious trouble with that. A slight trouble did arise with the material that was disposed of during the Second World War by quite primitive methods, not in the elaborate way I have described. The question has been carefully studied by the American Physical Society and it has found no real problem.
You may cite the American Physical Society, but the U.S. Geological Survey has challenged the waste-disposal system we are proposing in our SALT talks with the Russians.
That’s because of a change in the system I have described, which has been made by President Carter. He has insisted that the plutonium not be separated out before disposal. He’s afraid the misuse of plutonium will lead to nuclear-weapons proliferation. So we’ve stopped extracting and reprocessing the long-lived plutonium. But other nations haven’t. We should do so once again–and deal with the proliferation problem by political means–to make waste disposal safer. It still should work, but Carter has made the job unnecessarily difficult.
What are the problems involved with nuclear reactors, as you see them?
The problems are called Ralph Nader.
As long as people who have no understanding spread their views successfully, an important component of our energy production will not make sufficient progress. Public understanding is inhibited by people who should know better. Those who are lacking in knowledge should at least talk a little less. Ralph Nader was right about safety belts; I doubt that he was right about many other things.
That’s a bit glib of you, as a major proponent of nuclear energy, to say—-
Excuse me, I am not a big proponent of nuclear energy, no more than I am of oil or coal or solar energy or geo thermal energy or wave energy or wind energy or you name it, as long as it is feasible. When you have real shortages, you don’t throw away any important components without very good reason.
It so happens that nuclear energy is the cleanest, safest, cheapest source of electricity where electricity is required in huge amounts. For small generating plants, nuclear energy is no good. Furthermore electricity is only a part of our energy requirements. Therefore, nuclear energy is certainly not the whole of the answer.
Haven’t the large oil companies blocked research in other areas of energy?
Large companies don’t suffer these days from too much popularity. And oil companies seem to be less popular than others.
Actually, oil companies have supported research in other fields and they have developed methods for finding and producing oil that are quite ingenious. About three years ago, in California, we had a referendum, Proposition 15, on nuclear reactors. I happen to know that the oil companies supported nuclear reactors and gave money for that purpose. But they did not stand up and say so. The result was that they wound up being accused by everybody. Opponents of nuclear reactors found out that they had given money; proponents of nuclear reactors noticed that the oil companies wouldn’t speak up for their convictions. They became uncertain as to whose side the oil companies were really on. So proponents didn’t like them, either. Now, to be so cautious as not to dare say what you believe in is not a lovely role, and to that extent, I can fault the oil companies.
I don’t think it holds for all of them. In general, I think that big and rich companies do have some responsibility for the common good, and a part of that responsibility, ii seems to me, would be to take a stand that is, in their own eyes, the best. Their judgment is probably better than their courage. Corporate courage is usually no greater than personal courage.
In terms of personal courage, have you not noted that many opponents of nuclear plants are willing to put themselves at risk, even go to jail, for their convictions?
How many did go to jail? And how many, instead, became famous for nothing more than telling lies? Many, I believe, do it out of mistaken conviction; some because it’s an easy road to fame, and maybe to fortune. There is a man, Amory Lovins, whose only accomplishment is his opposition to nuclear energy and similar big enterprises. He has become a famous man from this opposition alone.
Why do you urge the development of more weapons? Don’t we already have the capacity to kill our enemies–indeed, the whole world–many times over?
The reason we need more and different weapons is that this idea of overkill is, quite simply, not true.
One of Lovins’ major criticisms of nuclear power is that we produce more electricity than we need and that nuclear reactors lead us to overproduction, that using them is like “cutting butter with a chain saw.”
I certainly cannot criticize Lovins for any lack of picturesque expression, but let me talk about the butter and the chain saw. In the Sixties, electric consumption was rising seven percent a year. That rise has slackened. For a while, it was quite low; it is now back up to about four percent. Perhaps we could save more, but when you stop producing more electricity, the people you hurt are actually the poorest people, who have not yet had their share of energy consumption. Let’s say we stop building new plants. In that case, our present excess would be gone in two and a half years. To build these plants takes maybe ten years, so you do have to plan ahead.
Lovins says, Let’s build smaller units, those we can build taster. In a discussion, he was asked if the small units exist now. He said no. Then he was asked when they will exist and he said maybe in the year 2010. So he dreams about inventions that don’t yet exist and that he cannot himself invent, because he is not an inventor. He’s a dreamer with a remarkable vocabulary.
You’ve written extensively about the use of unusual energy sources, such as wave energy. Can such forms as wave energy and solar energy fill major energy needs in advanced technological societies?
We have to take them case by case. By solar energy, people often mean a lot of different things: growing plants and using the plants for fuel; collecting solar heat for heating and even cooling houses. Many of these are feasible. In my book, I try to visualize what might happen in the year 2000–I try to be fairly optimistic. I make guesses: By the year 2000, 20 percent of our energy may come from nuclear sources, 12 percent from solar sources.
You have argued that solar power is not yet developed enough for mass use. Let us quote once again from Lovins. He has said that if all the new houses built in the U.S. in the next 14 years were solar heated, we could save as much energy as we expect to recover from the North Slope oil system of Alaska.
I have not made this special calculation, but I can tell you a few things about this statement. Today, we have the means of heating water with solar power, and in our Southern states, that certainly could be done. Heating in the South, where we hardly need it, might also be done in an economic manner by solar means. But what will you do in New England or in the Midwest or in practically half the United States, where there isn’t enough sunshine? I heard Lovins say in Brussels that all the electricity for Belgium could be produced by solar heat and windmills. This is certainly not true.
The question is, can solar energy be turned into electricity? It can, but only at a price that today is at least five times as great as the price for nuclear electricity. These high costs are due to a lot of fabrication that goes into making the parts of the solar machine; unless we mass-produce, we won’t be able to pay for it. So small no longer will be beautiful; small will be expensive. When we mass-produce, that production will give incomparably more pollution and more danger than nuclear reaction. I don’t think that solar electricity is impossible forever. There are people who are coming up with new ideas and I am working with them. I want to get energy from every possible source. From nuclear, from solar, from oil and from gas–but, if possible, not from OPEC.
To summarize, the problems of nuclear and solar energies are very different. In the case of solar energy, we don’t have the practical technology yet, but it is slowly approaching the stage where its cost will not be too great per unit of energy produced. In the case of nuclear energy, we know how to produce it, but we don’t apply common reason to something that is technically well understood. Unfortunately, Jimmy Carter, the nuclear engineer in the White House, forgot what he learned, if, indeed, he ever learned it.
But people far less sophisticated than Carter feel that the enormity of nuclear power is simply beyond their grasp—-
Nuclear power is certainly beyond the grasp of anyone who doesn’t want to hear about it. If you want to understand it, you can grasp it very easily.
Considering the reservations many people have about it, don’t we have a right to be informed about what nuclear power can provide that we don’t already have?
Today, nuclear power can produce electricity wherever it is needed in large quantities. For any country that has a good electrical-distribution net, it is the cheapest, cleanest, safest source. For the horribly huge cities, the slums of the Third World–Cairo, Mexico City, Bombay, Calcutta, Djakarta, where you have 10,000,000 people living in a crowded area–nuclear power could be used to great advantage without adding pollution. Even so, nuclear power is most useful in the advanced countries, where the distribution net already exists.
By utilizing nuclear power, within ten years, the advanced countries could decrease their need for oil by 30 percent. This oil could then go to developing countries. What nuclear power could do, therefore, is not only stabilize the shaky economics of the advanced world but also help a lot of the development of the developing world, which will not develop without energy.
There are some very interesting statistics about this. The United Nations’ records from 1950 to 1975 show that percapita commercial energy consumption in the developing countries increased in that period threefold. In the developed countries, it increased twofold. It is not true that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. It is true that energy is needed for a decent standard of living. And it is further true that the developing countries continue to have too little energy.
The great development in the third quarter of the Twentieth Century has been made possible by oil. These possibilities have not ended, but the limits are in sight. For the sake of the developing world, we need added energy sources; nuclear and solar and geothermal and wave energy and others. Among these, nuclear is already here; so is coal. Nuclear energy could comprise, by the year 2000, about one fifth of the energy of the world. Today, it produces only two to three percent of the world’s energy. That 20 percent could make a difference in the world, in stability, in the accelerated fight against poverty.
Those words–father of the hydrogen bomb–are silly. I object to them mostly because they are in poor taste.
The most spectacular of your scientific achievements has been the development of the H-bomb. How do you feel about being called “father of the hydrogen bomb”?
Well, it never sent me a Father’s Day card. [Laughs]
Do you feel any pride in that accomplishment?
You work on something because you feel it is the right thing to do, and pride is just not the word.
Then, are you ashamed? Do you regret your work?
Certainly not! I feel it was necessary to do.
Is that how you feel about the rest of your work, too? Or are there things you did because you really wanted to do them?
When I first chose my work, I decided not to work on applying science but to work on understanding the meaning of the word. I did that for many years with great pleasure and even occasionally with some pride, not that I like the word in any sense. Then came World War Two and I became involved in working on weapons because of necessity, because it seemed that it had to be done.
After the war, it seemed to me that the job was left unfinished. When I heard declarations of Stalin that he “had the atomic bomb and will have much more”–that’s literally what Stalin said–there was even more reason for me to be interested. Yet I went back to theoretical physics and did nothing about it. But when the Russians exploded an atomic bomb, I became uneasy. Moreover, several of my friends came to me and said that it was now absolutely necessary that we do something about the situation. Eventually, it became clear that the Russians and we had gotten at the solution of how to make thermonuclear explosions at nearly the same time. All this was connected with much more personal and professional controversy than I have ever experienced before or after.
When it became clear that we had to work on the hydrogen bomb, I went to see my friend Enrico Fermi and implored him to take over the job. I would have been glad to work for him. He said no. I went to another friend, Hans Bethe. He said yes; then, a day or two later, he reneged. It’s not that I wanted to do it–it had to be done.
The idea that any person can accomplish a lot in a complicated field like this one is quite misleading. Afterward, I wrote an article about the development titled “The Work of Many People.” That is exactly what it was. Perhaps I worked on the problem somewhat longer than other people; perhaps I worked more consistently when the going, in a psychological sense, became quite difficult. In a way, I’m glad that we didn’t fail. But all this has nothing to do with “pride.”
Those words–father of the hydrogen bomb–are silly. I object to them mostly because they are in poor taste. I have children.
Did you advocate the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam?
I participated in the discussions of nuclear weapons in Vietnam and I opposed their use as completely and as forcefully as I have ever opposed anything.
I had a very simple reason for doing so. Nuclear weapons are not appropriate against guerrillas. They can be used against a massive invading force, but that is not what we were dealing with in Vietnam. Our forces had extensive military bases that were vulnerable to nuclear weapons. The Viet Cong was not vulnerable. For us to have initiated nuclear warfare in Vietnam would have been not only inhuman but, in every sense of the word, complete madness. Let me say–on this I must absolutely insist–that the one purpose that I have is to avoid the horrible event of a nuclear exchange with Russia. But if there should be one, the Russians have taken precautions, so that, in all probability, the damage to human life in Russia would be considerably less than it was in the Second World War. They probably would lose less than five percent of their population. Since we have done virtually nothing about our civil defense, we would lose more than 50 percent of our population, and the U.S. would no longer exist as a power, a political entity, even as an idea. Our way of life would have become nonexistent, just as the enemies of Stalin have become nonpersons.
Wait a minute. Less than five percent of the Soviet population would be affected? Most published figures show that an 80 percent destruction of Russia is expected in case of such an attack by tile U.S. Where do you get your figures?
That 80 percent figure, to the best of my knowledge, is out of date. The trouble is that all these discussions are carried out in secret and I don’t even know how much of it can be quoted. My figure, five percent or less, comes from non-Government sources. It is compatible with a high degree of property damage, but I wouldn’t say as high as 80 percent. However, the Russian people would survive, and the Russians have a superiority in number of nuclear explosives that might easily become great enough so that after such an exchange, they still had a terrific striking force by which they could coerce any nation on earth to deliver to them whatever they wanted–food, machinery, labor–so their property losses could be replaced in an exceedingly short time. Remember the economic miracle in Germany and Japan. Remember that our total national assets equal approximately three years of the gross national product, so it shows that property can be replaced, and rapidly, even without outside help. Human beings cannot.
But, going back to your figures, what makes you sure that the Russian population is so much more secure than the American? Does their civil-defense program really make them more secure?
Our information shows that the great numbers of truly well-constructed shelters exist for those workers who would have to stay behind after evacuation.
But wouldn’t the radiation levels after nuclear attack make the shelter programs useless?
In a nuclear war, the so-called maximum permissible dose of nuclear radiation would be exceeded, perhaps for everybody in the whole world, but a radiation dose even 1000 times the so-called maximum permissible dose would still produce only limited damage. Damage, yes, but still limited. The direct effects of nuclear explosion–the shock, the heat, the fires–these are terrible. Because we have been oversensitized to the effects of low-level radiation, we have lost all sense of proportion when discussing a situation as bad as war. Just as 100,000 people were killed at the end of World War Two by nuclear weapons, and then one person died by fallout and got the public reaction, so in other cases where people talk about overkill, they project a chance of something that is terrible, but could still be avoided, into a prediction of certainty.
Do the Russians, in fact, have an edge on us in military and scientific capability?
They have a proved edge on us in the quantity of weapons. We like to claim that qualitatively we are ahead. Unfortunately, the statement about quantity can be proved, but that about quality is much less provable.
In this country, military efforts are attacked from all sides. Scientists are discouraged from pursuing military projects. In Russia, work on weapons is encouraged to the limit.
Doesn’t the ingenuity of American scientists make up for that–especially since Soviet scientists don’t have much of a choice in the projects they work on?
It may. The proverb “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” is true, but it has its limits. Sooner or later, all horses want to drink. In the end, all scientists want to work on some technical problem. Any scientist, under most conditions, will try to do his best.
Consider a man like Andrei Sakharov. I don’t know in any detail what is going on behind the Iron Curtain, but it seems he has made great contributions to Russian military preparedness. He turned around politically and is now in the opposition. This took an incredible amount of courage. One person among thousands has that kind of courage. The great majority will justify to themselves what they are doing. If you grow up in a country where the only permitted or publicized words are those of the Communist Party, it takes a rare combination of courage and intelligence to speak differently. There are matters on which I differ from my fellow scientists, but not from the whole society. Even that limited experience has taught me how difficult it is to take a different view from that of those who are around you. What a man like Sakharov has to suffer is really terrible, and I think I understand how rare that kind of behavior actually is.
From what we can find out, die Russian scientists are highly ingenious, just as ingenious as American scientists. I think it is highly likely that among these many ingenious people, a much greater fraction works willingly on weapons than in the United States. It is likely that the Russians today have not only a greater quantitative advantage but probably even a qualitative edge.
Our Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, a truly ingenious man, made a public statement when he first took office. It contained the sentence, “I consider it my job that we should not fall too far behind the Russians.” For a Secretary of Defense to be as open as that is, in itself, a remarkable thing.
Isn’t your advice based on a rather extreme distrust of the Russians?
I trust the Russians to pursue their ideals. I don’t happen to agree with some of their ideals. For instance, I don’t happen to believe that the world would be best off under Russian rule. They feel that their way of life is the best, but on that point, some refugees seem to differ. I tend to agree with Alexander Solzhenitsyn more than I agree with Leonid Brezhnev. I also trust Solzhenitsyn more than I trust Brezhnev.
Do you see any point to the SALT talks?
It may make sense to negotiate with the Russians from a position of strength. But today we are negotiating from a position of weakness–and that makes less sense.
Are you really convinced that the Russians want to conquer additional territory?
It is very hard to be convinced of that, but their influence has greatly increased recently: in Afghanistan, perhaps in Iran, in part of Yemen, where one of the richest sources of oil, Saudi Arabia, may well get involved. The Russian influence in Ethiopia, in Angola, in Somalia is a matter of record. You cannot avoid the feeling that there is an explanation for why Russia insists on having enough arms to defend itself against an “attack” by the whole world. Their standard of living is low, yet they pour much more money and talent into military preparedness than do we in the United States. I cannot exclude the possibility that the Russians, who are convinced that their Communist way of life is the only right one, are altruistic enough to want to make sure that the rest of the world participates in their excellent way of life–whether it wants to or not.
If the Russians are both stronger and more aggressive than we are, you must be pretty pessimistic about this nation’s defense.
I am not pessimistic. I define a pessimist as a person who is always right but does not get any enjoyment out of it. An optimist is a person who imagines that the future is uncertain. I consider it a duty to be an optimist, because if you imagine the future to be uncertain, you are apt to do something about it.
Optimistic or not, you’re still claiming the Soviets are ahead of us quantitatively and probably qualitatively. That doesn’t square with what we read about U.S. superiority in multiple-warhead missiles, in missile submarines and in the superior accuracy of our weapons systems in general. Isn’t it a fact, for instance, that Russia’s missiles are bigger than ours because they are less accurate?
You are asking about Russian secrets, and Russian secrets are not only unknown to us but, to the extent that they are known, we keep them more tightly than our own secrets. I cannot talk about that. But there is a dangerous effect that everybody should keep in mind. If you do something your way, and I do something my way, I am very easily led to jump to the conclusion that you do things your way because you are a fool. It may be that you have reasons to do them that way, and if I were fully aware of the circumstances in Russia, I could answer the questions better–if I were allowed to answer them.
We can deal only with what we know. Why should we assume that the Soviets are more powerful than we are, if we have no solid evidence to that effect?
We have quite a bit of evidence. For instance, we have evidence of their number of ships, their number of explosives, the weight of their explosives, from which we can quantitatively conclude that they are ahead. In areas where we can only guess, we imagine that we are ahead.
Can’t we draw some conclusions from their space program? That deals with much the same technology as defense, and ours is considered far superior to theirs.
You don’t think so?
I don’t think so and I don’t think the opposite, either. I don’t know. The Americans’ emphasis was on an effort to land on the moon. We did, and in that respect, our victory was obvious and I’m happy about it. The Russians don’t talk about everything they are doing. We know that they have very good people working on their space program. We know that the best of the Russian scientists are deeply involved in their military effort, while ours are not. We know that their military-research expenditures are greater than ours. We have here, in regard to quality, a race between the hare and the turtle. The American hare could still outrun the Russian turtle if he would only run; but we are resting on the glories of past accomplishments and our scientists generally don’t like to work on the making of weapons.
With the world having become much smaller, with interactions with other nations so much greater, the United States today is no safer than Poland was in 1939.
Is there an area in which you see the U.S. at a military advantage?
Yes. We’re ahead in electronics, particularly computers. And that brings us to one of my favorite hobbyhorses, secrecy. Let’s contrast nuclear weapons and electronic computers. In nuclear weapons, we had secrecy–now the Russians are ahead of us. In electronics and computers, we had practically no secrecy and we are way ahead of the Russians. That is not due to chance. Computers and other electronics in general, such as television and those other remarkable things, are badly needed in a consumerist society. Therefore, we are motivated toward the development of these instruments.
What we have not done but what we could and should do is to apply our advanced electronics, particularly miniaturized electronics, to produce instruments of war, so that we can take people farther away from the scene of action. In other words, I want to see remotely piloted airplanes, remotely navigated ships, remotely steered tanks. All these instruments can have any number of sensors. They can see, they can hear, they can feel, they can communicate. And they can take orders as to how to act under any circumstances.
This is a field in which I would like nothing better than cooperation with Israel. Israel has something to contribute. In the United States, as I said, for a scientist to work on defense is not easy. If he does so, and I should know, he is subject to all kinds of criticism–not all of it truthful, not all of it agreeable. In Israel, defense has been recognized as an honorable and necessary business.
What do you think should be clone to ensure our defense?
We cannot ensure. The world never has been safe, and it is not safe now. The United States used to be much more secure than it is now because of our ocean barriers. With the world having become much smaller, with interactions with other nations so much greater, the United States today is no safer than Poland was in 1939. Poland lasted only a few weeks when Hitler’s attack came. For Americans, this is a new situation to which they have not yet really adjusted.
The first step is to notice that there is trouble. Once we stop fooling ourselves, once we stop asking the wrong questions, once we stop giving the wrong answers because those answers are expected of us, then there may be some hope.
Are you saying that we need to establish a mentality in this country that is more militaristic?
Certainly not! Most people think of militaristic as not just having military power but misusing that power.
In 1945, the U.S. occupied great regions of western Europe and all of Japan. West Germany and Japan recovered. Our military people had power, but they did not misuse it. The proof is the simple fact that West Germany and Japan are our friends today. Of course, there were places where we misused our power. It would be inhuman if it never happened, but on the whole, it did not happen.
We can and must call the Nazis militarists. When their military forces occupied countries, power was misused. As for the Russians in eastern Europe; consider the unsuccessful uprising in Hungary in 1956. As a Hungarian, I know that the Russians have misused their power.
But if the word militaristic signifies a minimum amount of preparedness, as much as we need for the safety of freedom, then I am for it, no matter what word you use.
There is one reason why I particularly admire the Israelis. In the rest of the world, practically without exception, there is a gulf between intellectuals and the rest of the people, most certainly between the intellectuals and the politicians. The one country where this gulf does not exist is Israel. Israel was founded by intellectuals. When they got to Israel, they found that they could not survive without turning into peasants, but they stayed intellectuals. To be an intellectual is a hard habit to break. When they found that they’d be destroyed by the Arabs unless they learned to defend themselves, they turned into soldiers–but stayed intellectuals. That is why they are so vital, why they continue to exist.
What measures of defense can you recommend, besides weapons?
The thing we must do, first of all, is establish civil defense, to make sure that in case of any disaster, earthquake, hurricane or war, we can save people. This is neglected in this country.
Do you know what China, Russia, Sweden and Switzerland have in common? They all have strong civil defense. Yet you would not call Sweden and Switzerland militaristic. There are many things we ought to do, but among my priorities, the highest is civil defense.
Are you saying we should get back to building bomb shelters, as we did in the Fifties during the bomb-scare period?
What we did was talk a lot about bomb shelters. The Russians today are doing a lot with bomb shelters. We know they have a plan to evacuate their cities in case they judge a conflict inevitable. We should take the easy first step of arranging evacuation. Other steps may come later.
Aren’t civil-defense measures pathetically ineffective in the face of nuclear war and its awesome radiation?
I remember what people were talking about before World War Two. They said that cities would be bombed and there would be no defense. But there was defense. The bombings were dreadful. They were also relatively ineffective in determining the outcome of the war. Measures taken–evacuation and going into cellars–turned out to be, in most cases, really effective.
This feeling that you are now experiencing, that a war would be the end, is the feeling I encountered in 1937. One effect of it was that it softened up the democracies for the attack by Hitler–it did not deter Hitler. Today, it makes us disregard civil defense. The same is not the case in Russia. I don’t like to think about a nuclear war, either. War is not unthinkable, but to think about it is very disagreeable. Yet the only way to avoid it is to think about it. The Russians have evacuation procedures, and if they do, it seems to make sense that we should, too. Furthermore, they have a system of inexpensive shelters that reduce radiation a hundredfold. They are supplied for two weeks. In almost all cases, radiation will have dropped to a tolerable level in two weeks. In the remaining cases, there could probably be decontamination crews coming around.
The difference between nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs should be emphasized. In a nuclear reactor, material is produced that is radioactive, not indefinitely but for a long time. In a nuclear explosion, the radioactivity that is produced lasts a very short time.
It seems that all sorts of countries are acquiring nuclear materials. Sometimes, as in the case of Pakistan, nuclear materials arc acquired for supposedly peaceful purposes but actually with the intent to make weapons. How can we halt nuclear proliferation?
The ban on reprocessing is supposed to help limit the spread of nuclear arms, but it does not. A ban is, however, a real impediment to the development of nuclear energy and, as a result, the energy crisis will become worse. More people will suffer, there will be violent fights over short supplies. The instruments of war will not have been diminished; the reasons for war will have increased.
There is another proposal, one that our President has made, but he has not so far followed it up. Instead of banning reprocessing, we should bring reprocessing under international control. The sense of this is not only in having a strong hold over proliferation but in holding down the high costs of reprocessing for each single reactor. It makes sense for small countries to do their reprocessing with others.
If we could build an organization that serviced many countries and was under thorough supervision, that would create progress, not only toward more and cheaper energy but also toward more, and more peaceful, international cooperation.
What else can be done to increase our sense of security?
Minimizing secrecy to the extent that it is possible–which is to a very great extent. One of our main dangers is that we don’t inform our public. We keep Russian secrets, in many cases, more carefully than our own. Our people live in a fool’s paradise. Perhaps a realistic information campaign is even more important than any physical act of defense.
A few years ago, I gave a talk to the American Physical Society and I was asked afterward if I realized what merits Daniel Ellsberg had in fighting secrecy. My answer to that was that Ellsberg is guilty of a crime and a misdemeanor. The crime was that he himself classified gossip as secret while lie worked at the Rand Corporation. The misdemeanor was that after he had so classified it, he published it in The New York Times.
As long as we have passed laws concerning secrecy–whether these laws are right or wrong–I believe we should obey them. What we should do, however, is to convince members of Congress that these laws do not serve their purpose, that they should be changed. What I would like to see is a situation in which anything could be classified–and we should respect the classification–but the duration of that classification should practically never exceed one year. Most cases in which we really have to keep secrets are operational matters–such as where a submarine has gone–and a year later, that can be known. In technical matters, where developments have an enduring validity, actual secrecy is hardly ever effective over a long period of time. It is only effective in preventing us from communicating with our colleagues, working with our allies. Now, there may be a very few exceptional cases where permission to prolong secrecy past one year should be granted by a small group of very highly placed people. I could not justify such secrecy for more than, perhaps, 1000 documents. We are now drowning in millions upon millions of secret documents.
How about other areas where secrecy is practiced? In intelligence gathering, for example?
The identity of an agent is a matter that must be kept secret for a long time. But there is no need to write documents about it. That can be handled on a person-to-person basis, with very few people involved. It is when the cooperation of large numbers of people is needed that secrecy cannot last and should not be made to last.
Once we adopted an open system, we could deny help to any country that did not exercise similar openness. That would have many advantages. We are afraid of proliferation of nuclear weapons. I don’t want to see them proliferate. But what I am most afraid of is secret proliferation of weapons. The chance of a terrorist’s being able to make a nuclear bomb is very small. The chance that a government can make a nuclear bomb is considerable. And they can make them with such confidence that the weapons need never be tested.
Shortly after the Second World War, Niels Bohr, that remarkable man who started modern atomic theory, said that in the Cold War, one should expect that each side would use the weapon that it could handle in the best way. The right weapon for a dictatorship is secrecy, the right weapon for a democracy is openness. That sounds rather paradoxical. Openness does not seem to be a weapon, but it could make us strong; it could be the instrument by which peace were made more secure.
Despite your calls for openness, you told us at the outset of the interview that the one topic you would not discuss was the article on the H-bomb that a court prevented The Progressive magazine from publishing. Why not?
I feel very certain that something that is being contested in the courts should not be discussed in an interview. [Ironically, nuclear scientist Theodore Postol claims that the Progressive article, which he has read, contains no new information beyond a previous article on the H-bomb written by Teller for the 1977 edition of “Encyclopedia Americana.”]
How do you feel about being called a reactionary?
I deny that I am a left-winger or a right-winger. I am a middle-of-the-roader. I am pretty sure that I used to be a liberal. I used to be antimilitarist. Before the Second World War, the greatest danger to freedom was Adolf Hitler. Today the greatest danger to freedom is the Soviet Union. I don’t think that I have changed my mind about freedom. I cannot feel that I am less liberal than I used to be. But there are people in this country and abroad who have not noticed that there is something really dangerous in Communist imperialism. As a young man, I was a liberal; today I feel I am a conservative. But I haven’t changed; the world around me has changed.
What is the nature of your work now?
I’m feeling badly overworked now, after just finishing my book on energy. I think that intellectuals who end up in hell will have to read page proofs and check indexes there. I am now editing a technical book on controlled fusion for advanced students who might go into that field. It has become an immensely complicated technical subject, and there is much progress in the field. I am also writing about the history of technology. And I have been urged to write something rapidly on the influence of technology on modern warfare.
I lecture quite a bit. On top of that, I am trying to understand one or two phenomena of nature. With all of this work, I would probably be going crazy, except for the fact that, probably, I already am crazy!
You’ve worked with some of the most famous scientists of the 20th Century–in physics and in mathematics. Who left particularly strong impressions on you?
All of them. Of course, I was closer personally to some of them. I would like to mention one to whom I was not close in the scientific field but very close to personally. This was the aerodynamicist Theodore von Karman. He was a truly wonderful person, a Hungarian. Another very close friend is the nuclear physicist Eugene Wigner. I seem to talk only about Hungarians, I don’t know why.
What about Albert Einstein?
I had little opportunity to know Einstein. He, of course, did really fabulous things when he was young. Later, he got involved in what he called unified field theory. He did not get very far with it. He made some moralistic statements with which I am in complete disagreement. He said some terrible things, such as, “If I had known what would come out of it, I would rather have been a plumber than a physicist.” Actually, his scientific work had very little to do with atomic energy. The job of a scientist is to do science, maybe to apply it, and then, if he is capable of doing so, to explain what he has found. To feel responsible for what is in nature, or to feel responsible for having increased the capability of people to accomplish something–such feelings are completely misplaced. In a democratic society, the people should decide, or their elected representatives to whom they have delegated their decisions should. To believe that a scientist has more responsibility than to discover, to apply and to explain is a remarkable and wrong kind of immodesty.
No fewer than 11 of your scientific co-authors have won the Nobel Prize. A great many people think you ought to get it, too. Do you regret not getting it? Do you want it?
In 1975, I got the Harvey Prize from Israel’s Technion. That prize means more to me than any honor, any other prize. I still have some ambitions. My greatest one is to contribute what I can, in a very disturbing situation, to a safer future. That other prize, which happens to be named after the inventor of high explosives, is not one of my particular ambitions.
Many scientists with whom we’ve spoken feel your work clearly deserves that prize—-
But I disagree.
Nevertheless, there is a feeling among them that you were not awarded the Nobel because of your political stance.
What makes me tick, what my motivations are, I understand only partly. The motives of others I cannot know at all. As far as I’m concerned, I wouldn’t have awarded the prize to myself, and that should suffice.
Few events have affected you personally as much as the Oppenheimer affair. How do you recall it?
Oppenheimer was accused of security violations. The question was raised whether his clearance, his access to secret material, in his continuing contributions to the work of defense, should be continued or not. In the hearings, one of the questions that was brought up was the controversy of the H-bomb. I had been for it. Oppenheimer was against it. The difference was brought up, I was asked to testify and I got–very much to my regret–involved in the case.
Because I disagreed with a man who stood up at the time for practically no more arms for the United States–I took the opposite view–I was harshly criticized. But I doubt that all of that is of any real significance.
There is one thing about the Oppenheimer case that is extremely important. It crystallized and reinforced in the minds of scientists the opinion that we should no longer work on weapons. The fact that today America is in a weak position and Russia is the strongest military power, and getting stronger every year, is due to the Oppenheimer case and the events surrounding it.
The Oppenheimer hearings should never have occurred. They did because two very difficult people were stubborn. One of them was President Eisenhower. Oppenheimer was accused of being a Communist, and it was clear that if the case were brought up publicly, there would be a bitter fight. If Eisenhower did not trust Oppenheimer, he simply should not have asked for his advice. If he had taken that path, there would have been no controversy, no case.
The other stubborn man was Oppenheimer himself. The chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, my friend Lewis Strauss, said to Oppenheimer, “The President insists that your clearance be terminated. We have only to terminate it, we do not need to explain why.” Oppenheimer said no, he wanted a hearing.
The reasons why Eisenhower and Oppenheimer wanted that confrontation were very different. That the confrontation occurred was a tragedy. I, unfortunately, was caught up in that confrontation, and under oath I had to say what I thought about the questions asked, even though my answers were quite unpopular among my colleagues.
You were unpopular because you seemed to be supporting the accusations against Oppenheimer. Of course he wanted a hearing. If you were in his position, a loyal citizen whose clearance suddenly came into question, wouldn’t you want a hearing?
No, and I’ll tell you why. If I were told that my advice on military matters was not required, I would be perfectly content not to have to do anything more about it. No one should be a judge in his own case.
Are you saying that if your loyalty were questioned–as Oppenheimer’s was–and aspersions were cast on your character—-
Look, excuse me, the aspersions were not a public affair. Oppenheimer had taken the position that his main interest was thenceforth in pure science. He was given the opportunity to withdraw from those affairs in which he said he did not have a primary interest. If one person felt that Oppenheimer was not loyal, well, perhaps that required that the question be cleared up as completely as possible. But you asked how I would react. I think I am loyal. If somebody wanted to destroy my clearance for any reason, I would leave it to others to judge and would not want to contest it. You asked me how I would behave and that is what I would do.
Most people wouldn’t consider that an adequate answer.
Because most people would not react that way. To have one’s loyalty questioned in public or in private is a serious matter that caused Oppenheimer considerable grief.
Look, if in my own mind I have a fair idea of my motives, whether others like my motives or not doesn’t particularly bother me.
Then, as to your motives, can you say definitely that there was no feeling of malice in your testimony against Oppenheimer?
May I say that that testimony was delivered under oath? To speak under oath is a heavy responsibility, and I felt it to be so. Under those conditions, to say anything except what you’re convinced of cannot be pardoned, shouldn’t be pardoned and usually is not pardoned.
Oppenheimer was a man whom I admired, whom in many ways I did not understand, whom a few years later I recommended for the Fermi award. To the extent that I know myself, there was not any more malice in my testimony about Oppenheimer than there was in my recommendation that he get that award.
Your name has been linked with those of Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger. To what extent did you know them?
To the extent that my name is connected with Rockefeller and Kissinger, I am proud of it. Nelson Rockefeller was one of the few politicians who was willing, anxious and able to listen. One thing that I managed to convince Nelson of, though he didn’t have much success with it, was the importance of civil defense. That Nelson Rockefeller never became President of the United States is one of our great missed opportunities. If there was any political figure with whom I agreed in practically everything, it was Nelson Rockefeller.
What do you think of Henry Kissinger?
Kissinger was one of Rockefeller’s helpers. It was at one of the continuing discussion groups that I first met Henry. I have known him for more than 20 years and it is always a pleasure to talk to him. I had an earlier opportunity than most Americans to enjoy his intelligence and his wit. I happen to believe that in an exceedingly difficult situation for a number of years, he managed our foreign policy in the best possible way, probably better than any of our other Secretaries of State.
The way you react to people is unique. For example, you liked Richard Nixon at first sight, but as for John F. Kennedy, you cold-shouldered him despite his effort to please you by approving of your role in the Oppenheimer case.
Kennedy was not only insincere, he imagined he could please me by mentioning a scandalous book that accused people who happened not to be my friends of all sorts of things.
I met Nixon because a friend of mine wanted to build a subway in Los Angeles and asked me to talk to the then Vice-President, who came from that area. He pointed out that if a subway were built, it might also be useful for civil defense. Now, Nixon completely neglected to make any flattering remarks, which most politicians do. Instead, he invited me to sit down in a comfortable chair, listened to me for half an hour, without interrupting, then questioned me for another half hour, in a way that made it very clear that he had listened in detail.
Did you hold any position in the Nixon Administration?
Not really. I was named to an intelligence advisory board. In that connection, we saw Nixon from time to time. I think it was a somewhat useful position, on some occasions.
And you can’t tell us which, because that information’s classified?
Oh, everything was classified. The only thing I never heard anything about was Watergate.
Do you think that our society rewards scientists appropriately, financially speaking?
I doubt that in the greatest days of music, which is my favorite kind of art, the giants of the period became particularly rich men. I don’t think that Bach, Mozart or Beethoven got rich. I don’t think that it is a real necessity that excellent scientists today should do better in a financial respect.
Perhaps with fewer cares and difficulties, Mozart would have lived longer. I don’t want to underestimate the importance of material rewards. Scientists get some. Whether or not it is enough, I am not particularly concerned. The reason to work is the work itself. The nice part of living in an affluent society is that financial rewards are no longer quite as improbable as they were when the lot of the average person was much harder than it is today in the United States.
What is your opinion of the caliber of American science today?
There are a lot of excellent American scientists, a lot of admirable achievements. To praise it is superfluous and, in a way, meaningless, because you can’t do so without going into details.
It is necessary, however, to criticize it. It tends to be over-specialized. American scientists, unlike Israeli scientists, have lost touch with the people. Perhaps because of that, they have tended to lose touch with one another. More and more, I see that scientists split up into tiny groups and only the “in” group understands the language. In the end, I suspect that some scientists might find themselves in a position where only they understand what they are talking about. More clarity, more attention to expressing one’s ideas, in a generally understandable fashion, and a very little dose of modesty would do all of us good.
Of your generation of scientists, many were educated abroad. What is your opinion of scientific education in the United States today?
I got my Ph.D. degree when I was barely 22 years old. I here were many of my generation who got it at a younger age. American education is strung out over too long a period. It is planned in too great detail. Academic freedom today means that the professors can do whatever they like. Academic freedom in Europe meant that the students could study whatever they liked. I had the best of both worlds, because I was a student in Europe and a professor here. I still believe that a greater freedom of choice in the subjects of education and an earlier completion of education would be helpful. I am greatly worried about what is now going on in our high schools. I do not mean only the distractions, such as violence, I also mean that scientific subjects are presented in a boring manner and few students get the impression that there is high excitement in understanding the laws of nature. There is one subject that is taught to our young people in a really first-class manner. Please don’t take this in a facetious way–our teaching of football is excellent. The indication of this is that children who want to be good football players don’t complain that the work is too hard. If we can establish the spirit where the young people want more rather than less, that is a good sign. But that sign is absent in the science classes of our high schools.
Science has been the religion of our time. You have been present at some of its most spectacular moments. Is science the answer, or a major answer, to the world’s problems?
I have to say no. It was said about Gertrude Stein that she asked on her deathbed, “What is the answer?” and didn’t get any answer. Then she asked, “What is the question?” and at that point she died. I believe that not only does science lack the answer, it even lacks the question.
Science, like the very best of art, is fascinating. You could have asked me with equal justification whether or not Mozart had the answer. Almost equal justification, because science also has another role. Science has become closely connected with technology. In my mind, technology is the greatest of all humanizing influences. Of course, many young people today say that science is dehumanizing. What they mean is that technology can be misused. I say technology is humanizing because it makes the difference between us humans and the rest of the living world ever greater. Therefore, it makes us more human. I have not said whether it is good or bad to be human. I believe, in fact, it is both. Now, we have some sort of question, but it is not a question that can be answered by any single portion of human activity.
Are there any particular discoveries you wish you had gotten to first?
There are many–but absolutely none about which I feel any regret. Scientific insight is beautiful. That excludes, or at least diminishes, any feeling of jealousy and any overemphasis on competition. But all that holds only as long as scientists remain strictly scientists.
You may not remain strictly a scientist. There have been rumors you might enter politics, perhaps run for the Senate from California against Alan Cranston. Would you care to comment?
Now, I am going to tell you something that sounds very improbable: that is that I am thinking–and you know, thinking is a very dangerous occupation and I don’t do it very often, partly because I find it habit-forming, partly because it sometimes gives surprising results–I am thinking of the possibility that I might conceivably be running for the Senate seat from California. When one starts to think, one never knows what will happen next.
Those sound to us like the words of a politician tentatively throwing his hat into the ring.
But I am not a politician. That’s the only reason I might consider doing such a crazy thing as to run against an exceedingly popular Senator like Cranston. No man in his right senses would think about that, but I do. And I’m really thinking about it.
What do you think you could offer the citizens of California that Cranston cannot?
Cranston is a popular Senator who does everything he possibly can for his constituents. He is a nice man. I happen to disagree with him on some very important issues. I believe the 1980s will be dangerous years. The energy problem is only one of the danger signals. I think that to look after everyone’s special interests will not do. We have to save ourselves all together. You know, I came from Hungary; I saw that country go down and it was a nightmare. I studied in Germany; I saw Hitler’s rise to power because there were not enough farsighted people who would put aside their differences to stop him. We are heading into danger, and having had this experience, I don’t know whether I can help. Senator Hayakawa has mentioned that he might support me. And if a good man like Hayakawa tells me to try, then I want to stop to listen and consider.
On what issues would you run?
The energy issue is obviously going to be of interest to voters. There’s another one: inflation. With something like 50 billion dollars going abroad for oil each year, inflation cannot be stopped. You can then try to quarrel about who should bear the burden. The main point is not be distribute the wealth but to get at the cause of it, to solve the energy problem, in every possible way, not only from nuclear reactors but from solar energy, from oil, from wherever we can get it, from our good neighbors in Mexico.
One of the most important reasons for the strength of the United States has throughout its existence been its spirit of innovation. Our young people are beginning to be afraid of innovation, particularly innovation in technology. They take all the good things that come to them for granted. Without the development of the proper use of technology, America will not remain strong and may not remain free. To discuss the questions raised by technology in all field is one of the main reasons–perhaps the main reason–I am thinking of such a strange thing as politics. Because to most politicians, the very foundations of technology are obscure. Of course, knowledge of technology and science is not enough. But I have been buffeted around in a number of situations where I got at least a little acquainted with the people in politics, so I might just be able to be of some real use in the questions that develop when technology and politics get into contact or conflict. The elections in 1980 might turn out to be the last chance for Americans to select the way of action that might save all of us from rather harsh consequences.
Your reputation as a scientist has been contentious. Could you learn the political arts of compromise?
There are many people I like from both political parties. There might be a very few with whom, in the end, I could not work. But they are minority. You know, it turned out that even among physicists, I managed to work with a great number at one time or another, and if there is a group of people crazier than politicians, it may well be physicists.
Well, that wraps it up, unless there is something you would like to add.
Best regards to the centerfold.
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The people of Carlsbad, New Mexico are possibly the only people in North America who were willing even to consider welcoming, near their town, the first permanent underground repository for the United States Government’s millions of cubic feet of accumulated radioactive wastes.