June 19, 2013
Hiroshima Day: America Has Been Asleep at the Wheel for 64 Years
Posted on Aug 5, 2009
This was a breathtaking statement for me to hear in 1978. I was in full-time active opposition to the deployment of the neutron bomb—which was a small H-bomb—that President Jimmy Carter was proposing to send to Europe. The N-bomb had a killing radius from its output of neutrons that was much wider than its radius of destruction by blast. Optimally, an airburst N-bomb would have little fallout nor would it destroy structures, equipment or vehicles, but its neutrons would kill the humans either outside or within buildings or tanks. The Soviets mocked it as “a capitalist weapon” that destroyed people but not property; but they tested such a weapon too, as did other countries.
I had opposed developing or testing that concept for almost 20 years, since it was first described to me by my friend and colleague at the RAND Corp., Sam Cohen, who liked to be known as the “father of the neutron bomb.” I feared that, as a “small” weapon with limited and seemingly controllable lethal effects, it would be seen as usable in warfare, making U.S. first use and “limited nuclear war” more likely. It would be the match that would set off an exchange of the much larger, dirty weapons which were the bulk of our arsenal and were all that the Soviets then had.
In the year of this conversation with Dad, I was arrested four times blocking the railroad tracks at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Production Facility, which produced all the plutonium triggers for H-bombs and was going to produce the plutonium cores for neutron bombs. One of these arrests was on Nagasaki Day, Aug. 9. The “triggers” produced at Rocky Flats were, in effect, the nuclear components of A-bombs, plutonium fission bombs of the type that had destroyed Nagasaki on that date in 1945.
Every one of our many thousands of H-bombs, the thermonuclear fusion bombs that arm our strategic forces, requires a Nagasaki-type A-bomb as its detonator. (I doubt that one American in a hundred knows that simple fact, and thus has a clear understanding of the difference between A- and H-bombs, or of the reality of the thermonuclear arsenals of the last 50 years.
The plutonium for these weapons came from Hanford and from the Savannah River Site in Georgia and was machined into weapons components at Rocky Flats, in Colorado. Allen Ginsberg and I, with many others, blockaded the entrances to the plant on Aug. 9, 1978, to interrupt business as usual on the anniversary of the day a plutonium bomb had killed 58,000 humans (about 100,000 had died by the end of 1945).
I had never heard before of any connection of my father with the H-bomb. He wasn’t particularly wired in to my anti-nuclear work or to any of my activism since the Vietnam War had ended. I asked him what he meant by his comment about leaving Giffels & Rossetti.
“They wanted me to be in charge of designing a big plant that would be producing material for an H-bomb.” He said that DuPont, which had built the Hanford Site, was to have the contract from the Atomic Energy Commission. That would have been for the Savannah River Site. I asked him when this was.
I told him, “You must have the date wrong. You couldn’t have heard about the hydrogen bomb then, it’s too early.” I’d just been reading about that, in Herb York’s recent book, “The Advisors.” The General Advisory Committee (GAC) of the AEC—chaired by Robert Oppenheimer and including James Conant, Enrico Fermi and Isidor Rabi—were considering that fall whether or not to launch a crash program for an H-bomb. That was the “super weapon” referred to earlier. They had advised strongly against it, but President Truman overruled them.
“Truman didn’t make the decision to go ahead till January 1950. Meanwhile the whole thing was super-secret. You couldn’t have heard about it in ’49.”
My father said, “Well, somebody had to design the plant if they were going to go ahead. I was the logical person. I was in charge of the structural engineering of the whole project at Hanford after the war. I had a Q clearance.”
That was the first I’d ever heard that he’d had had a Q clearance—an AEC clearance for nuclear weapons design and stockpile data. I’d had that clearance myself in the Pentagon—along with close to a dozen other special clearances above top-secret—after I left the RAND Corp. for the Defense Department in 1964. It was news to me that my father had had a clearance, but it made sense that he would have needed one for Hanford.
I said, “So you’re telling me that you would have been one of the only people in the country, outside the GAC, who knew we were considering building the H-bomb in 1949?”
He said, “I suppose so. Anyway, I know it was late ’49, because that’s when I quit.”
“Why did you quit?”
“I didn’t want to make an H-bomb. Why, that thing was going to be 1,000 times more powerful than the A-bomb!”
I thought, score one for his memory at 89. He remembered the proportion correctly. That was the same factor Oppenheimer and the others predicted in their report in 1949. They were right. The first explosion of a true H-bomb, five years later, had a thousand times the explosive power of the Hiroshima blast.
At 15 megatons—the equivalent of 15 million tons of high explosive—it was over a million times more powerful than the largest conventional bombs of World War II. That one bomb had almost eight times the explosive force of all the bombs we dropped in that war: more than all the explosions in all the wars in human history. In 1961, the Soviets tested a 58-megaton H-bomb.
My father went on: “I hadn’t wanted to work on the A-bomb, either. But then Einstein seemed to think that we needed it, and it made sense to me that we had to have it against the Russians. So I took the job, but I never felt good about it.
“Then when they told me they were going to build a bomb 1,000 times bigger, that was it for me. I went back to my office and I said to my deputy, ‘These guys are crazy. They have an A-bomb, now they want an H-bomb. They’re going to go right through the alphabet till they have a Z-bomb.’ ”
I said, “Well, so far they’ve only gotten up to N.”
He said, “There was another thing about it that I couldn’t stand. Building these things generated a lot of radioactive waste. I wasn’t responsible for designing the containers for the waste, but I knew they were bound to leak eventually. That stuff was deadly forever. It was radioactive for 24,000 years.”
Again he had turned up a good figure. I said, “Your memory is working pretty well. It would be deadly a lot longer than that, but that’s about the half-life of plutonium.”
There were tears in his eyes. He said huskily, “I couldn’t stand the thought that I was working on a project that was poisoning parts of my own country forever, that might make parts of it uninhabitable for thousands of years.”
I thought over what he’d said; then I asked him if anyone else working with him had had misgivings. He didn’t know.
“Were you the only one who quit?” He said yes. He was leaving the best job he’d ever had, and he didn’t have any other to turn to. He lived on savings for a while and did some consulting.
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