Nuclear Museum Logo
Nuclear Museum Logo

National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Siegfried Hecker’s Interview – Part 3

Manhattan Project Locations:

Siegfried (“Sig”) 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. In this interview, Hecker discusses the 1990s debate over the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and how it affected his responsibilities as Los Alamos Lab director. He analyzes the results of the treaty, which calls for zero yield from nuclear weapons and no testing, and reflects on the global impact of the treaty.

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


Siegfried Hecker: Okay, I was just—a little bit more on the testing business. Again, I will not give you much because eventually, I am sure you will do all the research on this. There are some interesting dynamics in the testing business all the way around, because it is such an emotional issue. So hard drawn on both sides, almost a little bit like abortion. You just cannot seem to bring people together. They are either in one camp or in the other.

So we went through in 1995 in the spring, leading up to a session in Omaha that we called the “Confidence Conference.” Omaha being the strategic command headquarters.

For our business, in the end, our principal customer is STRATCOM [Strategic Command], and our interface with the Strategic Command through [Department of Energy Assistant Secretary for Defense Programs] Vic Reis was actually quite tight. They then just hosted it because they had a good place to get together, and we had this Confidence Conference, where they brought together the three lab directors [the directors of Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia National Laboratories] with our colleagues and experts from the inside.

They had the leadership of the Department of Energy. [Secretary of Energy] Hazel O’Leary; [Deputy Secretary] Charles Curtis was there; Vic Reis was there. Then the leadership of the STRATCOM and the various services. Particularly at this time, the only ones that were left in the nuclear business were the Navy and the Air Force, because Army got out when [President George H.W.] Bush made the decision to get rid of tactical nuclear weapons back in the 1991 time frame.

We were all gathered and were presenting the case as to what you can get at different testing levels, in order to provide input to President Clinton to see how he should fashion his announcement of the CTBT [Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty]. This was a classified briefing, of course, because these things really got into the details of what you can buy. I will give you the unclassified version.

The way that things had gone, at a kiloton we could really do a lot  from a standpoint particularly of preserving the safety and reliability of the current arsenal. At a kiloton, we thought we could do most of the things that needed to be done. So we had ways of being able to extrapolate from a kiloton to the higher yields using all of our smarts and all of the previous test history.

Then you just lost that as you went down to five hundred tons, one hundred tons. At this four-pound limit—we had experience from the ‘58 to ‘61 moratorium – there were some very important safety things that we learned with those hydro-nuclear experiments. So we made the argument that the hydro-nukes would be very important. Now interestingly enough, our Livermore friends did not consider them as important as we did. That is just different technical judgment, but we said they were important from a technical standpoint.

By the way, all along this time, I testified in Congress about various things that we were asked to come in on. Also, I should say, the things that I felt had changed at the various times. I tried pretty hard to communicate openly and frequently with laboratory staff so they would understand what the situation was. Really believing that if we all know where we are going – it is easier to herd a bunch of cats if they know themselves where you want to wind up.

So I wrote a column – at least monthly – that I called “The Inside Story.” I never missed a month during my whole directorship, and occasionally wrote two a month.

Richard Rhodes: Are those unclassified?

Hecker: They are all unclassified.

Rhodes: Good.

Hecker: They are all unclassified. Even though I wrote them for internal consumption, I also knew that the local news media had easy ways to pick all of these up. So I had to write them with the full knowledge that they could appear in a newspaper at any time. But I did not let that detract from the number one goal, which was to communicate with our employees.

Certainly, let me say, one would spend a little more time because of that and write them more carefully, and I wrote them all myself. I really wanted this to be a vehicle for people to understand how I think, what I think, what I know. Because in the end, the major advantage I had compared to the rest of my colleagues at the laboratory: I had connections with Washington that they did not have. That is why I thought it was important.

At many of the milestones that I mention, there will be an Inside Story, which deals with, “Okay, folks. The situation has changed. Something has happened.” You might find those interesting, and we can certainly make them available.

Rhodes: You bet. 

Hecker: The same with congressional testimonies.

Rhodes: Yeah, that was another area I was going to ask you about.

Hecker: I testified as late as—I think it was July – either June or July of 1995. Again, giving the bottom line to say, “Look, if you are asking me to keep the weapons safe and reliable, the easiest and best way to do that is to test.” Then again, just like I’d told Clinton, “However, you are the policymakers. You need to decide what you lose when you test.” In other words, what you gain, particularly since the United States and Clinton especially wanted to demonstrate leadership in the area of non-proliferation. Then you have to trade that off.

Rhodes: Is this around the same time as the Non-Proliferation Treaty was renewed?

Hecker: In fact, 1995 was when it was renewed. That is correct. So there were a lot of discussions.

Rhodes: Was this interlocked with that?

Hecker: It was connected.

Rhodes: Yeah.

Hecker: Clinton came out by himself and made the August announcement, but certainly the people who were working the extension of the NPT were all connected within the government. I am sure that there were discussions at a very high policy level. People who were in the trenches for the NPT were taking a lot of flak from the non-nuclear power countries. “When are you guys going to stop testing? After all, you signed up back in 1968, or whenever it was, and the eventual goal was to eliminate nuclear weapons.” So there has been a lot of pressure from the non-nuclear countries in that direction. This may have had an influence on Clinton also in his final decision, because his final decision, to get to the point, was zero yield.

Rhodes: Not even the four pounds?

Hecker: Not even the four pounds. Now zero yield – yield to us means you make neutrons and then neutrons get all the rest of the stuff going. When we first heard the zero yield, we said, “You cannot do that.” Plutonium by itself emits neutrons. Spontaneous fission, you know. A lot of the experiments that we do could indeed, and will, create some neutrons.

This was a part of the treaty that never was really, fully taken through systematically and carefully. The final question on the table was “Will we allow these hydro-nuclear experiments or not?” and the decision that he made was “no.” He wanted to go cold turkey. Understanding that these other things that we do – if Livermore gets the big laser up, they make a tiny amount of yield in that laser if the bombard the right materials – but that is okay. But the way that it is written, it is just the understanding that those experiments are okay.

Today, at least to my knowledge, no one has strictly defined all the things that are allowed and not allowed. But the understanding is that the hydro-nuclear experiments and anything beyond or more than that are not allowed. It is zero yield, and so Clinton decided to go cold turkey. 

I mentioned this Confidence Conference. I would say that most of the people around the table felt that some limit in the few hundred tons would really be the best thing to do, because it would allow us enough flexibility that we could actually do some tests. Not that they would allow us to design new bombs– 

Rhodes: Right.

Hecker: But it would have a significant impact on the confidence that we had. O’Leary did not go for that, clearly. Then, from what I understand, there was significant discussion within the Defense Department. Bill Perry was, by that time, the Secretary of Defense, and General John Shalikashvili was the chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.       

A couple of the key events were: Vic Reis and Charlie Curtis took us back to see General Shali [Shalikashvili] in the Pentagon. General Shali was in the process of trying to formulate his recommendation to President Clinton on the comprehensive test ban. So he had us there—the three laboratory directors and it was really our show, with Shali asking whatever questions he needed to convince himself of what position to take. Curtis and Reis were there just to kind of back us up. They were the DOE [Department of Energy] officials.

So we went through some discussions with General Shali. The most interesting part to me – this is where it really came down to remembering the Sidney Drell sort of philosophy. How important it is to give the honest answer, and the answer that is within the bounds of what we have to do at the laboratory? General Shali asked something to the effect of the following: “In order to assure the safety and reliability of the stockpile, as it is constituted now, do you absolutely have to test? In order to keep the stockpile safe and reliable, do you have to test?”

That is the way he phrased the question. My answer was “General Shalikashvili, in all honesty, I cannot say yes to that. I cannot say that I know that we will have to test. In other words, if we do not test, that the weapons are going to be not safe and not reliable. I cannot tell you that. But I have to add right away, also, that I cannot tell you that they will remain safe and reliable if we do not test.”

The key thing that he was looking for was – I believe that if my colleagues and I had told him that we cannot keep these safe and reliable unless we test, I believe that he would have recommended that we test. That is my belief.

Rhodes: Right.

Hecker: He would almost have no choice. If he has his three lab directors – these are the guys that presumably know. They have to have the confidence. If they do not have the confidence, how can he override that? Once we added the proviso that we also cannot guarantee it, we had some discussion, “Well, what would it take?”

So we had a discussion to say we have been on that path. We already hadn’t tested for three years by that time. We have designed the [Stockpile] Stewardship Program. Just to go back a bit because I did not say that before. The Stewardship Program essentially recognizes the following: that right now, our confidence in the stockpile rests in the people who designed, engineered, and tested them, and these people are still alive.

Rhodes: Yeah.

Hecker: So we have confidence, but as these people either retire or die, along with them goes our confidence. Vic actually coined the term “science-based stockpile stewardship.” 

Rhodes: Yes.

Hecker: To feature the labs’ part, rather than “manufacturing replacement things.” Then the idea was that while these gurus are still alive, what we are going to do is develop new tools and techniques that would allow us to gain confidence. We will practice and try some of those while these guys are still around. Then hopefully, just as our confidence would start to drop off because the experienced people die off, we will have put the new tools into place, and at least be able to keep the confidence above the acceptable level.

It can never, without testing, go back to where it was. It certainly cannot go above where it was. No matter how good our computers. No matter how smart you are. In the end, you do have to prove that something works. We had that kind of discussion as to what it would take.

I was very impressed because he has these blue eyes, and they looked like an x-ray machine. I felt like he was looking right through me. Then, of course, he has this heavy accent. Actually, I wrote a piece. It was not “The Inside Story.” I have written some other pieces. We started another monthly magazine that I used to write pieces for. Particularly during the last year of my directorship, I wrote some more personal pieces that I did not write so much during the rest of my directorship. One of them I put in that photograph you saw up there of us. It is actually not stepping off the boat. That is unfair. It is getting on the boat, but you cannot tell.

I put that photograph in there for a story that I developed around the Shalikashvili meeting. It hit me after I walked out of the meeting. I think I was lying there at night, and I said to myself, “Only in America can this happen.”

The “only in America” refers to the following: the four key individuals in the discussions were General Shalikashvili —okay, you will get the gist in a second. His father was Georgian, his mother was Polish, and he was born over there and immigrated to this country. He was the head military guy of the nation, the chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. There was my colleague Al Narath. He was president of Sandia, born in Berlin and immigrated to this country. There was myself, born in Poland of Austrian parents, having grown up in Austria, head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. We had one token American: Bruce Tarter, born in Kentucky, director of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. So here were four guys having a discussion about the future of things nuclear in the United States, and three out of the four were not born in this country.

Only in America: going back to the way you pieced the making of the atomic bomb together. The Fermis and the Tellers and the Szilards and all of that – it is the beauty of this country to allow that to happen.

Rhodes: Yeah.

Hecker: It is not just the fact of the talent in that room. I mean, we can take care of ourselves, but it did not matter whether it was us, specifically Sig Hecker and Al Narath. It was just the concept and the fact that you can have somebody emigrate from another country and take a position and a responsibility of this nature. You are willing to take a risk. Most of those times, those risks for this country have paid off enormously. That was an interesting aside.

This was summer of ‘95 timeframe. Then came a very, very memorable phone call, and it was a phone call from Charlie Curtis and Vic Reis. It was in the first week of August of 1995, and they said, “Okay, Sig. The decision has been made about the comprehensive test ban. Clinton is going announce it next week.”

In fact, they might have even said within the next couple of days. “Here it is. It is zero yield.” That is the first time I heard for sure: zero yield.

Then they explained the rest of what has been done. This I think to a large extent was General Shali’s work, but also some of the people in the Pentagon; more so than the people in the Department of Energy. They had put together two other things. One was a series of safeguards: this is quite normal for treaties. The Limited Test Ban Treaty, for example, had safeguards, and that is to keep the islands at Johnston Atoll and at Kwajalein prepared to resume atmospheric testing in case it was needed. That is the sort of safeguards one puts in.

The safeguards they put in here were very, very, important and very strong. The most important one to us was to have an aggressive—I did not use that word, but the essence of that—an aggressive Stockpile Stewardship Program to keep the three laboratories technically sound. To be able to answer the questions that come up, and so to support the Stockpile Stewardship Program.

Then there were also testing safeguards. We would be able to resume testing in a certain number of months if it was necessary. There were intelligence-related safeguards. We would need to step up the intelligence.

Then there was the “supreme national interest” clause. That said if the president – advised by the Secretaries of Energy and Defense and STRAT, and the directors of the three nuclear weapons laboratories – felt like it was no longer possible to keep our weapons safe and reliable, the president would invoke the supreme national interest clause. And withdraw from the treaty for whatever time period was necessary in order to rectify these problems of no test. Of course, we know how these safeguards work. I mean these are the things that you put in. In order to actually implement such a safeguard would be exceedingly difficult. We knew that this still meant the end of testing, but as I said, I knew that in 1992.

The second major change was when we had the discussion with General Shalikashvili about this fact that I cannot say we have to test, but I also cannot tell him that they are going to be reliable forever. We talked about this issue: could the laboratory directors actually get their message across?

I said, “What if in five or ten years’ time – even if it is not me and it is somebody else – it would take a lot to come to the president and say, ‘Look. I have now lost the confidence in this weapon. You either take it out of the stockpile or you must test.’”

I kept repeating that to all of the people I talked to. I said, “That is what you have to face up to. We may get to that situation because we cannot guarantee it.”

So what General Shalikashvili – as I said, I think it was him – put into effect then is to say “All right, we will implement this annual certification program.” It was for the first time ever that instead of just certifying – that is, the laboratory director signing at the time that the weapon is put into the stockpile, that he certifies this weapon to be safe and to have a yield and certain characteristics – now we would have to do that annually. In other words, what General Shali did was to say, “Okay, look. We will ask you every year. That will make it easier for you to be able to tell us.” 

Rhodes: Yeah, yeah.

Hecker: That was the essence. What Charlie Curtis and Vic Reis were after on the telephone call was to see if whether or not I would support this. At that particular time, I was the senior laboratory director in terms of service, not in terms of age. Bruce Tarter had just been director less than a year – a year, or so – out at Livermore, and I had been director by that time for almost ten years. Al Narath at Sandia, he had been there for a few years, but they are really not the key players in nuclear testing. Sadia, in essence, does not do the “physics packages,” as we call it. They are not as much influenced by the nuclear testing situation.

What they did was ask me, and we went through that. In the end, I told them the same thing that I have already mentioned here a couple of times before. If all you want to do is keep them safe and reliable, you test them. There is no question. If the president now makes the decision that for all these other reasons he is not going to test them, then what I can say is that I will support that. Our laboratory will do everything in its power to demonstrate that you do not need to test to keep the weapons safe and reliable.

In essence, I had already kind of passed the crucial test when General Shali asked me the question.

Rhodes: Right.

Hecker: Do I have to test in order to keep them safe and reliable. Then we had some discussions as to how we wanted to see this announced, what was going to be in the announcement and so forth. Those things were all pretty important in terms of how they were stated. Because I told Charlie and Vic, I do not want them to represent this as my being a proponent of the CTBT because I am not.

Rhodes: Yeah.

Hecker: In my job, I felt that is a significant handicap. However, if the president feels that it is worthwhile, then we will work with that handicap. I accept it, but I do not promote it. That again was the job that I felt I had to do from a laboratory perspective.

Rhodes: Sure.

Hecker: No matter what my own views were. I certainly thought that there would be some gains to not testing in terms of the overall nuclear posture of the world. The ones that were cited in the discussions, for the most part, I thought were not very convincing. For example, people who were proponents of the test ban would say, “We have to stop testing, so Iraq does not test.” [Laughter]

All right, you laugh. That’s silly. That is about the last thing that Saddam Hussein would care about, whether we test our nuclear bombs or not. For that matter, the same thing goes for India and Pakistan, we said at that time. They care about each other, and they already know that the US has an arsenal. They make a lot of noise about us wanting to get rid of all nuclear weapons. In the end, I believe that they really do not believe that either. But they like to say, “We are a non-nuclear weapons state.” The only thing that drives them is the mutual considerations: India vis-à-vis China, vis-à-vis Pakistan. They are going to decide, and do what they want to do. Whether the US tests or not is irrelevant.

However, the one aspect that one would certainly have to think through is what does it do to the whole framework of nuclear weapons development in the world. If you do not test, you really do slow things down.

Then right away, I prepared a statement, especially for our own people, to say this is what happened, and I support the president’s decision for these reasons. That we are going to have a comprehensive test ban. I think I also explained the zero yield part. What that means is no hydro-nuclear experiments. We know technically that is flawed.

Rhodes: Right.

Hecker: You cannot have zero yield.

Rhodes: Yes, right.

Hecker: That was also really a major step all the way around. Clinton announced, and then eventually it was signed in September of 1996. He then had to work that with the other countries for a final agreement, that it would be zero yield. He signed the comprehensive test ban in September of 1996. But the die was cast already then by August of 1995.

Now Vic Reis again at this point took advantage of all of this. He said, “These guys want a comprehensive test ban, but they want their bombs safe, secure, and reliable.” In essence, “That is going to cost them. They said they are going to have these safeguards programs and have healthy laboratories. For us to have the confidence, they have to realize that they have to support a stewardship program that is more than just words.”

He went out to start the fight for the budget. He worked in Congress, and he took us with him. I spent many, many days on the Hill and at OMB [White House Office of Management and Budget] essentially trying to lay out what the challenges were, what the issues were, what we would require now that the CTBT is going to be a reality. And we did that. Again, Vic took advantage of the fact that it would then help us make the stewardship case. I think in the end, it did. It helped us to pull together the stewardship case. 

Both the testing and the stewardship philosophy came when there were a number of members of Congress who were very unhappy about this. Of course, the Republicans were always unhappy about Clinton anyway, but then they were really unhappy about the CTBT. For example, Senator Jon Kyl: before, he was a congressman from Arizona. I got to know him quite well while he was a congressman, and worked with him on a number of different issues because he has always been on one of the Defense Committees.

I got along extremely well with him, and I respected his position. I got to know him well enough to actually know that the positions that he holds – which are very hardcore, conservative, hardline – he really believes that. He is not doing that for any political gains. Or at least, that was my sense. He really believes that. He just believes in a strong United States, and he has these beliefs as to what it takes to make a strong United States. He, and I think many others, were very disappointed that I did not take the Harold Agnew-like stance. I have heard it said in many places that I sold out.

Rhodes: Oh, I see.

Hecker: So that was a bit touchy in the military establishment, because they realized here that the advice and the voice of the weapons labs directors was really quite crucial in this. But I never had any apologies for any of that. I did what I felt my conscience said was the right thing to do. As I look back now, I would not only do the same thing again, but it was the right thing to do.

Then Kyl sends us twenty-one questions in 1997 when they started to talk about ratification. The twenty-one questions were really quite loaded in terms of why it is not a good idea to have a CTBT. When it comes time, I can send you those too. I think in the answer to Kyl’s twenty-one questions, I spelled out my position more clearly than in anything else.

The bottom line as far as stewardship testing was concerned: it seemed the proponents of testing were trying to push towards a world where we would get a few tests a year in order to be able to assure ourselves that the bombs that we still had there in the stockpile would work. I felt very strongly that that is a vulnerability that the United States cannot afford. It is the wrong way to go to rely strictly on a program where you take one out every once in a while and test it.

Rhodes: Yeah.

Hecker: As Vic had said, and as we had believed earlier, the more important thing is to keep the intellectual capacity of these laboratories. Make the laboratories such that it still attracts the smartest people in the country to think about these kinds of issues, and whatever other defense issues there might be. If you have those smart people at the laboratories, even if you come up with the problems sometime in the future, you will have an ability to resolve them.

I was afraid that if you did a test every now and then, and you finally had a problem, would the laboratory become the Jiffy Lube of the nuclear weapons business? Kind of an oil change and a lube job; the people doing it will be just like the guys that work at Jiffy Lube. They are not going to really have the ability to sort things out when the going gets tough, if you have aging or remanufacturing changes.

Rhodes: The few tests a year would have been the worst of both worlds. You really could not have done anything of any consequence, but you would never have known if the other people were.

Hecker: That was exactly my feeling. That is what I said to him. I said, “If you give me the choice, what I would do is a vigorous Stockpile Stewardship Program and test one every now and then.” That is the best, because it was unrealistic in the 1997 world—as it was in 1995—that we are ever going to go back to a vigorous testing program unless the world goes to hell.

Rhodes: Yeah, right.

Hecker: None of us wants us to get to that point. We just could not forsee that, as the world keeps moving toward a more peaceful world, that you are going to pick up the testing pace. It just does not make sense. Nobody is going to give us that. If it wound up to be a choice between a test every now and then and a vigorous Stockpile Stewardship Program without a test, I will take the Stockpile Stewardship Program.

That is really the decision that I had to make in the end. It is more important to have the smarts, and if we have the smarts, we will figure it out. Then if the country is in deep enough trouble that we will have to test, we will hope that somewhere, somehow, if you really have to test or not be a nuclear power, then our political leaders will see the need for doing that. Let me see, back to the 1997 and the twenty-one questions.

Rhodes: You were talking about Kyl.

Hecker: That was the essence, and I want to relate one thing to you because it also sticks in my mind. I thought about it a lot during those days that I had to cope with what the right thing to do was on the testing issue. One of my good friends here, Stirling Colgate – now we can call him one of our old-timers. He started out at Los Alamos. He was here as one of the students at the Ranch School when the word came that they had to get out.

Rhodes: Oh wow, amazing. I did not know that.

Hecker: He is from the Colgate family, so they had sent him out here to go to the Ranch School. He was a brilliant student. He is a brilliant guy. They had figured out pretty quickly what was going on, the students that were taking physics here and so forth. Stirling then wound up at Livermore and then went from Livermore to be president of New Mexico Tech down in Socorro. Then he came and worked at Los Alamos. He has been up here for the last 20 years or so.

As we were talking about nuclear weapons and the test issue once, he said to me—and he is one of these proponents of the importance of the scientific horsepower in place, intellectual horsepower. He said, “Sig, do you believe that the Israelis have bombs?”

I said, “Yes, of course. Enough of that has been around.”

He said, “Do you think that they ever tested them?”

I said, “I am not sure of that.” Because there is that one 1977 [misspoke: 1979] event, and nobody is really sure. But if they did, at the most one test.

Rhodes: Probably not a very big one.

Hecker: “Do you think their bombs work?”

I said, “Yes.”

He said, “Why do you say that?”

I said, “Because they have smart people.” That came back to me many times.

Rhodes: Yeah. 

Hecker: In the end, the most important thing is to make sure that you can continue to attract smart people here. Then, of course, you do have to have the overall infrastructure, and the mechanism to turn the smart people’s ideas into something like [General Leslie] Groves did here during the Manhattan Project.

Rhodes: Sure.

Hecker: Of course, this country is superb in mounting that type of an effort in a time of need. It is terrible during peacetime.

Rhodes: Do you know how Lyndon Johnson once phrased that? It was about the space program. He said, “Well, you know the American people. They do something really great and then they piss it all away.” [Laughter]

Hecker: So far, fortunately, the something great has always kept on coming back to kind of pick it up again, but it is absolutely right. The reason I mentioned that now is because of the terrible state of the nuclear weapons complex today, but that is a different story, for a different time.

The part I want to get back to is the Kyl letter. I laid out my answers to his questions. The most important parts of what I just told you now are that in the end, it is more important to have a really vigorous Stockpile Stewardship Program than to test once in a while.

The CTBT then, of course, has had a varied history and rather a sad one since that time. Because they went through this fiasco a year ago, where the Clinton Administration just clearly made some major blunders in terms of how to either get this thing, or not get it, to the Senate. The bottom line is that they should have known that this one is going to be tough to get through. It is going to be very tough.

They had a lot of homework to do. They did not do their homework, and then you have the folks in Congress like Kyl, who were really just dead set against this in spite of my twenty-one answers to his twenty-one questions. I am sure what Kyl was looking for is that somewhere in there he could quote something from me which says the laboratory directors are against this. 

What happened last year in the CTBT debate: the Clinton team did not do their homework. They brought in the three laboratory directors, including my successor, John Browne, but particularly the Sandia director, Paul Robinson. The same person that I told you was the ambassador for the TTBT [Threshold Test Ban Treaty] talks, who now actually held the job that is at Sandia, where the testing is not their main issue. Paul is a very outspoken guy, very hard-liner on this issue. And then Bruce Tarter from Livermore.

They have these three guys in Senate testimony, and essentially Paul Robinson just said, “The CTBT is a bad idea.” Then the other two guys, I do not know exactly what happened, but I have read John Browne’s testimony. For what it is worth, it is the way I would have written my testimony. I thought it was done just right. Again, it focused on those things that we should say to keep the integrity of the institution.

Rhodes: Right.

Hecker: He did that right, but somehow with Robinson leading this, it all got caught up in a way that John and Bruce did not extract themselves from this. Of course, they also had a problem that none of us ever wanted to say, “My God, we think that the CTBT is the greatest thing that ever happened.” Because we do not in terms of what our jobs are.

This testimony then went down as “the three lab directors do not support the CTBT,” and then it made it easier to kill it. Then the Administration, of course, was shocked by all of this. So they asked General Shali—I do not know if you read any of that at all in the news.

Rhodes: I am sure that I did. 

Hecker: General Shali, at the end of last year, headed the committee to examine the CTBT and advise the president. He did that right before Clinton left office. General Shali came out here, and we had a very good discussion. I reminded him of the discussion we had and the effect that it had on me in his office in the Pentagon, and General Shali came out in the end this time supporting the CTBT. Even though this was now over five years later from the time he had made his decision. 

I think he was more reluctant in 1995. This time, he had retired from the service, and he was expressing his view that on balance, the CTBT is to the benefit of the United States. Then, however,  something typical of him – very thoughtful, thorough – he said, “But you do not have the votes. You have to do something, Mr. President, with the senators and the congressmen to swing them over.” He put in some provisions as to how the treaty might be tweaked to make it acceptable to the Jon Kyls of the world, and that was his recommendation.

We had good discussions, and I have thought back upon it often now as to where we stand. As I said before, the CTBT would not be my way to do arms control. I would do it in other ways. But for better or worse, when it happened, and then how the rest of the world changed – in essence, what it did was it froze the Chinese program. As I look back now, if I were to say what the principal effect of the CTBT was, it was that it froze the Chinese nuclear weapons program. Then especially in the spirit of this Chinese spying scandal, where there was this issue that they presumably stole the technologies from us. If they cannot test, it does not do them a whole heck of a lot of good.

If were to ask me today, should we go back and run a testing program, reasonably full scale, maybe six to ten tests a year? I would say that I would not do it, in order to keep the Chinese from testing. The Russians do not matter, by the way, on this issue. The Russians are in the same boat that we are in.

Rhodes: Yeah.

Hecker: They have the same troubles that we have. It is a little different because they have different philosophies of nuclear weapons design, but they are just as worried about their weapons, the aging problems. Of course, their complex has also suffered dramatically, but in different ways than ours. 

Rhodes: So, Sig, if you look at the CTBT from the point of view not of a lab director or even an American, but from a world point of view, it really has had the effect of limiting the arms race.

Hecker: Right.

Rhodes: But it made your life harder—

Hecker: Yeah. That is why I felt like it was so important for us as lab directors not to get those two things mixed up. Now it is interesting on the Russian front. As far as doing these programs that we started the discussions with, there I did not mind pushing the envelope to say, “Look, government, you ought to go do this.”

Rhodes: Right.

Hecker: But on the CTBT, this was a technology issue. I could not allow that to influence my job as a lab director. Because the president has to be able to turn to me and say, “Look, Sig. Is this really a dumb idea? Am I really endangering the United States of America by not testing?”

I have to say “yes” if that is the case. Even though I might think it is a good thing to get the Chinese to not test, he can hear that from hundreds of thousands of other people. But he can only hear from three people that in the end, we would lose our confidence if we do not test. If that is the case, we have got to tell him. That is why we had to stick to the advice being based on the safety and reliability as to whether we test or not. So we did.

Now in looking back – I am not lab director anymore – I talked to General Shali, and we talked about it. We said, “Look, it really does not make any sense to start testing right now because that would give the Chinese a license to test.” After all, as you look at the issues of strategic stability right now, if the Russians go back and test – for heaven’s sake, they have already built a hundred megaton bomb. What else from that standpoint are they going to do?

They can wipe us out so many times over, but the Chinese story is totally different. They have many, many fewer weapons than we do, and they are also still not as technologically sophisticated. If you are worried about reigniting an arms race, the Russians already have everything that they need. The Chinese do not. The testing would give them a significantly greater ability to increase their nuclear arsenal, and, therefore, endanger us. That would be bad for the whole world. 

For that reason, I think as you look at it from a world perspective, it would be hard to disagree with people who would say this has been a pretty good thing. As we get down the line, however, in part of the job that I do now – I spend half of my time on research and then half on Russia. The half on research is plutonium. Even though I used to work on many materials, trying to understand materials, I decided to focus just on plutonium. The principal reason is because it is such an enormous challenge for the Stockpile Stewardship Program.

Rhodes: Yes.

Hecker: I really wanted to go see if we could do it, and really more importantly to go do it.

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.