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Siegfried Hecker’s Interview – Part 2

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Siegfried Hecker is an American scientist who served as the Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1986 to 1997. He is currently Professor (Research) of Management Science and Engineering and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. His acceptance of the directorship of Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1986 was preceded by the Reykjavik Summit and unprecedented discussions of disarmament. In this interview, he discusses the obstacles to and immense gains from working with Russian nuclear scientists at the end of the Cold War. Specifically, he describes his involvement in the joint-verification experiments carried out in Nevada and at the Russian nuclear facility in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan.

Date of Interview:
August 1, 2001
Location of the Interview:


Siegfried Hecker: The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings [Act] brings back memories.   

Richard Rhodes:  No, exactly.

Hecker: It was very interesting. When I came into the directorship, the thing that I was really immensely concerned about was the future of this institution. I inherited this jewel and it was now in my hands; I had to make sure that it had a future. So probably more than anything else, that was first and foremost. Then the first meeting with the University of California Advisory Board reinforced that. The Advisory Board came in— a very famous scientist who since then won the Nobel Prize, Fred Reines, for the discovery of the neutrino, he was the Chairman of the Advisory Board. The principal question: “Sig, what are you going to do to keep the science of this place first rate?”

That weighed heavily. So I looked at things, and I took months from the time that I accepted the job before I got on the job. By that time, we already had an interim Director because Don Kerr had left, and I wanted the months for my own education. One of the things that I concluded is that the SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative] program had done some things to the laboratory that I didn’t like. That is, that we were hiring 400 people a year. I don’t care what your organization is; you can’t hire 400 first-rate people a year.

I was extrapolating the size of the laboratory, and it was growing like mad. I said, “That’s not sustainable.” We were already so huge compared to most industrial laboratories, except for AT&T, which at that time was like 20,000 [people]. Then it dropped down to ours: Sandia, Los Alamos, Livermore. If you include the contractors, roughly 10,000. I couldn’t see that growing to 12,000 or 15,000. It doesn’t make sense and you can’t keep the quality.    

So I instituted a zero growth policy. We plotted the size of the laboratory, except for a dip in the early Seventies with problem of energy crunch and et cetera before the Department of Energy was formed. Then it rose. And then it dipped when [Ronald] Reagan first came in because he killed all of the energy programs. Then it went back up because he reinforced military structures and forces and did SDI, and we got involved in the high tech end of SDI. So we were growing out of sight.

The first thing I did as Director, I said, “We’re going to have zero growth at this laboratory, because what I am concerned about is quality first and the size next.” Then the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings took care of the zero growth, because of five percent budget cut. But that was sort of the background.

So, to get back to Reykjavik [Summit], we knew things had changed. The next major step after Reykjavik was to get beyond the philosophical issues: Do you eliminate nuclear weapons? If not, how many do you have? And of course, you can have a good time thinking about all of those things. But when it gets down to practically, what does it mean? The next thing, which was also just incredible and was a major, major change for us, is that the people who had worked with Reagan and with [Mikhail] Gorbachev, came up with this idea—well first of all, let me back up.

They said one of the things we need to do now is to finally verify the Threshold Test Ban Treaty. Okay, that had been on the books, it was agreed to, signed in, I believe, 1974. You know we called it the TTBT. Signed in 1974, went into effect in 1976. The gist of the treaty was that one must limit the yield of the underground explosion to 150 kilotons or less.

In 1963 was the Limited Test Ban Treaty. And that banned explosions anywhere except underground and designated sites. So then, in ‘74, ‘76, they did this treaty. Then, essentially, we ran into the problems we have now with the CTBT [Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty]. That is, the Senate never ratified it.

They didn’t ratify it for a whole bunch of reasons. Some people just opposed it. Others, for the most part, say that we can’t verify it, that the seismic networks are not sufficiently good. The Russians wouldn’t allow sufficient onsite presence to set up seismic networks where we would have confidence. Besides, we were sure as hell the Russians cheated. That was the general belief of the intelligence agencies. And I’m sure that they thought we cheated.   

So, here was the situation now. You’re in 1986. You know, you signed this thing twelve years ago and it still isn’t ratified. So one of the things they decided then was that let’s go ahead and see whether we can ratify the Threshold Test Ban Treaty. I’m not sure exactly whose idea this was. There are several people who claimed authorship. One of them is that the joint academies, the Russian Academy of Sciences and US National Academies, set up a group in 1980. I think mostly because of David Hamburg’s work, who headed the Carnegie Corporation for many years.

Anyway, they set up this committee on international security and arms control, [the] Inter-Academy Committee. And, of course they kept pushing the governments. Just recently, in Russia, I was told that at this point that I’m getting to, which was 1988, the so-called joint verification experiments came out of discussions from the CISAC [Committee on International Security and Arms Control], the Inter-Academy Committee.

But nevertheless, somebody convinced the Reagan Administration and the Gorbachev Administration that the way to take care of these verification questions was to work at it and see if the scientists can figure out a mechanism by which to do this. And then we had people here who had been thinking about the mechanics of that for a long time and they’d actually developed the technique that was called “Corrtex”. It was essentially to put a coaxial cable down into the hole along the device, and by the rate at which that coaxial cable shortened, they were able to tell the yield.

They said, “If you want to do this semi-intrusively, we can do it with these coaxial cables.” The idea was born of having these joint verification experiments, of having the Russians take a coaxial cable and place it in one of our shots in Nevada. Then we would go over and do the same thing at Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, their test site. Again was just mind-boggling; this was the first time that we really worked hand-in-hand with the real Russian nuclear weapons complex.

We had actually seen a few of their people before, but very, very few. The guys who were very science-oriented, like the pulse power guys. One of [Andrei] Sakharov’s disciples was Alexander Pavlovskii. He was still at Arzamas16 at that time, and he was doing his high magnetic field work. Our people had actually met him at a conference once. But, you now, initially they didn’t know where he was from. He couldn’t say he was from a place that didn’t exist. So he had some other, you know, phony location.

But this was the first time we actually got together. And it was Viktor Mikhaylov, none other than Viktor Nikitovich Mikhaylov, who led the Russian delegation to Nevada for the joint verification experiment. It was called “Kearsarge” because we all gave them names. And it was in August, August the 17th of 1988.

So here we were, our people working side-by-side with these Russians for weeks at our test site. If you can just imagine the idea of all of the security, everything we’ve ever done—to have Russians at our test site working in one of our own placement holes is just mind-boggling. But it was done and Mikhaylov was there. They intentionally showed off some of their equipment. It turns out at that time Mikhaylov had been at Arzamas16, that’s where he came from. At that time he was heading up a small institute on the outskirts of Moscow. They did a lot of instrumentation work, and they developed this five-gigahertz scope, an extremely fast oscilloscope. They actually brought this scope over. They really didn’t need the scope for this experiment, but they brought it to show us, to show it off.    

I remember walking through Mikhaylov’s trailer. He was showing off the instrumentation. One of the probably more anxious moments of my life was when we were sitting in the control room at the Nevada Test Site ready for this thing to go off. And U.S., we had both Los Alamos [National Laboratory] and Livermore [National Laboratory], it was our device but Livermore was playing a significant role in this as well. We were on one side and Mikhaylov and his colleagues were on the other side. We had the countdown, and I said to myself, “If we ever want to make sure that ours worked, this was it. So make sure to have your fingers crossed.”

The embarrassment of having invited the Russians over to measure zero yield would have been just enormous. [Laughter] But of course it worked, and they made their measurements and we learned some things from that. Then my colleagues went over [to Russia]. I didn’t go along, and actually to this day I kind of regret that I didn’t for the return shot that was on September 14, less than a month later, in the Semipalatinsk. Our colleagues, of course, were doing the technical work. They went over there. Joe Salgado from the Department of Energy went over there, and so we had the mirror image over in Russia. A couple of the guys who were over there for that first test shot are still alive. Don Eilers is one of them and they have terrific stories. We have some great photos of them over there as well.

Rhodes:  Don Eilers is E-I-L-E-R-S?

Hecker:  E-I-L-E-R-S. Yeah. So that was another major change.

Rhodes:  We took our instruments over there? Was that the way it worked?

Hecker:  Yes, that’s correct.    

Rhodes:  It was their weapon, their device, and their cable?

Hecker:  Everything was their device and then it was our Corrtex cable and our instrumentation.  And then they did the same thing here.    

And we had all kinds of discussions—if you‘re really clever, there are some other things you can measure that might give you certain important time sequences, which tell you something about the design of the weapon [Laughter]. It was a great intellectual game back and forth that we had to play to make sure that on one hand, we took the measurements that were allowed, but not to give away anything that was classified.

The key then was that this is really the set of experiments and the interaction with the Russians that opened the gate to the Russian nuclear complex. This is what did it. It was getting together. It wasn’t anything theoretical, we didn’t exchange letters, it just happened with people working side-by-side. Also getting to know how much we shared. We were working for our country; they were working for theirs.  

Rhodes:  That sounds like that famous incident in the First World War where the Germans and the British got together in no man’s land and played soccer. Finally an officer came by and said, “What are you doing? These are the enemy.” 

Hecker:  Isn’t that something? You know, but that’s the way life is. In the end, for the most part the soldiers, the scientists, they work for their country, to protect their country. Then it’s the leaders that played these other games. And of course, as one has found out over the years, on the Soviet side the leaders really were playing terrible games.    

Rhodes:  Was it coincidental that Mikhaylov subsequently became head of the Ministry [of Atomic Energy]? Or was this part of his grooming?

Hecker:  No, it was probably not coincidental. I think it played a role because the next critical step that was from the JV’s [joint verification experiments], we demonstrated technically that this can be done. So now the issue was, can one actually write this into a treaty? And can one write the verification protocol? So what happens, as usually is done in these things, people go to Geneva. So, the TTBT then was negotiated in Geneva.

One of our former employees, and actually the guy who ran the nuclear weapons program, Paul Robinson, became the ambassador to the nuclear testing talks in Geneva for the U.S. Just an interesting sideline, Paul is actually the guy who expected to be Director of the Laboratory, and so when he didn’t get the directorship, he left and he joined a company called Ebasco that actually did some nuclear reactor related work for a while. I don’t think he was challenged sufficiently by that, and then Paul took the ambassadorship to negotiate the TTBT.

Rhodes:  I though this had to do with its ratification. 

Hecker:  That’s right.    

Rhodes:  So you mean earlier? You’re talking about negating the TTBT in the late Seventies, early Eighties.

Hecker:  No, no. The TTBT, as I said, was signed in ‘74, implemented in ’76, and then not ratified. So nothing happened, it just sat there dormant until Reagan and Gorbachev in ‘86.  

Rhodes:  Right.

Hecker:  They said, “Let’s get after this.” And so in ‘86, they started planning as to how to ratify the TTBT to develop the monitoring verification.    

Rhodes:  Okay, so when you sign a treaty, then you do the writing of the specifications for the treaty, is that right? I’m confused.   

Hecker:  No, since it was not ratified, they had to go back.  

Rhodes:  Oh, okay.   

Hecker:  It was never ratified. So the issue was, can they now go back? It was not ratified because the opposition said, “You can’t verify this treaty.” So then, it was not reintroduced to the Senate for ratification again until these issues could be dealt with. So that was the negotiation to come back and develop this whole verification regime. And that started, as far as I’m concerned, it started with Reykjavik and then from there it was born this idea of the joint verification experiments.   

From there they went to Geneva and then ‘88 to ‘90 they spent in Geneva negotiating the verification regime. Paul Robinson was the leader of the U.S. delegation, and Mikhaylov was the scientific leader of the Russian delegation. He surfaced again and we supplied technical experts to those talks. So we worked across from the Russians for two years, across a negotiating table.

I went to Geneva once for discussions related to this. [I] met Mikhaylov again. And so Mikhaylov then had the experience both of having been at VNIIEF. I’m sorry, that’s what they actually call the Los Alamos. The abbreviation VNIIEF stands for “All Russian Research Institute of Experimental Physics.”

Rhodes: Oh, that explains—when I looked at that video you sent me, they kept talking about VNIIEF. Yeah. 

Hecker:  VNIIEF, yeah. So, V-N-I-I-E-F. And then the other lab is the same thing except T-F, “Technical Physics”—I’m sorry “Theoretical Physics.” There’s no distinction between the two. They’re all the same missions, just like Los Alamos and Livermore. So, he was at VNIIEF. Then he went and had this small institute. He came and he left the delegation for the joint verification experiments, and then he was a scientific leader of the Russian delegation in Geneva. In March of ‘92, he was named the Minister of Atomic Energy. And that was right at the beginning of Russia, because the new nation of Russia was born on Christmas Day of 1991. Vladimir Belugin recently has told me a lot of the history of what actually happened in preparation for this article. Mikhaylov and Belugin were essentially the two key members that kept the nuclear complex and structure together in the transition from Soviet Union to Russia. And so, I’m not surprised anymore Mikhaylov became the minister.

Belugin said he was really a central force in making sure that the ministry wasn’t split up into many different pieces. They did several studies. He and Mikhaylov headed one study and then out of that came the Ministry of Atomic Energy. As you well know, they used to call it the Ministry of Medium Machines.    

In terms of seminal events, as far as I was concerned, Reykjavik was key and then the joint verification experiments. That gave us these entrees to meet the Russians. For example, after the test shot in 1988 we sat around, as is customary out there, in the steakhouse for the big dinner. Except this time, it was the Russians sitting across from us. I remember one of the leading scientists from the Livermore was sitting there and saying, “Okay, look. Now we’ve done these joint verification experiments. There really isn’t any science of these things.” He said, “We did it because some politicians wanted this thing done, but what we should really do is do joint scientific experiments together, because there’s certain things you can explore with a nuclear weapon, space, physics that you can’t get to in other ways.”

And so, he had these ideas about how we could do a joint scientific experiment and wouldn’t that really be neat. And I felt that we were allowed to talk to each other and work together. So again that whole event in 1988 was this change. Now they were sitting across from us, it wasn’t just Reagan and Gorbachev anymore.

This had turned real. It was us. I was sitting there with the Russians discussing joint scientific experiments. So again, that was mind-boggling. Then, through this process, I think they finally wound up in 1990 or so, having a protocol that was agreed to and then the treaty was ratified shortly thereafter. Of course, the interesting thing is, by that time it was irrelevant.    

All this time we spent to worry about the nits of a treaty that had become completely overtaken by events, events that were cosmic in comparison. And they were sitting there about the size of the canister that you would have to put around your device in order to make sure the others can’t learn anything. But, the side product of that was the scientists got to talk to each other and in fact, it led to this visit of lab directors. Our guys came back from Geneva and they said, “Hey, Sig, you know the Russians are ready to talk to us. They’re really serious. They’d like to get together and they’d like you to come over there.” And this was 1990.

I went to DOE [Department of Energy], and I said, “We’re picking up a lot of feelers that the Russians are really ready to talk. They’d like to get together and I’d like to suggest that we go over there and visit. You know we think we can get in.” I just couldn’t get any interest at DOE at the time—too much caution, this [was] pretty radical.

Rhodes:  What were they afraid of? 

Hecker: You know, the government works in funny ways. Government bureaucrats are not rewarded for their ingenuity. They’re punished for having made mistakes.    

It was pretty much that simple. This was in a great state of flux and I think they were just afraid that somehow the scientists would get out ahead of the political process, so you leave those things in the Department of State.    

Rhodes:  They can imagine various public relations disasters—American nuclear experts wandering around Russia.

Hecker: And Congress coming after us. How in the world could we possibly send people with knowledge of how to design a nuclear weapon into enemy territory?  

Probably that they just didn’t see what they were going to gain on the basis of what their job was. So, I kept on taking this idea back there and I kept saying, “You really ought to rethink this. I think we’ve got a good opportunity.” But, it didn’t take.    

Rhodes:  What did you see as the benefit of doing this? 

Hecker:  What we had seen at the joint verification experiment is this possibility of being able to do science together. My thoughts at that point were really not well developed, but I mostly thought that our intelligence services had spent an enormous amount of money and time to try and find out what’s over there.

And so I said the discussions I had with these guys in Nevada, from an intelligence standpoint, must have been worth millions. I said, “Why don’t we go over there? We can learn an enormous amount; we know so little.” Of course, we had our intelligence got reports of what we thought their forestructure looked like, what they were doing, whether they were cheating on the TTBT, [but] all of those things were up in this fuzzy cloud. The way that we viewed their nuclear forestructure, what their weapons looked like, for the most part was mirror imaging what we did.   I thought in most likelihood they probably didn’t mirror image. They probably did some things on their own because it was pretty clear that they had smart enough people.

So I didn’t have some great game plan in the 1990 timeframe. Was mostly to say that we’ve got a lot to learn and a lot to gain just by going over there, and meeting these people and discussing these things; that was the driving force. None of it took, until the summer of 1991 and that was the August putsch. It started, I think, August 19th of 1991, when Gorbachev was on house arrest in the Black Sea and [Boris] Yeltsin climbed up on the tank.

Then there were some people in the U.S. government that saw the potential disasters that could actually come from the dissolution from the Soviet Union. Many would want to do the victory dance, but then others saw lots of potential dangers lurking if this place breaks up.  The key people there were Nunn and Lugar, Senator [Samuel] Nunn and Senator [Richard] Lugar. They started crafting, in the summer towards the fall of 1991, this idea of Cooperative Threat Reduction. From what I understand, and I just found this out a few weeks ago, David Hamburg played a role.

Rhodes:  Really? 

Hecker:  He was, at that time, at Carnegie Corporation and they did a study. I think it was initiated by Congress through Nunn-Lugar, sponsored through the Carnegie Corporation, and headed mostly by Ash Carter at Harvard.

That study provided the basis for this idea of Cooperative Threat Reduction as being a face change in the way that we deal with these guys. The Soviet Union dissolved gives us a lot of benefits, but it also gives us risks or threats. In turn, why don’t we see what we can do to work together to cooperatively reduce the threat that came about because of the dissolution, or will come about? At that time, the Soviet Union was not yet dissolved, but it was clearly headed towards big time trouble because Yeltsin also of course then didn’t treat Gorbachev well. Intentionally made sure that Gorbachev became irrelevant.  

They had formed the Russian Federation. Yeltsin had become the President of the Russian Federation, and he essentially started taking over. This was between August and December. By December, Gorbachev could see the handwriting on the wall. He resigned on Christmas Day of 1991. In that interim, Carnegie Corporation, David Hamburg, Ash Carter with Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, crafted this idea and they passed it—Cooperative Threat Reduction, called the Nunn-Lugar legislation. It would have been passed October/November of 1991.

Our voice had become stronger during this time. We’d say, “We’ve got to go talk to the Russians,” and still, absolutely no take.

Rhodes:  At the DOE you mean? 

Hecker:  With the DOE. That’s as far as I went at that time. I did not go to the National Security Council, although I may have had discussions with Bill Graham. I think Bill Graham was the President’s Science Advisor at the time, but we didn’t push very hard on that end.

Rhodes:  Were you plugged in at all to the Nunn-Lugar group? 

Hecker:  No, not at all. That was all done totally separate from anything we did at this lab; I’m not sure that any of our labs was plugged into that. [The Nunn-Lugar group] was plugged into the CISAC. The Inter-Academy connection came from David Hamburg and then Ash Carter. That was all from a totally different vantage point than from ours, and these guys were the power brokers; we weren’t at all. We were not an effective force on the national policy scene from our laboratory. We were really providing the technical means and capabilities to carry out many of these things, but in this area of working with the Russian nuclear complex, we said, “We can do something.”

It was a very memorable circumstance that actually finally got us over the hump. I should say there was one other person here who played a major role, and that’s President [George H.W.] Bush. At least from the pieces that one can put together, he had clearly helped to usher things along and to encourage things. We can get back to that in the future, but the things that were done under Bush in the outgoing Gorbachev Administration and incoming Yeltsin will one day be looked back upon as some of the most significant things that ever been done in the defense relationship between two countries. He took unilateral actions that no Democratic president would have ever been able to dare to take, because he would have been labeled a traitor.

It was like Nixon going to China or Reagan meeting with Gorbachev. Bush was an extension of that. They were major initiatives, both in terms of the START, better known as The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, but then the unilateral ones, for example, just taking all of the tactical nuclear warheads out. Immense, immense step. Then he got them to reciprocate. Gorbachev reciprocated, Yeltsin reciprocated.

What broke the barrier in terms of our interacting with the Russians—Bush had maybe a series of Cabinet meetings, but one in particular. At that time Admiral James Watkins was the Secretary of Energy. A four star admiral, had lots of experience, grew up under [Hyman G.] Rickover. Watkins was present in a Cabinet meeting. Shortly thereafter, we got together at a previously planned meeting, in my recollection December 16th, 1991 in Leesburg, Virginia, off-site. Watkins was getting together with his lab directors and his Forrestal Department of Energy Headquarters team. We discussed a whole bunch of issues: the future of the Department of Energy, the laboratories, the key issues at the time. And by the way, the key issue, you know, which will be another whole thread and is intriguing all on its own, is the self-destruction of our nuclear weapons complex while all of this was going on.    

Rhodes:  That is the other story, which we want to do.

Hecker:  With the Rocky Flats part.

Rhodes:  Yeah, yeah.   

Hecker:  Watkins’ main role in life was to handle all of the flak associated with Rocky Flats [Plant], the environmental and safety, and all the risk in the ground, so he was pretty heavily focused on that for most of his tenure and much of our discussion was related to that. Then Watkins said, “Hey, I’ve got another topic.”

The key guy I have been interfacing with was a gentleman by the name of Vic Alessi, who actually had quite a bit of diplomacy experience. He was put in the Department of Energy for these nonproliferation arms control related programs. Vic was one of the guys I was trying to convince, but I could never get there. I don’t really hold it against Vic. I think for what he had in his job, this was pretty risky. So, Watkins actually—and Alessi was not invited to this meeting— he actually said, “Hey, bring Alessi out here because I want to discuss this issue we discussed with President Bush.”

So the story goes something like this: we’re sitting there, this was after dinner, and Watkins goes on and says, “We had a Cabinet meeting and the discussion sat around the fact that the Soviet Union is in the process of breaking up. They are breaking up.” This is December of 1991, literally, nine days before the complete dissolution. He said, “It’s breaking up and Nunn and Lugar have passed legislation. Bush is concerned as to what’s going to happen the scientists in the Russian nuclear weapons complex. Are they going to go to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea? What can we do to keep those guys at home? President Bush is concerned. I’m asking you guys for input. What can we do?”

We had a little discussion, I raised my hand and I said, “Admiral Watkins.” We always called him Admiral.

Although he called me about a year ago and he said, “Hey Sig, this is Jim Watkins.”

I said, “I don’t know any Jim Watkins. I know Admiral Watkins.”

I actually got to know and appreciate him quite a bit in the last year of his tenure. In the end, his heart was really in the right place. He gave us something, which we’re still suffering from, this “Tiger Team” mentality of how to do safety and health and environment, but we understand better now why he had to.

At any rate, I said, “Admiral Watkins, I sit here as a Lab Director, and I worry about our scientific talent all the time. If we look at the Russians, I’m sure that their lab directors are sitting there thinking exactly the same thing. This place is coming apart—how in the world do I keep these guys at home?” I said, “Why don’t we go ask them?”

And Watkins said, “Why don’t you go ask them?” I guess it was at the end of the evening session. I was just standing there with John Nuckolls, and Polly Gault. She was his Chief of Staff, one of the feistiest people in all of Washington I’ve ever met, but terrific Chief of Staff, just terrific.

Rhodes:  Whose Chief of Staff? 

Hecker: Watkins’s Chief of Staff. She had worked for the senator from Vermont, not the currently famous senator but the one before him, [Robert] Stafford, who was a great education fan. So she came out of Congress, but she was Watkins’s Chief of Staff, and she was very aggressive. She walks up to me and she said, “Okay Sig, off to Russia.”

I said, “Great. When?”

She said, “Now.”

I said, “Before Christmas?”

She said, “Yes, didn’t you hear the Admiral? He wants you guys.”

John Nuckolls was there and he also said, “Oh, my God.”

I said, “Well, look, Polly. I’ve been after your guys for almost two years now to go to Russia and I could never get anybody to say, “Go.” I do want to go to Russia badly but you know, it’s December in Russia and I don’t want to go that bad. How about we wait until spring?”

And Polly says, “Okay, not before Christmas but we can’t wait until spring.”

That started it all and from there, there were connections back over to Mikhaylov.

Hecker:  So if you think about this, by this time we pretty much lost it with Christmas coming up and the Soviet Union dissolving. [We] got this thing into action, and from the beginning of January, in one month those guys were here, and in six weeks we were over there. It is just mind-boggling that that happened.

Nowadays the bureaucrats have taken over again and it takes forty-five days’ notice to be able to get into Arzamas16, into Sarov, for any American, and even there they drag that out. It’s just exceedingly difficult. A year and half or so ago I saw Victor Mikhaylov and I said, “Victor, how in the world were you able to swing this? How were you able to get us in so fast? Your country must have been at odds and in turmoil and you got us in with a month’s timeframe.”

Mikhaylov said, “Sig, it was very easy. I knew it had to be done. I went to see Yeltsin directly. At that time he was still a well man. I explained to him and he said to do it.” And we did. Just like that.

That was before [Mikhaylov] was Minister. He was made Minister a few days after we were there. In fact, the week we arrived, we went to Moscow first and met with Mikhaylov. Then we went to Sarov, to Arzamas16. And then we went from Sarov to the Chelyabinsk-70 laboratory; it’s in a town called Snezhinsk. While we were out there Yeltsin visited Sarov, so the Director from Chelyabinsk70 actually had to go [to Sarov]. Belugin just told me weeks ago that was the key meeting at which point they decided that they would have the Ministry of Atomic Energy as it was, and that Mikhaylov would become the Minister, which happened only a few days after we left there. Of course, it had nothing to do with our visit. Our visit just was coincidental in the time framing that we were there.    

Rhodes:  What’s Mikhaylov doing these days? He’s not still Minister, right? 

Hecker:  No. He came in March of 1992 and he was fired in March of 1998, but that’s kind of a badge of merit under Yeltsin. There’s so many ministers that were fired and Mikhaylov eventually was fired. There’s lots of speculation as to why he may have been fired. I’m really not sure why.    

Rhodes:  What’s he doing now? 

Hecker:  I guess probably the thing that he spends most of his time on – he actually heads a strategic think tank institute [the Institute of Strategic Stability].

Rhodes:  In Moscow? 

Hecker:  That’s in Moscow.  

Hecker:  He heads, with the General Silensov, who was also very active during this joint verification experiment days. They have this strategic institute, a think tank institute. They think about the role of nuclear weapons and defense and all these. We’re actually thinking about engaging him as part of our network again and through the Turner Fund. Mikhaylov is a kind of stick it into your eye kind of guy.

Hecker:  And he’s written a book. Did you know that?  

Rhodes:  No.   

Hecker:  It’s called I Am a Hawk. I have a copy of that book, the English translation, and he is a hawk. He’s also arrogant as hell, and he’s really Russian, just to the right of Attila the Hun in some place. On the other hand, he’s the guy who made all of this happen.    

In a sense, it’s a lot like a Republican President. He was able to do these things in the ministry, without being accused of being soft by the Communists, because nobody can accuse Mikhaylov of being soft. When he was fired, I wrote him a letter telling him that I thought he was the key individual that allowed us to get these things started.  

I organized a lab director’s get-together, a lab director’s summit, in Santa Fe, November of 1999. I was no longer Lab Director but what we did was to keep current and former lab directors associated with the Russian nuclear program. By this time we had found a third Russian lab, their Sandia: the equivalent of Sandia. Initially, they told us they didn’t have one, but they had one. It’s actually in Moscow, called the Institute of Automatics.

We brought the directors of the three labs, current directors from both sides, together. Then Mikhaylov came along with them since he’s a former Honorary Director. Very, very interesting to talk to. If you can get past the arrogance, which one can, you’d learn a lot.

He heads this strategic institute. He’s actually the Chief Scientist of VNIIEF in Sarov, their Los Alamos. I’ve seen him there a couple of times when I’m there; he likes to spend a week a month, but he probably averages a day or two a month, in Sarov. Then he heads the Scientific Advisory Group to the Ministry of Atomic Energy still. So he’s still quite prominent, but from what I can tell politically, I don’t think he plays a major role anymore.  

Copyright 2010 Richard Rhodes. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of Richard Rhodes. Exclusive rights granted to Atomic Heritage Foundation.