The Peaceful Atom
Goes to War . . .

A transcript of the programme transmitted
by Granada Independent Television
on the British Independent Television Network,
29 March 1976.

Originally entitled "The Threat of Nuclear War"
Produced for "World in Action"
by S. Albury & S. Clarke

Granada Television Ltd, Manchester M60 9EA
36 Golden Square, London W1R 4AH

Foreward to the Program [1976]

Thirty years ago, the awesome power of the atomic bomb
was unleashed by the USA on Japan.
Since then the world has known thirty years of nuclear peace
between the superpowers.

But today, the danger of nuclear war looms again.
More and more nations are getting nuclear bomb potential.
It has been disclosed that an experimental nuclear plant
is being sold to the erratic Colonel Gadaffi of Libya.

In "World in Action",
four former high officials in the United States Government
spoke out about deals like this.

They gathered together in the office used by Einstein
where the atomic bomb was first conceived.

Each had prepared a simple statement on a single subject
-- the threat of nuclear war.

This is a transcript of the programme.

Taking Part

Dr. George Kistiakowsky

Head of Explosives Division, World War II Atom Bomb Project
Special Assistant to President Eisenhower for Science & Technology
Member, President's Science Advisory Committee, for Presidents Kennedy & Johnson
Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University

Dr. Theodore Taylor

Former nuclear weapons designer, Los Alamos Laboratories
Former Deputy Director, Defense Department's Atomic Support Agency
Holder, Ernest Lawrence Memorial Award, for work on development of nuclear weapons & research reactors

Herbert Scoville

Former Technical Director of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project
Former Head of Scientific Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency [CIA]
Former Assistant Director of Science & Technology, Arms Control & Disarmament Agency
Director of the Arms Control Association

Dr. George Rathjens

Former Director of Weapons System Evaluation
Former Chief Scientist, Advanced Research Projects Agency, Department of Defense
Professor of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT]

Dr. Bernard Feld

Assistant Leader of the Critical Assembly Group, WW II Atom Bomb Project
Former Secretary General, Pugwash International Scientific Conferences
Vice-President of the American Academy of Science
Editor in Chief, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Head of the Department of Nuclear and High-Energy Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT]


by Herbert Scoville

I participated in the first postwar atomic bomb tests at Bikini, and was myself in charge of a number of Defense Department nuclear weapons tests to measure the effects of such explosions. Later I became Head of Scientific Intelligence in the Central Intelligence Agency -- the CIA -- and studied the nuclear weapons programmes of other countries.

The four of us are assembled here today at Princeton in the office which was being used by Professor Albert Einstein when the awesome potentialities of a nuclear explosion were first recognized. As a result of discussions in this very office, Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt urging a programme to ensure that this dangerous weapon did not fall into Nazi hands. This was the genesis of the atomic bomb.

Now some thirty years later we are gathered here because we are concerned that these weapons will soon fall into many hands in many corners of the world -- into the hands of unstable national governments, aggressive military cliques or irresponsible terrorist groups, with incalculable consequences for us all. This danger is the direct result of the uncontrolled growth of the nuclear power industry, which is making widely available the materials needed for such weapons. The peoples of the world must recognize the danger of what is going on and act to protect this and future generations.

The gentlemen who have joined with me here today share my anxieties, and we have each prepared a statement of our concerns. Let me introduce them.

Dr. George Rathjens, a former Director of Weapons System Evaluation and also Chief Scientist of the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Dr. Theodore Taylor, who designed nuclear weapons at the Los Alamos Laboratories of the Atomic Energy Commission. He was later in charge of the Defense Department's programme of testing the effects of atomic and hydrogen bombs.

Finally the most senior member of our group, Doctor George Kistiakowsky. He was head of the Explosives Division of the Manhattan Project, the programme which resulted in the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was responsible for the design of the implosion mechanism of the atomic bomb. Later he was special assistant to President Eisenhower for Science and Technology, and a scientific advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

Dr. George Kistiakowsky

We four, otherwise very different in our experience, have one important thing in common. All of us have for many years worked inside the Government machine on matters related to nuclear weapons technology. I personally must confess that for a long time I saw myself as a technician there to put into effect the policies of Government leaders -- policies which I thought had been arrived at by men better qualified to judge than myself. I refer particularly of course to policies concerning nuclear weapons and nuclear power.

During my stay in Government, I gradually came to believe that some policies in this area were wrong. And that one could not change them by working from the inside. I now find myself, like my friends here, out of the Government. But we all retain our knowledge of and interest in the subject. And since we believe that the dangers which we see concern you all, and us all, we have decided to speak out about them.

We were originally to have been joined by Professor Bernard Feld, a well-known theoretical physicist who participated in the design of the original atomic bombs, and he prepared a statement about his own personal concern with the problem of nuclear power which he was to have read at this gathering. Then, very tragically, three days ago, he had a severe heart attack and is now in hospital. Very generously, Dr. Theodore Taylor agreed to join us here. He will read Dr. Feld's statement and then add some remarks of his own.

Dr. Theodore Taylor

(reading Dr. Feld's statement)

Dr. Feld's statement, with which I agree and strongly support, is as follows:

"Let me tell you about a nightmare I have. The mayor of Boston sends for me for an urgent consultation. He has received a note from a terrorist group, telling him that they have planted a nuclear bomb somewhere in central Boston. The mayor has confirmed that twenty pounds of plutonium is missing from Government stocks. He shows me the crude diagram and a set of the terrorists' outrageous demands. The diagram is familiar -- it is similar to one I saw about a year ago drawn up for fun by a student at M.I.T. [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. I know -- as one of those who participated in the assembly of the first atomic bomb -- that the device would work. Not efficiently, but nevertheless with devastating effect. What should I advise? Surrender to blackmail or risk destroying my home town? I would have to advise surrender.

"Let me explain the background to that nightmare. Plutonium is the stuff out of which atomic bombs are made. And the amount of plutonium in the world is increasing year by year as nuclear power spreads. Within the next ten years nuclear power plants will be producing around 100 tons of plutonium a year -- enough for 10,000 atomic bombs, each with the same power as the one that destroyed Nagasaki. It is hard to believe that a figure as big and as threatening as this is realistic -- but I assure you that this is what is being planned.

"So within the next ten years, there will be hundreds of tons of plutonium wandering around the world. It will be as easy as pie for a determined group to get hold of the 20 or so pounds needed for a Nagasaki-type bomb. And making a crude version of one of these bombs, once you've got the plutonium, is not all that difficult. Even a crudely-made bomb, much less efficient than the Nagasaki bomb, would be powerful enough to level whole areas of a city and to cause thousands or tens of thousands of immediate fatalities, not to speak of the further thousands condemned to slower death by lung or bone cancer from plutonium inhalation.

"This terrifying possibility will become an inevitability if the major industrialized nations persist in their current grossly irresponsible policies. Nuclear reactors, plutonium reprocessing plants, uranium enrichment facilities and the technologies needed to operate them are today being sold to any country with enough cash or oil to buy them. This irresponsible behaviour is not confined to any one country. The United States and France are supplying South Korea and Iran with nuclear facilities; West Germany has made a deal with Brazil; Canadian help unwittingly made possible India's nuclear explosion; Britain's Windscale facilities will be used to process Japanese wastes for their plutonium content; India is now cooperating with Argentina; and the Soviet Union is spreading nuclear reactors and technology through the Communist world. This list can be continued ad horrendum.

"The problem cannot be solved by the individual action of any one nation. If there is any solution at all it can only come about from the concerted action of all the industrialized nations. But little can be done if these nations continue to treat the problem as if it either does not exist or will somehow go away.

"Today the world stands at a crossroads. Will the needed steps be taken to avert the world-wide proliferation of nuclear bomb materials, or will it be another example of too little, too late?"

Dr. Theodore Taylor

(no longer reading)

I have a similar nightmare to professor Feld's. I believe that the uncontrolled spread of nuclear power to an ever-increasing number of countries is the world's number one problem, though it is not recognized as such.

Governments and public opinion will not face up to the fact that we are moving inexorably into a new technology involving entirely new types of risk. This is true both of the risk of nuclear terrorism and of the risk of nuclear war between nations.

On the threat from nuclear terrorism, urgent international action could, I believe, reduce the risk to an acceptable level. There would have to be much tighter security controls than now, and new technical measures concerned with the way nuclear power is generated. Also, sacrifices of national sovereignty; and perhaps sacrifices too in the civil liberties field. Pursuit of a terrorist who has stolen plutonium would require something other than the normal rules of police procedure. But given the will, the terrorist problem could be cracked. Every government, no matter how aggressive itself, has an interest in seeing that unauthorized groups do not get hold of bomb materials.

But even if that were to be solved, the spread of nuclear power would still leave us with the threat of nuclear war between governments. There is the possibility that an aggressive or beleaguered country, or a deranged leader in charge of a national government, might seek a way out of their problems by using the most powerful weapon ever invented.

I have come late into this presentation, and will therefore confine myself to saying this: I have studied the matter with some care, and have concluded that a nuclear war of some kind is not only possible, but probable.

Herbert Scoville

I have spent many years of my life in the weapons business and in studying the effects of nuclear explosions. I have spent the last part of it in trying to get them under control. And I, too, am frightened of the dangers of a war involving nuclear weapons. I am particularly concerned that our senses have become dulled by the dry statistical calculations of millions killed and that we have forgotten the horrors that nuclear war can inflict on individuals. One small bomb on Hiroshima caused 100,000 dead and thousands more horribly scarred and mutilated by fire and blast. In a modern war there would be radioactive fallout too.

I was in Bikini in March, 1954, when a single H-bomb spread lethal fallout over more than 5,000 square miles. I was put in charge of a team to measure the accidental radioactive contamination at Rongelap, an inhabited island on the southern edge of the fallout pattern and 120 miles from the explosion. If the people there had lived just one mile further north they would probably all have been killed. As it is, some twenty years later, they are now developing thyroid tumours, some of them cancerous. Think of the consequences today -- in England, Germany or France -- if this had occurred in Europe.

I believe that the risk that a nuclear war will break out is growing day by day. With the spread of peaceful nuclear power, more and more countries have the opportunity to acquire bomb materials. The big powers are showing a greater willingness to use the nuclear weapons that they have.

Humiliated by their debacle in Vietnam, American leaders have attempted to re-establish their world influence by threatening the first use of nuclear weapons in Korea, Western Europe and even in a selective strategic strike at targets in the USSR. The British and French governments, concerned by soviet conventional strengths and forgetting the death and suffering of a nuclear conflict, still refuse to make a promise not to be the first to use nuclear weapons of their own. The Russians in turn have dropped a "no first use" policy in order to keep open the option to use such weapons against China.

If the nuclear weapons powers are seeking to halt the spread of nuclear weapons they are certainly going about it the wrong way. Meanwhile, after more than 6 years of SALT negotiations, the USA and the USSR have produced only one meaningful agreement -- the ABM treaty. They havecontinued to build up their stockpiles of thousands of H-bombs and in spite of almost worldwide condemnation they persist in testing them. They are like two nuclear alcoholics who take a pledge to stop drinking aperitifs and instead guzzle brandy into the wee hours.

This arms race is symbolic of a perverted world where the possession of nuclear weapons is taken as a sign that a country is important and should be listened to. Instead I believe we must create an international atmosphere where the possession of nuclear weapons is a cause for embarrassment and shame -- rather than for power and prestige.

Unless those that have nuclear weapons show some evidence of restraint and all work together to establish a climate in which nuclear weapons are not assigned military or political value, we may see mushroom clouds over Tel Aviv and Cairo, and lingering radiation casualties throughout the Middle East. But no one knows how to limit a nuclear conflict. It could escalate out of control to Europe. These horrors, multiplied many times over, could equally well be visited on Washington and New York, London and Belfast, Paris and Marseilles, and Moscow and Leningrad.

Dr. George Rathjens

I believe that a nuclear war is probable and that it will involve large numbers of deaths -- tens or hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions -- and by the year 2000, the fatalities could run to a thousand million.

Nuclear war is most likely to be started by one of the newer nuclear powers, where the command and control systems may not be as refined or the government as stable as ours. The risk is particularly grave with nations that feel beleaguered or threatened and abandoned by the world community.

Israel is the first one that comes to mind. It is feeling increasingly isolated and skeptical about continuing American support. Her differences with the Arabs are deep and unresolved. Israel has a strong nuclear technology which has been developed with help from France; for a dozen years it has had an experimental reactor operating that can produce enough plutonium for one nuclear weapon per year. I believe the Israelis could assemble nuclear weapons within a few weeks or months, if they have not already done so. They have the planes with which to deliver them, supplied by the United States and France.

In a few years the Arab world is bound to surpass Israel in conventional military capability. They already have more men, tanks and money. Their ability to use these resources effectively is improving at an impressive rate. If Israel faces a war it knows it cannot win by conventional means, there is a terrifying possibility that she may use atomic weapons.

The Nationalist Chinese Government on Taiwan faces an even bleaker future. It is confronted by eight hundred million sworn enemies on the mainland and it has been totally abandoned by the rest of the world. It has one of the most aggressive nuclear power programmes in the world. This may make sense in terms of their electricity needs. But it will also result in their producing enough plutonium in the next 10 years to make 1000 weapons, which I think is a very frightening number. If mainland China made a determined attempt to take Taiwan, the Taiwan government could only effectively respond by using nuclear weapons.

In South Africa a million whites face an entire hostile continent to the North, and a constant threat from their own black population. They know that the black populations are increasing faster than they are, and they know that time is against them. South Africa has very substantial uranium resources, and its own process -- being implemented with German help -- for enriching uranium, which provides an alternative route to nuclear bombs. This year we have seen South Africa commit her troops against black African forces in Angola. I believe the day will come when they will feel a much more serious threat from the North which could tempt them to use nuclear weapons. In the case of countries like Israel, South Africa and Taiwan, you can at least see the circumstances that might lead to nuclear war. But there's another, more alarming possibility.

There have always been erratic and even mad heads of government. It's only thirty years since a man as dangerous as Adolph Hitler ran Germany. It's not easy to predict where the next unstable leader will emerge, but as nuclear power programmes expand, there is a risk that a change of government may place a madman in control of the potential to produce and use nuclear weapons. Or an unbalanced head of government of a non-nuclear country will be able to hire scientific mercenaries and buy black market plutonium to build his own do-it-yourself atomic bombs.

The prospect of leaders with the unpredictability of Colonel Gadaffi of Libya and the irrational aggressiveness of General Idi Amin of Uganda threatening the world with nuclear bombs is one that is simply terrifying. Yet if things continue as they are now, this is what we all face.

Dr. George Kistiakowsky

This is a dreadful prospect and I believe new developments are bringing it closer. The Atoms for Peace programme proposed by President Eisenhower about 20 years ago was intended to speed less developed countries to prosperity. Now this programme has become a threat to the nuclear peace of the world.

What happened is this. A trade in nuclear technology has gradually developed between the nations that have nuclear power and those that do not. The nuclear "haves" have sold and built some twenty-five nuclear reactors and thirty-five or more are also under construction in the nuclear "have-not" countries. For a country without oil or coal, nuclear reactors may indeed be the best way to obtain electric power. But these reactors are also the only means for making plutonium -- the prime nuclear explosive material.

Without going into technical details, let me say that in order to get plutonium one must have, in addition to reactors, a costly chemical factory called a fuel reprocessing plant. The new threat to peace is that in recent years several countries selling nuclear technology have been offering to buyer-countries not only reactors but also the reprocessing plants.

Now, a country that has them both is separated from its first atom bombs only by a political decision and a year or two of inexpensive technical effort, about which I am familiar since I was involved in the making of the first atom bombs. I find these sales, for instance by West Germany to Brazil and by France to Pakistan, irresponsible.

Of course, the countries getting these plants argue that they need them for peaceful purposes only, not for bombs. But for electric power production, reprocessing is not now an economic or a necessary technology, especially for Third World countries. It isn't even in operation in the United States at present. For countries with only a few power reactors, the reprocessing plant is an outright wasteful investment. And yet many countries without nuclear weapons are interested in acquiring this technology. Why? There must be a non-economic reason, which probably is that these countries want to acquire the option to make nuclear weapons.

Are international agreements always kept? Our times are those of political upheaval, of revolutions and military takeovers. International commitments have been broken time and time again. The atomic energy agreements are but a slender defence against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Will these weapons be left unused? There have been many non-nuclear wars since the end of World War II. The major powers have not always refrained from intensifying and expanding them. If, a few years hence, dozens of states acquire nuclear arms, what assurance is there that these states will not become involved in local wars and as an act of national desperation will not start using their nuclear arsenals? When that starts nobody knows what will follow and nuclear war may engulf us all.

I am sure that you have recognized the common thread in the thinking of those here today; if no action is taken, the spread of nuclear technology will soon advance beyond the ability of human societies to control it.

We four are not alone in this conviction. Other scientists in the United States and elsewhere have been expressing similar views. But more important, many other people with no special knowledge of nuclear technology remember what two relatively small atom bombs did in Japan thirty years ago, and feel instinctively that it might happen again, and cannot be allowed to.

Unfortunately, our governments are beset by many problems which they see as more immediate. They are naturally also under pressure of their commercial interests. In their eagerness to see trade expand, governments are not willing to override their own short term interests to gain long term nuclear peace for the world. A recent agreement among nuclear seller countries, allegedly aimed at preventing proliferation, provided only token controls.

The present gradual slide of humanity into nuclear war can be stopped only by the voice of the people. And it can be stopped, for nuclear installations take many years to build, and there is still time to act. A broad public movement must tell the governments of the seller countries that present policies of foreign trade in nuclear technology must change.

  • First, there should be no sales of fuel reprocessing plants.

  • Second, the spent nuclear fuel, containing plutonium that could be used for bombs, must be put into storage facilities under international control.
Unless we take these first steps, we will have lost the chance of avoiding a nuclear holocaust.

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