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The Physicists' Efforts to Control Nuclear Weapons

Frank von Hippel

In 2006, the German Research Association Science, Disarmament and International Security (FONAS) had its tenth anniversary. FONAS is an organization of natural/mathematical scientists doing professional research in these fields in Germany. To celebrate the anniversary, a symposium was held on November 30, 2006, in Berlin. Frank von Hippel presented a “walk through history and an inquiry into the determinants of effectiveness in advising the government and the public” and assessed the status of the relevant research community in Germany. His paper is slightly abridged below; the full text is available at www.fonas.org/10jahrefonas/index.html.

I will give what will be, in effect, four talks – but the last three will be short. The first one will give some perspective on when we have been effective and on the situation with which we are confronted with today. Second, I will say a little bit about some personal experiences. Third, I will advertise a new effort, the International Panel on Fissile Materials, of which Martin Kalinowski and Annette Schaper are the German members.1 Finally, I will give my own little contribution to the perspectives that are being offered in celebrating the tenth anniversary of FONAS.

World War II and its Aftermath

The physicists’ activism started with the nuclear bomb. In our original sin, for three years a few physicists tried to get the bomb project going and then it was four years in the making in the U.S. During the war, some people started thinking about the implications. Niels Bohr took a leading role, concerned about an arms race. James Franck and Leo Szilard similarly warned about the danger of an arms race if the bomb was used in a surprise attack on Japan. But the leadership of the Manhattan Project advised that the only way of using it effectively was to use it without warning.

Of course, this was all within a very secret world during World War II. But, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, scientists were freer to speak and they had for a while a very large audience. Robert Oppenheimer played the leading role among the scientists in developing the Acheson-Lilienthal proposal (later modified in the Baruch proposal) to put under international control “dangerous” nuclear facilities that could be used to make highly-enriched uranium or separated plutonium.2 But the proposal failed.

Domestically, in the United States, the younger scientists who did not want to work for the Army any more fought for civilian control of nuclear research and established the Federation of American Scientists and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. They won civilian control but they also made lots of enemies in the fight. Soon they were on the defensive over atomic-spy concerns. The internationalism of this community of young activists-physicists brought them into suspicion. I will mention some interesting books as I go along. One chapter in Jessica Wang’s American Science in an Age of Anxiety3was based on 23 volumes of declassified documents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s dossier on the Federation of American Scientists for the period 1945 to the 1970s. (Thirty percent of the files remained classified.)

The H-Bomb Decision

The next major issue was the decision to develop the H-bomb. It occurred at the height of the Cold War: the Berlin blockade, the panic that was caused by the first Soviet nuclear test, and the discovery of Klaus Fuchs as a nuclear spy for the Soviet Union. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission’s General Advisory Committee, on which many of the leading scientists from the Manhattan Project served, was asked to provide advice. As far as the government was concerned, they gave the wrong advice – they advised against developing this bomb.

In particular, there is this remarkable sentence in their report: “The use of an H-bomb carries much further than the atomic bomb itself the policy of exterminating civilian populations.” I have never seen such a strong language in an advisory report. The government’s reaction was very negative; in fact, it ended the career as a government advisor of Robert Oppenheimer, who was the Chairman of this Committee. The decision to remove his security clearance referred to his not being enthusiastic enough about the H-bomb project.4 Then Joseph Stalin died, Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s reign of terror, and the Iron Curtain started becoming more porous. The Russell-Einstein appeal called for an East-West dialogue, and the Pugwash movement started such a dialogue inside the scientific community that continued on and off thereafter.5

Nuclear Fallout

The next upsurge of activism on nuclear-weapons issues in the scientific community was in response to public concern about the effects of global radioactive fallout from nuclear testing.

Bravo test on march 1, 1954

Figure 1: Fallout from thermonuclear BRAVO test on March 1, 1954 (from Glasstone/Dolan)6

Figure 1 shows the “local” fallout from the thermonuclear BRAVO test on March 1, 1945, the first test of a real thermonuclear weapon, i.e. with lithium-deuteride as the principle fusion fuel. The wind changed and the lethal area for the fallout (more than 300 rads) covered some populated atolls. Fortunately, in the case of Rongelap atoll, nobody was killed because people lived at the southern end. There was also a Japanese fishing vessel, The Lucky Dragon, in this area, and one of the fishermen died. This is how the incident became public and started the test ban movement. The scientific community was activated and ten thousand scientists signed a petition organized by Linus Pauling. Andrei Sakharov also was activated. In the West, nobody knew who Sakharov was at that time, but he published an article on non-threshold biological effects that has been republished in translation in Science &
Global Security.

Like Pauling, Sakharov was worried about the genetic effects of the global fallout. Both suggested that the risk of genetic damage is linear with dose. The radiation insult to the population was quite small from this global atmospheric fallout – it was equivalent to about one year’s worth of natural background – but the natural background is not benign. Based on the linear hypothesis, one hundred thousand to a million cancer deaths may result from the fallout. As Pauling very eloquently said, “no human being should be sacrificed with the project of perfecting nuclear weapons that could kill hundreds of millions of human beings and devastate this beautiful world in which we live.”8 Thanks to the anti-testing movement – and also the Cuban missile crisis, which sobered up the US and Soviet leadership of the time – we got the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty. Unfortunately, it was an environmental treaty more than an arms-race-ending treaty. It took much longer to actually get a real Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which of course is still not officially in force.

Defense Against Ballistic Missiles

In 1957, the US government was alarmed by the launch of the first Soviet satellite, Sputnik, and the scientists were invited back into the White House to advise the government. A major debate erupted around missile defense. The President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) advised that it was infeasible, but the Soviets deployed a missile defense system around Moscow. President Johnson tried to get a bilateral agreement to not go ahead with missile defense but was rebuffed by the Soviet leadership. So, in 1967, President Johnson decided to deploy a missile-defense system to defend the entire United States.

Richard Garwin, a member, and Hans Bethe, a former member of the President’s Science Advisory Committee went public, explaining why they thought that a missile defense system would not work. For me, their article in Scientific American9 is probably the most important public-interest arms control physics article ever written. It educated the physics community on these issues. I was myself activated by the public debate that occurred over missile defense. But again the scientists by themselves could not make a difference. You needed a public movement.

The public movement was caused by the Defense Department’s decision to deploy nuclear-armed missile interceptors in the suburbs of several big US cities. Each siting effort brought forth local opposition with the result that Congress became interested in this issue. And as Congress listened to the scientists, it became increasingly skeptical about missile defense. Ultimately, President Nixon, who had pressured President Johnson into going ahead with deployment, had to sign the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972. But Nixon was not happy about the role of the scientists and he abolished the President’s Science Advisory Committee. So the scientists were outside again.

The Anti-Arms Race Movement in the Early 1980s

There was another wave of activism in the early 1980s. In Europe, it was provoked by the U.S. decision to deploy intermediate-range missiles to counter missiles deployed by the Soviet Union. In the US, it was inspired by the rhetoric of the early Reagan Administration about the possibility of fighting and winning a nuclear war. Again there was public interest in this issue and President Reagan responded with his answer to the dangers of nuclear weapons, the “Star Wars” program. This activated the scientists again. This is also when I became involved in these backchannel scientists’ discussions.

The initiative that precipitated my involvement came from the Soviet side, from the newly formed Committee of Soviet Scientists for Peace and Against the Nuclear Threat chaired by Evgeny Velikhov. After President Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech in March 1983, this committee began reaching out to try to engage its counterparts in the West. The committee became convinced early on, before Mikhail Gorbachev came into power, that the Soviet response to Star Wars should be “asymmetric,” i.e. countermeasures to U.S. defenses rather than getting into the Star Wars business itself.

When Gorbachev came into power in the spring of 1985, we learned that Velikhov was his advisor on such matters. Gorbachev picked up where Khrushchev had left off with his test moratorium of 1958. In August 1985, Gorbachev launched a test moratorium of his own, and invited the US to join in.

One of the responses of the Reagan Administration to Gorbachev’s initiative was to suggest that the Soviets were probably still doing small tests. So, at the centennial for Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in the fall of 1985, when I was sitting in a bus with Velikhov, he suggested to me that the Soviet Union could invite an outside group in to determine if the Soviet Union was carrying out small tests. After this was agreed at a workshop in Moscow in May 1986, Charles Archambeau and Tom Cochran recruited some seismologists from the University of California under the auspices of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The group was allowed to install seismometers at three sites around the Soviet test site in Kazakhstan. This had a large impact on the US debate over nuclear testing.

Figure 2 shows Congressman Markey, who is still very active on these issues, holding up the first seismogram from Kazakhstan, which did show a test – a test in Nevada.


Figure 2: Congressman Markay with seismogram from Kazakhstan (from NRDC)

This was a real reversal of Soviet reluctance to have in-country inspections to verify a test ban. Here the Soviet Union was unilaterally offering in-country inspections to a non-governmental organization!

In January 1987, Gorbachev allowed Sakharov to come back from Gorky, where Sakharov had been in exile since 1979. Velikhov organized an international scientists’ meeting where Sakharov spoke. The impasse in U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms control at the time was that the Reagan administration was willing to cut the arsenal of offensive weapons, but was not willing to give up Star Wars. The Soviets wanted Star Wars to be stopped as a condition of offensive reductions. Sakharov urged Gorbachev to cut this linkage. He said that Star Wars would collapse under its own weight – which it did later on. Gorbachev did cut the link and agreed to the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF, 1987) and the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START, 1991). Under the influence of advisors who were influenced in turn by the analyses of West European advocates of “non-offensive defense,” Gorbachev also withdrew ten thousand tanks from East Germany and then, in parallel with the first George Bush, de-nuclearized the Russian and U.S. armies and surface navies. All these initiatives were major contributors in the ending of the Cold War.

Nuclear Glasnost


Figure 3: Frank Hippel in Soviet reactor (from NRDC)

As a high watermark of nuclear glasnost, in July 1989, in cooperation with the NRDC, Velikhov organized a tour of Soviet nuclear sites. The NRDC invited three members of the US House of Representatives, journalists from the New York Times and Washington Post and some other people, including me. We were the first outside visitors to the first Soviet plutonium production complex in the Urals. They showed us that they had shut down some of the reactors there (see Figure 3). (This was actually for me, because I was already advocating a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty.)

We also visited a laser directed beam test site that the U.S. Defense Department had been citing as evidence of a Soviet Star Wars program (see Figure 4).10 We found the facility equipped with some ten-watt ruby lasers and a twenty-kilowatt CO2 laser. The US at the time had a facility with a million-watt laser. When we brought back the pictures of the Soviet lasers, the US laser people exclaimed, “toys!”


Figure 4: Laser directed beam test site sketch

Finally, over the objections of the leading Russian weapons scientists, we were allowed to measure gamma radiation from a Russian cruise missile warhead in its launcher on a Soviet cruiser in the Black Sea off of Yalta. The reason was that the Soviet Union wanted to include sea-launched nuclear-armed cruise missiles in the START treaty but the G.W.H. Bush Administration was arguing that it was impossible to tell the difference between a conventional and a nuclear-armed cruise missile.

Figure 5 shows the gamma spectrum from this Soviet warhead measured with a germanium crystal.11 We did not think that any design information could be obtained from this spectrum, but we were wrong. One could not infer the design from the spectrum but weapon designers could compare the spectrum with the spectra from known designs.

 Gamma-ray spectrum

Figure 5: Gamma-ray spectrum recorded on the launch tube directly above the warhead


Activists and Analysts

One of the lessons I have learned from my involvement in the nuclear policy debate is that it takes activists to create a political audience. But when there is an audience, we scientists can contribute credibility to the argument made by the activists that there are alternatives to official policy. I have given my three big examples: the anti-fallout movement, the movement against anti-ballistic missiles (the suburban uprising against the anti-missiles), and the anti-nuclear arms race movement of the early 1980s.

From this perspective, one of the great misfortunes for the cause of the nuclear arms controllers is that there has been no uprising since. We desperately need one. I think that the resistance to nuclear disarmament is much less than it was, but our pressure is even less than the resistance, because the peace movement is largely demobilized, and we are now in a situation where the Cold War nuclear Doomsday machine lingers on.

In fact, when you look at the nuclear weapons debate in the US today, it is all about nuclear terrorism. Nuclear terrorism is something I am concerned about, but nuclear terrorists could not end civilization – only the countries that are armed with nuclear weapons can do that. But we have to be ready when there is a political opportunity. We never know when it will come. Each of the uprisings that have I talked about were surprises: the public reaction to the very low level of global fallout, the public reaction to nuclear missiles in the suburbs, the public reaction to the first Reagan Administration’s nuclear bellicosity, and then the miracle of Gorbachev. We have to be ready when there is an opportunity. We can still make small advances in the current situation, but we have to hope that there will be an opportunity again to make big advances.

The Plutonium Breeder Reactor

I was asked to mention some personal experiences. I will just talk about one that demonstrates that sometimes, even when the primary argument is economic and not technical, scientists can make a contribution.

Proposals were being made in the 1970s for what Glenn Seaborg, the discoverer of plutonium, described as a “plutonium economy.” In this vision, the world would be powered primarily by breeder reactors that would produce their own fuel, plutonium, from uranium-238. Figure 6 shows the projection made in 1974 of the future of nuclear power in the United States.12 The argument was that the U.S. could only build a thousand gigawatts of light-water reactor (LWR) capacity – roughly a thousand nuclear power reactors. After that U.S. high-grade uranium resources would be insufficient and we would need to use uranium more efficiently. We would need Liquid Metal Fast [plutonium] Breeder Reactors (LMFBR).


Figure 6: US AEC’s 1974 Nuclear Growth Projection (80 Percent Average Capacity Factor Assumed)

Where did this projection for the huge growth of US electricity consumption come from? Figure 7 shows how, for the previous half century, the US economy had become more and more electricity-intensive, with electricity use per dollar of gross national product increasing from about 0.07 in 1920 to about 0.4 kwh/$ in the mid-1970s.13 The nuclear-energy establishment was projecting that this trend would continue.

My colleague Robert H. Williams pointed out that, unless nuclear power was going to be very cheap, there was not going to be enough money to build all these nuclear power plants. I looked at what fraction of the economy had been going to electricity. As Figure 8 shows, it had been fairly constant – about 2.5±1 percent of the economy.14 When I looked at how this rough constancy of the amount of the economy going to electricity could be reconciled with the increase in electricity intensity, I learned that the price of electricity had been falling dramatically in constant dollars for 40 years (see Figure 9).11 We knew that nuclear power plants were very expensive, and in fact the utility investments in new nuclear power plants reversed the downward trend in electricity prices during the 1970s and early 1980s. In effect, the high cost of the first hundred nuclear power plants helped to end this very rapid growth of the electricity intensification of the economy.

Williams and I did this analysis as members of the Steering Committee of the Carter Administration’s 1977 LMFBR Program Review. President Carter was opposed to the plutonium economy because of its proliferation implications in any case, but our analysis may have helped convince him that the Atomic Energy Commission’s growth projections for nuclear power were vastly exaggerated and that he could oppose the development of breeder reactors. In fact, because of the slowing of the growth of U.S. electricity consumption and the high cost of nuclear power plants and then the accident at Three Mile Island Reactor number 2 in 1979, all orders for new nuclear power plants made after 1973 were cancelled. Only today, three decades later, is there talk again about building new nuclear power plants in the U.S..

The argument being made for liquid-metal fast-neutron reactors today in the U.S. is not that we need them to provide plutonium fuel, but that we need them to get rid of the plutonium in spent light-water reactor fuel. Now they are promoted as plutonium-burner reactors not plutonium-breeder reactors. […]


Figure 7: Projected growth of MS electricity consumption


Figure 8: Fraction of economy going to electricity


Figure 9: Price of electricity in constant dollars

The Importance of Germany’s Independent Arms Control Scientists

The Volkswagen Foundation gave an important early impetus to Germany’s independent technically-based arms-control experts. In the US, foundations such as the MacArthur Foundation also are playing a very important role.

But arms control science is applied, not fundamental science. For example, when I talked with Princeton’s Physics Department about arms control physics, the response was “this is important but it has nothing to do with us.” Many Princeton physics professors have consulted with the Department of Defense on weapons issues but they don’t teach about the nuclear weapons issues in the university. So arms control science has never been fully accepted in the academic community and university arms control groups tend to have ad hoc institutionalization.

I, for example, have my appointment in Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs, and the same is true of the handful of other academic arms control scientists in U.S. universities. In other countries, the academic community of arms control scientists is even smaller.

I remember the first time I visited the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva and saw what a huge institution it was. I said to myself, “The arms control physicists should have an institution like this.” But we don’t. As a result, our community is always on the edge of extinction. I worry that we might be wiped out by some fluctuation of support.

So I am very pleased that Germany has institutionalized in Hamburg University this year a new Centre for Science and Peace Research.12 The international nuclear arms-control community has also benefited greatly from the Interdisciplinary Working Group on Science Technology and Security (IANUS) at Darmstadt University of Technology.13 IANUS has produced so many excellent young arms control physicists. Martin Kalinowski heads the new Hamburg Centre. Annette Schaper is the arms control physicist at the Frankfurt Peace Research Institute.14 In the U.S., we have Alex Glaser in Princeton15 and Jürgen Scheffran is at the University of Illinois.16 IANUS has produced a large fraction of the young arms-control physicists in the world.

So the German community of arms control scientists represented by FONAS has become very important to the world of arms control science. The age profile of the German community is much better than that of the US community. It therefore is critical to the future of arms control science globally that Germany’s programs in this area continue and flourish.


Frank von Hippel, a theoretical physicist, is Professor of Public and International Affairs and co-principal investigator of Princeton’s research program on Science and Global Security; fvhippel [at] princeton [dot] edu.

  1. 1. This section is omitted here. For an introduction into the work of the IPFM, see INESAP Information Bulletin #27, December 2006, p. 74. The IPFM reports and Fissile Materials Atlas are available at www.fissilematerials.org. See this INESAP
    Information Bulletin for the Summary of the Global Fissile Material Report 2007.
  2. 2. The Acheson-Lilienthal Report. Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy, March 16, 1946; www.learnworld.com/ZNW/LWText.Acheson-Lilienthal.html. The Baruch Plan, presented to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, June 14, 1946; www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclear-weapons/issues/arms-control-disarmament/baruch-plan_1946-06-14.htm.
  3. 3. Jessica Wang, American Science in an Age of Anxiety, University of North Carolina Press, 1999, p. 59.
  4. 4. Priscilla McMillan, The ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the birth of the modern arms race, Viking, 2005.
  5. 5. Matthew Evangelista, Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War, Cornell University Press, 1999); David Cortright, Peace Works: The Citizen’s Role in Ending the Cold War, Westview, 1993; and Lawrence S. Wittner, The Struggle Against the Bomb, 3 volumes, Stanford University Press, 1993, 1997, 2003.
  6. 6. Samuel Glasstone and Philip J. Dolan, eds., The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy, 1977.
  7. 7. Andrei D. Sakharov, Radioactive Carbon from Nuclear Explosions and Nonthreshold Biological Effects, Science & Global Security, Volume 1, Nos. 3-4, 1990, p. 175; www.princeton.edu/~globsec/publications/pdf/1_3-4Sakharov.pdf.
  8. 8. Speech to students at Washington University, St. Louis, May 15, 1957, quoted in the presentation of the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize; http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1962/press.html.
  9. 9. Richard Garwin and Hans Bethe, Anti-Ballistic-Missile Systems, Scientific American, March 1968.
  10. 10. US Department of Defense, Defense Intelligence Agency, Soviet Military Power, 1985, p. 58.
  11. 11. Ibid.
  12. 12. Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker Centre for Science and Peace Research; www.znf.uni-hamburg.de.
  13. 13. www.ianus.tu-darmstadt.de.
  14. 14. www.hsfk.de.
  15. 15. Program on Science and Global Security; www.princeton.edu/~globsec.
  16. 16. Program in Arms Control, Disarmament, and International Security (ACDIS); www.acdis.uiuc.edu.