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Credit: Robert Kuckuck
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Interview of Robert Kuckuck by David Zierler on June 11, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/45420
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In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, Interviews Robert Kuckuck, director emeritus of Los Alamos National Laboratory. He recounts his childhood in Wheeling, West Virginia, and he describes his working-class upbringing and how he would understand pursuing an advanced degree as very much an against-the-grain endeavor relative to his roots. He describes the circumstances leading to his undergraduate education at West Liberty State College and how he settled on physics as a major. Kuckuck discusses his work in the library for Battelle, and the arrangement he made to pursue a graduate degree in physics part time at Ohio State. He describes his work there under the direction of K. Narahari Rao and how he came to work at the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California. Kuckuck explains what he learned about nuclear weapons and research early in his career at Livermore, and how he integrated his lab work in the L-Division with his graduate studies. He describes some of the tensions surrounding working in a military research environment in the midst of the Vietnam War. Kuckuck describes in broad detail his four decades in research and administration at Livermore, including some of the key collaborations both within government and in the private technical sector. He describes his work at the Nevada Test Site and the challenges inherent in underground nuclear testing. Kuckuck reflects on the competitive relationship between Livermore and Los Alamos and the nature of his advisory work on verification issues and SDI research in Washington during the late stage of the Cold War. Kuckuck describes the impact of the end of the Cold War on nuclear testing and the creation of the NNSA. At the end of the interview, Kuckuck explains the complex factors leading to his brief directorship of Los Alamos, and he reflects on his efforts to maintain the viability and reputation for cutting edge research at the lab over the long term.
OK. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is June 11th, 2020. It’s my great pleasure to be here with Dr. Robert Kuckuck. Bob, thanks so much for being with me today.
My pleasure, David.
OK, so to start, please tell me your most recent title and institutional affiliation.
Let’s see, I guess the last title I had with an institution was the director of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
OK. Now, let’s take it right back to the beginning. Tell me about your parents, where they were from, and their professions.
Well, I grew up in the Ohio Valley, Wheeling, West Virginia, on a little island in the middle of the Ohio river, about a mile long and half a mile wide, something like that, with Ohio on one side, West Virginia on the other. And my parents had also both grown up in that area on the Ohio side of the river, he in Martins Ferry, O., she in Bridgeport, O. They only went to eighth grade, both of them.
He was a telephone lineman and installer for the telephone company. And my mother, until she got married, was a secretary for the steel industry there. And then when she got married, she became a stay-at-home mom for the rest of her life.
I had no idea you could live on an island in the Ohio River. What were the circumstances leading to that locale?
Oh, it was a fantastic place to grow up. [laugh] Sort of a Tom Sawyer kind of a childhood. The livable part of the island was less than a mile long or so, and less than a half-mile wide, with several thousand people living there. There was one school. There was a commercial horseracing track, Wheeling Downs at the south end of the island. And the north end, the upstream end of the island was used by the National Guard for practicing maneuvers and stuff in the forest there. Otherwise it was mostly residential.
So as a kid, we—you know, we could go down to the river in three minutes in almost any direction, and fish for catfish and carp. It was a great place to play. And at least once a year, sometimes even twice, when the snows were melting up in the West Virginia Mountains, the creeks and the river would flood. We would have water up to three feet into our living space in the house. Had to move the furniture upstairs and live up there for three or four days until it subsided. Guys in canoes and boats rowed through the streets selling groceries, milk, newspapers.
But to us young boys, it was an adventure. We’d wade around the flooded streets. I remember one year I had a wooden door that we gathered up, and a couple of brooms, and some other wood. And we turned that into a raft, and with the brooms as oars we went all around the interior of the flooded island—we had to stay in the middle of the island because if you got out near the river itself, with its racing current, you were headed for New Orleans.
But it was great. It was a wonderful place for a kid. I loved it.
Did you go to public school throughout?
Yes, yes, public school.
And when did you start exhibiting strength in math and science?
I think from the very beginning, school always came easy to me. But I wasn’t very disciplined and patient, and didn’t like to do the same thing more than once or twice. So I usually didn’t do well on homework and so [laugh] I can’t say my grades were all that great. But I got along with the teachers, and I found math pretty straightforward.
Were you thinking about physics when you were thinking about schools to apply to as an undergraduate?
Oh, my gosh, there’s about three stories in the answer to that question. Thinking about applying to college, did I think about physics? The answer is no. I’m probably the most unlikely physics major there ever was.
There was only one public school on the island, Madison Junior High School and Grade School. I attended Madison for my first ten years, including kindergarten. I always got along well, but my grades weren’t particularly great because I just didn’t do the work. My mind was usually elsewhere, I loved being outside. I loved ball, baseball, basketball, and I spent all my time at the playground or at the river.
My parents with their eighth-grade educations, looking back, I think they valued education but their experience with schools was quite limited. They were Depression-era people, and so they were frugal, and they had good work ethics and were very polite and deferential folks. And so that’s kind of the environment I grew up in. But nothing in that environment was about books or school or higher education. I don’t know if we had even half a dozen books in the house.
So as I grew up I wasn’t thinking about physics. I wasn’t thinking about anything really. I was just having a good time. And so when I went to high school, you know, in those days and back there the ninth grade was the freshman year of high school but you were still at the junior high school, so we just called it ninth grade. You didn’t physically go to the high school until you were a sophomore. So by the time I entered ninth grade my folks didn’t play much of a role.
I had an algebra course in ninth grade that I think was required. But once in high school, I had options, you had to choose what classes you were going to take. And I was always amazed that my father, who knew nothing about any of that, would always know when it was time for me to sign up for classes. And he would always make sure I signed up for math and science and other college track classes. I didn’t have a problem with that because I really didn’t dislike any of my courses.
I never quite understood at the time where he was coming from because he really didn’t even know what those courses were about. But I found out later in life from my older sister. I had one sibling, a sister almost 10 years older than me. I don’t have a lot of memories of her when I was a young kid. She was a married woman by the time I was eight years old.
But she told me later on in my adult life that what had been happening when I was in high school was that two of my high school teachers, Miss Hicks the math teacher, and Miss Thomas the English teacher, would jointly send a letter to my dad telling him it’s time to sign up for classes, and here’s what Bobby ought to take. And so he would execute that, and I just never quite figured out how that was happening. And so that’s the story of why I took math and science in high school.
So your parents while not familiar with high school, they were very supportive of you?
Oh, yes, totally supportive, totally supportive. But if I would’ve gotten in trouble, if there would’ve been bad grades coming back, really bad grades or discipline problems, I’d have been in big trouble. They were supportive of me but not to the point of taking my side versus a school teacher. No, they were—you know, they were pretty serious. Mom was the dominant person in our family. Dad was just a gentle giant kind of guy. But whenever he did weigh in, I knew that was the final answer. [laugh] When he weighed in there was no more debate. Particularly if it was about my classes or behavior.
Do you get the sense that with your dad in his profession, if he had better opportunities that he would’ve pursued a degree in science?
I’ve never thought of that. He was fascinated by the National Geographic magazine. That is one publication—the only publication that came to our house, and he was fascinated with it. So I guess that strikes me that he was curious about some things. He tinkered in the basement, a little workshop kind of thing. Didn’t work on his car or anything like that. He didn’t read much. We never talked about science, always about sports. He used to tell me story after story about the days of Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb. And he knew all the great athletes from the Ohio Valley. But, we never talked about science. I really think that pursuing a degree in science would have been so foreign to his world that it seems unlikely to me. I think he could’ve aspired to other things, but as you say, his opportunities were very limited.
And was an—the lack of opportunity was financial? Was it social? Did people just not go to college where he was from and the time he came from?
I think all of the above. He grew up during WWI, just across the river in Martins Ferry, Ohio. Used to be a ferry there for crossing the Ohio River. His parents owned a little family grocery store. His job was taking care of the horses that pulled the delivery wagon and as he got older, driving that wagon. Their store got wiped out when the big corporate grocery store, the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company came to town. They really had very little money.
He had three brothers. None of them went to college. They mostly left school at about age 14 and got jobs. One of his brothers did have some high school and played high school football. I could tell my dad admired that in his brother. My parents were social people and I don’t think any of their friends had gone to college either. And he was born in 1902. So, you know, at about 25 years old, he got married, and the Depression hit him. So he was always just a working-class guy.
What were your parents’ politics?
Well, I would say they were definitely Republican Conservative politics. But they didn’t really express that. Part of the culture in my house was it was a quiet house. You know, my sister got married right out of high school, and she and her husband lived upstairs. My parents and I lived in the downstairs part. It was like I was an only child.
But so it was quiet. The only sounds would be my mother playing the piano – beautifully by-the-way, self-taught, quite good. We didn’t have a TV until my last couple years of high school. The three of us always ate dinner together. You know, it was a family kind of thing. We played some board games and things. We had one of those big floor-model radios and we listened to particular shows regularly, my dad and I never missed the Gillette boxing matches on Friday nights. But we didn’t bring up issues. Issues made my parents uncomfortable. So if they were political issues, social issues, religious issues, anything like that, they were not talked about in the house, and so I never heard politics from them.
So Adlai Stevenson versus Eisenhower, those kinds of conversations didn’t come up?
No, no, absolutely not. We—I sort of implicitly learned not to express strong opinions, and to be—you know, be sensitive to others and their feelings. That was strong in my family, to the extreme. We weren’t religious people… Oh, go ahead.
No, I was going to say we haven’t—we still haven’t gotten to undergraduate yet.
Oh, OK, all right. So [laugh], yeah this could go on. You got four days?
[laugh] OK. So that’s kind of what I grew up in. And one more comment relevant to your undergraduate question is that my father worked for the telephone company. He had just an installer kind of job. But some of his bosses were electrical engineers, or at least the ones he greatly admired were. And he made that clear to me. I mean, I knew he held in high esteem these guys who had engineering degrees.
And once I got into college, and talked about physics, he would bring up the electrical engineering thing every once in a while because he kind of understood from his experience what an engineer did. He had no idea and could never get his mind around what a physicist did. So, yeah, I did hear that sort of thing from him. I forget what question I’m answering now. [laugh]
So did he encourage engineering, or were you able to explain to him what physics was, and you got his support?
Both. Although I don’t know that I ever really successfully explained what physics was to him, but I had his support. I always had his support. It’s just that he had a practical experience of being able to envision what an engineer does, you know.
So, anyway, so he was telling me what courses to take in high school. I was taking those courses. These two teachers were taking very good care of me. They were preparing me for college even if neither my family nor I knew it.
So I graduated at 17 in May. I was going to be 18 in October. And I wanted to go to the Air Force directly out of high school. But you had to have parental signature if you were under 18. I don’t know why I wanted to join the Air Force, somehow it had just become a thing to me.
I mean, I’m sure I pictured flying planes and all that stuff. But I had worse than 20/200 vision in high school, and so I [laugh] was never going to fly an airplane in the Air Force. But I don’t know that I thought about that. I just wanted to go to the Air Force. That was my deal. And so that’s one place my dad did not support me.
He said, “No, I’m not signing for you to go into the Air Force. You need to go get a job or go to college.” Thinking back now that’s probably the first time I ever heard him talk specifically about college with respect to me, when I was in the process of graduating from high school and he said, “You’ve got to get a job or go to college.” And I’m sure he had no concept of what going to college really meant, but he knew it was good, and he supported that.
And he knew that the engineers that he respected at work went to college probably.
Oh, yeah, absolutely, right. OK, so here it is summertime. I’m just getting out of high school. I really am going to go to the Air Force in October when I’m 18. There was no question in my mind about that. And so my dilemma was what do I do for the summer?
To my surprise, a couple friends of mine from high school told me they were going up to the local state college, West Liberty State College right outside of Wheeling, between Wheeling and Pittsburgh. Not many kids that I know went to college out of my high school. It wasn’t the common thing to do. Many of the guys went into the marines.
But these two guys were going up there, and they were going up early in July because they were going to go play football, and football camp started in July. And voilà, there was my answer, “OK, I’m going to go to college, Dad, and I’m going up here at West Liberty. I’m going to go up in the summer, and go to football camp, and play football.” And so that was OK, you know, he supported that.
It seems amazing today to realize that back in 1956, if you had graduated from high school, you could just suddenly decide in mid-summer that you wanted to go to college and just go to the college and sign up. At least it was that way at that small college.
And so I went up to West Liberty. And one of my first real life experiences was I’m this 17-year-old high school kid out on the field at football practice, and the Korean War had just ended about three years before that. And several guys on this football team were Korean War veterans going to school on the GI Bill. They were still eligible to play college football but they had been in combat. And so you can imagine how that experience was going to go, a 17-year-old kid trying to play football against soldiers who had been in combat. [laugh] I mean, it was [laugh] a pretty brutal lesson. [laugh]
But I endured it for the summer and the fall. And now it’s time to enroll in classes, and so we get the afternoon off from football practice to go enroll in classes. Now, I had already met with the dean. It was such a small college that every student actually met the dean and he approved their intended majors. I was going to major in business administration because that’s what my two friends were majoring in.
So we go to the library to register, and the line for business majors is a mile long, and everything else is empty. So I go over to the history professor, and say, “I want to major in history.” And he says, “Well, you can’t do it like that. You have to talk to the dean, or wait and come back next semester and major in history.” So I went away, and I actually—I truly did this. I put Denver Arnett’s, the dean’s, initials on my paperwork.
—with the words “history OK”. [laugh] And I came back, and the professor was like— well, I’m sure he saw through it all but he said “fine” and he signed me up for history, and he laid out the curriculum for the first semester. And he said, “You have to take some general requirement here. Let’s put physical science down.”
So I enter class, the school year starts, I’m counting down the days till October 13th when I’ll be 18 and will withdraw. So, the professor teaching the physical science class was also the physics professor —the one and only physics professor at that school. And I loved him, and I loved the course, and he took a liking to me.
What was his name?
Ken Rarey. Unfortunately, he just died two Christmases ago. My wife and I became close friends with Ken and his wife while I was in college and we remained friends for the rest of his life. He was an inspirational man. He really is responsible for my career in physics.
I really related to him. You know, he was only about seven years older than me. He had just gotten his MS degree at West Virginia University, and before that he’d been in the Army. And so we really hit it off. And he said, “Why don’t you be a physics major? Why don’t you stick around here? Don’t go the Air Force. Just stick around, and major in physics?”
And purely on the magnetism of that guy and our relationship, I stayed in school and I majored in physics. Just like the two teachers in high school who prepared me for college in the first place, you know, those were both miracles for me. So that’s how I got into physics with no more vision or personal goals or objectives. That was it.
So despite the personal connection that you had developed with this professor, what was it about the material that spoke to you? What did you come close to with physics specifically?
I think I was fascinated by way that even elementary physics explained and illuminated so much of everyday life. I began to see and understand so many details of my surroundings that I hadn’t even noticed before. Sort of like after studying art appreciation one can see so much more in a painting. And also Ken had a way of teaching that really drew me in. I think he himself was still in awe of the physics he was teaching us and presented it with mesmerizing clarity and excitement.
As I recall the school had only five physics majors at that time, and we were all in this same class. I don’t remember anyone in the class in front of us or behind us but there may have been. We all loved this guy. He taught all the physics classes. So we had all of our undergraduate physics from this one guy. Obviously, this was a small physics department. I believe West Liberty no longer even offers physics as a major.
My degree was a liberal arts degree with a physics major. And so that’s how it went. That’s how I—oh, oh, I’m jumping ahead and missing kind of big point.
After my freshman year in college, I’m still living at home, and my high school sweetheart—we’d been together for three years by that time—she also lived in Wheeling, she graduates from high school, and we get married. So we get married in the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of undergrad school.
So I come back to school married, which surprised Ken a little bit, and it complicated things more than a little bit. I think he was doubtful at that point that I would finish my degree. My wife and I were living in a room on the back of my parents’ home on the island. Turns out that Ken and his wife lived on that island as well and we both commuted to the school. I had no transportation of my own so he started driving me to school. This was just the first of his support for keeping me in college. Later, he gave me lab assistant work in the physics department and found some summer jobs for me as well.
I had to work full-time throughout the school year during all of my college years, undergrad and graduate. By the middle of my sophomore year, we had a kid, and from that point on I commuted up there every day for school, and Ken was my transportation. And that’s how the rest of my undergrad schooling went until I graduated.
Ken left West Liberty when I left. He went off into industry, but he told me, “you need to keep going till you get a PhD.” And I thought, “Well, OK, that’s what I’ll do.” And so that’s how the whole undergraduate thing ended, and I marched off to try to go to grad school.
At what point did you realize that you were going to pursue physics as a career?
I think when I committed to grad school, I believed I was going to be a physicist. But I don’t know that I understood even then yet what a physicist really did. I remember thinking that teaching high school physics or math was a possibility, maybe a probability. I had a pretty shallow undergrad background. And due to my need to always have a job while I was in school, I never spent time on campus other than for my classes, so one of the things I missed throughout my entire education was hanging out with other physics students. I believe that, particularly in grad school, that was a major disadvantage.
What were you doing for Battelle?
Battelle, my first job out of college—I worked in their technical library. Obviously with my undergrad background, I wasn’t going to be in a real physics position at a place like Battelle. I was very fortunate to even work there. I had been looking for any place I could work full-time, but pursue my master’s degree at the same time. I would’ve taken a job outside of physics totally if necessary to allow me to keep going for my master’s. That was my goal at that point.
And I didn’t know enough to think of going directly toward the PhD. I was thinking that you have to get a master’s somehow, and then you go and start again for the PhD. I didn’t have that all figured out. Nobody was counseling me at that time. But Ohio State University was sitting there in Columbus and Battelle hired me into that job, so it was a perfect opportunity. And it was a fun job actually.
Battelle had a contract with the government, State Department I believe. People in other countries could go into an American embassy, and say, “We’re trying to start a company to galvanize wire. Can you give us information on how you galvanize wire?” And the State Department would send that to Battelle. And I would research the literature on how you galvanized wire, and write a report, and send it out. And so I wrote various reports through the three years I was there on all kinds of technical subjects, and it was wonderful. I mean, [laugh] I really enjoyed that.
But Battelle gave me three hours off each week to go to school. Ohio State was just across the street -- it was convenient, but also a slow process to get a degree that way. And in fact, with my undergrad background, I didn’t get into Ohio State Grad School just by walking up to the door. They put me in their undergrad school for the first year to take some additional math and physics classes. Then they admitted me to grad school and after two more years, I finished up a master’s degree.
How did your understanding of physics change by being in a much larger academic environment?
I obviously still didn’t fully have the big picture. But it certainly was a bigger deal than anything I had been exposed to before. No one’s ever asked me that question, so I’m thinking this out loud. But I was in this graduate school while working full-time at Battelle, showing up on campus only for classes. And then finally when it came time to do a master’s thesis, I approached K. Narahari Rao, a well-known infrared spectroscopist there. He was in the process of physically upgrading his spectrometer to achieve higher resolution. So some of my thesis work was technician work tweaking and calibrating those upgrades.
And so I participated pretty much in the role of a technician in that lab until I was assigned to measure the spectrum of rotational and vibrational modes of a particular molecule and publish the data as part of Rao’s greater database on molecular spectra. So, at that time, to me, physics was pretty much big experiments in this big laboratory with big equipment, turning out data. I had not really been involved in the broader molecular physics research that defined Rao’s experimental program.
Coming from a working-class background, and going to such a small undergraduate school, was getting the master’s degree really affirming for you in terms of you thought to yourself, “I could really do this”?
Yes somewhat, but within the context of how little I still really knew about physics and physics research. There were moments at Ohio State—I didn’t have any such moments at West Liberty—but there were times at Ohio State when I might have wondered if I was really going be able to hang in there to the end. The material was getting more difficult and I had two kids by now and it was becoming harder and harder to spend enough time studying. You know, when I was starting to get into quantum mechanics, and other areas of physics that were more abstract with less visualization than is possible in classical physics, I found the mountain getting steeper. Again, I didn’t have colleagues to talk to. I wouldn’t see other students outside class. And so I didn’t really have anyone to help me.
I sort of had to take what I got in the lecture and from what I read, and then see if I could pass the tests with that. And that’s kind of what it amounted to. There was no in-depth enlightenment from peer group discussions. It was a very difficult and lonely way to go through physics grad school, you know. No shared excitement with the other guys about what we were all doing there or where we were all headed. There’s a much fuller education to be had than getting one the way I did.
So, completing that master’s degree was certainly a boost in my confidence while at the same time raising questions whether or not I could keep this going all the way to a PhD.
But you did what you had to do, given the means that you were coming from.
Well, yeah, that’s what it was.
How did the opportunity at the University of California Radiation Laboratory come about?
Well, it was 1962. I had been at Ohio State and Battelle since June of ‘60. And at about December of ‘62, I got this letter in the mail directly to me at home saying, “We understand you’re graduating from Ohio State next June.” So somehow, their recruiting system picked all this up, and even got my home address. I thought that was interesting.
But they wanted to invite me out for an interview at a place called the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory. A lot of their stationery and forms still read “UCRL”, University of California Radiation Laboratory, you know, Lawrence’s old laboratory. I had never heard of them. I had no idea what this was all about. I have to say there was a little bit of—I mean, in their very first letter they invited me out for an interview—"fly you out for an interview.”
Well, you know, I had never been beyond Columbus yet. [laugh] So going to California for an interview was something I wasn’t going to pass up, even if I didn’t know what they were doing. So I think there was a little of that in my thinking. But then I started talking around to people, a couple of professors, and asking about it. And frankly some were quite negative.
That’s the first time I experienced anti-nuclear weapons opinions, but of course it wouldn’t be the last. I didn’t even really know anything about nuclear weapons. I was a kid during the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb testing, but I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to that. And Professor Rao himself was quite upset that I was considering this.
Yes, yes, very much so.
What were his concerns?
He felt this was not what a physics education was for. He was very clear. It was a moral issue. There was no doubt. I was very bothered by that. I didn’t know quite what to do about it. Rao was a wonderful guy and I really admired him. I had a difficult time trying to sort that out.
Did he have an alternative plan for you?
No, I don’t think I was involved enough with him that he could have. He had taken me on solely to give me a masters’ thesis project, nothing more.
So, back to your Livermore laboratory question. I went out for the interview, and that’s the first time I realized what they were really doing. But that wasn’t a problem for me. We can come back to this sometime if you want, this issue about anti-nuclear weapons.
To give you some context to the times, the United States and the Soviet Union had been in a moratorium on nuclear testing from ‘58 till ‘61. The Russians ended that moratorium in September of 1961 and conducted several dozen additional tests in the remaining months of that year. These included the most powerful nuclear test ever conducted, 50 megatons, the Tsar Bomba. The US responded with 10 nuclear tests in 1961 and followed in 1962 with the most tests I think either country ever tested in one year, nearly 100. So both countries were back at it again and Livermore was scrambling to hire physicists.
And I think that’s the only reason a guy with my background got a letter saying, “Come interview with us.” They were ramping up big-time. Normally, and in any time since I got to Livermore, I doubt that I would have been recruited. And so for my own personal life, it was a very fortunate thing. Another miracle, actually.
My biggest goal at that point was to try to go on for my PhD and Livermore offered that. Actually, I tried to stay at Battelle and Ohio State to pursue the PhD but didn’t get the support I needed from Battelle. I went over and talked to the head of the solid-state physics department at Battelle and told him that I’d like to transfer from the library to his department and go on for my PhD. He said he was willing for me to do that.
But Battelle had a policy that both managers had to agree to any transfer, the receiving department and the department one was leaving. So I worked for an old-school chemist who ran the library, sort of like I picture a 19th century European professor would run something. You know, he was very formal and the atmosphere quite authoritarian and hierarchical. And he refused to allow me to transfer.
And so I went to the HR department and said, “You know, I’m—you have just helped pay for my education. I want to keep going. I’m going to leave if I can’t keep going.” And they said, “Yeah, we’re going to have to fix that transfer policy someday.” And that was it. So I left.
So, back to the interview at Livermore Laboratory. They told me that Edward Teller, who was at Livermore, was going to start a graduate school there that very year,1963, the Department of Applied Science. connected with UC Davis. So one could get a PhD right there on the Livermore campus.
Well, that was the deciding factor. I mean, I was coming to Livermore, no more discussion. Here it was, a full-time job, pay, part time PhD program through UC Davis. And so that’s it. That’s how it all happened. I brought my wife and two little girls, and we moved to Livermore that summer. 1963.
You remember your first project that you worked on?
Oh, yeah, very well. Yeah, when I joined Livermore, the way Livermore hired physicists was that you were hired under a general offer from the laboratory and then later when you arrived at the lab you re-interviewed with any internal organization who was interested. And you picked where you wanted to work. You may have two or three internal offers. I felt pressure to join one of the nuclear weapons design divisions, but the work was predominantly computational physics of which I had no experience at all. I was drawn much more to hands-on experimental physics in a laboratory.
I chose L-Division, which was the experimental physics division that made all the measurements on nuclear tests. The R&D group in that division was developing new measurement techniques, X-ray techniques, solid-state detectors, high-speed data recording systems, etc., and I jumped at that. My first job was to take over a project to develop semiconductor radiation detectors, which was fairly new technology then, for use in high current output mode versus particle counting mode. The applications were to measure the intense gamma, x-ray and neutron bursts from a nuclear detonation. We subcontracted to semiconductor detector companies to provide and modify these detectors to our specifications. We then calibrated and characterized their response functions and fielded them on underground nuclear tests. And so that was my first job. I started immediately making measurements on underground nuclear tests in my first few weeks in L-Division. A real benefit to joining the laboratory in a fast-growing time like that was that you were given considerable responsibility for a young physicist.
What was the work environment? Were you working with a team of researchers, and you were reporting to a senior person? Was it a one-on-one kind of situation? How did that play out?
We had very good teams, they were usually multidiscipline and multilevel. I had a senior physicist group leader who assigned me the project, but our entire group was in the middle of this torrent of nuclear tests, working in a new testing environment, vertical underground shafts – as opposed to atmospheric nuclear testing. I arrived in July of ‘63, and that was within days of the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which limited testing to underground only.
So all of a sudden everybody was busy with their own work, learning new techniques for putting instrumentation downhole. So I was part of this team—this group learning to do our thing down hole – but I was left on my own to an unusual degree for a junior physicist.
I had other physicists I could go to for help. But nobody had any responsibility for the work I was doing except me and of course my group leader. And so I had technicians assigned to me, and engineers and support like that. I felt a lot of responsibility for a 24-year old. And had a lot of freedom and a lot of money. Resources were not a problem at that stage of the Cold War. [laugh]
Right, right, which is well-illustrated by the fact that they went out and found you all the way from—in Ohio to come recruit, which is remarkable.
[laugh] And to give me this job, yeah, yeah. It was really remarkable. That’s why I say I have been incredibly fortunate—fortunate for having people taking care of me when I really was young, fortunate for hitting the sweet spot of when the Laboratory was hiring and moving out, and fortunate that Edward Teller was starting his graduate program just in time for me.
Did you ever meet Teller or get to know him at all?
Oh, yeah, sure, quite well. My first meeting with Teller was terrifying, but it’s a great story. It was August, a few weeks before school was to start, and I’m sitting in my office. I get this phone call from a secretary who says, “Is this Bob Kuckuck?” “Yes.” “Could you come up and see Dr. Teller? He would like to talk with you.” Well that’s—you know, for a kid my age that was like God was calling from somewhere – long distance.
And I said, “Well, why?” [laugh]
You know, “What’s he want to talk about?” And she says, “Well, he’s going to interview you, and see if you’re going to be accepted into the Department of Applied Science.” And I thought, wait a minute. I took this job, I came clear out here to California, I brought my wife and kids, all this stuff, and I’m not even guaranteed of getting into school? Holy—I mean, I—that was a terrifying moment for me. And that’s—
So up until that point, your assumption was that you’d be able to just enroll in school no problem?
Yeah, I took that from the interview when they were describing the school to me that that was part of—
—the whole deal, yeah. But it either wasn’t part of the deal or Teller enjoyed making it seem like it wasn’t [laugh]—
—because he did have a little showmanship going, you know. But so—
Bob, how many people were in your position like that, sort of, you know, right out of a master’s program looking to get into the new PhD program? Were you unique in that regard, or were you sort of part of a freshman class at Livermore like that?
I think there were about thirty to forty students in all --- that’s a guess. But I suspect very few were coming in with a master’s degree. The more common graduate school path was from a BS directly to a PhD, maybe picking up an MS on the way. I don’t have any data but I’m guessing most of the other students were entering with a BS. It appeared to me we had three categories of students in the early days of Teller Tech. First there were fellowship students, hand-picked by Teller from very good schools. Second, at that time, there were a great many Air Force guys in uniform. I believe the majority of those came directly from the Air Force Academy. Both of those groups were pretty much full-time graduate students. Then third, there were a few laboratory employees seeking advanced degrees on a part-time basis. I think this was the smallest of the three groups. I can’t be certain of those demographics but that’s how it appeared to me.
I don’t think the Air Force connection lasted too long, at least it seemed that the uniforms sort of disappeared after the first couple years. I know that some of those guys complained to me that the “Applied Science” department felt more like a “theoretical physics” department to them, as they had engineering backgrounds.
So, anyway, back to my interview with Teller. So I go up to Teller’s office. And, you know, one of the things about Edward Teller is that I believe Edward maintained a variable intensity switch on his accent that he could and did use to great effect. He could turn that switch up until understanding him was almost impossible, and intimidation was off the scale. Or he could turn it back down to where you could communicate with him, you know. But he never eliminated the intimidation completely. [laugh]
So, anyway, I walk in, and he immediately starts questioning me. His very first words were, “So tell me, Bob, why are angles conserved in conformal mapping?” I’ve never forgotten that question because I had no idea [laugh] what the hell he was even talking about, you know.
So this goes on, and he would jump between very tough technical questions and personal questions. Like he said, “How did you get here this summer? Did you drive?” “Yes.” “Do you have children?” “Yes, two little children.”
“And your car, do you have air conditioning?” “No.” “You mean to say that you drove two little children all the way across this country with no air conditioning in your car!?” At this point I was looking for a hole to crawl into. It was the most amazing and intimidating interview with this man. I just—but it was fun but—well, it wasn’t fun. It was scary.
So suddenly his secretary sticks her head in the door and says, “Dr. Teller, there’s somebody from Time magazine or New York Times,” I forget now, “on the phone.” And he says to me, “Excuse me.” He picks up the phone, and he’s dead silent for about 30 seconds. And then he gruffly says, “You’re wasting my time,” and slams the phone down and turns back to me. And I’m just thinking, oh, my god, where is this all going?! And then it got worse.
So then he said to me, “So tell me, Bob, when you get to your dissertation, your PhD thesis, you will have to go on leave without pay. How will you do that with children?” Wow, I didn’t even know about the leave-without-pay thing. It had never come up in any previous discussions, just like getting accepted into Teller Tech never did either. The plan as I understood it was that student employees would get time off to take classes but there was never any mention of what happens during thesis research. This was a major shock.
“So what are you going to do?” he says. “How will you support your family?” “Well, I don’t know. I don’t know, Dr. Teller.” And so finally I said to him, “Look, I will figure this out by the time I get there. That’s at least two or three years away.”
And so he says to me, “Well, you won’t have any salary, zero,” Then he asked, “How much money do you make?” And I said—well, I was kind of proud. It wasn’t a bad offer for those days, so I said, “$750 a month.” And he looked at me for a minute, and said, “Ha, you’ll never miss that.” [laugh]
[laugh] Anyway, I got into Teller Tech. That was the interview. But that story was just one—There’s lots of Teller stories. He really was a personality, and quite an interesting guy to interact with. He taught the quantum mechanics class I took, and that was an experience. A lot of my career in nuclear testing is wrapped around some of Teller’s stuff: the X-ray laser for star wars for example.
So how did you manage balancing school and work? How did that go initially?
Balance wasn’t so much of a problem, it actually was easier than undergrad school where I was always carrying a full load while working full time. At the laboratory I was limited to one course at a time. The other side of that though, is that it took an inordinate amount of time to get my PhD at that pace. I mean, I started in ‘64, and I finished my dissertation and graduated with a PhD in ‘72. So that took eight years. But the first five of those were coursework only, pretty much one course at a time, and that wasn’t hard to manage. My focus was as much on my job as on school. I had a full-time job, good pay. I would just study in the nights, and go to work in the day.
It seemed to go on forever. I found the schooling challenging enough though. And once again, I didn’t have other students to talk to. I would go to class and then back to work. But at least now I was working with a lot of scientists around me, so I did have a physics peer group; That helped.
Bob, I’m curious, you were in your PhD program smack in the middle of the late ‘60s. Had the counterculture and the antiwar movement, had that come to campus?
It was a little different than an open campus. I was behind a fence at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.
Right, but in terms of—
On campus, yes.
Yeah. Was that—to get a sense, was that sort of—were you sort of separate from all of that, or were people protesting around the lab also?
We were located far from an open campus, but were still a major focal point for protests. Protesters came regularly and often. Occasionally some would try to climb over the fence, many were arrested. We were right in the middle of it. Good Friday was a symbolic day when they would regularly come to the lab, and block the gates, and people would be arrested.
—and we had the same situations at the Nevada Test Site, big-time.
Yeah, and your sense was people were specifically protesting at Livermore because of their involvement in military matters?
Oh, no question. They wanted the nuclear weapons work of the labs shut down. But they were also concerned with the environmental impacts, of course. They were worried about plutonium or tritium or other materials getting into the soil and groundwater in Livermore. But nuclear weapons were the major protest that we felt.
What were your thoughts about the Vietnam War at the time? Were you ever concerned about being drafted?
I was, a little bit, early on. But I had an implicit understanding that if you were working at a nuclear weapons laboratory, you would probably get a draft exemption. People said those kind of words. But I never heard that officially anywhere. I also had three kids by the mid-sixties and I thought that might lower my draft status.
As for how I felt about the Vietnam War: You know, we—ever since I was born, we had had an enemy and were continuously in some kind of war. Vietnam didn’t seem any different to me then. Somebody was always our enemy. I was born at the very beginning of WWII. Our house was on the National Road through Wheeling and as a child I would sit on the curb and watch long convoys of soldiers pass by going either to or from the war. We would have “black-outs” and practice air raids. We knew there were these bad guys, Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini, then it was the Berlin Airlift, Stalin, Korea, and the Cold War and Khrushchev – Viet Nam just seemed a continuation of all of this to me in my twenties.
I remember when Nixon bombed Cambodia, one of the grad students wrote a protest letter on Teller Tech stationary. Teller was furious and called an urgent mandatory lunch-hour meeting of all students in the school. We were spread out sitting all around on the floor and he paced among us, highly agitated, recounting his own pre-WWII experiences in Europe and telling us of the oppression going on at the present time in his homeland Hungary. But I think I was consumed by my focus on the nuclear weapons work and the Cold War and didn’t really develop my own feelings about the Vietnam War until much later.
Bob, how did you go about developing your dissertation topic, and choosing an advisor, somebody to work with?
OK, so I’m in this R&D group developing x-ray detection technology for underground nuclear tests. At that time the computer codes we were using for modeling a nuclear explosion required empirically-determined multipliers in order to match our nuclear test data. Nuclear weapon performance could not be calculated from first principles. We had to normalize our codes to previous test data, and the multipliers were different for different types of devices. We were in the early stages of trying to make more refined and differential measurements of specific processes within the explosion. Much of this involved x-ray outputs.
As part of this effort my group was building a new X-ray laboratory at Livermore with new calibration sources and capabilities. And so it was at that point in time that I was looking for a thesis topic.
Stewart Bloom, a physicist at the Laboratory, was teaching atomic and nuclear physics at Teller Tech at the time. I had taken his course and so I approached him for help selecting a topic and to ask if he would be willing to serve as my advisor. He agreed and came up with the suggestion of studying the linear polarization of x-rays. The thesis had to be unclassified. But at the same time, if the thesis could be of joint interest to Teller Tech and to the Laboratory, then I could do it as part of my work assignment, and wouldn’t have to go into this leave without pay status that had frightened me a few years back in the Teller interview. Professor Bloom suggested the measurement of the linear polarization of low-energy, 50 to 150 Kev electron Bremsstrahlung radiation. My laboratory supervisor approved this as a work assignment and I was on my way. Both Bloom and my laboratory supervisor, Paul Ebert, served as my advisors. So I took an old pulsed electron accelerator that we salvaged from the laboratory, rebuilt it to deliver a direct current, 150 kilovolt electron beam, and used it for my thesis experiments.
How did you develop your relationship with Stewart Bloom? Did you just sort of approach him and ask to work with him, or did he recruit you?
No, he didn’t recruit me. I approached him. The Teller Tech professors were dual-hatted Livermore Laboratory employees and the student-professor relationship was extremely casual. Perhaps a little different atmosphere than I picture for a large university graduate school where there is a clear hierarchy and professors are recruiting good students so they can build their program, and get more grants. I think the economics and the dynamics of Teller Tech were quite different. Those professors were are all doing their Livermore Laboratory work, and I think it was more that the student needed the professor than—you know, I mean, there wasn’t as much mutual need there. But the professors were very supportive of the students. I don’t know of anybody having had difficulty finding a thesis advisor.
By the time you were getting ready to defend, and thinking about your next move, was it clear to you? Were you happy to just stay where you are, and continue on your career at Livermore, or were you thinking about moving on?
I was starting to think about what else I might want to do. I even took a brief look at private industry at that time. I had been approached by a couple of our private sector subcontractors, but I quickly decided I preferred the university atmosphere of the Livermore Lab. My Bremsstrahlung work had opened our eyes to using electron and later, proton-induced characteristic x-rays from thin targets as monochromatic x-ray calibration sources. So I spent a couple more years there as we completed developing our x-ray lab. I don’t know that I had put much time yet toward planning where I might want to go next, but I was ready. A great thing about working at Livermore is that there are many places to go within the laboratory itself to broaden your career.
As an example of this a new laser program was beginning at that time on our campus. In 1972, when I was finishing my PhD work, John Nuckolls and Lowell Wood at the laboratory published the seminal paper on inertially confined fusion, laser driven fusion. That was the beginning of the laser fusion program that eventually created the National Ignition Facility, NIF, that flourishes today at Livermore. The lab hired John Emmett, a laser physicist from the Naval Research Lab. And John came in, and created a revolution, he brought new management ideas, new people and energy and changed the culture at Livermore. And of course, he successfully built the large glass laser program that became NIF.
It turns out that a lot of the measurement technology that we had developed for underground testing would also have application to laser target diagnostics. So, I got invited to go over to that program as deputy to John Holzrichter, who arrived at the lab with John Emmett, and who was heading up the solid state laser development part of the program. John Emmett ran the overall laser fusion program. John Holzrichter, was running the solid state laser program that was building Shiva, the 20-arm, 10-kilojoule laser that would be the largest in the world when it was completed.
I think they invited me because I had background in relevant diagnostics technology and some of my L-Division colleagues were also going over to that program. My role would be in program planning and management. So I spent a couple of years in the laser program as we were in the final stages of building Shiva.
I realized that lasers were not going to be a long-term future path for me. I mean, I didn’t have a laser background. I didn’t have a plasma physics background. And so I felt that my role would be limited there. Back over in the weapons program, I would—there’d just be more things I could really get into. So I went back after two years to the nuclear testing side of the business. But my experience in the laser program under Emmett’s style of management was invaluable to me.
Now there’s so much to talk about in your, you know, nearly four decades at Livermore. We can try to do it in chronological order, or we can just sort of talk about the most important projects you were involved in.
Well, you—OK. I’m not—I’m happy to leave it up to you. I’m getting a sense maybe that means this is going to drag on too long?
Not even in a little bit. Not even a little bit. So let me ask an overall question about your research in nuclear weapons. Who were some of the major collaborators, people that came to Livermore, or places that you went, in terms of developing partnerships on nuclear weapon testing and design?
You mean from outside the lab?
Exactly, exactly. I mean, would you have military people come in? Would there be defense contractors that would be there?
Oh, I see what you’re saying, yeah.
I was thinking you were looking for well-known physicists.
No, I mean the large institutional partnerships that made up the infrastructure of, you know, nuclear weapons and testing R&D, the main players involved in this.
OK. I’ll speak less definitively about nuclear weapons design and development, versus testing, because I didn’t spend a lot of time on weapons design, although I interacted with those guys intensely. But then they interacted with folks like Control Data, Cray Computers, IBM, big computer manufacturers.
Weapons design has always been a major computational physics effort and large computers have always been the center of it. So for that side of Livermore—I think the biggest collaboration has always been computer development. And starting with IBM, CDC, Control Data Corporation, Cray, you know, all those guys, continuously advancing the state of the art for high performance computing—I mean, they’re still doing that. Today, I think IBM’s providing the latest ones like Livermore’s Sierra computer.
In the laser program, the John Emmett side of the lab, he had to go out and build industrial partners and capabilities that didn’t even exist anywhere. Glass companies were a major vendor capability that John had to build. Hoya and other glass companies, to build these large slabs of glass, neodymium-doped Nd:YAG, you know, laser glass as pure as it had to be. So John Emmett was brilliant at building up American and even foreign allies’ industries to provide his acquisition chain for putting that program together. Electrical energy storage, flashlamps, switching technology…enormous effort!
The military was of course involved with the laboratory. In fact, in my early days there were always military research associates on site. We would have uniformed officers who would get assigned here for a couple of years. That’s fallen off. I don’t see that nearly as much nowadays as it used to be. I think that’s a mistake, I think there was a lot of synergy between lab scientists and military officers.
Collaborations that I personally was involved in were with semiconductor manufacturing companies that would build special semiconductor detectors to my specifications. I would also collaborate with various outside facilities that had specific radiation sources that I would use for characterizing my detectors, for example, General Dynamics with their linear accelerator, E.G.& G. and their nanosecond Linac in Santa Barbara, the National Bureau of Standards electron source and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory for x-rays. I also purchased a Febetron field emission pulsed electron source from Plasma Dynamics and a 200kev ion source from Accelerators, Inc., in Austin – a semiconductor ion implant machine which we modified for our weapons testing needs.
At the Nevada Test Site there were major subcontracting firms with several thousand subcontractor employees supporting the effort. EG&G with technical support. Lots of heavy construction guys, miners, drilling industry folks. Underground testing always fascinated me with the incredible diversity of the team. Nuclear physicists, electronic engineers, crane operators and construction workers, and miners and welders would trudge through a tunnel together to install high-precision measurement instrumentation.
It was quite extraordinary to watch the fielding of a complex nuclear test in which a 100+ foot long canister was being lowered into a 12-foot diameter hole or a 14-foot hole, 1,500 feet down. And weighing almost a million pounds, vacuum lines of sight looking at different precise targets located down right next to the explosion. Miles of very large diameter coaxial cables coming up to the recording trailers on the surface.
It was an astonishing integration of heavy mining and construction activities with clean, delicate, sophisticated and precise instrumentation – all underground. It had to be aligned and stable to one-thousandth of an inch or so. And So we had lots of collaborations of all kinds at the NTS. I don’t know if I’m answering your question.
Yeah. I wonder if you can talk about your work on measuring underground nuclear tests. What were the technologies that you developed, and what were the most important things to measure with regard to underground nuclear testing?
OK. When I first got involved we were mostly looking at total radiation outputs of the explosion, integral outputs from the collective processes, fission, fusion, energy transfer and so on that take place in the explosion. These outputs would be say, the prompt fission gamma pulse, the total fission neutron output, 14 MeV neutrons. Of the prompt gamma pulse, the front of the pulse is determined by the exponential rate of the chain reaction. And we were interested in that exponent. So we would make time-dependent measurements of gamma output and unfold the data to get the exponent. Total neutron outputs were also measured. And the energy spectra of both gamma and neutron outputs were also of interest. Neutron energy spectra were generally measured by time-of-flight separation of the neutrons at some distance away. Gamma spectra measurements were more complex and one of my early assignments was to design and field a Compton gamma ray spectrometer underground. We were very interested in fast detector and data recording systems as the gamma pulses were of nanosecond time scales. In addition to our prompt diagnostics measurements, the nuclear chemists would place traces of materials near the explosion and then would conduct post-shot drill back and mine and analyze those activated samples.
As I mentioned earlier, my first work was to develop semiconductor detectors for use in intense radiation fields, hence ampere level outputs, which were used for prompt gamma ray and neutron measurements. I also fielded specialized versions of these detectors in other underground applications such as Compton gamma-ray spectrometers. Based on my PhD thesis work using low-energy electron Bremsstrahlung targets we were able to take advantage of the characteristic x-rays also produced in those targets to develop the basic designs for building sharp monoenergetic x-ray sources for our calibration laboratory.
As time went on we refined our measurements to be more differential than integral, with high-resolution spectrometers, time-dependent spectroscopy, streak cameras, temporal imaging, digital measurements instead of analog measurements. Tests became pretty sophisticated downhole laboratories. The driving force for these more precise measurements was the need for more specific data to inform and refine our computer models for nuclear explosive performance.
Were you working on these issues throughout your tenure at Livermore, or was there a particular period of time where this was intensively the project at hand?
From 1963 when I got there till about 1975, my entire time as an L-Division experimental physicist, I was working intensely on those measurement techniques. From ‘70 to ‘72, I was doing my thesis project. So I was still involved in the same x-ray lab and doing some field work at NTS, but was spending most of my time on my thesis. After I finished my degree I stayed with that group in L-Division another three or so years developing improved x-ray sources using electron and ion beams for exciting characteristic x-rays in targets. I also became interested in the nexus between the laser program and underground testing and spent some of that time looking at intensely pumped excimer lasers in the laboratory, using a 2 MeV, 6000 amp pulsed field emission electron source, and on underground tests using the gamma burst from a nuclear explosion as the pump. So I did that up until about ‘75.
Then I started moving around a bit, but I would say more along a management administrative path from then on. When I went over to lasers in about 1975, I had a project planning and management role. And I did that for a couple of years.
And then I moved back to testing. I became deputy L-Division leader where I put a lot of effort in hiring and recruiting new physicists. Dick Neifert, the Division Leader and I started a diversity program for Historically Black Colleges and Universities in which we brought professors and students from those schools to Livermore for summer internships. That was a very rewarding program that continues today at Livermore. In parallel with being Deputy L-Division Leader, I was simultaneously the Deputy Program Leader for non-seismic treaty verification technologies at Livermore.
In ’82 I moved over to the Weapons Design program at Livermore, and that brought my first experiences working with Washington, my first real introduction to working with the DOE headquarters. Much of this was dealing with the Threshold Test Ban Treaty which had been signed in 1974 but was still not ratified – it was still hung up on the lack of agreed verification protocols. The TTBT limited nuclear test yields to 150 kt.
And from there, I went back to be in charge of all nuclear testing at Livermore from ‘84 to ‘91, I was Associate Director for Nuclear Testing and Experimental Science, which also included overseeing the laboratory’s Treaty Verification Technologies Program.
Right. Now, the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, how do you go about developing technologies to keep the limits within 150 kilotons? Can you walk me through the science behind that?
Sure, yeah. Yeah, here’s how it works. These are all underground tests. The nuclear weapon is located in a canister at the bottom of a vertical shaft that extends to the surface, several thousand feet deep. The shaft of course is sealed to contain the explosion underground. You detonate the nuclear explosive. The explosion creates a spherical cavity underground, at very high temperature and pressure. The temperature of the cavity then starts cooling and the pressure subsides. Anywhere from minutes to days to never, the roof of the cavity will break and collapse. And the collapse chimneys all the way to the surface.
So you get a subsidence crater on the surface. You see photographs of Yucca Flat at the Nevada Test Site, it’s covered with these collapse craters. It looks like the moon with all these things. OK.
So we’re going to talk about how you can determine the yield of an explosion in that configuration. There were a couple of approaches. We were also at that time trying to look at how to verify a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as well. So seismic techniques could be one way and those already were pretty well understood. In fact, worldwide seismic networks are in place and active today. For the CTBT however, the question is how small of a test can still be detected seismically. That threshold is relatively small, well below the 150 kt limit of the TTBT. However, for the TTBT the question is how accurately can we measure the actual yield of the explosion and verify that it is below 150 kt. Seismologists at the time were debating the accuracies of seismic determination and the numbers I remember were sometimes 50% or more. Seismic alone was never considered sufficiently accurate for TTBT verification, so we were talking with the Russians in Geneva trying to develop acceptable alternatives.
There was one technique that scientists from both sides believed could be adequate, and in fact that both sides used occasionally on their own tests, a hydrodynamic measurement of the underground shock wave quite near the explosion. When you set off a high explosive underground, the velocity of the shock wave that propagates outward is proportional to the yield of the bomb, at least close in to the explosion. So if you could measure the velocity of the shock wave underground and close in, you could come up with the yield of the bomb itself, to within 20% or so.
And the way we did this was to put a coaxial cable down another vertical shaft, close in and parallel to the bomb shaft. When the explosion occurs the shock wave propagates out spherically and crushes the cable along its way. So if you could measure the velocity of the crush moving up that cable, you would have the velocity of the shock wave, and could determine the yield of the explosion. And there were a couple of ways of making that velocity measurement.
Livermore had one technique called SLIFER, an acronym for which I’ve forgotten the meaning. But basically Livermore would connect the above ground end of the coaxial cable into an oscillator circuit so that you had a resonant frequency for the circuit for that particular length of cable. And as the shock wave crushed that cable and shortened it, it changed the inductance, so it changed the resonant frequency of the circuit. So Livermore would measure the rate of change in resonant frequency, and convert that into the velocity of the crush, and hence, the yield of the explosion.
Los Alamos had a very similar technique but they measured the crush velocity in a different way. Their method was called CORRTEX, and that stands for COntinuous Reflectometry for Radius versus Time EXperiment. It worked the same as SLIFER but instead of an oscillator circuit they sent pulses down the cable that would reflect from the crushed end. They just measured the time of the reflection and hence, the rate of change in length of the cable and that gave them the yield of the explosion. CORRTEX eventually became the United States’ method for yield measurement under the TTBT.
The Soviet scientists had their own similar hydrodynamic measurement, but they still tended to believe that these on-site measurements were too intrusive.
Now you mentioned that later on, a little later on, you had gone to Washington to work on some verification issues. Can you describe your role in those discussions?
Yes. Yes, what was happening at that time, there was a great debate among scientists in this country as to what roles these two yield measurements, hydrodynamic versus seismic would play in the United States’ official position on the protocol for TTBT verification. There was competition between Livermore and Los Alamos since Livermore was the center of seismic verification technology and Los Alamos was the more prominent CORRTEX laboratory.
Scientists from both laboratories and from elsewhere were all weighing in with different views on the issue in Washington and it was stalling the ability of the interagency process in the government to come up with an official position.
So John Barley was the head of the weapons program at Los Alamos, and their CORRTEX program reported to him. At Livermore, the seismic verification program reported to me as the head of test program. So John came to visit me and said, “I’m proposing that we work on this together, and make a joint proposal—joint presentation where we go back to Washington together and stand representing both Labs speaking with one voice, agreeing upon the facts, and we go around the circuit, and let everybody hear what we’re saying, so that the Labs are not pitted against each other.” I thought it was an excellent idea.
And we went back, and we started with—let’s see, what was his name? Graham, Bill Graham was the president’s science advisor. So we explained it to him. Then we went—well, we probably actually went to the Department of Energy before we even went to Graham. That would have been the proper protocol. [laugh] We went through the DOE, and told them what we were doing.
Then we went to Bill Graham. Then we went to staffers in Congress, and we went to State Department. It was clear from that presentation that the CORRTEX measurement was the appropriate yield measurement for verifying the TTBT. My own folks at Livermore didn’t like that too much but I think they knew it was the right thing to do. But we still had the problem of course, that the Soviets would have to be convinced that this on-site measurement would not be a security risk for them. There were negotiations going on in Geneva at that time. Paul Robinson, previous head of weapons design at Los Alamos, was the US ambassador to those talks, and we next had to get that presentation to him.
And what year would this have been?
This was in the early ‘80s, early-to-mid ‘80s. The Geneva negotiations were going on and an issue there was concern, mostly by the Soviets, about the intrusiveness of on-site measurements. The issue back here in the US was the argument between seismic and CORRTEX.
We would go over to Geneva and brief the people—brief our team. Sometimes the briefing would be in front of the Soviet side. And these were all technical experts on both sides. This was not the treaty negotiation. The treaty had already been completed and signed back in 1974. This was to agree upon a verification protocol for the treaty. And so we were trying to explain to them what we believed CORRTEX would do, what seismic would do, how intrusive the measurements would or would not be, and so on. They had their scientists who would do the same. Scientists who worked with me in our test program were key participants in those discussions in Geneva. In fact, I assigned my Deputy, Roger Ide and a few others full time to Geneva.
So, this problem of intrusiveness was an issue. They didn’t really want us on their test site putting something in a hole beside their bomb. This was very much a trust issue and these negotiators weren’t making much progress until Reykjavík, when Reagan met with Gorbachev in Iceland. Of course that Summit ended in failure to advance its main objective, nuclear arms reduction, because Reagan wouldn’t agree to stop working on the X-ray laser in his Strategic Defense Initiative --- a weapons development program that we were still testing in the nuclear testing side of my program. I mean, I was working on both sides of this problem, testing new weapons and at the same time trying to find a way to limit testing new weapons. Somewhat fascinating.
But one thing that did come out of Reykjavík was agreement that the two sides would conduct joint verification experiments, JVEs, in which the Russians and the US would each test a bomb—their own bomb on their own test site. But the other side would be present and make its own measurement as well—both sides would then compare results for the yields of both tests. And so suddenly, with this executive decision to conduct these joint experiments, it was agreed that hydrodynamic yield measurements would be the verification protocol. And the Russians, notwithstanding their original concerns of intrusiveness, agreed. And so then the ball started rolling fast. That was ‘86 after Reykjavík.
Very shortly after that, Soviet and US nuclear test teams began visiting each other’s test sites to begin preparing for these tests. This was an historic time for everyone involved. The first joint experiment was to be the Kearsarge Event at NTS in August 1988. It was to be executed by the Livermore test program, using a Los Alamos explosive and with Los Alamos conducting the CORRTEX measurement. My role was as Chairman of the Science Advisory Team for the Kearsarge JVE test. The Science Advisory Team advised the Test Controller when it was safe to push the button. The way we tested in the US was that the laboratory in charge of the tests, with their own test director would operate the electronic instrumentation and “push the button” to shoot the test, and of course, record all the measurement data. This was done from a sealed control room in a bunker about 12 miles away from Ground Zero. About a hundred feet away in another control room, the Department of Energy had a DOE Test Controller who gave permission to the Laboratory to “push the button” from a safety and government authority perspective. Only the government, DOE Controller had the authority to proceed with a nuclear detonation. And actually, the President of the United States had to approve each test beforehand.
The DOE Test Controller had a science advisory team of about six scientists who would conduct formal reviews in the days leading up to the test, of all safety aspects associated with the test. That team would sit beside the Test Controller in his control room and advise him throughout the countdown, through execution, and the follow up of the test. A nuclear test is a big deal. There are numerous mobile weather balloon stations throughout Nevada, Air Force planes ready to track any radioactivity that might accidentally escape the test site, air controllers tracking all commercial and private aircraft in the region, truckloads of prepositioned feed to provide for livestock in Nevada and Utah in case of any radioactivity were to escape, and on and on.
I had been in this role of Chair of the Science Advisory Team on many tests before but Kearsarge was unique. It seemed surreal to be conducting a 4:00 AM readiness briefing in this remote highly-secure weapons-related control room with half-a-dozen Soviet Scientists present, and to have to query through a Russian translator, their readiness with their own experiments on our test. The Cold War was changing fast.
In fact more than the Cold War, the Soviet Union itself was collapsing fast. These Joint Verification nuclear tests in 1988. In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. And in 1990, the Soviets quit testing. In 1991 the Soviet Union itself dissolved, and in 1992 we quit testing altogether. And so in that short four-year period, 1988 to 1992, the whole thing, the raison d’etre of my entire Livermore nuclear weapons career, 29 years at that point, seemed to end. Almost 30 years to the day from when I received that letter from a laboratory I’d never heard of.
Meanwhile, in parallel with all of that, we were developing this X-ray laser as part of the “Star Wars” program. That also came to a stop in ‘88 for lots of its own reasons. So that period from 1984 to ‘91 when I was the head of Livermore’s nuclear test program was quite a ride—a lot of stuff was happening.
I wonder, Bob, if you can explain a little? You know, it’s one thing if an American scientist is working on measuring output so that the United States can say that it is holding up its end of a treaty, right? But how is that information communicated to the other side? Can you explain a little bit about that, and perhaps your perspective on that?
I don’t understand that question.
So in order for a treaty to work, right, the United States and the Soviet Union agree to certain thresholds. You’re part of the scientific team that’s ensuring that the United States is staying within those thresholds, right?
Do you need Soviet scientists coming over and verifying your verification? And conversely, do you need to be going over to the Soviet Union to verify their verification?
Oh, I misunderstood your previous question. I was not part of a team to ensure the United States was staying within the 150 kt limit. We have much more accurate ways of measuring the yield of our own tests, from prompt diagnostics to radiochemistry. That would all be part of our own design reviews and testing program. What I am describing is how US and Soviet teams did indeed ensure themselves that the other side stayed within the limit. You are correct, each side needs to send their own team to the other country’s test and verify for themselves that the limit was not violated. The whole point of these Joint Verification Experiments was exactly that, their scientists were measuring the yield of our test at the same time we were measuring it—they were measuring with their equipment so that they agreed that the bomb came in at say, 140 kilotons instead of 150. And vice versa on their test. I think our respective measurements were within about 10% of each other, or something like that on both JVE tests.
OK. So that was definitely part of it?
That you were part of that scientific exchange?
Yes, but I had no specific role on the Soviet test as I did on the U.S. test, but several of my test program people did. And Los Alamos scientists actually fielded the CORRTEX measurement on the Soviet test.
Was your sense from your vantage point that the Soviets were dealing honestly on testing threshold issues?
By “honestly”, do you mean did they shoot something over 150 kt before we conducted these JVEs?
Or they fudged the data, or they said they were doing things that they weren’t, or they were doing things that they said they weren’t doing.
I saw nothing in any of my dealings with the Soviets on nuclear testing matters that would imply to me that they were doing anything dishonest. In reading intelligence information and looking at satellite photography we would see things that we couldn’t explain with certainty, and for which we could hypothesize ulterior motives, but I can’t remember seeing anything that would conclusively prove violations. I was always looking mostly at scientific information, not direct military intelligence. Lots of anxiety and paranoia during the Cold War.
Sure. Bob, can you explain the relationship between X-ray lasers and SDI? What’s—how are X-ray lasers part of SDI?
OK. The Strategic Defense Initiative was Reagan’s desire to build a dome over the United States that would protect us from incoming missiles. He truly—I think it’s very clear that he desperately wanted and truly believed in some kind of shield that could be put up there to stop warheads from coming into America. The U.S. had already attempted earlier missile defense systems, the latest being the Safeguards system, based on sending our own nuclear weapons up on fast missiles to intercept and destroy incoming warheads with x-rays or neutrons. For various reasons those systems were discontinued.
An x-ray laser is like any other laser except that the output beam is x-rays as opposed to say, visible light. That beam could be made intense enough to destroy an enemy warhead. The concept was similar to other anti-missile defense systems, that is, we would launch a defensive missile carrying an x-ray laser up to meet the incoming warhead and destroy it with x-rays from the laser. Such a laser would need a very powerful energy source to drive it and the concept was to power it with the output from a small nuclear explosion. That’s how the project became associated with the Livermore Laboratory.
Livermore’s interest in x-ray lasers started back in the early ‘70s with George Chapline who worked with Lowell Wood, and essentially Edward Teller—George started looking at ways to make x-ray lasers. I think the idea of using a nuclear explosion to pump an x-ray laser came to him when he was working on a nuclear test that we were doing for the military, in which we were exposing our own warheads to x-rays from a nuclear explosion. So I think that’s how this all sort of got started. Teller became very optimistic about the viability of the concept.
Teller had access to Reagan. He’d had access to him when Reagan was governor out here in California. Reagan really liked this idea. And so the X-ray laser took off. It started getting funding. I was in charge of nuclear testing at Livermore at that time and we began a program of underground tests relevant to the concept. Incidentally, even though I had various interactions with Edward at Teller Tech before, this was the period in which I began to work with and get to know Edward better.
In March of ‘83, Reagan went on television and announced his Strategic Defense Initiative of which the X-ray laser was a very key part. This weapon that we hadn’t tested or built yet was a major part of SDI.
How far ahead was the pronouncement from the science? In other words, did the scientists have to catch up to what Reagan said he wanted and expected?
Yeah, well Reagan was presenting a vision, not a detailed plan. So what was said was somewhat ahead of the science and well ahead of the engineering. Yeah, and even within the laboratory there was a spectrum of degrees of optimism or pessimism. I mean, Edward Teller—you know, I think two things about Edward. He was always optimistic about new ideas. And he was driven! He once told me that fear had driven him all of his life, when he fled Nazi Germany and Hungary, and over here in the U.S. He said he was always afraid, and I think that was indeed much of what was driving him.
And I think Reagan dreamed of protection. I don’t know if he had the sense of paranoia that Edward had. But Reagan called the policy of nuclear deterrence a suicide pact, and he desperately sought a better solution. He believed in it. And so Teller and Reagan together believed, and were convinced, and together were a powerful force.
We spent the ‘80s conducting very complex, scientifically-sophisticated underground nuclear tests involving the x-ray laser, and there was controversy over the degree of progress --- differences of opinion as to the exact state of the technology. But Edward told Reagan at one point that the project was entering the engineering phase. And that was seen as premature by most scientists. The controversy within the Laboratory was great. And the controversy outside was even greater.
In 1986 Reagan met with Gorbachev in Reykjavik and the Summit failed when Reagan would not stop this x-ray laser program. However, that same Summit led to the Joint Verification Experiments and eventually to the end of testing, the Cold War and even the Soviet Union. The x-ray laser died along with everything else. I believe the funding ended in 1988.
Is that making any sense to you?
Yeah, of course it is, of course.
OK. I don’t know if I’m being coherent enough or—
No, abso… definitely, crystal clear. Can you talk a little bit about Livermore changed as a result of the Cold War coming to an end? I mean, was it—did you really feel it? Was it just a night-and-day experience, or was it sort of more gradual, and the major programs sort of continued on as they were?
The end of the Cold War brought enormous change to the Laboratory, change that is still being felt today -- but maybe for reasons that might not be so obvious to everyone. The obvious reason for a big change was that the nation stopped designing, testing and manufacturing nuclear weapons. So, the obvious question was, “what does a nuclear weapons lab do now?” And a pretty obvious answer was, “take care of the existing stockpile.” The last new weapon into the stockpile was 1988. Our nuclear weapons were all designed with life expectancies of twenty to thirty years and many of them were already reaching that age when the Cold War ended. How would further aging affect them? How would we ensure we still have safe, secure and reliable nuclear weapons?
Understanding the effects of weapons aging is now a major effort of the laboratories. New laboratory facilities have been built, the NIF laser at Livermore, Hydrodynamic testing facilities at Los Alamos and the Nevada Test Site, High Performance Computing capabilities at both laboratories. And a complicating factor is that weapons design and test expertise has essentially disappeared as people retire.
Vic Reis was the head of the DOE weapons work at the time, equivalent to the NNSA Administrator today. He very creatively led an effort with the laboratories to develop a science-based stockpile stewardship program to ensure the viability of our nuclear deterrent. This program would replace underground testing with aboveground experiments coupled with improved computer modeling using high performance computing capabilities. That would be the underpinning of assuring our stockpile. In addition, we created a stockpile surveillance program in which weapons were periodically removed from the stockpile for physical examination. And that’s all worked quite well so far. Issues have been found that have caused modifications but overall our physics understanding of nuclear weapons has actually improved since we stopped nuclear testing.
Some scientists are arguing that this can’t go on forever and at some point we are going to have to test again. Others are saying, “Well, if you told me to go test right now, I wouldn’t even know what to test.” And still others argue that’s not a good enough answer. “It’s the test that tells you what the problems are.” So, this stockpile stewardship thing is still a work in progress. But, the bottom line --- weapons work at the laboratories has changed dramatically.
However, another change happened at that time that ended up having an equal or greater impact on the labs, and which is still impacting them to this day. In 1989, the year after we had conducted the JVE experiments and the year the Berlin Wall came down and while everything else was happening out there, nobody saw this one coming. In 1989 the FBI raided Rocky Flats in Colorado, the production plant for the nation’s plutonium pits for our nuclear weapons. They came in, raided the factory, and shut it down. People were arrested for violating environmental laws. The plant was demolished and has never been replaced.
But that was just a beginning. Admiral James Watkins was the Secretary of Energy at that time and he followed this up by creating tiger teams, inspection teams, and he sent them out into the entire nuclear weapons complex, the laboratories, everywhere, to identify and demand similar cleanup and safety improvement practices.
Such improvements were certainly ripe to be had. These facilities and practices were created during the urgency and tensions of the Cold War or even back to WWII, and much was in need of improvement. In my mind, however, the approach taken to accomplish this remedial work was unnecessarily aggressive and even adversarial in nature. And it began a decline in the relationship between the government and these unique non-profit institutions that had served the nation so well for decades. The strong partnerships between government and academia that were intentionally designed into the original FFRDC concept created during WWII, were reduced to a formal for-profit contractual arrangement --- much encumbered by regulation and oversight and much less agile and suited to research and development. These circumstances finally led in 2000 to the creation by Congress of the NNSA as a possible remedy. But the situation continues today with laboratory management contracts, now for-profit contracts, being regularly rebid by the government – each time sending lifetimes of nuclear experience out the door as talented, pre-retirement age, scientific leaders leave because a new contractor has been chosen.
Bottom line answer to your question: yes, I believe the end of the Cold War brought dramatic change to the laboratories, first by changing the scope of their weapons programs from the research of ensuring a dynamic and evolving nuclear deterrent to maintaining an old, static and aging nuclear deterrent; second, by employing different computational and experimental tools and technologies to do the job in the absence of nuclear testing; and third, by altering the relationship between the laboratories and the government from partners, to a contractual arrangement between procurement officers and contractors.
Let me add one more story about my own career at this point, where the end of the Cold War led me. It was an interesting and sudden change in direction for me. So, it was 1992, and we were stopping testing and Livermore’s test program had to be dismantled. This happened suddenly, both Livermore and Los Alamos had upcoming tests underway at the Nevada Test Site that were essentially just abandoned in place – the test equipment, not the nuclear explosive. The Los Alamos test was actually a British test. The UK tested their devices at our NTS, but one of the U.S. labs would always conduct the operations for them. Their diagnostics canister still hangs in a tower on Yucca Flat and is used for taking visitors on historical tours of the site.
So, 1992, the University of California’s contract with DOE was coming up for its five-year renewal and this would involve a negotiation with the DOE. This contract was for both Los Alamos and Livermore and was essentially a continuous series of renewals of the original contract for the Manhattan Project since WWII. Traditionally, these renewals had been mostly pro forma but this one was occurring right in the middle of this aggressive Tiger Team era and it was pretty clear it was going to deal with some contentious issues. UC Senior Vice President, Ron Brady, would be heading the UC negotiation and asked if I would be willing to go over to UC to support him in this endeavor. It would be a several month assignment. So, I got assigned to the University.
The issues of the negotiations were somewhat counterintuitive to me. The University had only three negotiating principles, 1) Public Service; 2) No gain – no loss; and 3) Scientific Freedom for the scientists within classification and program constraints. And we also wanted clear performance measures upon which the Laboratories would be judged. The DOE, surprisingly to me, did not particularly want performance measures, they demanded that UC accept a fee, and they absolutely refused the “mutuality” clause that had established the FFRDC principle of partnership in all previous contracts. They also insisted upon referring to the University as a “contractor” instead of the previous “partner.”
They demanded that UC accept a fee so that, as they put it, “UC would have some skin in the game,” and a fee would provide the DOE with the leverage of being able to “fine” the university by withholding parts of the fee. We were unable to convince them that withholding a fee that was not wanted in the first place was, you know, didn’t seem like much leverage to us. They may have already been on a track in their minds to have a fee involved so they could attract for-profit companies to the contract in the future. Which they eventually did do.
So the contract was agreed to, mutuality disappeared. A fee went was added. The university agreed to the fee but only in the context that whatever was not expended to “fines” or other costs, would be given back to the laboratory directors to fund discretionary research. So we were essentially returning the government’s fee money back into government research.
Also as part of this contract renewal, the University was required to create a Laboratory Management organization in the UC President’s Office to oversee all three UC-managed DOE Laboratories, Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos. The University asked me to stay and take on the task of creating that organization, which I did. I was in that position at the University from 1992 to late 1994. That office still exists and has since been elevated to a University Vice President position today.
Bob, how did you get involved with the NNSA? How did that happen?
Well, when I retired from the lab…OK, let me back up. In 1994 I came back to Livermore from the University. Bruce Tarter had just been appointed as the Laboratory Director and he asked me if I’d come back to the lab and be his Deputy Director for Operations.
We also added a Deputy Director for Science, and that was Jeff Wadsworth. And so the three of us were a triumvirate. It was the most fun team of guys I’ve ever worked with. Great camaraderie!
I was responsible for all operations at the Livermore. Program operations from safety and security oversight perspective and all infrastructure functions and personnel and operations from a management position. Probably the biggest challenge of that job at the time was a need to increase the Lab’s efficiency. We streamlined infrastructure operations and reduced our overhead costs by 50 million dollars per year. To effect this we implemented a voluntary employee separation incentive plan in ‘95 in which about 550 people voluntarily took an incentive to leave, all of them from the overhead side of the laboratory. That was dramatic.
The lab was challenged programmatically during that time with developing and implementing the stockpile stewardship plan that I discussed earlier. How were we going to assure the nuclear stockpile without nuclear testing. And there was a lot going on with developing collaborations with the Russian weapons laboratories, and attempting to do the same with the Chinese laboratories. The former was quite successful, the latter not so much. Lots of negative publicity about Chinese spying and stuff got in the way. Plus, in my interactions with them I never felt much sincere interest on their part.
So I spent seven years as the Deputy Director at Livermore until I retired in February 2001. And a month later, in March of 2001, I was in Washington working with John Gordon. Short retirement!
General Gordon had just been tasked a few months earlier by President Bush to stand up the newly-created National Nuclear Security Administration as its first Administrator. John was a four-star Air Force General serving as Deputy Director of the CIA before coming to NNSA. NNSA was to be a semi-autonomous agency embedded inside of the DOE, but essentially isolated from any DOE oversight except by the Secretary of Energy himself. This was created by Congress as a possible solution to the still criticized DOE oversight of the Laboratories. This was all a continuation of the tensions and difficulties that came to the surface at the end of the Cold War.
Senator Pete Domenici, who had two national security laboratories in his state, Sandia and Los Alamos, was particularly key to the creation of NNSA. He felt that isolating the laboratories from the bureaucracy of the DOE was imperative.
So, John was soliciting help from the laboratories in setting up his organization. He met with me in Livermore just as I was retiring and offered me either of two jobs, his Principal Deputy Administrator, or Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs, the nuclear weapons program, both of which were Presidential Appointments. I was unwilling to commit to the three or more years that I felt was the minimum tenure one should serve in a Senate-confirmed position. And I felt continuity was most important in the Defense Programs position. So, I chose the Principal Deputy role and agreed to go back for a while and help him set up the organization, but not to go through Senate confirmation --- we had what we called, “a handshake for a handful of months” commitment. Well, I only had five fingers on my hand, but John must have had a lot more because I ended up being in Washington for over 20 months.
I took on the role of working more on the internal management job of standing up the NNSA as an agency. And he focused more on the outside programmatic and funding connections, working with the Congress and the rest of the nuclear complex, the labs, and weapons production plants. I still found myself on the Hill a lot because Congress had a real interest in how we were going to structure this organization to mitigate the oversight problems they were trying to resolve.
John left the next summer, 2002, to go to the White House to be the Homeland Security Advisor for Bush II. Ambassador Linton Brooks, who was NNSA Deputy Administrator for Nonproliferation came in to replace John. And so I then stayed around and worked with Linton for the rest of the year. That’s part of why I stayed longer than I expected.
Bob, I’m curious if you personally felt like the creation of the NNSA was a good idea?
Well, in 2012, I essentially testified “no” to that question in front of a House Armed Services Sub-committee. So that was my opinion then. I don’t know that the creation of NNSA was a bad idea in itself, and I think the intentions were right, but perhaps it didn’t go far enough. The semi-autonomy within the DOE didn’t really exist in any practical way that addressed the problems. The NNSA still operated with excessively burdensome oversight. For example the NNSA organizational model still relied on and empowered much of the same old DOE regulatory functions that audited and tasked the NNSA laboratories before NNSA existed.
And in addition to all of this Congress had created, totally independent of DOE and NNSA, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. That Board added another several hundred people who would come into the laboratories on their own and further burden and essentially task, the laboratories with additional and often redundant audits. So it just gave the laboratories even more overseers who weren’t coordinated with each other. The laboratories did indeed need to improve, no question there, and were trying to. For example, we all were attempting to move from the original “expert-based” safety systems to “procedure-based” systems. I mean, there was no question the labs had to crisp up how they were doing things. But this wasn’t the way to do it, in my mind. It was just pushing harder on the original Tiger Teams approach – using a bigger and bigger hammer. So in answer to your question, no, I don’t think NNSA, “in that exact form,” was the right solution.
To what extent was the creation of the NNSA about Wen Ho Lee, and to what extent was it about bigger issues?
It would be hard to say there was any issue bigger than Wen Ho Lee at that moment in time. I mean, we were feeling that everywhere. How much that played into the creation of NNSA, I don’t know. It probably was part of Senator Dominici’s thinking, but the NNSA Act appeared to me more directed toward creating a streamlined, less burdensome and more effective government oversight function for the laboratories. If successful, I’m sure this new governance model would have been seen as also improving security, e.g., Wen Ho Lee stuff, as well as safety and environmental issues.
Did you feel like you accomplished what you wanted to at NNSA?
No, not even close. First of all—
Based on your own goals or based on what was expected of you?
Oh, I see, well, I see your question now. My quick negative answer isn’t right. When I said “no, not even close” my mind was focusing on how well the NNSA model solved the problem for which it was intended, not on the specific goals I had in mind when I agreed to go back to Washington. My handshake for a handful of months deal with John was to help him stand up the new organization. I think we accomplished a lot with that. I was very pleased.
We eliminated a layer of NNSA management between headquarters and the laboratories, we moved certain decision making authorities into the NNSA Site Offices so decisions could be made faster and with closer knowledge of the work being conducted.
In particular, we adopted anew, the GOCO government oversight philosophy, “Government-Owned, Contractor-Operated.” This was of course, just the FFRDC model that came out of the WWII partnership between the government and the private sector. We documented this plan and organizational structure in a report to Congress within the first year I was there.
And we defined a downsizing plan that would have greatly improved the efficiency of the NNSA. In reality, however, in the long run, I believe events overtook the full implementation of this streamlining effort, and we certainly were not successful in bringing back the FFRDC, “GOCO” concept.
So my answer to your question of whether or not I personally feel like I accomplished what I wanted to do at NNSA, I would have to say, “to a large degree.” I’m proud of what we ALL did during that period. John, Linton, and the entire NNSA. We stood the NNSA up in rather short order, I believe. I would add that I learned a lot in Washington. In particular, I learned how hard these NNSA employees work and how dedicated they are to their jobs. They receive an enormous amount of pressure from Congress, and other outside stakeholders, and they are constantly trying to pack ten pounds of diverse interests into a five-pound bag on almost every issue they deal with. I came home with great admiration for those folks. They work a lot harder than some people think.
When did you know—
I wish I’d had have stayed longer now but.
Yeah. So when did you leave NNSA?
I left NNSA in the winter, December of 2002. I’d been there about 20 months—a little more than 20 months. Linton was still there. And I came back to the University of California. In fact, I came back—it’s a funny story. I say I was “Vice President for a Day.” at the university. [laugh] We joke about that.
One day! We, Marilyn and I moved back to California thinking we were going to give retirement another try. And we weren’t home three days when Dick Atkinson called me. Atkinson was President of the UC System at that time. He called me and said, “Bob, would you be willing to come back to UC as vice president, and take over the Lab Management office again?” This was the Office I had created ten years before and it was now a UC Vice President position. I did not really want to do that job, partly because I had “been there and done that,” as they say. But also because Marilyn and I were still looking to — we’d been trying to retire since 2001. In fact, we got so close at that time that I had bought this monstrous SUV because my kids own a place up in the Sierras, and we were going to go up and live there for a while and spend our time running around in the mountains. Instead, as you know, we ended up taking this monstrous SUV to Washington, D.C. where I couldn’t even get it into the Kennedy Center garage because it was too tall, they would wave me off and I’d have to park it outside. [laugh] A large SUV in Washington, D.C. wasn’t really very convenient.
So anyway, we really wanted to retire and I said to Dick, “No, I really don’t think I want to do the Vice President thing” He said, “Would you think about it over the weekend, and give me your final answer on Monday?” And so I came home, and it was Friday night, Marilyn and I were sitting there with a bottle of wine and saying, “oh, my. What are we going to do? We really don’t want to hold retirement off any longer. We should just retire.”—that was on Friday. Saturday, we started saying, “Well, you know, it might not be too bad. Maybe we could do this or that. Maybe it wouldn’t be too bad.” And on Sunday, we started saying all the good things, the positive. “Well, look, we can do this,”—you know. In fact by Sunday evening I really wanted the job. That two-day turnaround in our attitudes was remarkable. Monday morning, I called Dick and said, “OK, I’ll do it.” He says, “Start now. Call your team together.”
So Bob Van Ness, who had been my deputy when I created that office was still there and was the acting head at the time. I called him, said, “Bring a few guys. Come out to Livermore. We’ll use an office there. Let’s meet, and start planning.” And so that afternoon, we did. And we agreed to continue the next morning. I go home Monday evening and get another call from Dick Atkinson. He said, “We told DOE that you’re going to become our vice president. Kyle McSlarrow, the Deputy Secretary of Energy, called back and said, ‘Bob can’t interact with us as a UC employee. That’d be a conflict of interest, he can’t interact with us until two years after he left the NNSA.’” So, that kind of ended my Vice President tenure. After only one day.
So I said to Atkinson, “OK, I’m willing to work out an arrangement where I’ll come to UC and help you for a while. I’ll do the Laboratory Management function internally while you’re searching for a vice president. And any interactions with the Congress or with DOE, why don’t you delegate those to your executive vice president”—who was Bruce Darling at the time. Bruce is now—I believe he’s the still the Executive Director of the Academy of Sciences in Washington.
“Let Bruce be double-hatted, and he can go to Washington when necessary. I’ll run the inside for you until you get a VP.” And that’s when we went out and posted and got Admiral Bob Foley, a four-star admiral from the Navy, to come in and be Vice President for Laboratory Management.
So, actually, I ended up staying there for a couple of years, even after Foley came on board. The reason being that at that same time the DOE announced they were going to compete rather than extend the next renewal of the Los Alamos management contract. That was an historical decision --- after more than 60 years of managing Los Alamos, UC might be leaving. This was a major shock to the employees at LANL. So what I really spent my time on from 2003 to 2005 was working with Bob Van Ness supporting the UC President and Regents in making their decisions as to whether, and if so, how they were going to proceed in the upcoming LANL bid process. It was clear to me from the very beginning that the regents had no question they were going to compete for the contract. They obviously took the position that UC did this as a public service and nothing had changed. And responding to rather obvious signals from Washington, they also decided to engage a private sector partner for the bid.
So Bob and I began the search for an industrial partner. We ended up engaging with Bechtel Corporation for bidding on the Los Alamos contract. Riley Bechtel was very supportive of UC and its role with the laboratories, and was a willing partner in the endeavor. This UC-Bechtel team went on to win the bid for the new Los Alamos contract.
But while that was all going on, even while the bidding process was just getting underway, other things were happening at Los Alamos. Admiral Nanos, Pete Nanos, who was director of the lab at that time, chose to leave. And so Bob Dynes, who had followed Dick Atkinson as President of UC, asked me if I would go down to Los Alamos as the director for this last year or so of UC management until the new contract was awarded.
Now when you got this call from Dynes, was it out of the blue, or you knew this was coming?
No, totally out of the blue. Totally out of the blue. I didn’t even know Nanos was leaving. That was all handled between Nanos and the President. And in fact, not only was I surprised, but they were asking me to go down there in two weeks. It was a very quick turnaround.
Did Dynes have to sell you, or did you say yes right away?
I said yes right away.
Yes. I knew Los Alamos pretty well. I had interacted with them quite a bit in my years in underground testing, both labs used the same Nevada Test Site. Then I continued to work with them when I stood up the UC Lab Management Office and again when I was at NNSA. So I was very familiar with their problems and the flack they were taking from everyone. They had real issues of course, everybody does, but a lot of their issues were greatly overblown by external critics. Morale was at an all-time low. I felt I could make a difference with respect to building up morale. They were doing excellent scientific and programmatic work, the issues were again, mostly part of this operations oversight struggle that had been going on for over a decade by then. But I felt I could make a difference.
But to go down there knowing I would only be there for a year or so, I did say to Dynes, “I can’t be seen as an interim director, don’t emphasize the short term in my title. You’ve got to present me as Director with full authority, not as a lame duck.” He agreed.
Why only one year? What were the limitations? They were your own, or they were broader limitations?
Well, the deal was that I would be the Director of Los Alamos until the end of the current contract period, hence, until the new contract was awarded and the transition period to the new management team was completed, UC or whoever else. These contract award dates often slip so it wasn’t exactly clear how long this would be, but at least a year. The actual bid packages were being prepared at that time, and then there would be the selection process and the award decision and then a period of transition. I was guessing I would be there until the summer of 2006 or later.
But wasn’t there—?
—and this was May of 2005.
Wasn’t there a possibility that depending on who won the bid that they would ask you to stay on?
No, it really didn’t work that way. We at UC had already begun to staff our intended bid package and we had convinced Mike Anastasio, the current Director of Livermore, to be the proposed LANL Director in our bid. That was a very strong part of the UC proposal. The sudden decision for me to go down and finish out the current contract was a short perturbation due to the fact the current Lab Director decided to move on. My longer term plan was still to retire
Bob, I’m just curious if you can sort of contrast the depth of the problems at Los Alamos and the absurdly short time frame of one year for you to try to do something? How did you—how do you square that circle?
Well, yeah, that’s sort of what I was saying a minute ago. The management issues that plagued the Lab over the previous decade or so were well-identified and were either already being addressed or would be major elements of the incoming management team’s bid proposal. Nobody was looking for Bob Kuckuck to resolve those issues, nor to even get in the way of the incoming management by starting something that they would be planning to address when they got here. Of course I would be focused on assuring safe and secure operations during my tenure and would be accountable for that. I would also be responsible and accountable for the Laboratory meeting all of its weapons program milestones, and for writing the annual Laboratory Director’s weapons assessment letter to the President. All of that stuff would be there. I felt very comfortable taking on those responsibilities.
The expectations were low is what it sounds like. [laugh]
Yes, low with respect to strategic restructuring of the lab’s policies and practices. But I think there were high expectations in another direction, perhaps even desperation, for a quick calming of the waters and stopping the morale decline. They were starting to lose people, good scientists. And here’s what—I feel a little self-conscious saying this but I think one of the things that I’ve been able to do fairly well is work with people. That could have been a large part of why I was asked to go to LANL. Some people did in fact let me know that a particular confidence they had in me taking over was that I would focus on the people and the morale. I couldn’t wait to go down there and try to win some hearts and minds.
So I arrived with two obvious priorities. First, calm the waters, and second, save some dollars, in addition of course, to executing the mission of the laboratory. People, calming the waters, would be my main focus. “Saving some dollars” was my own initiative. This new contract was going to have some very large additional cost impacts to the Laboratory’s operating budget that the existing contract did not --- performance fees paid to the contractor for one, and greater retirement system expenses for another. I estimated that together these problems would add over $100 M$ of annual costs to the Laboratory. So my second focus would be to cut operating costs while I was there and establish a reserve to help the new management coming in, whomever they turned out to be.
The UC was famous for having a very well-managed retirement program with healthy benefits for retirees, and which in many years maintained sufficient reserves that neither the DOE nor employees had to pay into it. The new contract would move the employees out of the UC retirement system and into a newly-created program that would take major new funding from the Laboratory’s budget. This issue was major to both the morale of the people and to the operating budget of the lab.
So with expectations— With expectations low, there’s the advantage there that you can actually get some real stuff done. So in that short year, what do you feel like you did to sort of get Los Alamos back up on its feet?
Well, number one, I feel I was indeed successful in reducing tension and raising the morale of the employees, my major goal. There were many observations and much feedback that convinced me of this, one visible metric to that effect was the tone of the employee blog that was rather vicious when I arrived. That blog still remained as an open employee communication channel when I left, but it had become considerably more civil. And also we did NOT see a continued exodus of scientists.
I took a very visible, open and approachable role as director. Meeting with employee groups, participating in employee activities, charity drives, award ceremonies and so forth. I brought employee participation into a lot of the decisions making. And I particularly focused on trying to soften some of the conditions that employees saw as burdensome to them, for example, eliminating some internal bureaucratic red tape and restoring a “four-tens,” forty-hour workweek that they had recently lost. That was a major morale boost. I established an employee advisory team to investigate and propose a solution to childcare which was a consistent theme of frustration among employees with young families. I also felt that childcare was an important element to help with recruiting. Unfortunately, we didn’t achieve the full solution to childcare before I left, but the process of visibly and inclusively attacking the problem was uplifting to employees.
I also worked closely with my former boss Linton Brooks, who was still heading the NNSA to see if we could reasonably reduce the excessive federal audits and oversight of the lab, at least until it got through the stress of changing to new management. Linton is a class act, and he really worked with me to make a difference there. So, yes, I think we made a significant impact on improving the working environment, and we met all of the laboratory’s programmatic and operational requirements.
Toward my second goal of relieving the cost pressures that my successors were going to be facing, I also feel I made a significant impact. In particular, I sharpened cost control processes, for example, very selective hiring, that resulted in leaving over 50 M$ on the table for the next director.
I think there was also a smaller more subtle accomplishment. I think there had been some apprehension among Los Alamos employees about having a Livermore senior manager come in as director – first ever such cross-laboratories appointment at that level. These laboratories had traditionally been pretty competitive and maybe Los Alamos employees saw their worst nightmare as having someone from Livermore come in as Director. I think the rapport that developed between all of us while I was there softened a lot of those tensions. And of course, the new contract that came in when I left brought another former Livermore manager, Mike Anastasio.
You know, the bottom line is, the people at Los Alamos are very patriotic, committed, capable and wonderful people who want nothing more than for that Laboratory to succeed. And for the country to succeed. They wanted me to succeed and they made sure that we did, together.
So you went out on a high note, it sounds like.
Oh, yeah, I did. No question. They treated me very well. They made a great video of my time there and presented it to Marilyn and me when I left. We still have it, cherish it.
Oh, that’s great.
That’s certainly a place I would’ve loved to have stayed longer. Lots of great memories!
Yeah. Did you know then—
I also put on about 20 pounds or more because of the restaurants in Santa Fe.
I had to work that off after I left.
Did you know after that that it was time to sort of retire on a full-time basis, or were you considering other full-time opportunities?
I did have a couple of full-time appointments in Washington proposed to me after Los Alamos, but I finally said, “no,” in favor of retirement. In hindsight, I sometimes regret that now. I didn’t want full-time retirement either. Seems like I wanted my cake and to eat it too…didn’t want to give up either option. But I chose to engage in several part-time activities, consulting, Track II international dialogues. I served on several advisory committees for the weapons laboratories and NNSA, did some special studies for all three weapons laboratories, participated in some National Academies studies…those kinds of things. I’m still doing some of that. I particularly enjoy Track II activities. Some of this traces clear back to the 1990s when I was Deputy Director at Livermore.
When I came back to Livermore from the UC in ‘94, the Soviet Union had collapsed, but the JVE connection with the Soviet scientists had brought the labs together, our weapons labs and their weapons labs. You’re aware they essentially have a Livermore and a Los Alamos—
—you know, with Sarov and Chelyabinsk? So for the first time in history, the Livermore and Los Alamos Laboratory Directors went over to the Soviet labs in ‘92. Sometime after that Teller went over and met with Yulii Khariton, their Oppenheimer. So relationships between our respective scientists were developing and becoming substantive connections. This was a positive development.
Nunn-Lugar, Senator Nunn and Senator Lugar had recognized the danger of unprotected nuclear weapons and weapons-related materials in the Soviet countries resulting from the fall of the Soviet Union and they had identified money to clean things up over there. The labs were very involved in those activities. Sig Hecker, from—do you know Sig, who I mean?
Yeah, Sig was the scientist who really took the lead on that. You’ve probably seen his very comprehensive book documenting all of that, “Doomed to Cooperate.” He was the real leader of all of this bringing the labs together activity, and of the much of the cleanup. And that all started in ’92.
OK, so I came back as deputy to Livermore in ‘94. And in ‘95, Chelyabinsk-70, Snezhinsk, their Livermore, was celebrating their 40th anniversary. And they were already doing some projects for the U.S. labs, Los Alamos in particular, some Sandia. They weren’t doing anything significant for Livermore yet. And so I went to their anniversary celebration with colleagues from the other U.S. labs. I was considering trying to put some Livermore money into projects over there. That visit was a stark experience. I met the Chelyabinsk Laboratory Director, Vladimir Nechai, we talked mostly about the difficult times his people were facing. He was discreet but it was clear that things were very tough for him, he was overwhelmed by the lack of funding to pay his people. I also talked with his deputy about how we might set up projects with them.
While in Chelyabinsk each American was assigned a Russian “keeper” who was required to walk with us anytime we left the guesthouse we were staying in. I had a young woman who was my keeper. She was 40 years old, the same age as the laboratory. No coincidence since she was born to a construction worker who was building Snezhinsk. She had never been out of Snezhinsk in her entire life. Her daughter was graduating from high school at the time and had recently been accepted into some sort of optician or optometrist program, at a university in Yekaterinburg about 80 miles away.
This lady was devastated because of the fall of the Soviet Union. The Communist Party had committed to pay for her daughter’s college education, and now, with the Soviet collapse, they weren’t. She was distraught. Her daughter was no longer going to college. It was awkward walking with her, hearing her tragic side of the outcome of the Cold War, and wondering what she really was thinking about this scientist from America that she was escorting around. She told me that when she would get paid those days, which wasn’t a regular occurrence, she would first buy whatever she needed that was available, and then she would spend the remainder of her money on whatever else was available, whether or not she needed it or could even use it, like shoes that didn’t fit anybody in the family. Because inflation was so bad that by the time the next payday came, those shoes would be worth more than the money. And she could barter the shoes at their inflated value. She said she was sorry the Cold War had ended and it was hard for her to be happy celebrating the laboratory’s anniversary. It was very awkward, and very sad.
I had brought a contracts manager with me from Livermore on this trip. He spent time with the Chelybinsk-70 finance guys discussing how we would set up contracts to work with them. He told me that they had asked him how we would get money to them to pay for their work and that they didn’t seem to understand when he talked about us depositing money into an account for them to draw from. Finally, he asked them, “Well, how do you get paid here. You know, how does your salary come?” He said their reply was, “They bring it in trucks, in bags in trucks from Moscow, and we hand it out to our employees.”
It was clear to me—you know, that they were going through hell over there at that time. And Director Nechai was really down about it, particularly about people not getting paid, he was almost distraught about it. About 18 months after I came home, Vladimer Nechai shot himself in his office, committed suicide because he wasn’t able to pay his folks. He left a note to that effect. I’m sorry to be so depressing here, but those were difficult times for those scientists and their families, and it’s a memory I’m sure I won’t forget. Those Soviet cleanup and collaboration activities went very well and continued for several years.
In ‘97, I took a small team from Livermore to China to their nuclear weapons laboratory that sits outside of Mianyang – in the area of Chengdu. Hu Side was the head of that laboratory. Hu is still a key figure in their Chinese program today. We spent a couple days with them in inter-lab conversations similar to what was going on between Russian and the U.S. It wasn’t nearly as successful as our efforts had been with the Russians. The Russians seemed to have incentives to find common ground and work together with us. I didn’t feel that the Chinese felt that way. And indeed the closeout session in China, after we had spent a day or two in pretty friendly discussions, was actually somewhat contentious. Until that point our meetings had been rather casual. But before the closeout session they asked us to wait outside the conference room while they prepared the room for the meeting. When we came back in the atmosphere had changed dramatically to a very formal setting. There were national flags set up. We were arranged across the table from each other. There were TV cameras. And I really got attacked because they wanted access to our test site that hadn’t been granted. They wanted to know why we were participating with the French on laser programs but we weren’t participating with them. And they wanted to get to our hydrodynamics tests area in Livermore. And they were—there was just this whole list of perceived grievances that they presented. So nothing ever went anywhere from that.
And right after that, the Cox Report came out that said—Congressman Cox wrote a report on espionage that was quite critical of the Chinese, and so interlaboratory cooperation dried up. I did end up going back in 2006 and 2007, to a couple of trilevel Track II meetings that were jointly sponsored by Kings College and Tsinghua University together that brought the U.S., U.K., and the PRC together. These meetings were more conciliatory and addressed mutual interests in nuclear non-proliferation and were more about strategic cooperation for the future. They were not directed toward establishing interlaboratory collaboration.
And then I went back to Beijing again in 2015 with Nuclear Threat Initiative, Sam Nunn’s organization in Washington, to do a tabletop exercise with the Chinese. We played roles in a nuclear smuggling—a hypothetical nuclear smuggling scenario. We each played roles of officials in our respective governments, and envisioned how the two governments would interact in response to such an incident. The objective was to use lessons learned from the exercise to inform a protocol for the two countries to work together in the event of a real incident.
I participated in a similar tabletop exercise with Sam Nunn and his NTI folks in 2011 in Moscow as well. They had Igor Ivanov, a former foreign minister, and we had Sam Nunn of course, and several other ex-officials from each of our governments. It was an excellent workshop. But my impression is that most of the Track II engagements with Russia and China are pretty much on hold these days.
Right. Well, Bob, I think at this point, you know, now that we’ve brought your career up to the present, I want to ask a few retrospective questions. I’ll come back to, you know, in the beginning when you said you might be the most unlikely physicist in the world, which is a—it’s a pretty remarkable story in terms of the all of the things you’ve been involved in, all the things you’ve accomplished, and, you know, where you come from and how this all started. It’s pretty inspiring, I have to say.
Well, thank you. Thank you.
What do you see—I’ll sort of separate these out into sort of science and policy because your career sort of naturally suggests that kind of categorization. So I was waiting through the talk for like that moment when you realized, you know, you weren’t sort of an intruder in physics, a beginner, a neophyte, somebody who was on the outside who didn’t come from an elite school or anything like that. I didn’t get that clear moment, and maybe that’s simply because it was a gradual process.
But clearly at some point, you are operating with—you know, you are operating on a level with people who came out of MIT, CalTech, and you were a peer to these people. When did you realize that that happened? When did you realize that your skills and abilities were up there with anybody’s?
Well, I guess I can think of that in a couple of ways. Looking for the “aha” moment in which I realized I was a peer of world-class research scientists who had come out of elite physics schools like MIT and CalTech. I never was the scientific peer of those guys. I was neither trained for nor on a path toward basic research. I believe I could have stayed on my path of applied research at Livermore and done OK. That’s essentially what I was doing for my first decade or so at the Lab. However, I think my personality traits just naturally led me more toward the intersection of science and policy and working with people. And in that arena I guess my career did gradually evolve to where I became a peer of scientists who chose similar paths. I don’t ever remember feeling that I didn’t belong in my seat at whatever table I was sitting.
Well, but you did say had you stayed in research, you could’ve accomplished it. So that’s the point. At a certain—you know, as an undergraduate, that probably would’ve been inconceivable to you?
Yeah, as a 20-year old undergraduate all of that would have been too foreign for me to even envision. I guess my drawn out education process and the fact that my schooling overlapped with my professional development over so many years caused my professional growth to be subtle to me – no “aha” moments. I don’t even remember the awarding of the PhD as having been a quantum change in anything. It all was just the next foot forward kind of thing.
What do you see as your principal contributions? I don’t want to make it an overly grandiose question. But, you know, you’re involved at the highest levels with making sure that the Cold War doesn’t devolve into a nuclear disaster, right? So what do you see as your principal contributions to ensuring that the Cold War never got hot and, you know, we wouldn’t be here having this conversation if it did?
Well, that is indeed grandiose, David, to even [laugh] presume to say that I played a role in not letting the Cold War get hot. [laugh] That’s pretty profound. But I do—this all gets uncomfortable. It sounds self, you know, self-aggrandizing or something to answer a question like this. I do recognize and have received considerable positive feedback about people skills, and the ability to listen, with an honest ear—an integrity of listening to others. So I think those skills probably have taken me a long way. I was trying to—I never thought about this until you came along, and I was trying to think how did I end up in all these different jobs that I have had? And I realized that I never applied for any job or position I have ever had. I mean, they—in all cases somebody contacted me first, “Please come do this.” Like being recruited to Livermore, “Come interview. We’d like to talk to you.” Every position at Livermore, NNSA, U.C., Los Alamos, always started with someone approaching me. I don’t know, maybe that’s common with everybody, not just me. But anyway, I felt good about that when I looked back and realized how it all played out. I’m not sure I see a theme though, frankly, about why that happened, other than perhaps people skills and respect for others. That’s my guess. But whatever the reason, it’s been a satisfying ride.
Well, I think what’s clear, there’s obviously the would have, could have if you had stayed in research, what would you have been able to achieve. But there is also the, well, what did you actually do? And there, as your emphasis on people is concerned, right, you couldn’t have accomplished the things that you did without an innate understanding of how people work, what they need, how you reach consensus, how you get the most out of people. It’s almost like you came to executive management by way of physics. And then that’s where your greatest contributions are.
Well, I guess that’s right. Maybe that and some luck and timing. I would’ve never gotten in those doors at Livermore with the physics background I had at the time if it wasn’t for the fact that the Russians broke the nuclear testing moratorium – and they were scrambling for physicists. But your conclusion is an interesting observation. I came to executive management by way of physics.
And, Bob, I’ll remind you what you said right at the beginning of our talk when I asked about the politics of your parents, you had a very interesting answer. You said you were taught to listen to other people. That was the big emphasis. You want to see where other people are coming from. I have no doubt that your parents might not have had even a—more than a high school education, but they taught you something profound. And it served you well throughout the course of your career.
I’m sure you’re right, David, and I’m sure they even gave me a lot more that I don’t realize. I’m glad they were around long enough to at least see me get the PhD – even if they never did quite understand what it meant nor what a physicist actually did. My mother even started addressing personal letters to me with “Dr” on the envelope.
—let me ask you one last question. It’s a forward-looking question. But obviously it’s based on all of your work in national security and nuclear weapons, you know. Obviously, just because the Cold War is over, it doesn’t mean that the world doesn’t remain a very dangerous place, specifically with nuclear weapons. What do you see as the greatest threat to nuclear security, and where do you see American leadership to ensure that nuclear war continues to be a historical relic from 1945?
Can I think about that one for a minute or two?
Absolutely, for sure.
OK, well. During the Cold War there were two great powers, two sides, east versus west, a nuclear standoff. I personally could never quite believe that either of those sides would actually start a suicidal nuclear conflagration. And the outcome of the Cuban missile crisis seemed to confirm that to me. Maybe I was Pollyanna. Now we have nine nuclear-armed states, maybe a tenth one soon. We have several geopolitical intersections of conflict that involve nuclear weapons, India-Pakistan, China-India, North and South Korea, maybe in the mid-east soon, and we still have the east versus west thing going. We also have a growing blending of nuclear with conventional warfare, e.g., Russia’s apparent policy of considering use of small nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict, and the United States’ response of reintroducing small nuclear weapons into our stockpile. And we have a rush to build more advanced offensive and defensive nuclear capabilities. I believe the collective stability over all of these geopolitical conflicts is much more tenuous than in the Cold War. Perhaps the greatest threat to nuclear security these days might be the possibility of a miscalculation by one of the many parties now involved with nuclear weapons. I don’t think we can rely on that simpler two-sided Mexican Standoff thing we had going in the Cold War. I’m not nearly as optimistic.
Where is American leadership though to ensure or at least to help preserve that stability?
Well, I think right now we’re in a very unfortunate and hopefully temporary transition —I mean, I don’t think we should use the last few years as an example of what America’s leadership can and will be as we continue to work with allies and even adversaries into the future. I predict, and certainly hope for a much more principled, credible and consistent U.S. leadership role going forward—
You’re referring to the many ways that President Trump has overturned political and cultural norms?
Yes, you know, it’s just not leadership at all at this moment. Our global role has become inconsistent and divisive. It is not supporting any global order that we’ve come to believe in. I’m optimistic that America will restore an appropriate and respected leadership role with our allies in the near future.
Well, on that note, Bob, I want to thank you so much for spending the time with me. It’s been—it’s not only been a lot of fun but it’s been very important that we’ve gotten these memories to the historical record. So I really appreciate it.
Well, David, thank you. I’ve enjoyed it.