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Robert S. Norris’s Interview (2018)

Manhattan Project Locations:

Robert S. Norris is a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists and is the author of the definitive biography of General Leslie Groves. In this interview, Norris provides an overview of the French atomic program, describing the influence of Marie Curie and Frédéric Joliot-Curie. He goes on to explain how nations, including the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France, became nuclear powers in the context of the Cold War. He also discusses current debates over nuclear weapons. Norris provides insight into the creation of the 509th Composite Group, and the U.S. decision to use the atomic bombs in Japan.

Date of Interview:
February 28, 2018
Location of the Interview:


Robert S. Norris: Right. I’m Robert S. Norris, it’s N-o-r-r-i-s, is the last name. We’re here in Washington in Cindy’s office on February 28th, 2018, to talk about the French atomic program and weapons and so on.

Cindy Kelly: Great. First, I hope that maybe we could start with the whole Curie family’s series of discoveries about radioactivity, and the platform that the French atomic scientific research provided for this.

Norris: Marie Curie, who was a central figure in all of this was born in Poland in, I think, 1867. She came to Paris to study, and fell in love with Pierre and got married. Eventually, [for] their work on radium and polonium, which are the two elements that she discovered, she won a Nobel Prize with [Henri] Becquerel, who was also French. The French have been involved in these matters early on. Marie and Pierre had a child, Irène, who married another member named Frédéric Joliot. He adopted sort of the European way of marriage, Joliot-Curie.  

Irène, amazingly enough, won a Nobel Prize also. Her mother, in addition to the physics prize that she won with Pierre and Becquerel, also won a prize in chemistry, a Nobel Prize in chemistry, I think in 1911. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the first person to win two. She had a daughter, Irène, who won a Nobel Prize, along with her husband, Frédéric, I think in the mid-1930s. It’s quite a distinguished family and quite a source of the beginnings of the French atomic program, which the French have been involved in for a long time.

I think the laboratory that Frédéric and the daughter, Irène, conducted in the mid-1930s—eventually, the Germans invaded France, and it had to be stopped. It was very low-level overseen by the Nazis. But he [Frédéric] soldiered on and adopted many of the concepts and continued to write, and was influential in the beginnings of the atomic age.

Assistants to Frederic at the laboratory, Hans Halban and [Lew] Kowarski, were two people who eventually—well, the French government eventually asked the Norwegians about their heavy water. The only plant that was interested was in Norway to make heavy water.

The French government and the Norwegian government agreed to move 185 kilograms of heavy water out of Norway into France. This is in, I think the spring, March [actually April] 1940. But the Germans invaded France as well, so the water was again in danger. The assistants to Frédéric, Halban and Kowarski, smuggled the water out of Bordeaux on a British ship that went to Britain and was saved.

That’s always an interesting part of the story of the early days of what eventually became the Manhattan Project. Heavy water was of concern, and it shows a recognition of how to make a bomb.

The suspicion in the West, in Britain and in the United States was that the Germans were up to no good and they were going to build a bomb, and they were going to use heavy water as a moderator, which is one several ways of doing it. You can do it with graphite also, which is another route. The heavy water was produced for commercial purposes. But also, it could be used in making an atomic bomb by introducing itself into a reactor and have the reactor make highly-enriched uranium and plutonium and so on and so forth, or uranium and plutonium.

It had to be destroyed, basically. The story of the destruction of the plant at Vemork is a fantastic one, with British commandos and Norwegian help.

Kelly: Backing up to what Joliot-Curie was doing in his laboratory at the time the Germans invaded in June of 1940.

Norris: The problem for the West with Joliot-Curie was his politics. He was a communist, and so he was not going to collaborate with the Nazi occupiers. He was going to do what he could to stay at arms-length with them and continue on his research at a rather low level with less people, who had fled. He could have fled himself, but he didn’t.

The French scientists who did flee ended up first in Great Britain and became part of the British Mission to the United States, the British team. Some of them came to the United States. These were people who learned about the American program.

In June 1944, after the beginnings of the liberation of Europe and the occupation forces being removed, a team was sent to find out what was going on, a team known as the Alsos team, A-l-s-o-s. There was a military part of it and a scientific part of it. One of the first places they went to was to Joliot-Curie’s, his places where he resided and where he had a lab in Paris, to find out exactly what the Germans knew and were up to. He couldn’t help them, because they hadn’t done anything in his laboratory to advance their program.

As it turned out, the Germans were not very far along at all. That was a very low-level effort. That was some relief, that the Germans did not have an atomic program, and Hitler was not going to get a bomb. Although he did get some missiles, and that missile technology was useful after the war to both the Soviet Union and the United States. What scientists there were in Germany, as a result of this Alsos team, which was at the sort of cutting edge of the military forces that were moving through Europe and moving through France and then into Germany. They rounded them up [German scientists] and locked them up, and listened to what they had to say, they were bugged. Come to find out that this is verification that the Germans did not have a very sophisticated program. In fact, they had hardly a program at all.

Nevertheless, with the liberation of Europe, the French scientists wanted—the ones that were in the United States and Canada—wanted to go home. People were suspicious that as soon as they got home they would spill the beans and tell everything they knew to Frédéric Joliot-Curie, who was a communist, and he would pass it on to Moscow. This became an issue in late 1944 and early 1945. The French scientists were allowed to go back, much against General [Leslie] Groves, who was in charge of the Manhattan Project, much against his wishes. But nevertheless, these people did go back to France and to the laboratory and were a foundation stone of a French atomic program that happened after the war.

Like the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain before them, France decided to have a bomb. And set about building the facilities that would make plutonium and highly-enriched uranium and whatever was needed for the beginnings of a program. They replicated a mini-Manhattan Project on their own, and eventually did get a bomb in 1960. They tested it, interestingly enough, in the deserts of Algeria, which at that point was a colony and far away from France. They conducted their first series of tests in Algeria.

Kelly: Wow. That’s great. Can you explain why you think Joliot-Curie became a communist? Can you just explain that in the context of Europe in the 1940s during the war?

Norris: Well, without knowing the real details of his [Joliot- Curie] intellectual progression, communism was something that happened in many parts of Europe after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Especially, after the Nazi-Soviet Pact [of 1939], which sort of put communists in a strange position, that they would have to collaborate with the Nazis.

Stalin rose to power eventually after Lenin’s death in the 1920s and then on into the 1930s. It was popular in terms of forming parties in Europe.

Even in the United States it happened to a certain degree, and influential people became communists. They infiltrated institutions and sent messages back to Moscow, and they were very much on the march. People even went back to the Soviet Union. Some of them were highly disillusioned by what they found. Stalin was a ruthless person who purged his own military. Of course, this Nazi-Soviet Pact didn’t last, and the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union became an ally to fight against the Nazis with the United States and Great Britain and others.

That is part of the overall history. Frédéric Joliot-Curie apparently was taken with the communist message that was around in the ‘30s, and became part of the French Communist Party, which lasted, I think, well into the ‘70s and maybe into the ‘80s. The French Communist Party was a dominant force in France, in labor unions and newspapers and opinion. Even throughout the Cold War, there was a place for them in France and they exerted quite a bit of influence. I think they’re still around, even in 2018, but they’re very much reduced in visibility and power and influence. But for half a century, they were a dominant force in French politics, and by extension in European politics.

The Communist Party in the United States was part of the political scene. There was a newspaper that people had affiliations with it, started in cities all across the United States. I don’t think they ever elected anyone, but nevertheless, they were seen as the opposition. In most people’s minds, were a dangerous opposition.

We know what happened during the Manhattan Project: that communists infiltrated into Los Alamos Laboratory and other places, and sent information back to Moscow. Stalin had as much idea about the American bomb as some American officials did. Immediately after Hiroshima, Stalin said, “I have to have one of those, too.” He set about a crash program and four years later, in 1949, the Soviet Union got a bomb. We were off to the races.

Along the way, Britain got its bomb independently, but again, with some information that it had gained because of its participation during the war in the American Manhattan Project. The French—not to be outdone, especially with a figure like [Charles] de Gaulle, who came to power in 1958—was not going to be left behind, and it needed an independent force. It wasn’t going to rely on the United States or anybody else, but had to have a bomb of its own.

France eventually got one in 1960, and took the route that most countries have taken that got the bomb. You have your starter bomb, which is usually a replica of the Fat Man bomb, a plutonium bomb. Then you make it smaller, and then you maybe devise some kinds of missiles to carry it and planes to carry it. Eventually, you want a hydrogen bomb, an H-bomb. That stymied the French for a while, but eventually, they figured it out with a little help and got a hydrogen bomb.

They are one of the powers today with, I think, about 300 weapons and an arsenal that’s been slightly reduced, but still is not going to go away. They devised submarines and submarine missiles and missiles that were based in France, but could reach what was then the Soviet Union. They weren’t intercontinental, but they were intermediate range, IRBMs instead of ICBMs. They had quite a variety of different kinds of weapons over the years, and have retained many of them and still have a sizeable arsenal after the huge arsenals of the United States and today, Russia.

Kelly: This kind of all stems from Joliot-Curie, his leadership, his team that got some training with their participation with the British and, of course, the Manhattan Project.

Norris: Yeah. Once you get on this track, and you have decided as a nation to invest the resources that go with having to make a bomb—I mean, it’s not something you go to RadioShack and take off the shelf there. It’s something that’s a real commitment of money, intellect, industry and mobilization to make a bomb. The United States did it first, the Soviet Union did it second, and then Britain did it. It’s easy to see how it’s done, and it’s a matter of commitment and basing knowledge on—knowing how to do it and doing it are two different things. Even school children know how to do it. The concepts are all there.

They were there in the late 1940s when the United States first announced, through the Smyth Report and through other means, how it was done. But actually doing it is quite a commitment. Countries have decided that they needed it, and today we have about nine powers that have done it.

Other countries have started down this path and decided they don’t need it, and have given up what little effort they have made towards doing it. South Africa is perhaps the best case. They even got weapons. They went all the way down that line, and got a tiny arsenal. But decided to join the world, and gave up their arsenal and are under the auspices of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It’s been certified that they don’t have a program or weapons. They’re members in good standing with the Non-Proliferation regime.

But other places are not, and still have arsenals. Like Israel, for example, and India and Pakistan. They all have weapons and fairly active programs to continue down the path towards a greater variety, different kinds, submarines, missiles, and so on and so forth.

Once you commit yourself to this path and keep doing it, you know what direction they’re going to be headed. They’re going to be headed in the direction that all the other countries have gone down before them—the United States and the Soviet Union being the most active, which built tens of thousands of nuclear weapons over the course of the decades.

Kelly:  Even though these arsenals are smaller, what kind of firepower do they represent?

Norris: We’ve only had the use of bombs two times, against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those were tiny bombs compared to what is around today. The bomb that hit Hiroshima is only about 15 kilotons, and the one that hit Nagasaki is only about 20 kilotons. These are just peanuts compared to the thermonuclear bombs, which are in the hundreds of kilotons, megatons, a million ton of TNT.

We have in our mind the image of those cities being destroyed by what was then a super weapon, but in retrospect is a tiny bomb. We can only imagine what it would be like if one went off in the middle of Manhattan or Washington, D.C. That has been described to us numerous times in terms of the Cold War, at one point, which has receded, but still, accidents can happen. Also a terrorist bomb. What if a terrorist got ahold of even a primitive type bomb? It could do enormous damage if it was set off in the middle of a city. That remains a danger.

Again, stealing an already-made bomb is a possibility. We know that Al-Qaeda has tried to do that, stealing. How secure are some of these arsenals? How secure is the Pakistani arsenal of nuclear weapons, or the Indian one, or whatever? We hope they have imposed all of the measures that are possible to do so, but you can’t be sure, and we don’t know.

We do know that the United States has been concerned about it over the past decade or so, and there have been even visits by Pakistanis here to teach them about security measures. There may be contingency plans to try and have American commandos, perhaps, secure the Pakistani weapons, if push came to shove.

Pakistan and India is probably one of the more dangerous places on earth, in terms of having two nuclear powers who don’t like one another and have had several wars since World War II. They have even put weapons on alert. Things could get out of hand there fairly rapidly, if there were another incident, which the Indians and the Pakistanis disagreed upon.

In each corner is a larger power. China backs Pakistan and Russia backs India, and we’re sort of in the middle here and back them both. There’s no doubt in the world that the Pakistanis have had a lot of help by the Chinese, in terms of gaining information about how to make a bomb and what the design is.

There has been, over the course of the years, a sort of “good” proliferation and “bad” proliferation. “Bad” proliferation is the kind we don’t like, which means that you somehow sell or give information about a bomb to opponents. But there is also “good” information, in which we have shared. We share with the British all the time. That’s an example of what I would call “good” proliferation, “good” as in quotation marks. The Chinese have certainly helped the Pakistanis in advancing and even testing a bomb. That’s their example of a “good proliferation,” because the Chinese and the Indians are at loggerheads most of the time. Pakistan provides a way of the Chinese getting at the Indians.

We’ve had the bomb for more than seventy years. We still are living with it in some fashion, and trying to find different ways to minimize the eventual use of it. It would be a catastrophe anywhere if even one went off anywhere. It still concerns us a great deal.

I get on the British with that about the submarines, about the rent-a-missile. They have the opportunity of using—because we have agreed to it—missiles in their submarines. We’ve shared warhead data. In fact, the British used to test the latter part at the Nevada Test Site. We’ve spilled all the beans, and likewise, back and forth, about how to make bombs.

Kelly: That’s interesting, because right after the war we shared nothing with Brits. You want to talk about that?

Norris: The situation at the conclusion of World War II was that “We’ve got the bomb, the United States has the bomb, and nobody else should have it.” Of course, through espionage and through a commitment by Stalin and the Soviets and the scientists, they got the bomb sooner than we thought.

The British were on a track to get their own when they made the commitment to get the bomb, and base it on some of the knowledge. In the very beginning, 1945, 1946, the United States’ position was, “Let’s cut off all information, especially to the British,” who were deeply involved in the Manhattan Project. They sent a significant team and got many hints of how to do things, and put them to use soon after.

The United States assisted several programs. They assisted the Soviet program [through espionage], they got a bomb, and they assisted the British program through knowledge. But it was the British themselves who had to make a mini-Manhattan Project themselves within Great Britain, and tested it in Australia, as a matter of fact. They have gone through all of the different stages that we mentioned before, of certain kinds of planes being outfitted and the Royal Air Force having the bomb. Then submarines, and they still have the submarine. We still continue to share a great deal of information with the British, in terms of the Trident missile, the Trident II missile. The British just decided to have a submarine to replace the ones they have.

Well into the future, it looks as though those powers that have nuclear weapons are going to continue to have them and modernize the forces, and replace them with new improved models. The United States is doing it, Russia is doing it, and Britain, and France is doing it as well.

How to get off of this track is a difficult procedure, because no one is willing to really take the first step. Now, President [Barack] Obama gave a speech and his goal was to have zero nuclear weapons. We have moderated the arsenals somewhat through arms control measures. But those have sort of leveled off and plateaued. It may be the case that those arsenals go back up, and new weapons are designed and deployed. We’ll just have to wait and see. But the current president [President Donald Trump] seems to want to have that. He thinks that nuclear weapons provide security.

There’s the North Korean situation, which has a small arsenal and has a missile program that gets longer range and longer range with each test. What’s going to happen there? No one knows. If nuclear weapons are ever used in that situation, there’s no more North Korea. We would bomb them immediately and destroy everything.

Now, there has been talk of a preemptive strike against the North Koreans, of just taking out the facilities that support these programs, the missile program and the bomb program. But that would trigger at least a conventional response, if not a nuclear response, by the North Koreans against, number one, the South Koreans, and number two, probably the Japanese. And number three, bases we have on Guam and elsewhere in the Pacific, to say nothing of a possibility of even a rocket flying all the way across the Pacific and landing in the continental United States or Alaska.

These are difficult, thorny problems that have no easy solution to them. The American position at the moment is that we would sit down with the North Koreans, if they gave up their nuclear weapons. But of course, they’re not going to give up their nuclear weapons. They’ve committed enormous resources, starving their own people to get them, and they’re not going to give them up. That’s a reality that has to be faced.

How do you work around that reality? The only country that’s given them up is South Africa, and that was for unique reasons that they did so. Other countries have not. They’ve reduced their number and slowed down programs and done other things like stop testing, first in the atmosphere and then altogether. That hasn’t fazed the North Koreans. They have not stopped testing, and they continue to test nuclear weapons and will probably have another one fairly soon. The administration is really stymied about what to do with this reality that is facing them.

Kelly: Not a pretty situation. Since you’re giving us a nice picture of the world today with nuclear weapons, just one last bit about the Middle East. You talked about maybe one option being to strike and take out the capability of the North Koreans. Have we tried that before? And give an example.

Norris: It was thought about seriously [a nuclear strike] against the Chinese back in the early 1960s, when it looked as though the Chinese were about to get the bomb. “Perhaps they should be attacked, and prevented from doing so.” Now, that never happened.

There was even talk during a slightly earlier period of doing it against the Soviet Union. “Perhaps we should have a preventive war with them to stop them from getting a bomb.” That never happened either. It’s a very costly decision, if you ever go ahead and do it.

Now, the Israelis have knocked out a reactor when it looked as though Saddam [Hussein] was trying to get a bomb. There are times when it has happened, and there is even talk about the Iranian situation. We know the facilities that make the different components of the bomb. Would the United States or the Israelis ever attack those facilities to prevent the Iranians from getting a bomb? That’s still on the table, I think and threats are made. Certainly, there are contingency plans in both countries. The American military plans for everything, and likewise, I’m sure the Israeli military does as well.

The plans are on the shelf to do so, but giving the actual order to really carry it out is another matter, which would have huge ramifications. If there’s anything that these countries would do to advance the program, it would be to attack the facilities. That would make the Iranians even more committed to getting the bomb as quickly as they could. It would backfire, in other words, and not get what you wanted, which is to stop them from proceeding.

We do have an Iranian treaty or agreement with them [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] that has slowed down and perhaps not totally stopped—we don’t know—but it certainly has done what it intended to do. That comes up for renewal. It’s not ours alone, it’s also the Europeans, who were involved here. The United States cannot automatically destroy it, although it can pull out and that would have ramifications as well.

These are conundrums that we still live with seven decades after the bomb, of how to live with it, why countries want them in the first place. Are they too expensive? Do they really provide security? Usually, they don’t. Usually, when you get them, somebody, your opponent, wants one as well and you end up less secure that you were in the beginning. We had one for a while, but eventually, the Soviet Union got it and we lived for decades with the situation of Soviet missiles hitting American soil. We went through a very scary period during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we came within a whisker of them being used.

You have to ask yourself, “Do they really provide security?” India got the bomb first. Pakistan says, “Well, we have to have one, too.”

The leaders said, “We’ll eat grass if we have to, in terms of eventually getting it.” Eventually, they did. Now both countries, are they any more secure? They feel as though they have the bomb and if it were ever used, it would be used in both places and destroy a vast amount of destruction in both places with casualties in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

To say nothing of triggering off what’s been called nuclear winter, which is the use of so many weapons to start a global situation in which there is famine, and the climate has changed a great deal and so on. This is another conundrum of, how many weapons would it take? Could just the use of the bomb in India and Pakistan set off a situation of nuclear winter?

Kelly: People weren’t thinking about that when they started—

Norris: No, I just reviewed Dan Ellsberg’s book [The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner]. He was at the center of everything, and devised the first war plan, or helped devise it. Well, in the first few pages, there’s a big secret in the first few pages—that in addition to the 7,000 pages of what became known as the Pentagon Papers, there was an equal amount that he Xeroxed having to do with nuclear war planning and everything. He planned to release those as well, but they got lost.

Kelly:  The pages got lost?

Norris: He gave them to his brother. It’s crazy, absolutely crazy, how he lost them. He [Daniel Ellsberg] gave them to his brother, and he sort of on the run at this point. He had been identified and he was underground and he’s hopscotching around, and he can’t carry around 7,000 pages. He gives them to his brother and his brother puts them in a plastic sack, and buries them in like a landfill. He knows where they are.

But then Tropical Storm Doris, I think is the name of the thing, came up the East Coast. His brother lived somewhere in Westchester, Tarrytown. This tropical storm comes up and drenches the landfill, drenches the pages. What happened to them? Shortly afterwards, they decide to build condos or apartment buildings. They use this landfill as a place to support the condominiums, or whatever they are. Dan’s papers are somewhere in the foundations of this apartment building. They’re gone.

He’s very sorry that all of this happened through this ridiculous set of circumstances. What he says is, he should have released them at the same time. That would have been even bigger than the Pentagon Papers, if the American public knew what was going on in 1960. He didn’t spill the beans until, what was it? 1970 or 1971.

Anyway, the story of these other 7,000 pages, which he Xeroxed at RAND [Corporation]. RAND was the Air Force contractor. He was with the Air Force, with Rand, and also in the Pentagon as an advisor. He wrote the whole thing, the first war plan.

Well, it’s a good book. It’s a great book.

Kelly:  I’ll try it. That’s incredible.

Norris: What a life he’s had. He’s had an interesting life, in terms of being at the center of things.

There’s a fascinating chapter where he revisits the issue of igniting the atmosphere [during a nuclear explosion]. It’s his contention that it wasn’t zero [percent chance]. It was negligible. They [Manhattan Project scientists] thought that it probably wouldn’t happen, but it wasn’t absolutely, positively sure that it was zero. They were gamblers, that’s Dan’s point. They gambled with the earth’s future.

We know that it didn’t ignite the atmosphere, although [James] Conant, at Trinity, he’s down, and there’s a bright flash. He says, “Oh, my God, they miscalculated. They did ignite the atmosphere!”

Then he realizes, no, they didn’t, but his first impression was, “The atmosphere’s been ignited.” Even smart people like Conant thought that maybe it could happen. That was really an interesting discussion.

Dan goes on to say that, “They’re gambling with us now.” They’re doing the same thing. They’re gambling that this crazy war plan—the things that are in there, it’s unbelievable.

The Air Force gave RAND, and RAND gave to Dan, a proposition of, “What would happen, or how do you overcome the situation where the Soviet Union launches its missiles and attacks the United States, how do we ensure that we have a retaliation against it? That’s the problem. Figure it out.”

What the Air Force proposed is that you take a thousand Atlas missile engines and somehow bury them. If the Soviet Union launches its missiles, you set this off, and it stops the rotation of the earth. Is this nuts, or what? Stopping the rotation of the earth will cause all of the missile warheads to miss their targets, right? You’ve stopped the rotation of the earth. I mean, really? This is the mentality. I guess they thought this was something we could do.

He asks around some of his RAND friends, his colleagues. One of them says—this is a killer—and he says, “You didn’t do enough engines. You need more engines to stop the rotation of the earth.”

Dan looks back at this and says, “This is crazy! How could they even think of this? You stop the rotation of the earth, and then the missiles miss their targets. Then we have a retaliation, right? Because they missed the targets, we can shoot them back.”

There’s stuff like this in the book, with some craziness that was at the highest levels of the Pentagon, and apparently the White House. This hopefully didn’t get very far.

Dan, this book has done—its effort is to make us realize, “This is the world we live in. There is a war plan, there’s one right today. There’s one right today.” We got into this because the Pentagon has a contingency for everything. It has a nuclear war plan that, “If anybody attacks us, this is what we’ll do. We have Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, and we have a menu of choices.”

The other thing’s about pre-delegation. We like to think that only the president—or maybe we don’t like to think, “Only the president.” There has been proposed that it’s only the president that can authorize the use of nuclear weapons. That’s a myth. That can’t be. That just can’t be. If you’re going to ensure a response to anyone who attacks, it demands that others have the ability as well. I think they do. These are among the most secret of secret secrets.

He discovered that first in the 1960s. But he thinks it’s operable today. I think it has to be operable, too. There has to be. The Pentagon leave the ability with this one person to authorize? No.

Kelly: One of the things we haven’t talked too much about is the nuclear power program that was launched right after the war in France, and then how that differed from the United States and how it launched there and so forth.

Norris: At the outset, when they were first investigating what the atom could do here, there was a military aspect to it and that got developed. But there was also another aspect of it, which was to provide electricity, and even power submarines. From the outset, people had other things they wanted to do.

The French have probably done it more than anybody else in the world, have really committed themselves to a safe program of electrical power based on nuclear reactors. They have the most. I’m not sure what percentage of electricity in France is [nuclear] powered, but it’s a sizable amount.

Kelly:  It’s been close to 80.

Norris: 80%.

 Kelly: Yes.

Norris: 80% of their power? Wow, that’s up there. In the United States, we have about 100 reactors, and it is about—

Kelly: 20 [percent].

Norris: Much, much less. We constantly have a debate in this country about committing to nuclear power, especially in the light of climate change. They’re very expensive to build, and this is a technology that’s more than seventy years old. The companies still have their hands out for subsidies and benefits to develop new reactors.

There are certain problems with electrical [nuclear] power. There’s the proliferation problem. There’s the waste problem, there’s the economic problem that I just mentioned. We haven’t solved all of those, and I suppose if all those could be solved, we should do it in a major way. But the French have already decided to do it in a major way and have most of their electricity fashioned from nuclear reactors, which are sprinkled all over France.

It’s a larger issue. There’s an issue today about nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia, for example. If any place doesn’t need nuclear reactors, it’s Saudi Arabia, which have vast reservoirs of fossil fuels and natural gas. They’re going to get them anyway, it looks like, because of probably economic reasons, to keep certain industries alive that are in the United States or Japan, which are the main sources of the technology that is used for new nuclear reactors.

We continue to have a debate in this country about whether the ones we have should be extended, in terms of their lives, or replaced by new ones. So far, we haven’t really done that. I think the efforts that have started have been stopped. I think there was going to be one in Georgia and one in South Carolina, and I think work has stopped on those. I don’t know, they ran out of money or something, there’s some problem with that. 

In terms of powering submarines, and powering the Navy, we had someone, we had Admiral [Hyman] Rickover, who originally worked on the Manhattan Project for a while. He was in charge of devising what’s called “the nuclear Navy,” and having smaller reactors power submarines and surface vessels. That seems to have worked out rather well. There haven’t been any accidents. A lot of training goes into the people who run the program, and a lot of devotion goes into maintaining safe submarines and surface vessels. Other countries have also used nuclear power to operate their submarines.

This was all in the aftermath of the military application of the atom. “Let’s have an atoms-for-peace program.” For the time being, under the Eisenhower Administration, the technology and knowledge and even machines were spread around. That still haunts us to this day, because there is material out there that could be used in a weapon program, or even in what’s called a dirty bomb program. How to get it back home?

The Soviets were onto this from the very beginning, and haven’t let it happen to them. They saw the proliferation problems that would come with the atoms-for-peace program. But it sounded good. It was marketed as “the friendly atom,” and, “We’re going to have a situation where electricity is, too cheap to meter.” That was the phrase. Of course, it hasn’t worked out that way at all.

The Atoms for Peace program was successful in spreading knowledge around the world. “Let’s show people how to do all of these things.” The Soviets were absolutely right in understanding what would happen and had nothing to do with it, which for Cold War reasons and for actually intellectual reasons was a wise choice.

But the French have gone whole-hog into this. They haven’t figured out everything. There’s still the waste problem, which troubles even the French, what to do with all of this nasty stuff that comes at the end result of your nuclear power program. For the time being, there’s no easy solution to any of this, especially in the United States, where proposals have been put forward to put it in Nevada at the Yucca Mountain site. But when the Senate leader [Harry Reid] heard of this, he would have none of it. “Not in my backyard,” it became, and that program got cancelled.

We don’t know where to put it today. There are other proposals out there. Right now, it’s sitting at the hundred different reactor sites in drums and casks, which prevent the permanent solution to the waste problem. But it’s still around, and people are concerned about it. It’s trucked and put on trains and sent through towns, and nobody knows exactly what’s in there and what would happen in an accident. This is another legacy of the atom that concerns us today.

One other possibility is to add a little more about Boris Pash and Sam Goudsmit and their roles at Alsos, because they’re such colorful characters.

Norris: During the Manhattan Project, the idea became, “Let’s find out what the Germans have been up to,” because it was really an obsession. We didn’t have what we have today. We didn’t have satellites and Google Earth and all the rest of it to pinpoint exactly what was happening.

They devised a scientific and military team, and gave it the code name Alsos. A-l-s-o-s. Both Vannevar Bush and Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, were all for this and put together a military leader, a guy named Boris Pash, who’s rather a colorful character, and a scientific leader, a man named [Samuel] Goudsmit. A team of professionals, who would know what to look for and be interviewing and asking the right questions, and getting the reports back to Washington about what the Germans were up to.

After June 1944, which was the D-Day invasion, this team was put into place in Europe and was really at the cutting edge of the advancing armies. They were perhaps the first people into Paris, to interview Frédéric Joliot-Curie about what the Germans were up to. They found that—at least in Paris, at the Paris laboratory of Joliot-Curie—there was nothing going on.

On they went. Step-by-step, they learned more and more, and eventually got the papers and the files of certain scientists that they were after. Eventually, they got the scientists themselves, people even like Werner Heisenberg, who they thought—because he stayed behind in Germany—maybe was head of the German bomb program. Heaven forbid that Hitler should get the bomb. They rounded up these people, Heisenberg and others, and put them in a safe house in England and left them there and bugged the place. They found out that the German program was not very advanced at all.

This had been the chief inspiration of some of the early effort by some of the people, participants in the early bomb program. “To deter the Germans, you need a bomb of your own. The Germans must be working on it, so we have to work on it ourselves.”

What to do with this information in late 1944, early 1945? “Should we tell the Los Alamos scientists that there was no German program? No, we’ll just kind of keep it quiet, and we’ll not tell anybody immediately.”

But by this point, the momentum of the program is going so fast and hard that nothing’s really going to stop it. Even if it were divulged that the Germans didn’t have a bomb program, at this late date—the Red Army is coming westward, and the Allied armies of Britain and the United States are pushing eastward. It’s just a matter of time before the war is over and Berlin is captured. We’re in early 1945, and nothing Hitler is going to do at this point is going to change things. These armies are enormous, they’re on the march, they’re closing in. The war’s going to be over in a matter of weeks, maybe months.

I wonder if that information would have had much of an impact on the scientists in working on the bomb, because it was intellectual curiosity to make the thing. There was a commitment they made. The momentum is so strong, everything’s going to be in place to have a bomb soon. Eventually, Hitler commits suicide. It’s not going to be used in Europe, that’s for sure, against Germany, if it ever was thought that it would be. That’s another interesting question.

All attention turned to Japan and how to use it there, and how to have a base from which planes could take off, and creation of a special unit of the Air Force, the 509th Composite Group, and what targets are going to be used, and that whole story of how the bomb was to be used. But it was going to used one way or the other, because of the momentum and because of what was a commitment from the outset, that this was going to be a military weapon that was going to be used.

Now, it just happened to be used at the end of the war. Other things were happening. There was conventional bombing going on. But to think that [President Harry] Truman would ever put his hand up and say, “No, it’s not going to be used,” it just wasn’t in the cards. As you can tell, Secretary [Henry] Stimson or General [George] Marshall, these were people who he highly respected, and they were all onboard to have the bomb being used. We’ve got a world war that’s going to come to an end at some point, and the bomb did have a role in ending it when it did. Had it not been used, the war would have ended at some point, later in 1945 with other casualties.

To find out that there was not a German program was at this point immaterial. It had no effect on anything that was happening in the Pacific. It only had an impact on what could have happened—but the bomb wasn’t ready—against Germany.

Would the bomb ever have been used against a European target? That’s a question that continues to come up. But the schedule of producing the bomb and developing the bomb and testing the bomb was all in place. It was never given the attention that would have been necessary to answer that question in some finality. The armies were pushing east and west, and eventually, the war ending in early May in Europe made the whole question moot. Japan became the focus.

General Groves and others saw that there was going to have to be a way to deliver this bomb, and there would have to be a special unit proposed and devised and put together to carry the bomb over the targets that were selected. He went to the Air Force and had the agreement that this was necessary. They figured on a plane, the B-29. They were even proposing non-U.S. planes, which was a non-starter. A special unit of the Air Force had to be put together. They had to be trained with these planes on how to drop these strangely-shaped bombs that were unlike any others that were being dropped in a conventional way by the same Air Force.

What eventually became the 509th Composite Group was special unit of the Air Force. They had a leader, whose name was Paul Tibbets, who was a good pilot, and had shown himself to be a good pilot. Eventually, about 1500 people were part of this Composite Group. They didn’t exactly know, most of them, what their mission was. They were only told at the very end that they were to drop an atomic bomb on Japan, with these special planes. But Tibbets knew, and he knew that they had to be trained well and they had to know what to do in operating everything.

The 509th were trained in Utah at Wendover Field, which is kind of a place where it’s very desolate. Then they were given a spot on Tinian Island in the Pacific, from which the planes could take off. There was already a base—the island had already been captured by American forces from the Japanese. B-29s were taking off every minute from Tinian to drop conventional weapons on Japan. The 509th took a portion of that island, and had a special base with special things. They dug holes where bomber could roll over it and they could load the bomb into the bottom of the belly of the B-29, the atomic bomb, and take off.

Both of these missions, the mission to Hiroshima and the mission to Nagasaki, have been well-documented by the crew. We know almost everything that happened in both instances. The Hiroshima mission went very smoothly, and Tibbets dropped it almost on target on August 6th at 8:15 in the morning, and returned and got medals and got awards and everything.

The Nagasaki mission was fraught with danger from the outset, because of a leaky fuel line. They weren’t sure they had enough gas in the plane to carry out the mission. That was kind of a hair-raising time for the participants on the plane itself and people on the ground, and Groves back in Washington not really knowing exactly what was going on. Maybe it would be jettisoned and aborted, and the bomb would not be dropped. As it turned out, it was dropped on Nagasaki. The plane made just back to Okinawa with a couple of gallons of gas left in the tank.

On both missions, I think it shows the degree to which operational control was held still in Washington by General Groves, especially in the Nagasaki mission. Who was in charge of that plane? This is a controversy still to this day among the crew and among the participants who were on that plane. [Charles] Sweeney, who was the pilot—was the pilot in charge of the mission? Or was the weaponeer? It’s clear as a bell that it’s the weaponeer who is in charge and not the pilot, unlike most situations where you have a pilot in the airplane and it’s obviously the pilot who’s in charge. But in the Nagasaki mission, that was not the case.

It’s all due to General Groves, who made sure that he had control of the airplane on the mission itself, and didn’t give up control of it to anyone, even the pilot. Now, the issue never came up with Tibbets in the Hiroshima mission. It did come up in the Nagasaki mission. When they found the original targets were cloudy and could not be seen, it was the weaponeer who said, “Let’s go on to Nagasaki.”

It’s as clear as a bell that Sweeney was not in charge of the airplane. He was not in charge of the mission itself, that the mission had to be carried by someone else, and that was a direct responsibility of the weaponeer. He [the weaponeer] was authorized only by Groves—and not by Sweeney—to drop the bomb when he thought the bomb should be dropped, and he did.

Kelly:  Was this relationship clear to the participants?

Norris: No.

Kelly:  In the middle of this flight there’s kind of a tug-of-war.

Norris: A kind of tension, yeah. Sweeney believes that he’s in charge, but it’s actually—

Kelly:  Ashworth.

Norris: Ashworth, Dick Ashworth, who was in charge. He’s the person who says, “Let’s go on to Nagasaki,” and really overrides Sweeney. Ashworth wrote an article about this. He does identify Groves as the person who has—

Kelly:  He has empowered him.

Norris: —empowered him, and has doubles of everything. There is another guy [Philip Barnes] besides Ashworth, who was with him.

That was an incredible revelation to me, that it was not the pilot of the plane that was in charge of the mission. It was Dick Ashworth who was in charge of the plane and the mission, to drop the bomb when he thought the bomb should be dropped, on Nagasaki.

The issue never came up in the Hiroshima bombing, because it was simple. There was not a weather problem. [William] Parsons was the weaponeer there and Parsons was in charge basically of that plane, although the issue never came up. But he was the weaponeer and he was responsible to Groves, period.

Dick Ashworth calls himself, I think, Groves’ double. There was Parsons and Ashworth, those were the two people who were chosen by Groves to be on the plane to drop the bomb, period. Tibbets drove the plane and Sweeney drove the plane, but they were in charge of the mission. The mission was to drop the bomb on a particular city.

 You know, the French, they’re fairly good at divulging information, but they still need an official history of their program. There isn’t one. We have good ones from the United States, and now we even have them from the Soviet Union, from Russia. In the aftermath of the collapse, a lot of information has come out, and it’s come out in ways that we can now put together, and the real personalities. But the French really still haven’t done that. They haven’t been good at that, especially about the hydrogen bomb.

I sent you that article or link by Pierre Gaillard, about how the French got the hydrogen bomb. Basically, the French have been lying a bout how it happened for years and years and years. This guy blows the whistle and spills the beans about how it really happened, and who should be really given credit for doing it.

This guy, Raoul Dautry, I wrote about him in the book. In the book, I wrote about it. But it’s fiction, it’s total fiction. He’s not responsible for it. Other people are, and apparently, they were given sort of confirmation that they were on the right track by the British. There was a visit to a French laboratory by a British guy who was involved in the British hydrogen bomb. He listened to them and it’s a matter of, “Yep, that’s the way, yep.”

[Charles] De Gaulle was, “I want a hydrogen bomb,” and the scientists, “We don’t know how to do it exactly.” Finally, they got on the right track.

That article was a real revelation. That was how it really happened. But overall they need the big volume that describes with official documents their atomic program and who was involved, and the hydrogen bomb program, like other countries have done. 

Kelly:  Now It Should Be Told [by General Leslie Groves].

Norris: It should be told. Now it can be told, especially, yeah, no longer a secret.

Kelly:  Maybe that’s your next book.

Norris: I just got asked about—there were American weapons in France, American nuclear weapons in France when France was part of NATO, and the military integration of all of that. This person in France wanted to know if there was ever a dual-key situation, where both countries would have to agree to the use. I have never, ever come across that.

When de Gaulle found out—no, he didn’t find out. Norstad, Lauris Norstad, who was, I think, the Supreme Allied Commander, was called into de Gaulle’s office. De Gaulle said, “Where are the U.S. weapons in France?”

Norstad said, “I can’t tell you.” He couldn’t tell de Gaulle.

De Gaulle said, “Out of here!” And the weapons were removed from France. I mean, if you can’t tell the President of France, Charles de Gaulle, where the weapons are—and Norstad, “I can’t tell you, sir. It’s above my pay rank.”

There was a whole program to remove the weapons from France, and to take France out of NATO militarily. It still had a political part, but France has not been a part of the military part of NATO for decades and is only now coming back. It revolved around this nuclear issue.

I don’t think there were ever any dual-key situations with the United States and the French. The United States would not want to give over that responsibility to the French. We did with British, but that’s a different situation. But with the French? Oh, my God. I don’t think it ever happened.

This person is looking into this matter of the relationship. That’s an interesting set of issues there, the removal of the nuclear weapons out of France. Can you imagine Norstad going into the office and de Gaulle, who was a pretty imposing character, asking, “All right, where are the U.S. weapons?”

And Norstad having to answer, “I’m sorry, sir, I can’t tell you.” Wow.                    


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