Thank you so much for meeting with us today. I was wondering if you could start by telling us about yourself and how you became involved with issues of disarmament and nonproliferation.
Well, my name is Siegfried Hecker. I spent most of my professional career at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and so it’s sort of natural when you’re in the place that’s the birthplace of the bomb to be involved with nuclear-related issues. But the nonproliferation-related issues or arms control came much later in my professional life. I came to Los Alamos as a summer student; I went back as a postdoc and then eventually as technical staff member. I eventually became [the laboratory] director. And so what I did for the first half of my career was technical research before becoming director of Los Alamos and worried about the Soviet Union. Then after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I really began to become much more involved in issues related to arms control, proliferation, nuclear terrorism, nuclear security.
Could you tell us a bit how your opinion or your views on nonproliferation maybe changed over time with the fall of the Cold War?
During the Cold War, most of our focus was naturally on the Soviet Union, and perhaps some concern about China also, but primarily about the Soviet Union. The world was in essence in two big ideological or political blocks, and so the concern and the focus was on the Soviet Union. And then once the Soviet Union broke up, then clearly this was a whole different world. And especially during that time one had concerns with additional countries developing nuclear capabilities. There was so much more knowledge for nuclear weapons that was available. So many more nuclear materials were available. And then politically, many countries felt that they had to take care of themselves because they no longer necessarily belonged in one of the two camps, and so my main concerns about proliferation really start with the end of the Soviet Union.
Could you tell us a little bit about your time serving as director of Los Alamos National Labs? What was some memorable experiences or people you met?
It was an exciting time. It was from the start of 1986 through essentially the end of 1997, and it was just exciting. I was the fifth director of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Of course, the first director was J. Robert Oppenheimer during the Manhattan Project and so just following in the footsteps of some of these famous scientists and having a chance to still meet some of the famous scientists that were involved in the Manhattan Project was certainly a real highlight of my directorship. But, the awesome responsibilities that one has for the nuclear arsenal, at least the part that Los Alamos designed was really first and foremost my greatest responsibility and certainly also the most memorable one having to testify in Congress about the, let’s say, health of that nuclear arsenal. But politically, the most important thing that happened during that time was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the recognition that our world had just changed dramatically. Before it was the strength of the Soviet Union that concerned Americans and concerned me as the Director of Los Alamos. After the collapse, it was the weakness of Russia that concerned us most because all of a sudden we worried about, what’s going to happen to the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons that they had. The million plus kilograms of fissile materials, in essence, the bomb fuel. And what about this enormous nuclear complex? What about the million people that they had working in their nuclear complex during Soviet days, both civilian and military? So those were all really memorable issues and then going first to Russia in February of 1992 was probably one of my most memorable moments. But having said all of that, for Los Alamos and for the nuclear community, much of my personal satisfaction also came from the basic research and civilian activities at Los Alamos. We were also involved in the beginning of the human genome project, which was enormously exciting at times when many of the biologists didn’t believe that you could map and sequence the human genome. But, the big science capabilities of places like Los Alamos or Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory made those things possible.
Could you talk about life in Russia in 1992 really quickly?
About the trip?
Yes and about your experience.
So, for us and the relationship with Soviet Union and then Russia, the biggest change actually came prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union, and that was in 1988. And following, a very important summit at Reykjavik where presidents Reagan and Gorbachev almost (and they got this close) eliminated nuclear weapons, but they couldn’t quite get there, one of the things that they agreed upon at the summit was to find ways to be able to verify one of the test ban treaties that was essentially in limbo. It had been signed, it was called the “Threshold Test Ban Treaty for Nuclear Testing”. It was signed in 1974; however, it was never ratified by the United States or Soviet Union. And so the two presidents decided, “Look why don’t we have these scientists find a way to verify that we’re actually observing the limits of that test ban treaty.” And what that did was it wound up bringing Soviet scientists onto the test site in Nevada and U.S. scientists onto the Soviet test site in what now is Semipalatinsk. And that was our first meeting with our Soviet nuclear weapons counterparts. And that was an enormous eye opener. We found out, just like they did, they didn’t have horns and we didn’t have horns and that we very much had sort of the same issues that drove us towards nuclear weapons work. And that is the hope that, in the end, deterrence will work, and these weapons will never be used again. So that was the exposure. From that point on, and these nuclear experiments were done in 1988, August and September. From that point on, I lobbied Washington to say, “Hey look, these guys, they’re very much like us. We really ought to get together to see whether we can cooperate, now that the world is changing.” And that eventually then led to the fact that I went to the closed cities of Russia, in other words their Los Alamos and then their equivalent of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, within two months after the breakup of the Soviet Union, that was February of 1992. And it was absolutely amazing. I mean, these cities were not just closed cities, they were secret cities. They didn’t appear on Soviet maps. Presumably they didn’t exist. Of course our intel agencies knew they existed, and they had code names for them. Arzamas-16 was their Los Alamos, Chelyabinsk-70 was their Lawrence Livermore. And I’m sure our intelligence agencies spent billions of dollars trying to figure out what actually was being done in those places. We went in and they just showed us. They took us around to the laboratories; we talked to the scientists. That’s really when it clicked to both them and to us to say, “Look we need to work together to see how we can make the world a safer place.” And just this morning, I spoke to one of the people that I met in Russia at the time because we’re working on writing a book together. And the book will be to document this twenty-plus years of U.S-Soviet nuclear cooperation. So the change of the world, instead of pointing weapons against each other, what can we do to make sure the world is a safer place?
Looking at U.S.-Russia relations today and the phone call you had this morning, do you think that the nuclear cooperation has come to a standstill or is there still a way to move forward in the future?
We actually hope, and discussed this morning, that in spite of the difficult political situation, nuclear cooperation is simply necessary. Both from a standpoint of the most important things, anything nuclear, whether it’s nuclear power or whether it’s nuclear weapons, is safety and then security. And safety and security are never-ending jobs, and they are not jobs that you can do just by yourself. They are jobs that you have to do collectively. You have to understand the best practices of other people and other countries. And so we focused on much of the past twenty years. I have now been in Russia 49 times, working with them in essence to try to help make their nuclear complex a safer place because they went through such difficult and trying times: the whole breakup of the political system, of the organizations and economic turmoil. Everything in turmoil. So they had difficult times, and we worked together. Now it’s time to work with the rest of the world. So the answer is we must work together in order to make sure one actually can have the benefits of things nuclear, while controlling the dangers.
Moving to another part of the world, could you tell us a little bit about your visits to North Korea?
So I’ve been in Russia 49 times, I’ve been in North Korea only 7 times. But actually very similar in a sense to the Russian visits in that when you sort of brush all of the politics apart and you talk to the technical people, you find out how alike you really are. And so, I’ve had these fascinating discussions with North Korean technical people about reactor operations, about plutonium science, and then of course also about deterrence, because they view their nuclear work and their work on bombs as a deterrent to the United States. So in essence, in North Korea, what I’ve been able to do because they’ve allowed me to is to shed some light on the North Korean nuclear program. What is it really all about? What have they done? What capabilities do they have? What about the safety issues related to their nuclear materials, their weapons, their reactors? Overall, it’s been fascinating. I went there seven years in a row; I haven’t been back for the last three and a half years because they haven’t invited me back. But they showed me a lot, and I got a sense of what their nuclear program is all about and what the technical people want to do. But right now, that’s also hung up in politics.
Could you tell us a little about the deterrence strategy and whether you think that’s a more feasible way to make peace in the world or whether disarmament is the more practical way?
Well, during the Soviet times, the whole deterrence strategy actually came from a George Kennan in what’s called the X Paper, back in the late 1940’s. He recommended that what the United States do is essentially try to wait out the Soviet Union, until it eventually will collapse under its own weight, which indeed would happen. And what he said one had to do was to contain them and to deter them, and so over fifty plus years we had built up the nuclear arsenals to deter each other. As we look back, the number of nuclear weapons in today’s world, it just didn’t make sense, how we got to tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. But in the end, deterrence worked. But I must say, we were also lucky. So now with the collapse of the Soviet Union, one would think you could move significantly away from that. And the fact of the matter is our arsenals have been reduced by about 85 percent. That’s the good news. The bad news is we still have thousands of nuclear weapons. And so, for better or worse, one still depends on deterrence. And a couple years ago, one would have said, “Well you can’t possibly imagine a war between the United States and Russia.” I still can’t imagine a real war but clearly with the way things have changed in the Ukraine, we’re in a different situation today. And I think there’s no way that the Russians would be willing to get rid of all nuclear weapons. And so, what I work on, even though that’s obviously a goal that you’d like to achieve in the future, in the meantime, the way that I see my role is to make sure nuclear weapons don’t get used. Whether they’re in the hands of North Koreans, Pakistan, India, China. U.S., Russia, and so forth, that they don’t get used. And so that’s where most of my focus is aimed. And then particularly, a large part of my focus is to make sure they actually don’t get used by getting into the hands of terrorists because that’s where the deterrence is not going to work. So you have to keep them out of the hands of terrorists and that’s an awesome job.
How do you do that? How do you go about making sure they aren’t used, both by states and by terrorist organizations?
So for the terrorist organizations, in terms of a real nuclear weapon, namely nuclear device that goes off, let’s call it the mushroom cloud, the most important part is that they don’t get their hands on the nuclear fissile materials, the bomb fuel. It is really unlikely that they could get their hands on a real nuclear weapon and be able to detonate it. Not impossible but really unlikely; however, in nuclear materials, there are more than 1 million kilograms of these nuclear materials and it only takes less than ten kilograms to make a bomb out of plutonium and a few tens to make a bomb out of highly-enriched uranium. So, if there are a million plus kilograms of these materials, you can imagine how difficult it is to make sure that it’s all under government control. But the government even knows in each country where it is and how you keep that secure and safeguarded. So, the most important way to keep the nuclear weapons out of the terrorist's hands is to protect those nuclear materials. And then you have a second line of defense and that is to say, suppose some of it gets away. Well to some extent the bad news is nuclear materials are radioactive. The good news is nuclear materials are radioactive, and so they have a signature so you can try to measure that signature. So you try to detect and essentially interdict. What you do with worrying about nuclear bombs, is keeping the nuclear materials out of the hands of the terrorists so they don’t build an improvised nuclear device. And we’ve been successful so far. The other problem in terms of nuclear terrorists is what’s called “the dirty bomb” and that’s not a mushroom cloud, it’s dispersing nuclear materials in order to terrorize people. It doesn’t kill many people but it would terrorize them. That’s going to be a much, much more difficult job because in essence you’re not able to keep those materials out of the hands of terrorists because the radioactive materials that are in X-Ray machines, for example, Cobalt-60 or Cesium-137, they’re all over the world. There are millions and millions of these sources and they’re not necessarily all well protected. You do everything you can to avoid terrorists getting them, but the most important part is how you respond. How you make sure that the fear that would grip the public can actually be managed. That you respond well. That you educate the public. That they understand not many of them are going to get killed by this because when you disperse this radioactive material, then it’s not as dangerous as if it’s concentrated.
On the topic of educating the public, there often seems to be a disconnect between the public and especially the younger generation on nuclear issues. They view it as a cold war topic. Can you tell us a little bit about how we can engage young people and what your efforts have been at education?
I get a chance to do that through teaching at Stanford, and I also give lots of public lectures. But mostly through Stanford teaching. So I get an opportunity to see what students think, how they respond to nuclear topics. And I actually find the response is fantastic. I mean they really are very interested and so the question is, how do you get this to their attention? And the most important aspect of things nuclear is that it’s different. It’s a really different form of energy. We are familiar with coal, gas, oil, etcetera, photons for solar radiation, wind, and all those things. All of those sources of energy rely on electrons in an atom. And those electrons are very small energy. Nuclear, either whether it’s fission that is splitting the nucleus or fusion that is joining the nuclei, you immediately talk about millions of times of the energy of the electrons. Millions. And so what’s so important about nuclear is the enormity of a factor a millions. So that factor of millions can be used to kill people: nuclear weapons. It can be used to power the world for electricity. So the most important thing for young people actually to understand is not just the dangers of nuclear things. And so I give talks of the peril and promise of nuclear energy. So plutonium, for example, which is the subject that I’ve studied all of my professional life, is the most fascinating element in the periodic table, and it can be used to electrify the world; it can be used to destroy the world. And what the young people have to understand is the enormous benefits of the fact that so little material can make so much energy and can make it cleanly. And so if you worry about things such as global climate change, which I worry about a lot, then nuclear actually should be part of that answer. And one of the reasons it isn’t part of the answer is because either the public fear or the public apathy. And a lot of that is due to the fact that we scientists in the end haven’t done a good a job explaining and engaging.
How does one overcome that fear and apathy?
I’m not sure you ever overcome it altogether because in the end, that mushroom cloud and what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki is so enormous. But it’s through engagement. It’s through understanding that everything in life has to be looked at as risks and benefits. And then it’s up to the public to decide what are the risks they’re willing to take for certain benefits. And then it’s up to the older generation to make sure that the younger generation actually understands there are not just risks to nuclear things. There are benefits to nuclear things. And you have to weigh that. And it’s not only benefits of nuclear energy, for example. It’s nuclear medicine. You know, in this country, there’s millions of people that either get diagnosed or that have treatments that are related to nuclear medicine. There are enormously good things that come from that. So you can’t just wipe out all things nuclear because it’s dangerous. It has benefits. One has to learn how to weigh that. And so one of the most important things is actually to get young people in schools to look at risk-benefit analyses. And particularly when it comes to energy.
Do you think it’s possible for there to be a situation where we have nuclear energy and nuclear medicine, all the good things related to nuclear materials, but no nuclear weapons or do you think that these things always have to coexist and we have to manage the risk?
First of all, there’s always going to be the risk of things nuclear. And whether it’s nuclear weapons or Fukushima or nuclear accidents. So the safety and the security aspects of nuclear is that factor of millions, and the consequences also tend to be a factor of millions. But quite frankly, in spite of the fact that Fukushima was a horrendous accident, at least as of today there’s still no indication that anyone lost their life because of the radiation from Fukushima. So one has to put that in perspective. Now, not having lost any lives doesn’t mean it didn’t have consequences. It had enormous consequences for Japan and for the world. And so, even if you wind up getting rid of nuclear weapons, you never get rid of all of the dangers because, for example, there’s no way you can get rid of all of the nuclear materials that could possibly be put in the bomb by terrorists. And so you will always have the potential of having a terrorist threat of acquiring a nuclear weapon. And so what you have to wind up doing is managing that. Now do countries have to have nuclear weapons? We’d like to get to a world that doesn’t have any nuclear weapons and as I said, that’s sort of the end state. And what I tell my students, even though I don’t know how to get there, but in the end if it’s not zero, what’s the answer? If it’s not zero, so how many weapons should be left in the world if it’s not zero? Well it turns out, you can’t come up with a good number. You know, is it ten, is it a hundred, is it a thousand? How many weapons? And then the even more difficult question, who gets to keep them? Right now the nonproliferation treaty, which was signed, went into effect back many, many years ago now, in 1970, it says there are five countries that are allowed to have nuclear weapons now, but they’re supposed to get rid of them in due time. In general, complete disarmament. If there are more than zero, are those the five? And if those are the five, why these five? So who gets to keep them? So you can’t answer those questions. So zero is the only answer for the long-term future. But at this point, the world hasn’t yet come to a place where I know how we get to that zero. And of course, then you’ll never know whether you’re at zero. There is no way that you can verify because that factor of millions makes these things so small that you have one in the basement, in the garage, and you just never know. But is that world of maybe we’re at zero but we don’t know for sure, is that more or less dangerous than one where we still have thousands of nuclear weapons? And the answer is, it’s not clear. So my own view is, what we need to do is still continue to drastically reduce the number of nuclear weapons to have fewer nuclear weapons. And then the world asks us how you might get from a few hundred nuclear weapons to zero. I don’t know how to do that yet. And so we leave that for your generation.
Do you think that the NPT is successful? Do you think that the countries have been carrying out good faith efforts towards disarmament as mandated by the NPT?
So there’s a lot of criticism in the world about the nonproliferation treaty and many people say it’s outdated and that it’s no longer successful. I disagree. The way I view the nonproliferation treaty: it’s necessary but not sufficient. It’s absolutely, totally necessary. There are 189 countries that are signed up and have agreed by law of their country; they’ve signed the nonproliferation treaty. And that’s more than essentially any other treaty in the whole wide world. And that has had some effect to stop countries from wanting to acquire nuclear weapons. And it hasn’t stopped North Korea and there are three counties that never signed the nonproliferation treaty. That’s India, Pakistan, and Israel. North Korea signed and withdrew. So those four haven’t signed. It doesn’t necessarily affect whether Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons or not; however, on the whole, it’s been enormously beneficial. And so it presents at least some barrier to countries acquiring nuclear weapons and we need it. It turns out that you can’t change it. So I said it’s necessary but not sufficient. Not sufficient because you need additional things. And the most important thing is not just stopping countries from acquiring the technologies, but what you want to do, is you want to stop countries from wanting to get nuclear weapons. In other words, what one has to do within North Korea, within Iran, is for them to realize that it costs them and their people a lot more to pursue nuclear weapons and then to keep them than the benefits they get from not pursuing them.
How do you think you can get countries to realize that?
Obviously that’s very difficult. The U.S. has mostly tried to work that through sanctions. And for the most part, my sense is the sanctions, they’re not sufficient. So one of the ways that you have to do that is by security guarantees. In North Korea’s case, they have legitimate security concerns about the existence of their country. And one has to address those concerns. Now that they have the bomb, the question is, “What’s gonna make them give up the bomb?” One of the things you have to address are security concerns. And second, you have to be able to demonstrate that they have more to benefit. A good counterpart to that is South Korea. South Korea was pursuing nuclear weapons in 1970’s. They turned from bombs to electricity. They now are one of the best reactor builders in the whole wide world. Good part of the electricity in their country is supplied by nuclear power. The rest of the country doesn’t have much in terms of natural resources. They have Samsung. They have Hyundai, Kia, and all these other companies. And they’re so much better off without nuclear weapons. Now why don’t they have nuclear weapons? Well one of the reasons is the United States has provided some security guarantees for South Korea. So it has to be a combination. There may have to be sanctions, or there may have to be some consequences if you pursue nuclear weapons. But there also have to be the benefits to not develop them. And what you have to do is to balance those.
Where do you see the nuclear energy portfolio moving forward after Fukushima when Germany and France say they would start lessening their use of nuclear energy
Not France, it’s Germany
Oh, France -
No, no I was just gonna say. So France has really not undergone a fundamental change in nuclear energy. France had previously. It actually generates 80 percent of its energy through nuclear power. They had made a decision before Fukushima that they’re going to rebalance that a little differently. So they’re going to rely a little less on nuclear power. But just to have a more balanced portfolio. So Fukushima certainly had some effect but no dramatic effect. In Germany, it did. And in Italy, it also, in a sort of underscored decision that they had already made before. And in Japan, it’s not clear what will happen. The initial reaction was of course very anti-nuclear but now they’re finding they’re having difficulties with energy and therefore economic competitors so we’ll see what happens. I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about China from that standpoint. And with China, it caused an immediate slowdown in the growth of nuclear power, and now they’re back, essentially, on the initial growth curve. Fukushima will have a very positive effect on nuclear energy in China. Much more attention paid to nuclear safety than before. And so they’re dealing with Fukushima precisely the way that you’d like them to deal with that, namely to learn. I think most of the rest of the world will also learn. And so a challenge to nuclear power then in the future is that it always has to be safe. Because the consequences are so enormous, you have to demonstrate that you can do nuclear power safely. I think nuclear power can be done safely. And if you look back over all its history, for the fact that it’s produced so much energy with essentially no greenhouse gases has done this world an enormous amount of good. Just think where we would be if we wouldn’t have had that benefit of nuclear power. We need the nuclear power, but you have to do it safely. The issue today becomes really much more of economics. And that’s the problem in the United States. With fracking being able to access much more gas and oil reserves for the country, there’s the tendency to go that way; it makes that energy very cheap. In comparison then it makes nuclear energy look much more expensive. Unless you put a carbon tax because one is worried about the future global climate change. And that’s really again one where the younger generation has to come in. You are going to live in a world that is warming up and that is not a very good prospect. And so, one really has to look, going back to what I said earlier, to the question of benefits versus the cost and the risk.
I was just wondering: you were at Los Alamos during some period of nuclear weapons testing. The United States nuclear weapons testing. I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about that.
Yeah I don’t have much time and I know you wanted to start with the Marshall Islands. I guess that you’re doing a big project -
On the Marshall Islands, rights? So I didn’t want to discuss Marshall Islands because I’m not an expert on Marshall Islands. I did go to Marshall Islands very early on in my directorship because one of the people who had done nuclear testing had said, “Hey look, Sieg, there, that’s your territory out there. You should come and see what’s going on in the Marshall Islands.” And so I did. And, so very much I think like in much of the rest of the nuclear weapons complex, in order to be able to field this deterrent to essentially make certain that we can provide for the security of this country. In view of the fact that the Soviet Union did have expansionist ideas, certainly early on in its life, we developed these nuclear weapons so you had what I would call “Battlefields of the Cold War”. So they weren’t hot war battlefields, as we had in the Pacific against the Japanese where thousands and thousands and thousands of people were killed. And so one of those battlefields, I would say, were the testing grounds whether it was Nevada or whether it was the Marshall Islands. Or for the French, whether it was Algeria. For the British, it was Austrailia. For the Russians, it was Kazakhstan. And there was environmental damage, and there was health damage to the people. And I was impressed when I was out there. What really was brought home to me, without really understanding the history, the culture, those places, you would say, “Well if we tested in a certain island and it was contaminated, you move the people off and they go to a different island.” And then you go there and you talk to the local people and they say “No, no, no, this is my island. That’s where I want to live.” And actually in New Mexico, you get a good education for that because places that surround Los Alamos are what used to be Los Alamos Indian tribes, and Los Alamos used to be their land. And because it was taken away from them by the Spaniards but then, we took it away; the American government took it away from the Spaniards and made this reservation called Los Alamos National Laboratory. So how to deal with those issues are really important, and the nuclear weapons testing is one of those. So again, one has to look at the fact that the nuclear testing was done because it was necessary for the defense of this country. It had consequences and then one has to deal with those consequences in the proper and humane way. And exactly whether the government always did that in the best fashion, I’m sure no government ever did. What I can say in the United States, at least, those always led to public discussion. And public discussion and the involvement of the public in the end is necessary for the governments to make the best decisions. In the more autocratic governments, that sort of discussion and dialogue doesn’t happen. Okay, that’s it.
Perfect, thank you.
Thank you so much.