Teller on SDI, Competitiveness

One of the most eminent and controversial scientists of this century, nuclear physicist Edward Teller is perhaps best known for his role in the development of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos National Laboratory during World War II. Often called the “father of the hydrogen bomb,” he also played a controversial role in the loss of security clearance by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the former director of Los Alamos. More recently Teller has been an outspohen advocate of defensive weap- ons, in

Sep 21, 1987
Peter Gwynne

One of the most eminent and controversial scientists of this century, nuclear physicist Edward Teller is perhaps best known for his role in the development of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos National Laboratory during World War II. Often called the “father of the hydrogen bomb,” he also played a controversial role in the loss of security clearance by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the former director of Los Alamos. More recently Teller has been an outspohen advocate of defensive weap- ons, including the proposed Strategic Defense Initiative.

Born in Budapest in 1908, Teller was educated in Hungary and Germany, receiving a Ph.D. from the University of Leipzig in 1930. He came to the United States in 1935 and was naturalized as a citizen in 1941. He has served on the faculties at George Washington University, the University of Chicago and the University of California and received honorary degrees from more than a dozen institutions as well as many scientific awards and prizes. Following his work at Los Alamos, Teller went on to become associate director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and director of its Radiation Lab, of which he remains director emeritus. Now a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, Teller has been on tour to publicize his most recent book, Better a Shield Than a Sword. Peter Gwynne, director of editorial operations at THE SCIENTIST, interviewed Teller on June30 when he visited Washington.

Q:How do you view the balance of power between the U.S. and Soviet Union?

TELLER: The United States is spending a little more than 6 percent of its gross national product on the military. In the Soviet Union, this percentage is very much higher. Some say it is 30 percent. I believe it really is above 50 percent. Now their gross national product is smaller than ours, but not by that much. They may be less efficient than we are. It is very probable that in some areas they are behind us. But in others, I am sure they are way ahead. They certainly are ahead in deployment. In many fields, they are probably ahead in technology as well. And in the very special field of strategic defense, they have worked for 30 years; we have worked for four years and even now there is a lot of relevant public opposition which hurts that. So there is no question in my mind that in strategic defense, SDI, they are far ahead of us.

Q: What does this mean for the U.S. SDI effort? Does it show signs of catching up with the Russians?

TELLER: We are catching up with them in one sense. We are beginning to understand what they are doing. I believe that in actual catching up, in doing what they have done years ago, we have not got very far.

Q: Specifically, in what areas?

TELLER: They have a ballistic missile system defending them that is permitted by treaty. We have nothing. They have preparations for a much wider use of this defense. They have very excellent surface-to-air missiles which are supposed to be only against airplanes, but they have ranges, speeds, accelerations which qualify them for missile defense as well. It is a point which the Soviets deny, but the facts are that this must be very seriously considered. Other more modern means using high-intensity laser beams— they have outspent us on that for many years. So there are at least strong indications of their leadership.

Q: So they have not only an SDI program of their own, but one that is militarily ahead of the U.S. SDI?

TELLER: So far we have research. They have done a lot of research. For instance, in the field of how lasers penetrate the atmosphere, the earliest and best papers are all in Russian.

Q: And these are published in the unclassified literature?

TELLER: If the Russians had not published it, we might classify them.

Q: Opponents of SDI make the argument that having a U.S. defensive system is destabilizing by itself because neither the U.S. nor the Russian system is expected to be 100 percent perfect and therefore there’ll be an enormous temptation for one side or the other to fire first.

TELLER: Why the American system should be destabilizing, I do not know. I don’t think that a defense which is not perfect—and of course it will not be perfect—is destabilizing. On the other band, the Soviets are perhaps more determined, they appear to have considerably less respect for human life; if that is destabilizing, then the Soviet effort might be so. Furthermore, I believe that everybody has a good right to defend himself, and in the end, being defenseless, being fearful, may be the greater danger.

Q: What percentage of potential success do you think SDI needs to reach technologically to be a feasible part of defense?

TELLER: I don’t even think it matters. As long as the defense is not obviously poor, as long it reaches the level where it will shoot down half the incoming missiles, it will be very effective in deterring aggression, because I do not believe anybody will want to start a war if he cannot be fairly confident of the outcome. This I believe is the main part of the president’s proposal—that by emphasizing defense it will become more obvious that aggression does not pay.


Q: There have been plenty of questions also about the technical feasibility of SDI. A recent American Physical Society report suggested that the necessary technical advances simply have not been made, and do not appear to be a prospect for a while. What was your reaction to that report?

TELLER: The APS report is really very peculiar. The Physical Society actually studied one type of approach with full justification: the directed-energy weapons—like, for instance, lasers. That obviously is the field in which science makes the greater difference. It is remarkable that, in contrast to earlier statements by most of the academic scientists, the Physical Society one was positive. Earlier statements said directed-energy weapons are not feasible. Now, the statement has changed: They are feasible, but difficult. I believe that the difficulties have been exaggerated—in some cases in a rather obvious way. But the council of the Physical Society then applied the results of the study on SDI as a whole—not only on the directed-energy weapons, but the more conventional weapons which simply rely on a collision between the defending missile and the attacking missile. This has not been studied. Application is not justified. But it has been made.

I believe that this situation is a quite peculiar one. For instance, a number of technical people workingon SDI have submitted to the Physical Society their arguments, to be published together with the original report. They were refused. And I believe that it is really a sad situation where, in questions of such great importance, free speech does not prevail in science, where free speech should be most highly honored.

Q: Does this indicate that professional societies like the APS should simply steer clear of even looking technically at issues such as SDI which have such an obvious political significance?

TELLER: I don’t think they need to steer clear. But if the question is raised, the argument becomes particularly strong that all sides need be heard.


Q: A side that seems to be heard more, among the scientific community, is that of the opponents of SDI. Several prominent physicists have signed a petition saying that under no circumstances will they accept money to work on SDI. Do you think that kind of attitude is going to weaken the ability of the U.S. to come up with a working SDI system?

TELLER: The number of people who signed that petition is actually not very great. And in any group of people there will be some who will make peculiar statements. That does not worry me greatly, but good people, also young people, are influenced to stay away from SDI, and that is really dangerous. Our scientists are good and a wholehearted effort would be most welcome. It is a field where new ideas could make very much of a difference.

Q: Have you noticed any tendency among young physicists to avoid getting into SDI so far?

TELLER: There are good young people working on the project. But the difference between what is happening and the great effectiveness with which during war we worked on the atomic bomb—that difference is great and undeniable. I believe that everybody should have the right to work on whatever he likes. Knowledge is needed and will not hurt, but the efforts of some scientists to persuade others not to work, that I feel is a very unhappy situation and possibly not quite right.

Q: How bright do you think the Soviet scientists are who are working on defensive measures and military affairs like this?

TELLER: There is no question that the quality of Soviet science is very high. But in the Soviet Union there is also a strong trend to influence scientists to work on defense. And in this country, at least in academic circles, the opposite trend is unfortunately quite obvious.


Q: The fact that the U.S. budget for military research and development has risen considerably over the last six years has raised some questions in the scientific community about whether it is skewing the whole scientific research enterprise in a way that could be dangerous to research in general. How do you feel about that?

TELLER: The science budget has risen, and rightly risen, and in the military branches has risen very much more than is generally believed. Let me give you an example. There have been vocal objections to research for strategic defense. That budget is a little more than 1 percent of our military expenditures. It has actually produced a number of spinoffs available to everybody. One of the parts which may or may not be most important for defense is X-ray lasers. The production of such an X-ray laser is a big scientific accomplishment, which certainly will be recognized in the long run. Remarkably enough it has made no impact, for two separate and important reasons. One is that the details are kept secret and the other is that among the academic scientists you see quite a bit of prejudice against it.

Q: On the other hand, I don’t think the commercial companies have been quick to take on the possibilities of commercializing some of the SDI hardware, software and the like, even though the SDI organization has commercial offices.

TELLER: Very little can be expected in a few years’ research, but even so, what the private sector has done was really a considerable part in fields like miniaturization. If we make real progress it is in fields of that kind, and that progress might come in everyday applications. In general, I don’t believe it is easy or even possible to distinguish between defense research and civilian research.

Let me give you one more example. A lot has been done in optics, compensating for the atmospheric fluctuations which make astronomic observations more difficult, compensating for the imperfection of lasers. The use of lasers in defense will greatly benefit from all of that. So will astronomy, and there is no question at all that as a consequence of what we are doing in SDI in coming years we will know very much more about the stars and about the universe.


Q: For a long time you’ve opposed secrecy in science, in military affairs in particular. How far do you go in that opposition? Should this country be sharing all its secrets, military, civilian and the like? Where does the need for openness in science actually end?

TELLER: It’s very hard to assess. I believe that one obvious difficulty with secrecy is that in a democracy it does not work. I believe that there are often reasons to keep some information secret for a short time. For a long period it never works, and I would think that more than a year is hardly practical. Now details, blueprints, tricks of the trade, one might keep secret. General ideas, hardly ever. It has often been tried, and in our free society it just has never worked.

Q: Do you feel that this applies to the issue of technology transfer to trading competitors?

TELLER: Control of information in the industrial world is much more practical. Industries don’t try to keep secret that which cannot be kept secret. Industries know that exaggerated secrecy will drive away the best people. It is where secrecy gets married to general rules, to bureaucracy, to doctrine— that is where secrecy does most of its harm. I believe that Soviet secrecy, which undeniably exists, harms the Soviets. But they carry it to such a point that at least their secrecy is effective. We are playing at secrecy, and the result is that we enjoy all the harmful consequences, and practically none of the limited advantages.


Q: How optimistic are you about U.S. technological competitiveness?

TELLER: I am worried about the competitiveness of the United States in the military field with the Russians. I am perhaps less worried than most people about our competitiveness with Japan. That the Japanese have outdone us in several fields, I do not doubt. I believe that the Japanese successes in the long run probably will have some stimulating effects on us. So as long as we are competitive in an open and free manner, I’m not terribly-worried.

Where I’m worried is where we keep our own accomplishments secret, as has been the case in some fields connected with atomic energy and with the military. I’m particularly worried when we try to keep secret what our competitors are doing. Soviet advances in defense we know something about—much too little, but even what little we know we are not publishing as fully as we could and we should.

Q: Does the fact that political leaders are generally untutored in science, mandate that more scientists should be involved in politics?

TELLER: I think this is a long-term concept of better education. I do not believe that a simple determination that more scientists should be involved will work. More of the general public should develop an understanding for science.

Q: How long would it take to do this?

TELLER: That’s a long and difficult task. I am almost 80 years old. I won’t see in my life a big change here.


Q: To move to a quite different subject, what are the prospects for fission power, particularly in light of the Chemobyl accident last year?

TELLER: Chernobyl was of course an unhappy experience, but its effects have been much more limited than people generally realize. There have been three major accidents in the few decades in which industrial reactors were working. The first, the Windacale accident, occurred in England in 1957. The second was in the United States: Three Mile Island in ‘79. The third one was last year, Chernobyl. The radioactivity released compares in a very striking manner. If you call the release in Three Mile Island one, then the release in Windscale was a thousand, and in Chernobyl a million. Nobody was hurt in the United States or England. The number of people who died in Chernobyl was stated at 31. The number today is probably higher. I doubt that it will ever exceed one thousand. Furthermore, the release of radioactivity was pretty closely as large as such a release can get. The remarkable fact is that no one outside the Soviet Union was overexposed.

Q: So the impact on U.S. nuclear planta was minimal?

TELLER: Lack of education together with sensationalism in the press are to be blamed for the spreading of these false ideas. In my book, Better a Shield than a Sword, I describe the Chernobyl accident and I attempt to put it in proportion. I also discuss the safety of nuclear reactors and the research that led after the Second World War to the establishing of safety regulations in the United States. I believe that it is very important that facts of this kind should be generally known, including particularly the fact that what went wrong in Chernobyl was discussed and predicted around 1950 and that indeed reactors with the properties of Chernobyl were shot down in the early 1950s in the United States and never reintroduced.


Q: One of the abiding issues in science policy that seems to have come to the fore again recently is that of big science against little science.

TELLER: I think that in countless cases small science has produced big results. That the discovery should then be used by big science is a necessity. And that should be supported and is supported. That in the process the little science should be given attention— that is the point which needs emphasis.

Q: Do you think science and technology have become more politicized today than they were, say, 10 or 20 years ago?

TELLER: I am afraid that science is getting more politicized. I think it would be better if scientists would spend less time on politics. I wish I could have spent my life on nothing but science. This turned out not to be entirely possible because I live in a real world. What I think there should be more of is politicians who know more about science.


Q: How do you think the prospects of peace are now compared with, say, 10 or 20 years ago?

TELLER: I believe that emphasis on defense rather than retaliation can greatly improve the chances of stable peace. I also think that in the present debate about defense there is a great stabilizing factor that has not been properly emphasized or acknowledged. the point that defense is possible provided there is international cooperation on defensiveness. I believe our government in the United States has placed great emphasis on such international cooperation, and that is very healthy. If we emphasize defense and international cooperation—not just disarmament but positive cooperation for mutual benefit and in particular for defense initiatives—if we pursue that way, it then becomes more clearly understood. Then I believe the chances for peace could be greatly improved.