Sig Hecker

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ORAL HISTORIES

Credit: Rod Searcey

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
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Remote Interview
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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:

Interview of Sigfried Hecker by David Zierler on July 30, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/45445

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In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP interviews Siegfried Hecker, Professor Emeritus with the Department of Management Science and Engineering, and Senior Fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Security and Cooperation, at Stanford University. Hecker recounts his family background as the child of ethnic Austrian and German parents who lived in Bosnia at the outbreak of World War II. He describes his family’s ordeal during the war and the circumstances surrounding his mother’s decision to move the family to the United States. Hecker recounts his experiences growing up in Cleveland and his decision to attend Case Tech for his undergraduate education. He explains his decision to switch his focus from physics to metallurgy, his formative summer at Los Alamos Lab before returning to Case for his Ph.D. work, and his decision to return to Los Alamos for postdoctoral research in metallurgy and elastic to plastic transitions. He describes his work at the General Motors Research Lab and his decision to return once again to Los Alamos, where he was assured he could focus on science and not management issues. Hecker explains how he became more involved in plutonium research and the various national security implications of this work. He describes his rise in the ranks at Los Alamos and how he became involved in national policy decisions in Washington. Hecker recounts the circumstances leading to being named director of Los Alamos, and he reflects on the challenges and opportunities he saw to improve the lab in this position. He provides an overview of nuclear weapons policy at the end of the Cold War and the renaissance in plutonium research in the 1990s. Hecker reflects on his decision to join the faculty at Stanford, and why he wanted to pursue matters of international security studies, and he describes his record of advisory work on nuclear verification in North Korea and elsewhere. At the end of the interview, Hecker describes his ongoing interest and research in metallurgy, and he reflects on how these interests bring him back full circle to the origins of his career. 

Transcript

Zierler:

Okay. This is David Zierler, Oral Historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is July 30th, 2020. I am so happy to be here with Professor Siegfried S. Hecker. Sig, thank you so much for joining me today. 

Hecker:

It's my great pleasure, David. 

Zierler:

So, to start, would you tell me your current title and institutional affiliation?

Hecker:

I'm Professor (Research) Emeritus with the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford, and Senior Fellow with the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford. It's a long title.

Zierler:

When did you go emeritus?

Hecker:

That was three years ago. I still continue to teach. I still continue to essentially work full time, but I was officially emeritus. 

Zierler:

Physicists never retire, you know?

Hecker:

They just fall away. 

Zierler:

Let's take it all the way back to the beginning, the remarkable origin of your life. First, let's start with your parents. Tell me a little bit about your parents, and where they are from. 

Hecker:

My parents lived in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in the late 1930s. Bosnia was an Austrian protectorate, so they were of Austrian and German heritage. They lived in Sarajevo, got married in Sarajevo, and then in the early 1940s, my father, whose name was Heinrich Hecker, was drafted into the German Army. He was sent to Poland. Actually, at that time, of course, it was all part of the Third Reich. They had taken over. But he was sent to what now is Poland, to work in a German Army factory. The women and children were allowed to go along. My mother was along, my older brother was along, and it turned out, by accident of the war, that I was actually born in Poland in October of 1943.  

Zierler:

How did your parents, or their family -- how did people of Austrian descent get to Sarajevo?

Hecker:

That's a long story, but it turns out, Austria was a huge empire, and sort of had spread its wings through much of Central Europe. Then, it became the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it had enclaves, protectorates, in many parts of Central Europe. The ones I know the most about is my mother's family. My mother's family, once upon a time, went from the Vienna area, and they were settled into a place called the Bukovina, which is in today's Romania. That was also an Austro-Hungarian protectorate. So, what the Kaiser, Franz Joseph of Austria did, he sent his people out into the hinterlands, to sort of settle and educate the natives, so to speak. So, my grandparents got land out in Romania. Then, they wound up getting a better deal in Bosnia. So, they moved from Romania to Bosnia and they had a farm in Bosnia. My mother was born in Sarajevo. My father was also born close by, but I don't actually know the full origins of how part of his family got there. After the war, we lost complete touch with his family. 

Zierler:

What were your parents' mother tongues?

Hecker:

Oh, it was German. 

Zierler:

So, they spoke to each other in German. 

Hecker:

Yeah. My father's name was Heinrich Hecker, and my mother's name was Maria Schaller, her maiden name. Very, very German names. 

Zierler:

Did you understand them to be assimilated into Bosnian culture, or not?

Hecker:

They were Austrian-German in Bosnia. The whole Bosnia Herzegovina, as it was called, of course, was predominantly Muslim. Although, actually, I remember my mother called them Turks. She never called them Muslims. They were called Turks, going back to the Ottoman Empire. Then, they had Yugoslavs of various types. Yugoslavia was a combination of Croatian, Serbia, Slovenia, and Bosnia Herzegovina. So, they were pretty much in a German speaking enclave, and they lived close -- my mother used to tell me this funny sounding name of a town called Banja Luka. It never meant much to me until the 1990s, when they had these enormous atrocities where the Serbs killed so many Bosnians. So, my grandparents had a farm close to Banja Luka, and that's where my mother grew up. She only got as much as a second grade education, it turns out. 

Zierler:

And your first language was German, as well?

Hecker:

It was really my only language, until I came to the United States. I dabbled in other languages, but my mother tongue is German. 

Zierler:

How did your family fare during the war? Were they mostly safe? Were they ever in danger?

Hecker:

Well, it was worse than that. My father never returned from the war. So, after I was born in '43, by early 1944, things got pretty bad for the German Army on the Russian front. My father was drafted, as I mentioned, and he was actually sent to the Russian front. At that time, in early '44, they then told the families to go back where they came from. It turns out, my mother was there with my grandparents on her side, and then my father's mother was also there. So, my mother and grandparents, along with my brother, who was five years older than I was, and I as an infant, my mother tried to get us back to Bosnia. My father's mother then tried to get back to somewhere in the Stuttgart area in Germany. Then, my mother, eventually, never made it back to Bosnia, because by that time, things had gotten pretty rough for German speaking people in what was Yugoslavia, in particular, in relation to the Serbs. So, when she tried to get back to Bosnia, that didn't work. She tried to go to Croatia, because there were segments of Croatia that were actually aligned with the Germans, and that didn't work. So, she wound up in Slovenia, in a little mining town close to the big city of Ljubljana, and that's where she spent a good part of '44, and into '45. My father came home from the front the Christmas of 1944. That's the last time my mother saw him. It turns out, my little sister was born nine months later, still in Slovenia, in August of 1945. That's when things got pretty tough for all German speaking people throughout all of Yugoslavia. My mother, then, made the trek back up to Austria proper, at least what was left of Austria after the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the Germans had annexed Austria in 1938, a little part of Austria was left, what I call Austria proper, which had nine provinces. The province that we moved to was called the Steiermark, or Styria in English. So, that's where we wound up in September of 1945, with nothing. Absolutely nothing. No money, just the clothes on our back, and my mother was happy that we were able to escape. Her parents, at that time, were rather aged, so she was helping them. She, by that time, had three kids, and it was a tough, tough time for her. It's just remarkable that she was able to make it back. Then, she waited for my father, and my father was missing in action. So, he never came back. He never officially was declared dead. He was just missing in action, and in most likelihood, was killed somewhere in retreat from the Russian front. 

Zierler:

So, as far as you know, your father saw combat. 

Hecker:

Oh, absolutely. Not only as far as I know. There was no question. He came back once, as I mentioned, in the Christmas of 1944, and my mother had heard from him when he was retreating in combat, somewhere up in the Baltics, and then disappeared. 

Zierler:

Of course, you must not have any memory of your father. 

Hecker:

No, no. Only the photos.

Zierler:

After the war, how did your mother care for her family?

Hecker:

Well, it's quite a tragic story, actually. She had to go to work to support us. So, she worked in a steel factory in a little town called Rottenmann in the Steiermark. It was a little town in the Alps, in the mountains, in Austria. She went to work, and my grandparents helped out somewhat, to watch my brother and myself, but my infant sister, that was really difficult. It turned out, my infant sister, then, was taken in by my mother's brother and his wife. They didn't have any children, and they had indicated that they would take care of her until she could get her feet on the ground. Well, the sad part of all of that is eventually, they took my sister and immigrated to Germany. She grew up with them, and she still, to this day, lives in Germany. She never grew up with our family. My brother did, and my brother eventually was the reason we wound up in the United States. In 1956, at the age of 18, he said, "I'm going to America. That's where the good life is." My mother's other brothers and sisters, the ones that did come back from the war, wound up immigrating to the United States. So, he left in the summer of 1956. By that time, my mother had remarried, and she convinced her husband, my step-father, to move to the United States. So, we arrived in New York Harbor on December 19th, 1956. 

Zierler:

Sig, I wonder if your early exposure to international politics would have played a formative role in your later thinking. What do you remember from the Cold War, during your early childhood in Austria? 

Hecker:

Actually, Austria, of course, during the war was a terrible, terrible time. But after the war, Austria had it pretty good. It managed to get its act together pretty quickly, except, until 1955, it was divided into four sectors. It was occupied. The four sectors were the American, the Brits, the French, and the Russians. The sort of things that I remember growing up, from the age of not quite two until 13 when I left, we lived in renovated army barracks. Sort of renovated -- what I mean by that is they changed it from military to house families. It had no running water, and no central heat. So, they really were barracks. You talk about memories of the war, that was an everyday memory. We were in that part of town that had these army barracks. In addition to memories, occasionally, I would see some American soldiers drive through the town. Not very often, but occasionally. We were in the American sector, so we were fortunate. Then, in 1953, my mother was remarried already, and my step-father worked for the United Steel of Austria. They were allowed to send their kids to summer camp, so I was sent to summer camp at the age of not quite 10, to Vienna. Vienna itself, like the rest of Austria, was divided into four sectors. That's why I remember the Russians marching through Vienna.

Quite frankly, one of my memories, that I then had to get over later on in life, is I had no use for the Russians. I hated the Russians because my father, the best that I knew, was killed by the Russians in the war. Then, they were occupying Austria, and the Austrians did not appreciate that. We welcomed the Americans, sort of tolerated the French, welcomed the Brits, and hated the Russians. And then, by an incredible stroke of international diplomacy, the Russians decided to pull out in 1955, and gave Austria its full independence. So, I would say the impact it had later on is first, the memories of the war -- of course, I was too young, but they were told by my mother and step-father, who also was drafted into the German Army from Austria proper. From the few male teachers that I had, because quite frankly, most men in Austria never came back -- I had mostly women teachers. But the few men that came back had these horrendous stories of war on the Russian front. So, those memories were pretty harsh memories. The other thing, I would say, that actually then served me well later on in life, particularly in international relations, was that I grew up in Austria. So, I walked in somebody else's shoes, not only in American shoes by the time I came here. To have an appreciation, how different people think differently. Different cultures and different histories are really important when you think about the world as such. So, by the time I finally grew up, I did a lot of international things, I viewed the international scene very differently than most Americans might. 

Zierler:

Was the prospect of coming to the United States exciting to you as a boy?

Hecker:

Well, what I remember most, actually, was the tragedy of my brother leaving. He was five years older. That's quite an age difference, but we were close enough that when he left, that was sort of one of the tragic moments of my life. I still remember when we took him over to the train station, because that's the only way you could get in and out. I was in a car maybe a few times my entire life up to 13 years old. So, when we took him to the train station, I climbed up on the tree, and I refused to say goodbye, and I cried. So, at that point, my mother decided I'm going to America. So, when that decision was made, that was really exciting, because among other things, America was looked at as this incredible country. In addition to all the freedoms and everything, over in Europe, it was also known as the country where dollars grew on trees. It was the land of opportunity, and my brother would write back from the United States. He'd send us pictures of a car that he bought, for heaven's sakes, a few months after he was there. He was trained as a house painter, and it turns out, he really was trained as such in vocational school. So, he was just superb. He was actually quite an artist. So, he found a job right away, bought a car, sent us a picture. So, yeah, it was exciting to come to the United States.

Zierler:

What do you remember most vividly from your trip to the United States, and when you first got to this country?

Hecker:

Getting in the boat, the USS General Langfitt, that was really something. It was the first time that I saw a lot of colored people, as we called them back in those days. During my entire time in Rottenmann, in Austria, I'd seen two black people walk through town once, and that was it. On the boat, which was an old, re-outfitted warship, there were lots of colored people working on the boat. It was actually a great way to intermingle, the friendliness, and all of that. So, I remember that, and I also remember getting seasick. It was a terrible time. My father and I were put together in a place where it was really rough. My mother and my little sister, it turns out -- I have another half-sister who was born, a child of my mother and my step-father. They had a much better cabin, so I remember being seasick. Then, of course, what I really remember is getting into New York Harbor, getting out, taking the train to Cleveland, Ohio. 

Zierler:

What was your mom's plan? How was she going to support herself in Cleveland?

Hecker:

That wasn't at all clear. My father was going to go to work. He had a lot of experience in steel factories, actually an open hearth furnace steel factory in a town close by where we lived in Austria. But my father -- my step-father was a jack of all trades. He basically knew how to do every trade that you could possibly imagine. So, through my relatives in Cleveland, they fixed us up with the second story of a house for rent. They helped my step-father to get a job in the construction industry in Cleveland. My mother also went to work in a car radio factory, a place called Tenatronics. She was there helping to assemble transistors and things for car radios. So, they both went to work. My brother had a job, and I went to school. 

Zierler:

How quickly did you pick up English, or did you have any before you got to the United States?

Hecker:

I had English in the last couple of years in Austria. I took English from a woman English teacher who spent the war years in London. So, she spoke with a British accent. We didn't really learn much English. Nevertheless, when I came to Cleveland, this was, as I mentioned, around Christmastime. So, in January, it was time to go to school. What they had in Cleveland is they had one of the high schools that they would give special classes to teach immigrants how to speak English. Cleveland was full of immigrants. Actually, we moved into a neighborhood that was predominantly immigrants: Polish, German, Croatian, Serbian, Slovenian, Hungarian. So, my mother basically said, "Look, you took English in Austria. You don't need to go to this school. I want you to go right onto whatever is appropriate." Turns out, that was junior high school. I still remember, in January, walking up to the junior high school. It was called Addison Junior High School. I went in to talk to the assistant principal, and they gave me an English test. They said, "Could you look outside and tell us what it's doing?" I said, "It is raining outside." So, I knew that much. Of course, in Cleveland, most of the time it rains outside, so that was quite simple. So, they said, "Okay, that's good enough." So, I went right to the second half of 8th grade at Addison Junior High School. From there, I still did 9th grade, and then went on to East High School in the inner parts of Cleveland, Ohio, from which I graduated in 1961,

Zierler:

Sig, were you a standout student in math and science in high school? Was your aptitude readily apparent at that point?

Hecker:

I thought I was pretty smart, yeah. I was valedictorian. I won the French medal. That was something. The science medal, the math medal, I don't know how many other medals. So, yes, I was a standout student at East High School. Actually, what was more interesting, which may have had a greater impact on my life later on, I was also elected class president. So, you can imagine. Here's this kid that's still trying to learn how to speak English properly, and I get elected class president, in spite of the fact that I voted against myself. That's really not what I thought I should be doing. At any rate, I won all those things. I had a 3.9 something grade point average. I got a B in typing, even though it was the most useful class I took in all of East High School, as it turned out later. East High School was not a terribly good high school, but that's where we lived, and of course, we couldn't afford anything else. So, then, I applied to Harvard. I got put on the wait list. I applied to, at that time it was still called Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, close by. Of course, now it's Carnegie Mellon University. And I applied to Case Tech, which was the home school, now Case Western Reserve University. I got accepted to both of those, and I got a scholarship to go to Case. We had no money, and there was no way we could pay for anything. So, I got a scholarship to go to Case, and I stayed at home. Therefore, didn't have to pay room and board. So, that was Case.

Eventually, I actually also got word that I could come to Harvard, but by that time it was too late. We didn't have the money. I did sort of have my eye on Harvard, because a kid coming into the United States, the one university that was known was Harvard University. Turns out, I went to Case Tech. During the first semester, after the first series of tests, I found out that I wasn't so smart after all. That is, I just bombed out in chemistry, physics, and calculus. However, that, then, is when I really made up my mind. I know how to do this. In particular, I was up against kids who came from the private schools, particularly the Catholic high schools around Cleveland. They have much, much better training. By the time I graduated, I caught up to them.

 

Zierler:

Did you go in knowing you were going to focus on math and science, or were you sort of open minded, generally, about your education at first?

Hecker:

No, in high school already, it was quite clear the things I really enjoyed were math and physics, particularly. Chemistry was okay, but I wasn't all that interested. So, I went to Case, and since I started in 1961, that was still a time when nuclear physics was sort of at the top of the pyramid, the scientific ladder, even though it really changed over to high energy physics. But from what I knew as a high school student, nuclear physics was it. So, I went to Case with the idea that I was going to study nuclear physics. So, I actually entered and joined the physics department. That's where I spent my first couple of years at Case. 

Zierler:

What was your major? What did you focus on?

Hecker:

The major was physics for the first two years. By that time, I was doing well. I had figured out how to study better, how to learn, how to get good test scores and get good grades. However, what I found, in physics, the first two years, you don't learn much that's practical. The tradition in our family was the parents would take care of you through high school, and then you're out on your own. You've got to take care of yourself. That's certainly what happened with my brother, not because they didn't care for us, but they didn't have anything else. That was very much their European tradition. So, as I looked at it, I was able to get by financially because I had a scholarship. But I thought after four years I would have to get a job in order to support myself. From what I saw, there was nothing that I learned in physics those first two years that would help me get a job. 

Zierler:

Because it was all theoretical. 

Hecker:

Well, I mean, it was the introductory physics stuff, with which you just don't learn much that's useful. Those are the things you have to learn so you can get to the point where you can be useful. Well, with physics, I never got to that point, because I had a very good friend by the name of Bob Smialek who came from one of the Catholic high schools, St. Ignatius, and he did very, very well. He was in physics with me, and he said one day, near the end of our sophomore year, "Look, I was just over with the metallurgy materials department, and those guys really have interesting things that you can study over there. Some of them are useful." So, I went there and both Bob and I switched from physics to the metallurgy materials department. At that point I thought here I'm going to learn something that after four years I could go work in one of the steel research centers in Cleveland, one of the aluminum places, or in fact, the NASA Research Center, which is now called the Glenn Research Center. So, I switched over, and in my junior year, took a lot of the courses and learned a lot. I thought, this is really fun. Then, in my senior year, I had the fortune of having a professor with which Bob and I did a senior project together. He wasn't all that much older than we were. He had just come over from England, from Cambridge, and we joined his group. By the time we graduated with our bachelor's degree, we had a publication in Physica Status Solidi in 1965 on dislocation pileups in anisotropic crystals. We did all of the computer related work, and it was such great fun that at that time I decided this metallurgy materials business combines both a fundamental look, plus you learn something that's useful. So, at that point, I did decide I would go on to graduate school. 

Zierler:

Did you think about going elsewhere, or you liked Case and you wanted to stay put?

Hecker:

As far as Case goes, I was there for the first four years, and the decision as to what to do was shaped by two things. One is that as soon as I graduated, the few days later, I got married to my childhood sweetheart. Her name is Nina. She lived next door for a while, where we moved to on the east side of Cleveland before she moved out to the suburbs. She was also an immigrant. It turns out, it's sort of a peculiar family story. Here, I was Austrian, born in Poland. Well, she was Polish, born in Germany. Her farther had been taken prisoner by the German Army, but he'd managed to survive. Her mother also managed to survive. She was taken to Germany to help with housework as a maid. Anyway, she was my childhood sweetheart. We got married, and then the next day, we took off for my big summer job. That was at this place called the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, as it was called at that time. So, we drove our VW across the country. None of us had been west of Toledo, Ohio, before that time. It was quite an adventure, and we managed to get to Los Alamos, New Mexico. 

Zierler:

What year would this have been?

Hecker:

1965. I started undergraduate school in '61. Four years later I finished, so summer of '65 I spent in Los Alamos. We spent our honeymoon in Los Alamos. So, by that time, we decided we're going to have a family. We have to support a family. I went to graduate school, and I needed to do graduate school as quickly as you possibly can so that I could get a real job and support the family. That was then the decision for why to stay at Case. 

Zierler:

What were your impressions of Los Alamos at that early juncture?

Hecker:

The first impression of the area was one of bitter disappointment, because we were driving across eastern New Mexico, on the old Route 66, and it was brown. I grew up in green Austria, where the hills either were green, or mountains were white. One of the reasons I went to Los Alamos was because when I was looking for summer jobs, I saw a brochure in what was called Tomlinson Administrative Hall at Case that showed a brochure of Los Alamos with a ski mountain and ski runs. I said, "By God, that's where I want to go." I hadn't skied since I was 13, essentially. I went out a few times around Cleveland, but that wasn't much. So, it was green, and they had pictures of snow and skiing. So, I kept looking for that. I would look and we're now only 100 miles from this place, and there's nothing green anywhere around. We kept going, and it was brown, it was brown. We crossed the Rio Grande, which was mostly this muddy water running through. It was still no green, but then when we started up the side of these mesas where Los Alamos sits at spectacularly high 7,300 feet, then I started to be impressed. We went up to the local mountains, and it was just beautiful. I'm still sitting here in Santa Fe, just across the valley from Los Alamos. It's gorgeous country.

As far as the laboratory, it was sort of like a kid in the candy store. It was a most remarkable place. Not only all the equipment, and all the buildings. Of course, at that time in '65, and to a large extent still today, it has hundreds of old buildings. At that time, it was 20 years from the end of the Manhattan project. So, it had lots of old buildings. But you went inside, and they had everything. More importantly is they had people who knew something about everything: about physics, about chemistry, about metallurgy. All of the scientific and technical fields, Los Alamos had an expert on everything. Even biology, for that matter, which came in later, came in very handy as we worked on the human genome project when I was director. But that's another story. So, I was there for three months, and I had a grand time. It was so fantastic because within a week, it turned out, I was assigned a group that was doing plutonium metallurgy. Initially, in my offer letter, it said that I was going to do what are called APW calculations -- Augmented Plane Wave calculations for electronic structure of materials. However, before I came, they had hired a post doc to do that. So, that person no longer needed a summer intern, so somebody else took me on, and he worked in the plutonium metallurgy area. So, within a week of getting to Los Alamos, I had my hand in glove boxes, and I was doing experiments with life-sized chunks of plutonium. That, in the end, helped to shape much of the rest of my future.

 

Zierler:

Sig, it sounds like Los Alamos made an immediate impression on you in terms of its emphasis for basic science research across the board. 

Hecker:

Correct. That was what I walked away with. At that time, of course, I knew that Los Alamos was the birthplace of the bomb. It had the major responsibilities for design. Lawrence Livermore Laboratory had just come on pretty strong as a competitor for Los Alamos. So, I knew all that work was going on at Los Alamos, but that's not the work that I was doing. The work that I was doing related to plutonium was actually related to the fundamental properties of plutonium, so this was really fundamental scientific research. But what was so interesting and was actually one of the things that brought me back to Los Alamos, is that I was focused related to working with somebody who was doing basic measurements on the properties of plutonium, but at the same time, I also knew that they use plutonium. It had a practical application. It was that combination that Los Alamos demonstrated that you need fundamental science if you're going to tackle really difficult applied problems. So, that was the first time in my life that I realized that I like both the fundamental science end, and I also like to see whether it can be applied to real problems. Although, at that time, I would say I was still mostly focused, and I would go back to graduate school. Like most graduate students, then lined up being a university professor, because that's what my mentors were. But Los Alamos had a significant impact on what I eventually wound up doing. 

Zierler:

Returning to Case, in what ways did your experience at Los Alamos clarify the kind of science you wanted to pursue in graduate school?

Hecker:

There is a connection. That what I was doing in Los Alamos related to plutonium was actually associated with its mechanical properties and its formability and fracture. What I had done for my senior project was much more esoteric than that. It was computational stuff. So, when I came back to Case for graduate school, some of it is sort of the luck of the draw as to what professor has what sort of financial support to take in a graduate student. I managed to team up with one of the very well-established professors who was doing mechanical metallurgy, Professor Lynn Ebert. Since I had done some of that at Los Alamos, I thought that would be pretty challenging. I'm not sure I would have gone in that direction if I didn't have the experience at Los Alamos. 

Zierler:

How did you go about developing your dissertation topic?

Hecker:

First of all, this mechanical metallurgy had gone back into the whole history of Case. It had superb mechanical metallurgy for several decades already, and he came out of that school. This was now 1965, and what had become popular in the applied world were composite materials. Particularly, fiber composites, for all kinds of various things, whether you're talking about pressure vessels, golf clubs, tennis rackets, or airplane frames. So, he had a contract with Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton on composite materials. He said, "Hey, Sig, look, there's some really interesting problems on the mechanics end of composite materials. How do these composite materials, which is a combination of perhaps filamentary things like glass fibers or carbon fibers in a matrix material which could be metal or epoxy -- how do these perform under different states of stress? Does it matter whether you pull them, push them, twist them, pressurize them?" That was enough that I was able to identify and say, "Yeah, that's very interesting. I'll do a thesis to try to understand the response of composite materials to what we call multi-axial states of stress, more than just in a single dimension." I, then, pretty much laid out, with his general guidance -- that was one of the interesting things. He gave me all the rope I wanted. He basically said, "Look, you can define it. You can do this. If you need help, you ask me." So, I was not working on a piece of work that was his. I was working on something that was mine.

So, I helped to define it, and he helped to guide me. It was a combination of doing both experimental work and then a lot of analytical work. Particularly, to try to model how materials deform, and in the end, also how they fracture. Particularly, the way materials usually deform is there is an elastic region. You sort of pull on them. It's a little bit like a rubber band. You pull on it, and it springs back, so everything is reversible. But then, in most metals or alloys, you get to a point where they deform permanently. We call it plastic deformation, and eventually they break. So, we were interested in this elastic-plastic deformation of these composites. I developed a mechanics approach of doing elastic-plastic analysis. That was the main theoretical contribution of my work. Then, I made some very simple composites that allowed me to do the experimental work to check my analytical work. So, that's what I did for my master's from '65 to '67. Then, we had two daughters, and we saw this need to make more than $4,800 a year, which is what I was making as a lab instructor at Case. So, I then somehow managed to finish up by the fall of 1968, and I got my PhD at that time.

 

Zierler:

What fields in physics were most relevant for your graduate work?

Hecker:

In terms of my graduate work, I would say almost none. I can come back to this later. Not even electrons. Electrons, aside from nuclear physics and high energy physics, electrons govern everything. They do govern in the end whether metals deform, break, etc. But I never got down to the electron level. My more basic work was more from a mechanics standpoint. This was almost more mechanical engineering, the analysis, rather than physics. So, during my graduate work, there wasn't much of an application of physics at all. Let me just say, eventually, when we get to it, that changed dramatically with Los Alamos and plutonium. One of the fascinating experiences I had at Los Alamos -- plutonium metallurgy is the most complex element of anything in the whole world, and you cannot understand plutonium without understanding the physics. The physics, I didn't have to learn until I got to Los Alamos. 

Zierler:

You mention the consideration as an undergraduate, when you had your children --

Hecker:

As a graduate student when I had the children. 

Zierler:

Right, correct. Did you ever consider, given the fact that you were in an engineering program, metallurgy, obviously you were building skills that would be applicable in industry? Did you ever consider not pursuing an academic track or a national lab track, and going to work for a company?

Hecker:

Only peripherally, at that time. In Cleveland, I could have done that, because we had big aluminum companies, Alcoa, and we had Republic Steel, which had quite a substantial research laboratory there. Then, of course, we had lots of other industries. For example, after my junior year at Case, I spent the summer at Chase Brass and Copper Company doing metallurgy research. I could have gone back there at any time. I did not yet, at that point, consider industry seriously. Even though I had been at Los Alamos as a summer student, I was really looking to go into university and be a professor. However, and we can come back to this later, I did eventually think precisely that I would gain a lot by going into industry. I did, eventually, in 1970, to General Motors Research Laboratory. One of the reasons I did that is I actually wanted to broaden my horizon. I had spent time in academe, I spent time at the national labs, and the third part that was left was industry. So, I did go to industry. After those three, I had to decide what I had to do the rest of my life. But during graduate school, no. I knew I could have had a job in industry, but that's not where I wanted to go. Actually, in 1968, as soon as I got my PhD, I got my first offer to be Assistant Professor in Metallurgy and Mechanical Engineering at University of Illinois. It was 1968, so I was all of 24 years old. It was immensely tempting, but I wound up doing a post doc instead. 

Zierler:

It sounds like you couldn't wait to get back to Los Alamos.

Hecker:

Actually, it did work out that way. This offer in '68 was at University of Illinois. I had this job interview. The department chair, a person by the name of Professor Charlie Wert -- I went there, I interviewed, I looked at the labs and what had to be done. At dinner, he said, "Okay, Sig, I'm going to make you an offer. You can come as Assistant Professor, halftime metallurgy, halftime mechanical engineering." And then he went on, and he said, "Let me talk to you like a father. Don't take it. I'm offering this, but don't take it. My fatherly advice would be go do a postdoc. You're young. If you come here, you have to set up a lab. You have to go to NSF or someplace else to go funding. You have to teach courses. You're going to be bogged down immediately. Go do a postdoc. It's going to be the best time you have in your life, and besides that, in two years, I'll still offer you a job." So, I went across the street, and I interviewed with one of the really big-time metal physics professors by the name of Jack Gilman, who was of great dislocation fame. Dislocations are those imperfections in crystals that allows those crystals to deform. In other words, to make a metal plastic, for example. So, I interviewed with him. I was tempted, and then the Los Alamos folks called. They said, "Hey, Sig, why don't you come do a postdoc at Los Alamos?" So, my plan at that time was let's go, and my wife said, "I'm ready to go back to Los Alamos at any time." So, in 1968, I decided to take the postdoc position at Los Alamos. Besides that, they said, "You can come and do whatever you want, and we'll support it." So, I had laid out through my PhD research, as I mentioned, these ideas of elastic-plastic analysis, and I found these fundamental problems that would take these exquisite experiments to try and answer. So, I talked to Los Alamos folks and said, "Well, I need this testing machine, and this help on machining samples that are really delicate to machine." They said, "We can do any of that. You just come, and you do what you want to do." So, that was an offer I couldn't refuse. So, we wound up back in Los Alamos in 1968. I worked there until 1970, when eventually I went on to General Motors. 

Zierler:

Did you take this as an opportunity to continue on with your project from your dissertation, or did you see opportunity to pursue new projects at Los Alamos?

Hecker:

It was inspired by my PhD dissertation, but it was by no means a continuation. I was changing dramatically away from that to go chase some of the fundamental things that I felt were missing in the analytical part and the experimental part of studying plastic deformation. So, it allowed me to go beyond my dissertation. I left the dissertation behind. I didn't do anything else on composite materials. I switched over. Particularly, what I was doing was, as I mentioned, there's this boundary between elastic reversible and plastic or permanent deformation. In one direction, if you pull on a sample, that's pretty easy to see where that transition is. However, my interest in the composites were in multi-axial. What about complex stresses, and how does that boundary look in complex stress space, in three-dimensions, in essence? So, that's what I wanted to go and do. It took these exquisite experiments. There were only a few people in the United States that had done those kinds of experiments. At that point, actually, none of them were doing it anymore. They hadn't answered the questions. So, I went to Los Alamos and said, "I need to build this piece of equipment to be able to take very thin-walled tubes, and be able to pull them, push them, and internally pressurize them, and then do these exquisite measurements of how the sample responds, and how it goes from the elastic to the plastic transition. Los Alamos helped me build all of those things. I did the experiments and it was just a terrific time. 

Zierler:

Were you essentially a one-man show on this? Were you part of a group?

Hecker:

Oh, no, no. It was totally by myself. There was nobody else that had that interest at Los Alamos. The group part was only that I needed the electronics people, mechanical engineers, and machinists to do all of these things. For example, one of the publications I got out of that was a joint publication with a machinist in how to machine these thin-walled cylindrical tubes that you could then go ahead and pressurize, and pull, and push. This machinist was so fantastic that with his skills in machining and my knowledge in metallurgy, we were able to make these things in such a way that you actually measured the real properties rather than something you had mangled up in a machining lab. 

Zierler:

How wide a view did you get of Los Alamos during your post doc time there? Were you able to get a broader exposure to what was going on at the lab generally, or were you mostly just in your own little corner?

Hecker:

The building that I worked in was actually called the Chemistry Metallurgy Research Building. It was the biggest and most modern plutonium facility, built in 1952. It was immense. It had seven different wings, three stories, and so there was lots of activity going on throughout that entire building. I was able to familiarize myself with quite a bit of it. But particularly, what was in Wing 2, which is the wing that I worked in. The people in Wing 2 did plutonium metallurgy and chemistry and physics research. I became quite familiar with what they did. I became friends with a number of the colleagues there. That eventually helped to shape my coming back to Los Alamos after General Motors. As far as the rest of the laboratory, I certainly got a great sense of the computational capabilities at the lab. Los Alamos and Livermore were the two places in the entire country that had the best computing capabilities in the 1960s. I paid almost no attention to the nuclear weapons program, so I knew very little. I must confess, I didn't pay all that much attention to the history, even, of the nuclear weapons program. In fact, it was just last week that I ran across an interview with J. Robert Oppenheimer done in 1965. I must confess, until a week ago, I hadn't seen this interview. Actually, the interviews with Robert Oppenheimer are rather rare. He gave that in '65, almost at the time I was in Los Alamos. He was in Princeton at that time. I wish I would have seen that in '65, because he laid out the challenge of plutonium when they asked him to go back to the Manhattan Project. He essentially said the plutonium was not a cozy metal. It never sat still. It was hot, it was radioactive. You couldn't touch it. Its properties were so difficult. If I had read that then, maybe I would have gotten into plutonium research earlier. So, I knew what was going on around me, but I would say I was not deeply involved in anything else at Los Alamos besides the research they allowed me to do. That changed dramatically when I went back in 1973, as a staff member. 

Zierler:

Right. Were you thinking about pursuing full-time work directly out of the postdoc at Los Alamos, or were you looking for another postdoc experience, and to continue on that track?

Hecker:

So, Los Alamos, 1968-70. First of all, at Los Alamos, the rule at that time was not to let postdocs stay, which is very interesting. Later when I became director, I changed that around significantly because what I found is the postdoc route was our best mechanism for recruiting the best and the brightest. Why send them on? But at that time, the general sense was that postdocs should move on. That probably goes back to the earlier days when postdocs were physicists, and in physics, you want to move on from the school that you did your PhD to go someplace else. You do one postdoc; you go do another postdoc someplace else. Well, in my business of metallurgy, there was no way I was going to do a second postdoc. That postdoc, that was it.

Now I have two years of research under my belt, and I was looking for a job. So, there's University of Illinois. That was very nice of Charlie Wert to say that he would hire me again, but my wife didn't think the cornfields of Urbana-Champagne would be a really nice place to raise our kids and to live. So, the first thought I had was to go down the pike to Sandia National Laboratories. I thought about that for a while, but then I was still drawn to universities. So, I went and interviewed at Columbia University in 1970. One of their main old-time mechanics professors was retiring, so his position was open. And then, I also went from there out to Stonybrook. They had a very good metallurgy, metal physics program out there. That's when I had the thought, maybe if there was ever a time that I could get experience in the third sector besides academe, national labs, and industry, I should take a look at industry. So, somehow, that got me to General Motors Research Laboratory. So, I wound up interviewing at General Motors Research in 1970 in one area that was called manufacturing development. So, that would have been more of my mechanics background, and looking at manufacturing. The other one was in the physics department, and the physics department said, "Look, you've been doing all these really interesting things on plastic deformation. We'll buy you whatever equipment you'll need." So, I told them at that time that I not only needed something that I could push, pull, and internally pressurize, but I want to twist it, to really have multi-axial stress states. There are electrohydraulic machines that can do that, but they're quite expensive. And they essentially said, "We'll buy you one. However, we would like you also to take a look at something that's relevant to our product. That is, not only the onset of plastic deformation, but large plastic deformations, like you do in sheet metal forming." So, I said, "That sounds pretty interesting." So, that's when I decided to postpone the academe, and to go ahead and go into industry. I had one more potential for academe later on, before Stanford in 2005, but that was later on. So, at that time, I did the work of General Motors. I had a grand, grand time working at General Motors, because again, they provided everything I could need. I had lots of help. There, I had more of a group of people that worked together, and I had this combination of having quite fundamental research on the deformation of materials and the application with sheet metal forming. I would actually go out to the sheet metal stamping plants in Ohio and other places as well as do my research in the laboratory. I was able to meet up and work with other people at GM Research that did more of the mechanics analysis and the computer analysis. By that time, I was doing mostly the experimental work. It was a great combination of being able to do research and to do something practical. 

Zierler:

Was your sense at GM going on, and perhaps was it confirmed after you got there, that the lab there was modeled on a Bell Labs kind of program where your work wasn't necessarily related to what might eventually become something that was profitable to the company, or was there a closer connection there?

Hecker:

It was nothing like Bell Labs, or like IBM Labs in those years. In fact, not even much in the metallurgy world. The most respected laboratory for many years was the Edgar C. Bain Laboratory at U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh. It wasn't that fundamental either, and it wasn't like General Electric. General Motors had more of the history of doing applied research, and rather little fundamental research. The auto industry, the one that had the better reputation for fundamental research was called the Ford Scientific Staff. It was really the Ford Research Laboratory. However, what was happening at General Motors is they were trying to change that in the early '70s. I was part of that change, and that's what attracted me to go to General Motors. They wanted to build up a more fundamental research part of General Motors. Turns out, they wound up doing so. They did some beautiful work on magnets, for example, on the rare Earth magnets, as well as many other things. 

Zierler:

Did you consider staying on at GM? Was that a possibility for you?

Hecker:

Well, yes, I considered it. They took very good care of me. They really very much wanted me to stay. I was there only for three years, but after not quite two years, they actually gave me a company car to drive as part of the incentive. It was part of their fuel study program. So, I drove what in Detroit was called a Deuce and a Quarter. That's the Electra 225, this huge boat of a car. The only thing I had to do was I had to bring it into the garage every week or so to get it refilled with a certain type of gasoline, because they were doing studies of the effect of the gasoline on engine performance. I said, "Okay, I can do that." So, it was just great. There were two things that prompted me to go. One is they really wanted to push me into a management direction, and as I looked around, most of the people that had made it at GM Research were up in management. There were very few people who stayed on as card-carrying scientists just doing their science or their engineering.

At that time, I was not quite 30 years old, and I said, "This management stuff is not for me. I don't want to do that. They're pushing me in that direction when I don't want to go that way." That was one. The second one was my wife did not like the Detroit area. Having been at Los Alamos and comparing, she just said, "Look, in raising the kids --" So, by the time we were there at General Motors it turns out we had our third daughter, so now we had three little kids. So, we said Los Alamos would be a much better place to raise them. They would call me every few months and say, "Are you ready to come back?" I would say the third piece that was also important was my skiing. During my postdoc time, I was able to ski for two winters. Every kid that grows up in Austria wants to be a skier, and actually that's what I wanted to be when I was a kid. I wanted to be a professional skier. So, being able to get back and ski was attractive, so we put all of those things together and after three years we packed our bags, bought a GM SUV, a Chevy Blazer, and headed west. 

Zierler:

Once again, Los Alamos is too good to turn down. Sig, when you had left after your initial postdoc, did you leave on the basis that they would remain interested in you and you would take your opportunity elsewhere, and then always retain that option to return?

Hecker:

The folks at Los Alamos, indeed, the ones in my group and my division certainly had that plan. Their idea was to bring me back. The reason I was leaving is because it was this general lab idea that you move on after the post doc. Again, part of that was guided by the fact that they thought that would be a good thing for the individual to get other experience. But their idea all along was that I should come back. Indeed, the first few years, every six months they'd call and say, "Are you ready to come back?" And I'd say, "I just got here." But then in 1973, I came out for a ski vacation with a colleague of mine from General Motors, and they wanted me to make sure to come by and check with me to see if I'd be willing to come back as a technical staff member. That was in February timeframe, so we worked it out that by the fall I was back at Los Alamos. 

Zierler:

Sig, we're over the hour mark, so this is probably a good time to do a five-minute intermission. 

Hecker:

Yeah, let's do that. 

Zierler:

Okay, I'll see you back in five. 

Zierler:

Welcome back. Sig, I'm curious, had you stayed at Los Alamos, right? If there was that opportunity for you to stay like what you instituted later on, would it have been a slower trajectory than when you reentered Los Alamos in terms of your job title and responsibility?

Hecker:

I'm not sure of that. At a place like Los Alamos, the trajectories are very different than, for example, at university. So, it's not clear. It just would have depended what I got into, what opportunities were there. But let me tell you, in the university arena, the trajectories of where you've been and what you've done are really important. For example, I mentioned to you in 1968, I had this offer of assistant professorship at University of Illinois that I didn't take. Then, I explored in 1970, again, assistant professor at Columbia and at Stonybrook. We never got to the point of entertaining actual offers. So, I went to General Motors, and 1973 went back to Los Alamos. In 1975, I actually had an offer to go to Michigan Tech from Los Alamos to be Department Head. So, I can tell you, had I gone to Michigan Tech in either '70, or '73, there's no way I would have been full professor and department head in 1975 timeframe. So, trajectories and how you zigzag around are important in the academe world. In the industrial world, and in the national labs, it's a different situation. So, the bottom line is, I don't think it made that much difference. It didn't hurt, but also, I came back to Los Alamos because I didn't want to do management. That's what GM was pushing me towards. If you're talking about trajectory, my rise through the management levels, and eventually up to directorship, that's not what I had in mind in Los Alamos. So, none of that came by design. I went back to Los Alamos to follow my scientific and engineering passions, not to become a manager.

Zierler:

So, what was your first job back at Los Alamos?

Hecker:

Los Alamos is such a fantastic place, so I went back to the same group. I was there for the summer job for the post doc, and so I was just a technical staff member at Los Alamos. We had no gradations among technical staff members. We were all technical staff members. I happened to be a young technical staff member, but I was still a technical staff member. They told me I could still follow whatever my passions were in terms of this mechanical behavior of materials, but they said, "Could you also take a look at plutonium and uranium? Those nuclear materials are important to us -- in addition to doing your research." So, when I went back, I was a technical staff member. I essentially had carte blanche as to what to do that was related to metallurgy, but with a general understanding that I would move into the nuclear materials arena and take a look at what could be done. So, that's what I did. There was nobody that specifically channeled me someplace. It was much more that I came back, and they were happy to have me back, and they said, "Look, why don't you take a look around?" That's really where I was able to fulfill my passion of bringing the fundamental together with the applied.

The most important applied work at Los Alamos obviously was the nuclear weapons business. So, I started to get involved on the nuclear weapons end, from a standpoint of the materials part, because that's what I knew something about. So, then I tried to take my understanding of materials and sort of move over into the plutonium world. That's when I learned that I had to do much more physics, because you simply cannot understand plutonium without understanding what the electrons are doing. So, I had to learn a lot more physics, and I had other people at Los Alamos that were my age that were studying physics and the actinides. You know, the last row in the periodic table. So, I learned much of my physics from them. We had people all the way from doing electronic structure calculations to people doing very practical things of knowing how to cast or how to form plutonium. So, I got into the plutonium business just bit by bit by bit. The way I got into the practical part of the plutonium, in other words, the nuclear weapons business was as soon as I started to learn something about plutonium, and I brought good metallurgical knowledge to the plutonium field. Not knowledge of the actinides, but knowledge of general metallurgy. I would say, coming from Case, the iron-carbon system, steels, are a good training ground for plutonium because in the iron-carbon system, you have three phases. In other words, three different crystallographic phases in the iron-carbon system. Plutonium by itself, the element plutonium, has six phases as a function of temperature, and at least one more as a function of pressure, if you add pressure in addition to the temperatures. So, it's this enormously complex thing.

So, knowing something about the iron-carbon diagram, knowing something about brasses and bronzes, for example, is all very helpful as the first baby step toward understanding plutonium. So, it didn't take very long until I got just immersed in trying to understand plutonium. Then, in terms of applications, what we did at that time, there were people in my group at Los Alamos and in the other groups that then worked very closely on the weapons program. For example, in plutonium, the part that Los Alamos worked with plutonium, was some of the plutonium chemistry. They never worked with the reactor products. In other words, the processing the plutonium out of spent reactor fuel. That was done, for example, at places like Hanford, or Savannah River. Los Alamos didn't do that. We got the plutonium product, the metal or the oxide. Then, by this time, the 1960s and then '70s, the place that made the plutonium components for nuclear weapons was a place called Rocky Flats, which is up outside of Denver. They were the plutonium factory, in essence, that made the metal components. So, as I started to get involved, much like I did in the General Motors days, where I would study the details of elastic-plastic transition, and then I'd go to the Fisher body stamping plant. Here what I did was I studied the electrons in plutonium, and then I would go to the Rocky Flats, the plutonium manufacturing plant. I'd try to understand, how did they actually take this plutonium and cast it?

They did it back in those days in true metallurgical fashion, in what we, the metallurgists call heat 'em and beat 'em. You take and you cast the slab, and you take that slab -- because most castings of most metals have porosity in them. And then you have to beat them in order to essentially get a sound product. So, you roll them, you extrude them, you draw them, or whatever. So, that's how they made the plutonium components at Rocky Flats. They would cast the slabs, roll them, hydroform them, and I found all of that really fascinating. So, I began to study those aspects. Then, just like in the iron-carbon diagram for steels, you have steels of various types. You can have a Damascus steel, for example, or you can have something called maraging steel, which I actually worked with during my graduate work, and which are very important when it comes to uranium enrichment in centrifuges. So, those steels, the different properties of the steels, you find out that the properties and the performance are governed by the processing, the structure, and then the properties. So, the metallurgists have this magic triangle of how they look at the fabrication, processing, properties, structure of these materials, and then look at performance. For plutonium, this was more complex than any other element, by far. That, by itself, just intrigued me immensely. So, when I got back in '73, I was still doing my fundamental plastic deformation research, and then more and more got involved in the complexities of plutonium, its fabrication, its properties. I would say I became more and more involved in how the plutonium actually performs under nuclear weapons conditions, and more and more familiar, and worked with the weapons program people. 

Zierler:

What are some of the safety precautions that you have to keep in mind when you're working with plutonium in this capacity?

Hecker:

The most important one is to stay away from a criticality. In other words, you put enough plutonium together that you get a critical mass, and it generates neutrons. That will kill you, and it will do that whether you have it inside of a glove box, or anything. So, most important thing is to avoid criticality. You're taught that immediately, before you ever get your hands in a glove box. Generally, that would seem to be pretty simple, because we know what the critical mass of plutonium is, and it's quite a few kilograms. So, you want to stay away from that. By the way, I think the first major criticality accident in Los Alamos was in 1946. Lou Slotin died from having done an experiment of tickling the dragon, as they used to say, of moving two plutonium hemishells close together, and then checking the neutron count. 

Zierler:

What is that word, Sig? Hemishells?

Hecker:

Oh, hemishells. Hemishells are hemispheres. Actually, it was hemispheres of plutonium at that time. So, he was moving two hemispheres of plutonium together. So, caution. Most importantly is criticality, and what you really have to know is that critical mass depends dramatically on what else is around. Particularly, if you have it in water, in a fluid. So, instead of the critical mass being six or eight kilograms, it can be half a kilogram. So, if you take that plutonium and you dissolve it, that's really dangerous. So, critical mass is really important. Then, besides that, it turns out plutonium is really not the most dangerous element in the periodic table. You don't want to ingest it, or inhale it, or to get it, let's say, through an open wound, if you get it in a glove box. The alpha radiation that plutonium gives off, the alpha particles, are easily stopped by the rubber of a glove. It's easily stopped by the glass that you're looking through in a glove box. It's actually stopped by your skin. It doesn't penetrate the skin. But a little bit like coronavirus days, you don't want to inhale or ingest the plutonium because then it can concentrate in the lungs and cause cancer.

Zierler:

What does it look like?

Hecker:

Plutonium, when you cast it or machine it, it's a silvery metal. It's just a silvery metal. However, again, because of this peculiar electronic structure of plutonium, it oxidizes extremely fast. So, again, comparing to steel -- as you know, steels rust, unless they happen to be stainless steel, then they're a little slower. Plutonium rusts, so to speak, oxidizes, much faster than steels. Particularly, in the presence of hydrogen or in the presence of water vapor, it really rusts extremely fast. It basically disintegrates. So, plutonium would go from a nice silvery machine surface, and then go through almost every color in the rainbow until it winds up in a sort of gray exterior, and eventually black. If you leave it long enough, the oxide starts to build up, and that's sort of a greenish oxide coating on the piece of plutonium. 

Zierler:

This must have been a worldwide center for plutonium science. I'm curious if you would receive visiting scientists from all over the country, or all over the world to take a look at what you were doing and perhaps collaborate with you. 

Hecker:

The answer is no. Not all over the world. You don't want the whole world to know how to handle plutonium metal. The only direct application of plutonium metal is for bombs. You don't want to have that knowledge, necessarily. Yet, you need to have that knowledge among the people that handle this stuff. So, this has always been a really delicate situation as to how much of the plutonium information you put out in the open literature. 

Zierler:

Is this to say, Sig, everybody that would come to look at what you were doing needed a clearance?

Hecker:

The answer is no, but the way you asked that question, was it like an open laboratory? So, first of all, where we were doing our plutonium metallurgy research inside of a cleared area. You needed to have a clearance to get inside the building. Or to be given special access to get inside the building where everybody that's done anything with classified shapes, or anything of that nature, would have to cover it up. For example, later on in life, in the 1990s, I had the Russian nuclear weapons laboratories inside of our plutonium facility. For heaven sakes, obviously they didn't have an American clearance. We had them in because actually much of the plutonium science we've kept unclassified, because if you don't, we'd never have a core of people that can learn to understand plutonium. You've got to have the brainpower of lots of people who studied other materials, other phenomena. You've got to pull all of that together so that you can get an understanding of plutonium.

All of that started with Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace initiative in December of 1953. Until that time, plutonium, for the most part, was classified. Anything you did with plutonium metal or plutonium alloys was classified. Then, Eisenhower said, "We're willing to share those kinds of secrets with the rest of the world as long as they promise not to develop nuclear weapons." That eventually then turned into setting up the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. As a result of Eisenhower Atoms of Peace, one had the first international conferences on the peaceful uses of atomic energy. That's where the first plutonium science work was presented. So, the phase diagram. Phase diagram is essentially when you take something like plutonium, you add something like aluminum. What happens to the different crystallographic phases? When does this stuff change phase? When does it melt? How does it behave? Those were first published by the Russians and by the Americans in the 1955 timeframe, and then again in 1958. So, what we've done, to get you into 1973, we were able to talk and to publish the fundamental properties of plutonium. What's classified is the specific application of how you get from the plutonium into a specific weapons system. We even got to the point where the alloys that we use, like the fact that plutonium, that is pure plutonium is extremely complicated, and essentially impossible to work with.

So, to tame the plutonium, you have to add something to it. That is, they've found that out already in the Manhattan Project. You either add aluminum, or you add gallium. Instead of going back to this idea of mechanical deformation, of having elastic properties and then plastic, there are some materials that don't go plastic. So, if you take cast iron, it has no plasticity. It goes from elastic to break. Piece of junk, breaks. But it turns out alpha plutonium, the pure form of plutonium, breaks. It doesn't deform plastically. When you add a little bit of gallium, like one weight percent gallium, it becomes like aluminum. It's as soft as aluminum. You can bend it, twist it, shape it to anything. So, eventually, by 1968, that was allowed to be open knowledge. We had plutonium conferences even before my time. 1960, '65, 1970, '75 where one would have these international conferences about plutonium. Then, of course, there was also the issue of plutonium as far as nuclear fuel is concerned. That is, you would use it in, for example, breeder reactors. We really haven't gotten there in a practical manner yet. But there is uranium and plutonium properties related to peaceful, nuclear reactors. Then, for the weapons related business, again, what they allowed for classification, you can publish on the basic properties of plutonium. I've published many, many papers on the basic properties of plutonium, including alloying of plutonium, and mechanical properties of plutonium, but then never make the connection of those properties with a specific nuclear weapons system. 

Zierler:

How long were you able to fight off the management track?

Hecker:

In 1973, when I got back there, I became this technical staff member, and I almost immediately took a leadership role. I gathered a number of people around me, some of the staff members and technicians, in order to do these various projects. So, I was just a project leader. I did that right away. I did that very willingly, because that's how you get work done. I got involved in several other practical problems that required that sort of leadership. One of them, which is still one of my all-time favorites, and I can come back to describe it in more detail if you like -- essentially, it's the idea of nuclear batteries. That is, plutonium oxide. In this case, you have to use heat sources. So, you use plutonium 238, which as 300 times as alpha active as plutonium 239. You can't use it for weapons, because if you put enough of it together it melts itself. It generates that much heat. However, if you make it an oxide, which has high temperature capabilities, then you can take that heat and convert the heat to electricity, and you have a thermoelectric generator. These are the things that have been sent out into outer space and have sent back all of those fantastic photos of the Saturn rings, of Jupiter, of Pluto. Essentially every outer space mission is powered by one of the plutonium oxides, thermoelectric generators. I worked on those, and those just had incredibly complicated materials, and some physics and mechanical engineering properties and challenges. So, I worked on that and I also worked on uranium and uranium alloys for conventional munitions. For example, something that's called a shape charge liner. A shape charge liner would be something like a hemishell of uranium that has a big tube of explosives behind it. You set off the explosive and it takes this metal liner, turns it inside out, into a jet. That jet, if it's made of the right material, can penetrate one meter of armor. It's an extremely powerful munition. It turns out, there was one type of uranium that gave them the best penetration. Because of my General Motors work, I was actually able to figure out what it was that made it so special. So, I worked on those, and in each of those areas I've led a small project team, but I wouldn't call that management. But to answer your question, how did I get into management? That's what you wanted to know.

Zierler:

I asked you earlier when you started getting a broader view of the entire operation at Los Alamos. So, I wonder if plutonium science, if you had to pick one research area that might have given you that broader view, if plutonium science, in fact, was it.

Hecker:

There's no question. It did. As soon as I went from plutonium science, not just studying the fundamentals, but what difference does it make? Up at Rocky Flats, they cast this, they alloy it, it has certain properties, and the engineers and physicists don't like this. What do you do now? Now, you're right in the middle of having to understand what your mission is and what the practical problems are. So, that's the time when I started going over to theoretical design division. I went to the engineering divisions. I went to Rocky Flats. I interfaced in what we called JOWOGs, joint working groups with the Brits. I started working with the French. We actually were given some political window to deal with the French in the nuclear weapons arena. I did so because I thought we could learn as much from them as they could learn from us in certain areas. So, at that point, I was very much involved. The only thing, I wasn't a bomber, so to speak. I was never a bomb design guy. I was always the guy; my specialty was the plutonium metallurgy and the understanding of that. But in order to make that useful, I had to understand the whole rest of the business, and I did that. That was throughout the 1970s.

The same with the space batteries. I was interested in the behavior of the plutonium oxide. It turns out, you had a clad the plutonium oxide in some sort of a capsule. That's not easy to do when this stuff sits there above 1000 degrees C and heats itself inside of a graphite protection shell. The first shell has to be a metallic shell, because the problem is, if you launch one of those from Cape Kennedy or someplace else, and you have a missed launch and it winds up in somebody's backyard, you do not want that plutonium dispersed, obviously. Well, if you sling it up around the Earth in order to go out to Jupiter, and it doesn't make that first orbit, and it comes back in, it comes through a fiery descent through the atmosphere, where it goes up to like 1900 C, and it impacts in your backyard at 285 feet per second. So, you have to understand all of those practical aspects in order to design and work on the properties of the iridium metal clad that goes around this plutonium oxide. Again, the part that I really loved about Los Alamos -- we worried about iridium. We worked with Oak Ridge National Laboratory. They did the alloy development on iridium. We did the mechanical testing and some of the thermal testing. It turns out, iridium, number 77 in the periodic table, is a face-centered cubic material. Face-centered cubic materials behave well in terms of mechanical deformation. They have the sort of symmetry that allows these dislocations that I mentioned to propagate through, and to deform. However, iridium is not that way. It's a strange face-centered cubic. So, I was able to investigate and published a number of papers on the fundamental properties of iridium. Why it fractures the way it does, how it's affected by impurities.

That was the beauty of Los Alamos. Well, at the same time, I had to worry about how that iridium with that plutonium oxide capsule inside is going to survive this reentry so that we don't have a disaster. I did all of those. And the uranium shape charge liner, similarly, I had to work with the explosive division. It set off the shape charge liner. So, when you put all those things together, then I got to know a lot of the rest of the laboratory. But the real key to all of this was that Harold Agnew, who was our third director after Oppenheimer, Norris Bradbury, then Harold Agnew. He decided in 1979 that he's going to retire from Los Alamos. He was there from the Fermi days. He was there with Enrico Fermi in Chicago, actually, initially. Harold retired and went to become president of General Atomics out on the west coast. The next director was Donald Kerr. When he came in in 1980, he set up a number of working groups, and said, "Look, there are five areas of the laboratory that are really essential to its future.” One of those was materials. Then, for a number of strange reasons, I was picked to chair the working group for material science. So, this was in 1980. At that point, then, I really had to go out into the rest of the laboratory and understand everything that was being done in the materials arena. I think one of the things I've been pretty good at in my life is sort of a synthesizer as to how you bring all these disparate things together to try to solve a problem, or to organize a certain program. So, I chaired this material science working group. As a result of that, we then set up a center for material science, because we had decided by that time that whereas the technology in materials remained very strong at the laboratory -- it was there throughout almost all of the divisions -- the basic underpinnings had sort of fritted away. We needed to regenerate the basic materials research. We set up this center to try to do so. So, when I was doing that, I also came to the attention of other people, and that was my first step.

I actually never -- the organizational structure in our laboratory, the group was sort of the basing. It's like a department at a university. And then the next one is the division that puts half a dozen groups or so together. The next one would be the directorate at the director level. So, I never had a management job at the group level, but our division leader was moving on. So, they were looking for an associate division leader to carry the scientific parts of the division's activity. The division was called Chemistry, Metallurgy, Baker. CMB. Baker was our division leader since almost the Manhattan Project days. He moved on, and then retired. So, at that point is when I made the decision that maybe I should do that job. But I would say, I still did it almost being ashamed of doing that, that I would go into management, because at Los Alamos, for the most part, management was not a respected profession. If you were there as a scientist, you would try to figure out how the world works. If you were there as an engineer, you built things. If you were there as a manager, you sort of lost your credentials, was generally the feeling. But I thought if I don't do this, somebody else is going to do it. I like this place, I liked Los Alamos, I like what I do. 

Zierler:

And your wife likes Los Alamos, too. That's probably a factor as well. 

Hecker:

My wife likes Los Alamos. So, it turns out, I wound up getting that job, and in very short order, there was another shuffle up above, and I wound up actually being division leader. So, in 1983, I then was division leader. So, at that point, I was all of 40 years old. In 1983, I was division leader. I eventually renamed the division to Material Science and Technology. It was 715 people, so it was a huge division. It essentially did all of the nuclear materials stuff, and almost all of the rest of the metallurgy, related with any program associated with the laboratory. It was a huge, huge enterprise, and it took me away from the research part for a few years. That's, again, not really what I wanted to do. I did like the leadership role, and I did like the idea of putting the pieces together and try to understand where my programs are going and where the division is going, and eventually, where the laboratory is going. 

Zierler:

How long were you in that position?

Hecker:

I was in that position from September of 1983 until July of 1985. By that time, I was running this division. It was all the plutonium facilities, the tritium facilities, the uranium facilities, all that good stuff. Lots of good basic research as well as good technology. I brought some people from their own groups within this division who became my deputies. After about a year or year and a half, I said, "I don't really want to do this. I was having such a great time doing all this research, and the technical work. I'm still early in my career. I don't want to do this management. I got these guys, they're really good, they can run this division." Besides, at that time, the person we brought in as the first director of the Center for Material Science was a person by the name of Al Clogston, who retired from Bell Labs, and he came to live in Santa Fe, came up to Los Alamos, agreed to do this job, and then said, "Okay, I'm going to retire now, all the way around." So, as we started to look for a new director for the Center of Material Science, I finally said, "Hey, look. I should do that job because that's 12 people instead of 715 people. I can go back and do my own research." So, July 1st, I took over as the director for the Center for Material Science. By that time, I really knew the laboratory. I knew everything that was going on, and I said, "That's great. We've got people who can run those things. I'm going to go back more to the research world, and to the more research focused aspects of materials at the laboratory." So, that's what I did in July of 1985. 

Zierler:

That seems like it's a bit of a reverse course trajectory for where, ultimately, you're headed. 

Hecker:

Well, what happened, on the way to the forum, as they say. So, Don Kerr, by 1985, decides he's going to move on. He goes and joins EG&G, a company with lots of electronics and things with the nuclear business. So, all this time, we're run by the University of California. All my time at the laboratory, I'm a University of California employee. So, Don moves on. The way the university works, it sets up a search committee, and the president of University of California, at that time, David Gardner, is chair of the search committee. But then he as somebody who really runs that, and that somebody was the vice president, Bill Frazer. So, in September of '85, Bill Frazer comes out to Los Alamos. He comes around and talks to a number of people, some of the scientists, some of the managers, and somebody told him he should come and talk to me. I was told Bill Frazer's going to come, and as I usually do, I prepare for these things. I think about them ahead of time, and I put together a two page piece to say this is what we should look for in the next director. So, I spend an hour and a half or so with Bill. I laid all these things out. I knew how the laboratory worked. By that time, this was 1985, and I'd been there off and on since 1965. I ran this big division; I knew what the fundamental research was all about. So, I laid all of these things out, and we had a very good discussion. Bill was very appreciative, and he went away.

Sometime before Thanksgiving, he calls up and said, "Sig, have you ever thought about being director?" I was able to honestly say, "Never." I never thought about being director. That was not anywhere on my screen. Not only because I never wanted to be director, which is true, but also because I never even thought it made sense for me to be director of this laboratory. I'd run a big division, but in terms of the whole rest of the nuclear stuff -- dealing with Washington, dealing with Congress, dealing with the other countries related to arms control -- I hadn't done any of those things, and those were the things that were listed. So, I said, "No, never." Bill said, "Why?" And I said, "Bill, do you remember that list I gave you that we discussed -- the qualifications for the directorship?" He said, "Yes." I said, "Well I don't meet it." And Bill said, "Why don't you let us decide?" I thought about that for a minute and said, "Well, that makes sense. Yeah." However, I stayed really skeptical. The more and more I thought about it, the more it just didn't make sense to take a person like me into the directorship. So, the person before me, Don Kerr, was a very good scientist. He spent time at Los Alamos, and then he spent time at Nevada test site, and also spent time at DOE headquarters in Washington. So, he really knew Washington. He was very clever and very effective in the Washington scene. So much so that some of the Washington types didn't like that. He knew Washington too well. At any rate, I still kept saying that just doesn't make sense.

I remember, I called one of my good buddies, professor Jim Williams at Carnegie Mellon, and I said, "Jim, what do you think? I'm supposed to go out this next week to do an interview with the search committee, and I'm just not convinced. I'm going to try to have them explain to me how I came to be a candidate." And Jim says, "Sig, look, before you walk through that door, you better have made up your mind whether you want to be director or not. If you don't want to be director, don't go." I thought that was pretty good advice. I did go for the interview. My wife, who liked Los Alamos, said, "I don't want you to do this job. You don't need this job. I don't want you to do this job." By that time, by the way, we had four daughters, including one that was only three years old. So, I went anyway, because the more I thought about it the more I was challenged by saying the laboratory was at an important point. 1985, '86, so many things started to change, and I thought it would be an interesting challenge. So, I went search committee, big time. Nobel laureates like Charlie Townes, Fred Reines. Military people like General Andy Goodpaster, who was Eisenhower's chief of staff a long time before. Two laboratory employees, some campus representatives, and all of that.

So, I did this interview. I told them what I thought. I had a pretty good sense of things from inside the laboratory, and what needed to be done. I thought we had taken too hard a turn towards management with an insufficient appreciation for the importance of science during the previous five years. So, I stressed it a lot. I told them what I knew and what I thought was important. I told them what I didn't know and what I didn't have. It was interesting. I left, I called my wife that evening, and said, "Honey, you do not have to worry about my becoming director because I just blew this interview." Well, as it turned out, I was wrong, and they made me an offer. At that time, the way it still worked is the president of the university made me the offer to become director, but the Department of Energy, the secretary had the veto power. So, in early December of '85, I had to go to Washington to pass that test. The Secretary of Energy at that time was John Herrington under President Ronald Reagan. He was a good friend of Ronald Reagan's. He was a Walnut Creek lawyer. The undersecretary was a guy by the name of Joe Salgado, who was really one of the more colorful individuals I'd ever met. Joe did most of the real interviewing, and I remember talking with Joe and he said to me, "Well, Hecker, I understand you're brilliant. But you don't know a damn thing about Washington." I said, "Well, you're right about the second, and I'm not sure about the first."

 

Zierler:

And this is true, right? You had really zero Washington experience at this point.

Hecker:

Well, no, it's not zero. Zero, as far as the big lab picture is concerned. I had gone to Washington many times related to material science programs. Most of this was out in what we call Germantown in Maryland. That's where the big DOE facility was. For example, I don't think I'd ever been in the Pentagon. I'd never been in White House National Security Council. I hadn't worked with the State Department, except to make sure I get the appropriate clearances to go on international travel. I'd traveled a lot to Britain and France, but I'd never gone to the other places. I did not have that side of the Washington experience. And what Joe Salgado said, "I know, that's good. That's why we like you." We made a good bond for the rest of both of our times in office. 

Zierler:

How did you get the news that you were selected?

Hecker:

I got a phone call. Actually, it was Bill Frazer who called me and said -- I was flabbergasted. I was absolutely sure that there was no way in the world. There were several other people around the laboratory that were reputed to have had a great interest in this job. Several of them had much more experience than I did on this national scene. 

Zierler:

When you assume the position, what were some of the most urgent matters requiring your attention as director?

Hecker:

Before I assumed the directorship -- I was given the offer in early December. I went to Washington before mid-December. I got the offer around then, and I said, "I'd like to have a month before I take over." Our deputy director, Bob Thorn, had stepped in as the acting director. I said, "I need to have a month. I need to get around to the rest of the laboratory and see how people feel, see what's going on, see where the programs are, and touch base with the programs in Washington, and so forth. Also, check out the Livermore folks as well." So, at that time, what I felt is that we had sort of lost the touch with basic sciences, and we needed to rejuvenate that. In addition, we'd gone hardcore towards SDI related activities. Not as hardcore as Lawrence Livermore with Lowell Wood and Edward Teller, but still hardcore enough that in the previous two years the laboratory had hired total 400 and 300 people to add to the laboratory overall staff. My view was there is no way you can bring in 300 or 400 people a year and bring in the absolute very best. We're not doing quality control sufficiently. So, before I took over the directorship, I declared a zero growth policy to say, "We're going to start up. We're not going to let this laboratory grow. I need to get my hands around who we're hiring and how we're hiring these people, and then we'll see." So, those were the things that I saw. Then, within the first year of my directorship -- I've given talks on this so it was sort of fun to put it together now, but it wasn't fun then -- one of the things that happened in the first few months is actually the first budget sequester, what's called the Gramm-Rodman-Hollings budget sequester. This we had had during the Reagan times. We had the Reagan defense buildup, and that's what allowed the SDI related hiring, etc. So, the lab's budget had gone up, the total lab employment had gone up, and what Gramm-Rodman-Hollings did was they're going to sequester. So, that made my zero growth policy look pretty damn good, because I instituted all of that before Gramm-Rodman-Hollings. As a result of that, we actually then wound up not having to lay people off, even though our budget was cut. However, then the things that really shaped my directorship were on January 28th, less than two weeks after I became director, the Challenger shuttle blew up. As you remember, that was traumatic. 

Zierler:

Yes, for my generation, that was -- when people the generation before me talk about where they were when Kennedy was shot, for me, that was it. 

Hecker:

Yup. So, that, to us, playing with all these high tech and nuclear things, what it said is high tech things can go wrong. They can blow up. So, safety is absolutely crucial. A week or two later, the FBI comes to see me. They say, "Director Hecker, you have a spy at the laboratory in your weapons design division." At that point, I was all of 42 years old, and not having the Washington experience, I said, "Okay, get him the hell out of here." They said, "No, no, no, we can't do that. We've got to catch him in the act. You don't know whether there's a spy ring." So, that was the Wen Ho Lee story, or the Cox report, which was a sad, sad story. For the next almost 12 years of my directorship, I lived with all of that. We did not get the guy out of there in those 12 years’ time. We never got to the point where the FBI allowed me to get this guy out. It's a tragedy. My wife keeps telling me that whatever next book I write, it's got to be that story. But at this point, that can wait a bit. So, that was traumatic. 

Zierler:

Sig, on that point, and strictly limiting to the things that were in your control, looking back, what might you have done differently?

Hecker:

My own view of that, that's one place where being this young, inexperienced director didn't serve me that well. I didn't understand at that time the difference between us at the laboratories, or even the DOE, and the FBI. To us, it was a matter of stopping the bleeding. If he is taking classified material out, we have to stop that. The FBI has a totally different view: we have to catch them and convict them. That was the dilemma. So, what I did is I went as far as the Department of Energy, of course. I talked to the leaders in the Department of Energy and they also deferred to the FBI. That's a place where I would say now, I'd go to the White House. I'd raise living hell, and say, "Look, these guys have this different idea." I went as far as I thought I could at the time, and it wasn't good enough. As it also turned out, the irony of it all is this was 1986. The story didn't hit the New York Times until April 1999, after I left the directorship. Now we're in 2020, and they still haven't found the real proof that this guy spied for China. The more and more we put the pieces together, the best that we can tell, I don't think he spied for China. Actually, he was Taiwanese. I don't think he spied for China. But he did rob us blind of secret material. What he did, he should have served lots of jail time. It wound up with the way that the FBI botched things, he got a get out of jail card free. They did treat him in a totally un-American way, when they finally arrested him, but he should have been arrested for the crime he really did which was to steal this nuclear stuff. We still don't know -- I have my own theories, but we don't know exactly what he did with all of that. There's still, now 30 years later, no proof that it went any place. 

Zierler:

You think there's still something to learn. There's still information out there to complete this story. 

Hecker:

Oh, yeah. Somewhere, somehow, one still needs to get this connection as to what he did with this stuff. The Cox report, what they claimed, we've already showed just wasn't there. The stuff that presumably -- you know, there was a walk-in spy in China that gave this stuff to the Americans. What, presumably, the Chinese were given in terms of classified information, turns out it wasn't Los Alamos information. It was related to those nuclear weapons systems, but it was the stuff from the missile contractor people. Not Los Alamos or Livermore. Why he did it, we don't know. There's still something there. I have this all written down in files, and I've given classified videos for training for counterintelligence purposes so that our employees will understand what things are involved when you deal with these sorts of touchy issues. Anyway, April 26th, 1986, Chernobyl blew up. That was really, really traumatic. Then, October 10-12, Reagan and Gorbachev get together in Reykjavík and say, "Why don't we get rid of nuclear weapons." So, here I am, a rookie lab director, not one year into the job, and these guys are going to get rid of nuclear weapons. I came from Los Alamos to do a job, so here we are. So, that was the first year. 

Zierler:

Trial by fire, I guess. Sig, on the personal political side, obviously, you've come to do a job. You're tremendously loyal to Los Alamos. Yet, I wonder, in a way, wouldn't you welcome an international political effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons, even if it would rob you of a mandate as Director of Los Alamos?

Hecker:

So, in 1986, when this happened, what I just told you was essentially in jest. You talk about job security. 

Zierler:

It was never going to happen, of course. 

Hecker:

At that point, I was really not sufficiently informed about the overall international situation. I was learning very fast. Did I think Reagan and Gorbachev getting together was a good idea? Absolutely, yes. Did they have a chance of actually getting rid of nuclear weapons? Turns out, they didn't come as close as the popular lore would be. In the end, Gorbachev made this move, and Reagan liked the idea because Reagan really felt that nuclear weapons are immoral, and that's why he was pushing so hard for taking care of the problem with strategic defense. In other words, you defend against nuclear weapons, rather than building more to destroy the other guys better. So, his sense was a moral sense that was deep inside. He felt that, but he was not willing to give up the strategic defense part because that's the part that he considered to be the moral aspects of nuclear weapons. Gorbachev knew he couldn't get back home unless he got the U.S. to back off on the strategic defense, even though his own technical people told him that it can never be sufficiently effective to actually be a real strategic defense. But those two guys, even though they didn't get rid of nuclear weapons, and they didn't come close, they actually set into motion precisely what you just said. I greatly welcomed that and spent a good deal of time working to reduce the threats associated with nuclear weapons. I'd never gotten to the point that I felt there was a chance to get rid of nuclear weapons. But the best chance we ever had was there, Reagan and Gorbachev. If they would have somehow, out of Reykjavík and the follow-up, if they would have made the commitment to go along with the words that they said – “a nuclear war cannot be won, so a nuclear war must not be fought.” They believed that, and that set into motion all of the good changes from our perspective that happened. If Gorbachev would have been more powerful on his side, and if Reagan wouldn't have been pushed as hard by some of the neo-conservatives, one could have actually gotten to the point where these guys put us on a path.

That's still my feeling of what it takes. It takes something at the very top of the government. It takes a commitment to say, "Look, we each --" and this is particularly, now, about Russia and the United States -- "We each think the world would be a safer place if we didn't have nuclear weapons," and then maybe go down that path. Doing it from below, like through the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and so forth. At this point, I don't see much hope for that. I believe very, very strongly, personally, we don't need this many nuclear weapons. We should greatly decrease the number of nuclear weapons. But what I had been working on, for the most part, the last 25 years, is to avoid the use of nuclear weapons, and not necessarily at this point to get rid of nuclear weapons.

 

Zierler:

On the matter of grand strategy in Washington, the way that the Reagan Administration was moving, how closely did you participate in those discussions? Did you learn information first-hand?

Hecker:

With Reagan, no. With the Department of Energy, yes. Later, also with the Pentagon, and with the National Security Council. Actually, the other arm that's really important that's hardly ever mentioned is the Office of Management of Budget. As a lab director, you get to understand pretty quickly that you need to do your parish calls to make sure you understand what's going on. Then, Congress is important. Starting, I would say, in '86, '87, then I was very closely involved and associated with all of those arms of government. 

Zierler:

Tell me a little bit about what it was like to manage Los Alamos as the Cold War was coming to an end. What did you see immediately as some of the long-term, strategic implications for the mission of Los Alamos?

Hecker:

First of all, just to back it up, let me ask my own question first. What was it like to manage Los Alamos? Period. It was like herding cats. It is one difficult place to manage, because you have so many scientists. If you think about it, scientists think by themselves, for themselves. They can be brilliant. Los Alamos scientists were brilliant. But they sure don't like to be managed. They're difficult. Engineers are totally different. Engineers, just give them something to build, and for the most part, they'll be happy. We had a combination, of course, of lots of PhD scientists, and lots of engineers. So, Los Alamos management is a difficult job. I would say it became especially difficult as the Cold War was drawing to a close. Let me answer your question this way: the challenges as we're going through the late 1980s, I'd like to put them into three categories. The first one was the end of the Cold War itself. When the Soviet Union went away as the enemy, at least, for some time being, that changed everything. Everything. The second thing is when they went away, we had to pay much more attention to what one does about what I call the battlefields of the Cold War. During the entire Cold War, there were things done in the sprawling nuclear weapons complex that took their toll on the environment, or on people. As long as the Soviet Union was there, and this arch enemy stood there, there are things that you had to do. There's a risk/benefit that you went through to say, "Okay, we have to do this."

Now, that risk/benefit changed. So, all of a sudden, the way that you deal with health and environmental factors is very different come 1988, '89, and on, than we did before. Then, the third part that happened is that all through the Cold War, actually starting with the Hot War, World War II, the government had devised this incredibly genius management arrangement called the GOCO, Government Owned Contractor Operated. So, the government owned our place and they gave us the budget, but the contractor, in this case, the University of California, managed the laboratory. It ran the laboratory. So, I was an employee of the University of California. I was never a government employee. J. Robert Oppenheimer was an employee of the University of California and it started with them. That whole structure was built on this incredible concept of where we had a partnership between us, the laboratories -- in this case, University of California ran Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and at one time, AT&T Bell Labs ran Sandia, all as a national service. It was the same sort of thing. Now, that changed, and the partnership was lost. The way I like to, and have described it, what that brought is what I call the loss of common sense. That was captured in a 1994 book by Philip K. Howard. It's called, The Loss of Common Sense. I read that book in 1994, and said, "Oh my God, this is it. It's exactly what happened to us. Our government had a loss of common sense. You could only run our place by the rulebook, no longer by common sense. No longer by experience of all these guys who've been here for 10, 20, 30, 40 years. It now gave rise to a rulebook that's 2,000 pages long, that nobody ever reads." So, those three things were the dramatic changes. That, essentially, was the challenge for the rest of my directorship. 

Zierler:

In what ways did you recognize that even after the Cold War, nuclear weapons really weren't going anywhere?

Hecker:

What do you mean by that?

Zierler:

Well, meaning that the nuclear stockpile would not be reduced to any appreciable amount that would make nuclear holocaust technically not feasible.

Hecker:

Now, wait a minute. I don't concur with that, because near the end of the Cold War, Reagan-Gorbachev time, if you looked it at it, the Soviet Union and 39,000 nuclear weapons, and we were up at 20-some thousand nuclear weapons. Actually, the height of our stockpile was 25,000 back in the '60s. It decreased some, but only because our missiles got more accurate, so we didn't need that many. We had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons at the end of the Cold War. So, that number has been reduced by some 85%. So, it's not accurate to say they weren't going to go anywhere. The reduction of those number of weapons and the challenges associated with bringing those weapons back -- mind you that the disassembly of the nuclear weapons is the most dangerous phase of a nuclear weapon's lifetime. When you have thousands of them coming back, this is really an enormous challenge. It was a greater challenge, yet, for Russia than it was for us. We've had dramatic reductions. The problem today is we still -- the New Start Agreement allows 1550 strategic weapons, but then by the time you add the ones that are sitting there in reserve, and so forth, you have over 4000 each. So, dramatic reduction, but still enough to make this world a wasteland. So, yes, the problem that you mentioned is still there, but on a very different scale. If I now go back and say, "At what time did I realize there was some major change that was going to happen?" I actually know it exactly. It's October 2nd, which happened to be my birthday, in 1992. That's when President Bush decided that he would agree to a nuclear testing moratorium. There was a nuclear test moratorium legislation on the book, and so the story goes -- I'm not sure how true it is -- President Bush, of course, came from Texas, and wanted the SSC, the superconducting supercollider. There was this potential tradeoff that the superconducting supercollider would stay in the budget if he agreed to a moratorium. Because Bush, Scowcroft, and the other people that were advising him were certainly not in favor of having a nuclear testing cessation altogether.

But they agreed to a moratorium, and the moratorium was going to be that we, the two labs, Los Alamos and Livermore, would get six tests each, and the British would get three, because we did all the British tests in Nevada at that time. There would be 15 tests that would be allowed. There were certain restrictions on those tests, and Bush also said at that time, "We will not develop nuclear weapons with new capabilities." It was the combination of those two things -- I was in Washington. I came back home, and I told my people, "Look, our world has just changed. I don't think we'll ever test again. In other words, I don't think this nuclear moratorium is going to be lifted. We need to do everything we can for our six tests to learn as much as we possibly can to make our stockpile survive into the foreseeable future, but we'll probably never be able to test again. We're not going to be developing nuclear weapons, as such. We're going to have to take care of the ones we have." So, that was a major transition point when I realized our nuclear weapons mission had changed. That was still the Bush Administration. By the time Clinton came in, and by the time we had the CTBT, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and so forth, those things were really solidified. My predictions came true, but we realized that from late 1992 on.

 

Zierler:

In what ways did this transition present an existential challenge to the overall mission and viability of Los Alamos, and conversely, in what ways did it present opportunities or breathing room for Los Alamos to take on new scientific endeavors?

Hecker:

All of that depended on what's going to happen to the budget. To some extent, we certainly thought, and we had people who had ideas, that there are lots of things that we can do. This is not an issue that we don't have ideas, or they're not things that we could do, but is there going to be anybody that's going to pay for this?

Zierler:

Meaning, because nuclear weapons is the bread and butter, and without that, there might not be a budget for non-nuclear research. 

Hecker:

That's correct. What actually happened, if you track the budget of Los Alamos, when Jimmy Carter left office -- this is 1980, and he left in January of '81 -- our laboratory at Los Alamos had actually transitioned to 50% weapon, and 50% other things, mostly energy related. When Reagan came in, his view was that energy was a private sector issue, and that was changed by the time that Reagan went out. Now, we're in George H.W. Bush time. At that time, in 1992, we were more like 80% weapons related, and 20% other. That was the concern. If that 80% all of a sudden comes down dramatically, there was no guarantee whatsoever that the civilian part, the non-weapons part, would increase. In fact, for the few years before, already, it was clear that the Soviet Union was disintegrating as it came apart. There were people like our senators, Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman, who pushed very hard for something called tech transfer. The general idea is the government is putting an enormous amount of money into these laboratories. They've got all of these smart people there developing technologies in every which direction. That should do some good for the economic benefit of the United States of America. That started to really heat up in 1988 timeframe. By the way, the biggest economic concern in 1988, was of course, not China. It was Japan. It was Japan that we were worried about, that Japan was going to eat our lunch. It turns out, we were totally wrong on Japan. We're not going to be so wrong about China on this. That's a different story. So, we had moved in that direction. I have all the budget charts of how our budget changed over that timeframe. The defense program budget started to go down dramatically from '92 to '93.

What actually started to increase was the environmental remediation and waste management budget. But as you might imagine, that doesn't have as many neurons per billion dollars in it as these other things do. So, that was increased. The tech transfer part never got terribly big. The overall energy part didn't increase that much. The part that did increase was the non-proliferation budget, and our work with the Russians and other things of that nature. That work is very synergistic with the nuclear weapons work. The same type of people can do that type of work. The environmental remediation has some great chemistry challenges, but much of that is very technology oriented. The energy part was interesting, but we had lost our renewable energy work when the government set up the outfit that's called NREL now, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Our solar work, for example, went up there. That was going to be a challenge, and that then came down to the issue of how one is going to support the nuclear weapons work at a level that we can still do our job. We made the case, I thought, extremely well, that we're needed at Los Alamos just as much in this era as we were before. It was not just the case of not testing; it was the case that our production complex had collapsed. Rocky Flats went away. It was raided by the FBI in June of 1989 because of concerns about environmental violations. It never opened up again. Savannah River and Hanford were going down the tubes, and so our production complex was collapsing. Our nuclear testing was taken away, which for better or worse, we relied on nuclear weapons for both weapons design and weapons reliability. We just did it that way. 1,054 tests over the years, the last one being September 23rd of 1992. We made the case that this sort of idea, we called it capability-based deterrence. I actually went to Washington and tried to say, "Look, our laboratory, our people are going to be the deterrent, more so than the bombs themselves. The bombs themselves don't do any good without the scientists and engineers. You're going to need us."

For us, that wasn't the question. The question was just if the budget was going to continue to drop. That's where Vic Reis came in as Assistant Secretary of Defense Programs. Vic is the guy who was able -- he was the synthesizer. He was a strategist. He came from, initially, from Lincoln Labs and through the Department of Defense. He came in and became the spearhead for this idea of science-based stockpile stewardship. So, we were there with Vic. We helped him make the case. Nuclear weapons wasn't his business, but he was smart. He had a PhD. He understood the technologies, and more importantly, he understood people and Washington. He understood what it took. He got the labs to stop fighting each other. I still remember we had this one meeting down in Sandia, and we were drawing up what we would need for a stockpile stewardship. Vic turned to us, we had lab directors and our weapons program people, and Vic said, "Okay, look. Here's the way that Hazel O'Leary, Secretary of Energy, drew the budget. It's going down to 3.5, and then it's going down to 3 billion. That's the peace dividend. That's where we're going to go with the nuclear weapons budget. What you guys can do is you can fight with each other and see who can get the biggest piece of that declining budget, or you can work with me and see if we can keep the budget up." That's the challenge. So, we did. The labs stopped fighting. The labs always fought with each other, especially Los Alamos and Livermore. We used to have this funny saying that during the Cold War, the Soviet Union was our adversary. Our enemy was Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Everybody at Los Alamos knew that. They knew it. And then, the big challenge came with something called the Galvin Task Force, set up in 1994 to take a look at the future of the nuclear weapons lab and the future of the DOE laboratories. I actually had something to do with that task force being set up in that I recommended Bob Galvin, the chairman of the board of Motorola, to chair that. I had gotten to know Bob, and I was trying to get the laboratory into the spirit of total quality management. What I liked better was continuous quality improvement. Motorola was the epitome of an American company that knew how to do that at the time.

So, I got to know Bob. He came to the lab, and he had been the chair of this task force. Then, he had some people on this task force who were determined to wipe out Livermore. So, the task force actually recommended that Livermore be farmed out to do non-nuclear weapons related work. We only had one physics laboratory and Sandia laboratory, and we can do the job. I thought that was a very, very bad idea. Some of the other recommendations I thought were quite sensible: give the labs more leeway, give them more latitude in how they spend their budget, get the government bureaucrats out of the way. All of that was good. But to wipe out Livermore at a time when this country was still spending such enormous amounts of money on the other outposts of the DOE enterprise, I thought was just criminal. So, I actually worked to say let's make sure we do everything we can do to save Livermore. Indeed, Livermore was saved. Thank God, as far as I'm concerned. Vic Reis managed to keep our budget up at this $4.5 billion level, and actually, in recent years, that budget has gone up substantially from there. But for the most part, it's not to do a lot of good, exciting things. For the most part, it's gone into whether there are security upgrades. It's just not gone into making sure that we can take care, both intellectually, and from an engineering standpoint, of our stockpile into the future without nuclear testing. That's a pity. 

Zierler:

Sig, I wonder, if you didn't tempt yourself to start thinking about stepping down from the directorship until you were confident that you had managed this turbulent time of transition toward a long-term, stable future for the lab. 

Hecker:

Yeah, that's interesting. If you talk to my wife, she'll tell you that she never wanted me to be director, but she said, "Okay, you can do it for five years." I said, "No, honey. You can't do this job for five years. I've got too much to learn. Five to ten years." So, at the end of ten years, she said, "Sig, do you remember you told me no longer than ten years?" I said, "Yeah, I remember that." However, at ten years' time, this was then 1995, we were going through budget cuts at that time. Regardless of stockpile stewardship, there were still these problems. We were laying of people and I had not yet been able to get the lab to make this transition and make it in a healthy manner. Healthy from the standpoint of budgets, and people, and so forth. So, at that point, I stayed on for two more years. It did that for a whole bunch of reasons. We did manage to turn the budget around, and by 1997, in November, when I stepped out, the budget was in pretty good shape. We had a pretty good idea of where we needed to go with stockpile stewardship. I also thought it would be a really good time to go back into the scientific world. Being out of it, for the most part, for 12 years, in most areas you'd be outdated. You wouldn't have much chance. But it turns out, in plutonium science I wasn't outdated. That more or less had stood still because as it was clear nuclear weapons stuff was going down and down, there was less and less interest. There was less and less science, and we had to change the scientific look at plutonium. Not just how to make a better alloy, or how to manufacture it better. Now we've got to make this stuff last a lot longer. Even if we reproduce it, we no longer have a Rock Flats. We have to manufacture the plutonium components differently than we ever did before, or we've got to extend the lifetime longer. We'd never studied in great detail the aging, the degradation of plutonium. So, I said, that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to go back to that world, and by that time, I'd done a lot of work with the Russians on the international issues and started to work with the Chinese. So, I said, "Okay, I'll dedicate myself. I'll drop out of the directorship, and go back to the faculty, so to speak, and I'll do those two things." The president of California, Dick Atkinson, actually also asked me to be his advisor on the labs. So, I looked at that for one month's time, and after one month I told Dick, "Hey, this doesn't work. I'm not running the lab anymore. What in the world am I going to tell John Browne, my successor? That's their job, not my job. You don't need me. You don't need a former director haggling with these guys who are now trying to work in a world that's their world." So, I just did those two things, and in the plutonium world, my main ambition was to bring the scientific excitement back to doing plutonium research. So, I got back in that world, I worked with this incredibly ingenious woman by the name of Nikki Cooper, who actually has a PhD in physics from Brown University. She was managing Los Alamos Science Magazines at the time. I put the effort in with Nikki, and particularly, her great guidance helped. We put out two volumes of Los Alamos Science on plutonium science in the year 2000. Those really helped to regenerate the interest in plutonium science. That was now 20 years ago. That was great, great fun. I really enjoyed it. It was an enormous challenge, but it was fun to do. 

Zierler:

What work was required to make plutonium science fun again in a post-Cold War world?

Hecker:

The scientific challenge of trying to understand. The thing is plutonium is so complicated that if you understand that, that will actually help in understanding some of the other materials and physics phenomena. So, a quick explanation of why plutonium is so interesting, of course. Plutonium is interesting application-wise for its physics properties. Critical mass, ability to have a chain reaction, generates enough neutrons that you can do that. Of course, you use it in reactors. Even if you don't have plutonium starting in the fuel, uranium makes the plutonium and burn the plutonium in place. And then you use it for weapons. So, that's for physics reasons. Even when you use it as a nuclear battery, it's also physics that the alpha decay heats the plutonium, and they go from there. Everything else has the electrons. It's not the nuclear physics that matters.

What's so interesting when I worked on them -- I still work on part of my time trying to understand -- is that when you look at the actinides, the last row in the period table, and you go across from actinium, and you get to uranium, neptunium, plutonium, and you get to americium, curium, and so forth. So, if you look at what the electrons do as you add one more electron, one more proton, what you find is that at plutonium, there is a knife-edge transition. Before plutonium, for uranium and neptunium, the electrons are actually bonding. They're itinerant. So, just like in a piece of iron, or aluminum, the electrons in there are just circling around. They participate in the bonding. So, as you add more electrons, that pulls the lattice structure together, and it decreases the volume of the lattice, the metal in this case. As you get past plutonium, you find out that the electrons are now no longer out there circling around, itinerant and bonding. They're localized in the core, and that means they're not bonding. They're chemically inactive. So, that, then, expands the volume. The change between the two happens right at plutonium. Not between americium, plutonium, and then neptunium going back, but right at plutonium. One phase of plutonium to the other. It turns out, plutonium has this incredibly sensitive situation that you can perturbate these electrons from participating in chemical bonding to being localized and being inactive. You can tickle that, almost anything changes it. As you take plutonium from room temperature, where it's this terribly complex monoclinic crystal structure which is like a mineral, and is terribly brittle, and you raise the temperature, by the time you get to 120 degrees C, it already changes to a different phase. Then, it changes again. By the time it melts, which is a very low melting point of 641 C, you've gone through six allotropic phases, six different crystal structures, and a volume change of some 20%. So, if you go the other direction and cast plutonium, you lock in the liquid, and it turns out the electrons are actually pretty happy in the liquid, and you solidify plutonium -- again, when you take almost all of the metals, when you solidify them they shrink. That's what happens, except for water. When you go to ice, it expands. Well, plutonium expands. It expands. So, it actually makes casting plutonium easy.

But right after it solidifies to the first phase, then it goes to these 20% volume changes until you get down to room temperature. There's almost nothing you can keep intact when the volume changes that dramatically. That whole electronic structure, the understanding of that, and by the time you get to that part of the periodic table, now you have what are called 5f electrons, these f electrons are not symmetric like the nice, easy electrons at the beginning of the periodic table that are called s electrons. The f electrons are complex symmetry, and they change everything. So, understanding that is important to lots of other things in physics, and material science. Why would somebody want to study plutonium? It's that complex electronic structure, and the effect that it has on magnetic properties and everything else. That's what makes it so fascinating. Those two volumes of Los Alamos Science lay out all of those challenges. The reason people should be looking at it after the time we wrote that is that in the old days we didn't have the modern instrumentation to actually be able to probe these materials and understand what's going on at the atom and electronic level. Now one does, so you have these big light sources, and these X-ray capabilities that we didn't have before. You have transmission electron microscopy to study the specific structure of the plutonium. That was too difficult to do back in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. So, you have all those put together. That's the good part. The bad part is it's not easy to work with. You have to work with it in glove boxes, and that's not so easy, but it's a heck of a challenge. 

Zierler:

I suppose one of the challenges of being such young director is that in a senior fellow position, you really have much of your career ahead of you for what otherwise might be looked at as an emeritus kind of position. I'm curious, was your intention to stay at Los Alamos for the long term, and the opportunity at Stanford just sort of presented itself, or at some point were you looking for a change of scenery?

Hecker:

First of all, if I may, the issue of youth and directorship -- sometimes when I've been asked what one of the main things was I brought to the directorship, one of my answers is youth. I was a better director then than I'd be now. I'm so much smarter in the ways of Washington, and the ways the world ticks or doesn't tick. I know all those things. 

Zierler:

It's energy, right?

Hecker:

It's not just energy. It's the fact that you don't know what's not possible. That's really important. I did have the energy. I've got pretty good energy now, but not as a 42 year old. For example, there was almost nothing that people would bring to me to which I wouldn’t say, "This is fantastic. Let's go do it." That's how the human genome project started. Human genome, for the most part, we at Los Alamos -- I personally went to Washington to sell the start of the human genome project. Very few people know that. The other parts that were really instrumental for human genome was Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Both of us had superb bioscience capabilities. What was most important for human genome was computers – 3 billion base pairs, how do you keep track of the patterns? You need big computers. We had big computers. Second, is laser-based cell sorting. We developed that at Los Alamos. We had guys who could do this fast, do the cells sorting, and we had guys with big computers. They came to me and said, "Hey, there are a few of the guys in the biosciences that are interested. We think we can do this." I said, "Wow, that is really something. If we could do this, this would be incredible."

So, I went to Washington to help sell the human genome project. Thanks to Joe Salgado at DOE and there was also one of our former post docs at Los Alamos, Charles DeLisi, who happened to be in the Office of Energy Research at DOE at the time. He was a major, major proponent. He was helpful, and the Livermore guys were helpful. At any rate, we helped to start the human genome project almost over the dead bodies of the bioscience community. They called it the SSC of biology. They thought we don't need to do big physics. We do laboratory scale work. So, the reason I say this story, today, if somebody would come to me, I'd say, "You can't do that. You've got the NIH. Those are the guys who get $30 billion a year of research money. What are you going to do as a weapons lab to start the human genome project?" I didn't know what was impossible, and you have all these incredibly ingenious guys at these laboratories. You have to learn how to filter out the stuff which doesn't make any sense, but if it's a matter of just saying this really makes sense scientifically, and it's important for the country and for mankind, we'll go sell it. I probably wouldn't do that now. There are many other examples like that where I was willing to do things that I would now say I'm too smart, but I was right when I was young. That's one of the things. You wanted to follow up on why I leave Los Alamos, right?

Zierler:

Correct. 

Hecker:

Okay. So, here I was, and I tried to decide, when I stepped down from the directorship, what to do. We still had a daughter in school, so my wife was not keen on leaving Los Alamos. I was not keen on doing anything administrative. So, in essence, I gave the keys to John Browne, my successor, and I said, "If you need me, call me." That's the way I've been with all the directors. A couple of them called, but very few of them -- they run the show as far as the lab is concerned. I was happy with that. That is not an issue. But I have done some pretty important things from a national perspective. I did have the itch to do important things, in addition to plutonium science. There, fortunately, what I found was the international aspects of nuclear things. So, that's really what I sank my teeth into. Particularly, the work with the Russians. Cooperative work after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. I worked with the Chinese, when we were afraid, perhaps, similar things may happen in China. Then, my Stanford buddy, John Lewis, took me to North Korea for the first time in January of 2004. The Stanford guys also introduced me to the Indian-Pakistani situation. I was still at Los Alamos, going into 2005, heavily involved with Russia. Just to give you an example. I still work with the Russians. It's a different setup today, but I've been to Russia 57 times since 1992 when I first went. I've been to China, I think, 39 times. I've been to North Korea 7 times.

So, I did all of those things and I was pretty comfortable with that combination. Then, what really happened is that the government, in its infinite wisdom, decided in 2004, going into 2005 timeframe, that it would no longer just extend the University of California's contract to manage the laboratories. It would for the first time since 1943 compete the contract. There would be preference to sort of an industrial, for profit contract arrangement, because they thought the laboratories were not sufficiently incentivized to manage these laboratories in a way that the country needed it. The way the country needed it was to make sure that the laboratories complied with all the rules and regulations. It was not whether the laboratory could actually do the job that the country needed it to do. So, that, I felt, was such a huge mistake. The idea of monetary incentivizing. The idea of getting University of California out. The only reason I came to Los Alamos in the end was because the nameplate said Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory Operated by the University of California. If it hadn't said that, even though I'd like the skiing and other things, I wouldn't have wound up at Los Alamos. It was the way to attract the best of the talents. We were there doing the job for the country. Particularly, in the nuclear weapons part. This was a job that was for the U.S. government. How you could monetize that, how you could they somehow put that into industrial hands. I didn't know. So, I said, in like February of 2005, that I'm going to announce my retirement when this contract is up at the end of June, 2005. I'm going to do that so I can go back to Washington and tell them this is really a stupid idea. You shouldn't put the contract up for bid. I can do it without saying that I have a personal stake. I've already made the decision, I'm going to retire from Los Alamos, but I'm going to do that for the sake of the country. That's the way I felt. It turns out, at the same time, my Stanford colleagues came calling. It was a combination of many of them, all the way from the former Secretary of Defense, Bill Perry, who I wound up teaching a class as soon as I got there, Mike May, who was former director at Lawrence Livermore, who was at the center. I wound up taking over one of his classes. Scott Sagan, who finally convinced me that there is science in political science. I never believed that before.

 

Zierler:

I just want to mention there that as a graduate student, I remember reading Sagan's work on nuclear theory. It was one of those lightbulb moments where it was, wow, that's really how this works. He had a big impression on me. 

Hecker:

When I went to Stanford, he had a big impact on me. I eventually wound up being co-director with him for six years, but running the little center was a lot different than the laboratory. Anyway, it was that which triggered that I should retire. By that time, our last daughter was out of school. I had several other places interested, including a couple of university positions, including some university president positions. But I decided I didn't want to go back into principally a management job. So, the Stanford job finally allowed me, after all those years, to become a professor type. Particularly, it really gave me the freedom to do the international work the way that it should be done. The plutonium science, I kept in touch, but no longer doing the forefront research. I work with people here at Los Alamos. I still have an office. I still work with them on plutonium science, particularly as to how you translate that plutonium science into aging of plutonium, into lifetime extension. But I made the switch and then, particularly, the teaching part, I was very much looking forward to it, and it's even greatly exceeded my fondest expectations. It's just been rewarding. 

Zierler:

On that note, if you're amenable, I'm still going strong. Should we take a five minute intermission and then wrap on with your work at Stanford and beyond?

Hecker:

That sounds good.

Zierler:

Alright, I'll see you in five. 

Hecker:

Very good. Thank you.  ***BREAK***

Hecker:

Okay, back to you. 

Zierler:

Okay, my first question here is were you excited to join a university and to have a professor's life which you never had up until this point, essentially?

Hecker:

The answer is yes. I was very excited, and really looking forward to it. As I mentioned, my first offer was 1968. So, it took me a long time until I got there in 2005. But I had no regrets for the path that I took. Particularly, for the sort of courses that I wound up teaching, and the activities that I undertook at Stanford were much better for the fact that I had the sort of career that I did, rather than just the straight college and university career. 

Zierler:

It's interesting how before you were lab director, you had relatively little experience with Washington, and then later on, you really developed a taste and a talent for not only domestic politics, but international politics. I'm curious how you saw the move to Stanford as an opportunity to work internationally on issues that were important to you both personally and scientifically.

Hecker:

One of the reasons was just watching the Stanford professors. Particularly, the professor who took me to North Korea for the first time, John Lewis. He did what one calls track two engagement, and that is non-official, non-governmental engagement. When I saw him operate, I realized that provides an independence that really is both good for the professor, but it's also good for the government. Particularly, what it allowed me to do is as long as I was at Los Alamos, I had to keep my eye on the technical issues. That was my job. Particularly, as the director of Los Alamos. My job was to give the technical judgments, to provide the technical input, not the policy related things. The policies were made by the government. We were there to implement or to come up with new ideas, but it was not for us to do the policy. For example, as I went through lots of the interesting and complicated issues that I had on the table as Los Alamos director, probably one of the most important and complicated was the issue of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. What I'm asked by the president, in essence, through his representative Department of Energy and Department of Defense as to whether or not we had to test to keep the weapons safe and reliable. My job was to answer the technical question. If we just fast forward to Stanford, I was asked that question many other times at Stanford. I participated in various seminars. I went to Washington. So, once I was at Stanford, then I was able to talk about the technical and the trade-off -- from a policy standpoint. For example, on the technical part, even today and the last few days I've had queries about this issue of some in the Trump administration want to go back to nuclear testing, and what did I think about this? There are many in the arms control community that will make the case that there's no scientific basis for going back to nuclear testing. If that means there's nothing to be gained scientifically, that's just not true. Especially since plutonium is something I've worked with for 55 years, off and on, we don't have all the answer for plutonium. How it ages, the remanufacturing -- we do the best we can. But certainly, there are things we could learn by testing. However, now I could also put to that if we do that, then that creates vulnerabilities that make it not worthwhile. In other words, we would lose more than we would gain. What we would lose is the fact that the United States has done 1,054 nuclear tests. 24 of those were done with the Brits. Russia's done 715. France has done maybe 210. I think that's the number. China 45. India, 6. Pakistan, 6. North Korea, 6. You don't want to open that door for them. If we go back to testing because there are some things we'd like to know that would help us, then we open up for China. There's just no way they know as much about the nuclear business as we do. The Russians know as much as we do, but the Chinese don't. So, now, I can combine those two. The same goes when I go to North Korea, and the North Koreans said early on they want the light water reactor. There are neo-cons in Washington, in various administrations, that have said, "No, no. You can't believe those guys. They lie and cheat. You can't let them have anything nuclear." Now, try to lay out to them that the risks that you take with a light water reactor are very small compared to them continuing what they're doing now. So, that was the beauty of Stanford. Now, you all of a sudden not only have the liberty to do that, but you almost have the responsibility to do that. 

Zierler:

What did you see as some of the major challenges with nuclear security in North Korea when you first got involved in the issues?

Hecker:

I went there first in 2004, in January. I was not involved with North Korea before. The scientists at Los Alamos, some of them had been to North Korea as part of the Clinton-era deal of what was called the Agreed Framework. So, they knew quite a bit about the reactor at the time. By the time I got there, the North Koreans had walked away from the Agreed Framework only because the Bush Administration killed it after the Clinton Administration went out of office. The Bush Administration killed it, and the North Koreans started up their nuclear program again. They used my visit as a way to convince the American government that they ought to be paying attention because, "you walked away, you killed this thing, and we built a bomb." This was in 2003, and the U.S. government was otherwise occupied in a place called Iraq. We weren't paying enough attention. We did not fully appreciate what restarting that complex would actually mean. That's what I brought back, and I was able to see it firsthand, really firsthand. It wound up North Koreans had all of this figured out. In order to convince me without showing me the bomb, they actually showed me the plutonium that they'd made in the facility where they'd reprocessed the plutonium. I wound up holding the plutonium in a glass jar in my hand, because I didn't have any instruments. I wanted to make sure it was heavy, because plutonium is very dense, and that it was warm. It was very warm. I went seven years in a row, and each of those years I'd come back with the best assessment that you could make of what North Korea actually has, and what it might mean. Even though I was at Stanford, I was not working for the government, I felt it was crucial to get that information back to the government. So, I've worked very closely with all of the administrations, with all the people that had the responsibility of dealing with North Korea. I continue to do that today. I haven't been back since 2010, but I still do all the analytics. 

Zierler:

How could you be confident that the North Koreans were showing you what you needed to see in order to make the assessments that Washington relied on?

Hecker:

This was actually quite a touchy situation, in that when I went with John Lewis -- I would have never gone by myself -- when I went with John Lewis, who had been there eight times before. He did the track two with North Korea. When I went with him, the people in the NSC at the White House did not want me to go. The only reason I wound up going is Linton Brooks, the administrator at that time for the National Nuclear Security Administration of the DOE, thought it was a good idea because we'd learn something. There was one person in the State Department that thought it was a good idea, even though most of the CIA was against it. So, I went knowing that they did not like this. The main reason they didn't like this is because they thought I'd be used for propaganda. So, my main concern was precisely to make sure I can answer that question that you asked. How do I really know what I saw, and how do I interpret it? Probably, the most careful congressional testimony I've ever given was the one I gave when I came back from North Korea. This was on January 21st of 2004. I wrote it out to make sure that I really got it right. The way that I did this congressional testimony was to say, "This is what the North Koreans showed me. This is what the North Koreans told me. This is what I interpret that to be, or to mean." It turns out, the North Koreans didn't try to give me a bunch of bull. They knew who I was. They knew I knew something about nuclear stuff, and they would answer my questions incredibly frankly until I got to a boundary where they must have been told, "Don't let him get beyond this point." So, if I asked a question like, what are the isotopics of this plutonium, because it turns out that's' important for bomb design, they said, "Well, Dr. Hecker, we're not authorized to tell you that." So, a couple of times they would say, "We're not authorized to tell you that," but the rest of the stuff they told me, I was still -- since there was such skepticism -- there was an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal that talked about this Potemkin trip that an American delegation took to North Korea, that what we saw was a Potemkin village. It wasn't the real thing. They pulled the wool over our eyes. Well, it turns out, a couple years later, they finally set one off and did a nuclear test. Since then, they've done another five, including what was likely a hydrogen bomb. They didn't pull the wool over my eyes. They leveled. They told me what they wanted me to know. I confirmed that, and I was able to do that on the basis of having been in the nuclear business for 40 year prior to that. 

Zierler:

Based on all of your visits there and all of your conferring with colleagues and experts in the field, knowing what you knew then, and seeing where North Korea is now in the nuclear front, what surprises you, and what confirms what you might have been suspicious of all along?

Hecker:

On the nuclear part, there's almost no surprise. When I was there, I'd talk with them first. This wasn't like going to Russia, where you dealt with close to Nobel laureates, or people who just had enormously fantastic scientific training. That wasn't North Korea. However, what I found is extremely competent engineers. So, there was no question to me that these guys could build a bomb. When they showed me that piece of plutonium, it turns out, it was a thin-walled, funnel-shaped piece. You can't make thin-walled plutonium like that in the alpha phase. You have to alloy it. They knew how to alloy. I had this fantastic discussion with them about plutonium, what they alloyed it with, what the density was, and so forth. These guys knew everything. They did the plutonium extraction with the Purex process. They knew how to run the gas graphite reactor. They knew all that. I said, "These guys can build the bomb, and the longer they're at this, they'll be able to do just about anything." A bit of a surprise is how well they've done the past few years on the missile end. That's a bit better than I would have expected based on the early testing history. But their testing has really come on strong the last few years. My current assessment is still they have not yet done enough tests, both nuclear and missile tests, to put a miniaturized warhead in an ICBM and deliver it to the United States. That will require more testing of both. But essentially, none of the rest surprised me. What is the real surprise is how administration after administration, we can make such crucial mistakes to let the North Koreans get to that point. 

Zierler:

This presumes that we had the option to not allow the North Koreans to become a nuclear state. 

Hecker:

Precisely. And not by bombing the hell out of them. I'm writing a book, as we speak, on this whole subject about North Korea. The book essentially takes the following approach: if you ask, were the North Koreans ever serious about giving up the weapons? Are they serious now? Are they willing to give up the weapons? The answer is, yes, I think they've been serious, but they've carried a dual track approach, essentially, for the last 30-some years. They've given the diplomacy a try, and then have tried. Depending on how far they would get, they would either slow down, or perhaps, eventually, stop the nuclear weapons program. In every administration, we had those opportunities and we've blown it. It doesn't matter whether it was Bush, Obama, or Trump. We've had those opportunities and we didn't do the right sort of risk assessment in order to guide the political decision. We were bound by ideology, and restricted, in a way, which is a good thing, from taking military action. That would just, with South Korea sitting that close to the demilitarized zone, the North Koreans don't need nuclear weapons to just wreak havoc in Seoul. So, a military attack doesn't make any sense. The rest of the approaches the administrations have taken have been terribly ineffective. That's been the biggest surprise. By the way, it's not because I haven't tried to counsel them. I've worked with each administration, and I guess you could say, I wasn't very successful. 

Zierler:

Clearly, Sig, there were opportunities lost in terms of the efforts to prevent the North Koreans from becoming a nuclear power. I wonder, though, there are differing schools of thought on what the long-term effects of having nuclear weapons on any given state would be. In some regards, they do have a stabilizing effect in the sense that it gives the regime a greater sense of security, and perhaps less of an appetite to lash out at perceived threats. I wonder if you can convey your long-term thinking on what the overall security situation in northeast Asia looks like, because the North Koreans are a nuclear power, and they will presumably remain so for the foreseeable future. 

Hecker:

I think that is true. They will remain so for the foreseeable future. I laid out a framework or roadmap back in 2018, before the Singapore Summit. I laid out what I thought was a possible pathway so that in ten years' time, they might decide they're better off without nuclear weapons than with nuclear weapons. It would take a lot of work on both sides. I think, in the end, as far as North Korea is concerned, I still feel very strongly that they'll never be able to get the lives of their people sufficiently improved, their economy sufficiently modern without international help and interaction, and joining the international community. My view is they should not be allowed to do that with nuclear weapons. My view is still very strongly that the world is safer with fewer fingers on the nuclear trigger. So, yes, to some extent, nuclear weapons, you could say, bring some stability. Deterrence has worked, but we've also been very lucky. The larger n-body problem that you make it, the more dangerous a situation it is, in terms of potential instabilities, miscalculations or accidents. So, my opinion is, especially in northeast Asia with China sitting on one side, and South Korea and Japan having decided that nuclear weapons are not in their interest as long as they have a strong alliance with the United States. Unfortunately, the current administration is really crumbling that, and that's probably one of the worst things as far as stability of northeast Asia is concerned.

My view is, the way I would look at this, North Korea has to look at this. It can never join the family of nations until it gives up nuclear weapons. The path to getting there is going to take a long time, and it's going to take a lot of things that we have to do. In the end, unless they feel secure, they're not going to give up nuclear weapons. There's no piece of paper that's going to make them feel secure. It's going to be a ten year or more challenge in the way we work with each other to do so. But in the end, we'll be better off without nuclear weapons. In the meantime, we're going to have to learn, and are learning, how to live with that danger. What's actually happening in the past few years, of all things in the Trump Administration, is actually positive. In 2017, when Trump first came in, he made it worse, without question, with the threats of fire and fury like you've never seen before. We looked over at North Korea, and we essentially knew nothing about Kim Jong-un. We know absolutely nothing about their military. Fortunately, we do know something about the nuclear complex, because I've been there quite a few times. I have great respect, actually, as it turns out, for the professionalism of those guys. But when you know nothing, then the chance of a misunderstanding, or miscalculation is that much greater. So, an accident of some sort could happen. That was the danger. What Trump has done by meeting with Kim Jong-un, now we actually now know something about him. We know something about his sister. We still don't know much about the military. But the overall tensions have actually decreased. That was Singapore. Unfortunately, Hanoi was a huge disappointment. That was another one of what I call those missed opportunities. We had an opportunity, we should have taken it, we didn't, and now we've paid the price for a year and a half since that time, which is unfortunate. 

Zierler:

What was your reaction when the Trump Administration decided to pull out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, and in what was is your experience in North Korea relevant for understanding the situation in Iran, and in what ways is the situation in Iran totally unique?

Hecker:

Well, I've actually dealt with the Iranians also. In 2007, I came within a week of going over there. We had it all set up, and then the regime jailed our interlocutor. So, my wife says, "No way are you going to Iran." She wasn't happy about my going to Iran anyway. She also wasn't happy about my going to Pakistan. So, I've stayed very close to the Iran situation as well. I didn't go over there, but I met with the Iranians once in The Hague, and once in New York City. Actually, just before the negotiations started for the JCPOA. I met with the foreign minister, and I met with the people who were running their nuclear facilities. I've learned a lot about the Iranian program. Without giving too long an answer, let me say that pulling out of JCPOA was the wrong thing to do. Typically, what we've seen from the Trump Administration, even sometimes when they do the right things, it's for the wrong reasons, and it's not defensible. But in this case, we have sufficient concern in issues about Iran and what they're doing with the nuclear program. However, the JCPOA moved us away from what looked to be a cliff. It didn't solve the overall problem. Just like in the Clinton time, what we learned, to answer your question, the Agreed Framework during the Clinton time did not solve the whole North Korea problem. It was one step. We had a superb diplomat, namely Bob Gallucci, and Gallucci had it figured out as to what's possible. The idea was to take us back from what might be a cliff with North Korea and going over that cliff towards nuclear weapons. That's what was put together. It turns out, it left a door, because North Korea decided to do this, open for them to pursue uranium enrichment. And they did. So, in essence, not in the spirit of that agreement, they pursued the uranium as they were viewing questions about the Agreed Framework, whether the U.S. was really doing its part or not. But pulling out was the wrong decision at that time. The Trump Administration pulling out of the JCPOA is very similar. There were issues with the JCPOA. It didn't solve the whole problem. It didn't solve the problem of Iran as a sponsor of terrorism. It didn't have the missile part in the equation. It only had the nuclear fuel cycle part in the equation. It didn't have the fact that Iran supports the Hezbollah, and the Hamas, and the Houthis. But it was one piece that moved us away. So, it was a mistake in my opinion. It was the wrong thing to do.

However, what we've learned since then, which is really important to factor in, and we could have factored in in a different way, is the so-called nuclear archive. This incredibly raid that the Israelis made in a warehouse in Tehran that brought out these 80,000 pages of documents, and I don't know how many magnetic tapes, describing the Iranian nuclear program up to 2003. So, my view in 2015 when JCPOA was signed was that, yes, Iran had done all of the work it needed to do to build the bomb if it got the fissile materials. For them, that was highly enriched uranium. It turns out, they did have a plutonium production reactor under construction that they actually killed as part of the JCPOA. Nobody talks about that. That was a very good thing from our standpoint. So, they had all the things in place to build a bomb. What the archives told me, the ones that I've seen, is that they not only had all the things in place to build a bomb, they had everything lined up to have a nuclear arsenal, and to have that bomb deliverable with a nuclear missile. They had taken that program much farther than almost all of us had anticipated. That should be reckoned with now, with the Iranians. You say, "For heaven's sakes, don't give me this stuff anymore. You were doing this nuclear energy business. Those archives demonstrated that you guys had a nuclear weapons arsenal program. Now, you're going to have to take some additional steps that can convince us that we're still on the right path." Once he walked away, then you lost all of that. 

Zierler:

You've been involved in ensuring that the former Soviet Union nuclear stockpile is maintained and reduced and contained in the most comprehensive way possible. Of course, this is an ongoing project. What work remains to be done in that area?

Hecker:

Let's see. That requires several answers in somewhat different directions. When the Soviet Union dissolved, there, the major issue was how do they bring those weapons back and disassemble them safely and securely? And the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, and what we called the Lab to Lab Program, was set up to help that process. In other words, we worked cooperatively with the Russians to make sure they disassembled their own weapons. They keep weapons because the whole deal was not that they were going to get rid of nuclear weapons. They were just going to decrease them substantially, just as we were going to decrease them. So, that part of the work was done. The weapons were going to come back from the independent countries of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. Very successful by 1996, or so. We, the Americans, helped both in terms of some design aspects, but also financially, to have them build a plutonium storage facility that would be able to store the plutonium safely and securely that they brought back from all those nuclear weapons. Securely, because we were considered that with the Soviet Union coming apart, Russia, now having political and economic chaos, that the nuclear materials would not be safe and secure within this Russia. So, we worked with all that. That's a tremendous success. The issue of the nuclear materials security, the nuclear materials were all over in many, many locations, many, many buildings. As you probably know, it takes on the order of six kilograms of plutonium to make a bomb. It takes on the order of a few tens of kilograms of highly enriched uranium to make a bomb. The Soviet Union, when it collapsed, we don't know exactly how much -- I don't think they know either -- but somewhere around 1.4 million kilograms of this stuff. We worked with that, and that was my major interest with the Russians, their nuclear weapons labs, and their atomic ministry, to help them now to develop modern techniques for being able to safeguard those nuclear materials. As we look now, that's been a tremendous success, because rather little nuclear materials got out. So, the safety and security of all that, and the whole cooperative threat reduction effort, I think, was very successful. So, that's part of the answer. I'm not sure, David. Was that part of your question?

Zierler:

Yeah, absolutely. 

Hecker:

What's happened since, though, and what gets us to the current day? So, where are they today? From all of those things, in much better shape than they were in 1992. There's no comparison. Much, much better. They've taken care of it themselves, but we've worked with them on methodology. Overall, the Nunn-Lugar program cost this country $12 billion, and much of that was directed working with Russia. While all of that was going on, then by the early 2000s, I think particularly once the United States withdrew from the ABM treaty, and once Putin got his legs on the ground on solid footing, and he was very, very concerned about the ABM treaty withdrawal. Also, very concerned about the encroachment of NATO into his sphere of influence. Then, somewhere by the late 2000s, I believe that then Russia started off into the direction of developing new nuclear weapons systems. Some of those, I believe, violated the INF treaty, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. That was already known in the Obama Administration. Again, it's another case where Trump withdrew from that treaty. There was reason to make sure the Russians understood we knew they were violating. There were ways to try to address that. Withdrawal was not the right way. In addition, and most egregiously, Russia has developed three whole new nuclear weapons systems that are not covered, at this point, by the New Start Agreement. That's this underwater -- Poseidon, as they call it -- underwater torpedo, essentially an underwater drone that would float into New York Harbor and blow it all up, cause a tsunami, and in addition, spike this all this radiological stuff that strewn all over New York Harbor. So, that's one. Putin has said, "You go ahead, you guys in America, and tell me how your ABM system is going to handle that one." So, chalk up one for Putin. Another one, they're working on hypersonics. We're working on hypersonics, but the difference is they're working on hypersonics, and they're going to put a nuclear weapon on a hypersonic vehicle. To me, that's just crazy. Without additional nuclear testing, the problems that you have that the warhead has to survive under those circumstances is just too dangerous. So, the third one is the one that would be a nuclear-powered craft that would be up there circulating around the Earth as long as they have to, until at one point they would then have a nuclear weapon that would be deployed from that. That's apparently the one that they had this nuclear accident with out in Siberia a year or so ago, where they were working on the reactor generator for this nuclear weapon.

So, the problem with Russia is on a security front, so far, the news is generally good news. The bad news is that nuclear safety and nuclear security, whether you're talking Chernobyl, or whether you're talking about the theft of a nuclear material of a nuclear warhead, nuclear safety and nuclear security are never done. They're never done. They're not a destination; they're a journey, as I like to say. As soon as we become complacent, it comes back to haunt you. Of course, Chernobyl is one of those cases. First of all, nuclear safety and nuclear security requires cooperation. It requires sharing best practices, and it requires sharing of lessons learned. We're no longer working with them on those because the Russians have cut it out. That's unfortunate. But overall, they're in better shape than they were 20-some years ago. On these new weapons, something has to be done to get back to an arms control discussion. It's just crazy for them to do that. Of course, with the INF, the U.S. has decided maybe we should build a weapon with new nuclear capabilities, unlike what George H.W. Bush said in 1992. So, you get off, and you start worrying about are we actually going back towards an arms race? That's the wrong direction to go as far as I'm concerned. So, that's the concern I see about Russia today.

 

Zierler:

Of course, with all of this work, you've done it in the capacity of being an unofficial advisor, so to speak, of the United States government. Your affiliation, of course, is with Stanford. In what ways has that affiliation been an asset to your work, and in what ways has it limited what you've been able to accomplish relative to what the government actually needs form all of your work?

Hecker:

I think for the most part it's been an asset. The people at Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia, are still there to give them the best and the latest technical advice. To do technical analysis. I mean, they do that for proliferation problems. They do it for Russia. They do it for all these other things. So, they still have all of these superb technical people there. They're better informed in the latest than I am. What I'm able to add, and the reason it's an asset, is I'm able to add this other policy dimension, because in the end, a technically informed risk analysis has to marry the policy and the technical issues. What the government gets mostly from its intelligence community is worst case scenarios. Even when they ask and task the lab, in many cases, they also get -- what's possible? What's the worst case scenario? What I'd do is from my experience that's not the best way to make policy. Best way to make policy is you have to look at what's the likeliest scenario? How do I trade the risks and the benefits of these things off against each other? So, like the question of a light water reactor, I was there discussing that with the Bush Administration in 2005, after I came back from North Korea. The Bush Administration, particularly some of the hardcore conservatives, said, "Light water reactors can make plutonium, so we're not going to let them have it." I said, "Of course, I know that any reactor that makes neutrons can make plutonium. However, the likelihood of them using a light water reactor to do this when they already have plutonium production reactors, and it's going to take ten years to build a light water reactor system, and they're going be electrifying a good part of North Korea. As soon as they try to subvert it, we'll know it, and we'll turn the fuel off and the lights will go off. That's not a good risk/benefit analysis. So, light water reactors are okay." That's the sort of analysis and judgment that I can bring to the table today. I think for the most part it winds up to be an asset. I think the one limitation -- I should say, all the data is combined with the -- I still have an office at Los Alamos, I still have all the clearances -- the Q clearances and so forth. So, I still have all of those. However, I'm very careful not to get those kinds of briefings from that community when it comes to North Korea or Iran, so that I can actually speak on the basis of my own knowledge, and what I take as open source. So, I always have to consider that issue and that tradeoff.

But I still work with the government all the time. I don't get paid for any of when I work with the government, but it's the service that I think based on the investment the government has made on me over all these years, it's the service where I can pay it back. I should just add one final thing on that. There are many cases where it's really crucial to put that information out there actually counter the garbage that some of the government officials have put out, to try to keep them honest. I can't help but think about this as I go through this Coronavirus stuff. You have Dr. Fauci, and he gives you the judgment based on what he knows, on what's there, what's known about the Coronavirus. Then, you have all these fringe elements feeding in all of this garbage. The nuclear stuff was never that bad. However, it had some of the same effects. We've had people like Vice Presidents, and people in the NSC, and others, say things that simply aren't true. It's important for somebody to be able to stand up.

Zierler:

It's funny that you mentioned Coronavirus, because my next question actually was going to be, we have to remember that Coronavirus, even though it feels like that sometimes, is obviously not the only global threat we need to be concerned about. So, in both the near term and the long term, what are the things that worry you most in the field of nuclear security?

Hecker:

It is security of all things nuclear, and safety of all things nuclear. So, am I concerned about a bolt out of the blue from Russia? No. Actually, I watched and interesting program yesterday on the book called The Button by Secretary William Perry and Tom Collina. They did a very nice job of laying it out, and they said, "We're focused on the wrong risk. The risk that we're focused on is this bolt out of the blue. That's why the president has the single authority on the button." They say that's all too risky. Put all of those things together. I put them together into nuclear security and nuclear safety. Now, through the whole nuclear world, and that's for reactors, and for everything nuclear, including, by the way, those spacecrafts that go out and take the nuclear batteries out into outer space. They can blow up on launch or on abort. So, nuclear accidents can happen unless the system is set up to share lessons learned, to work cooperatively together. So, that's what I'm most concerned about, accidents, misperception, misunderstandings, and some way that will trigger a major nuclear catastrophe. Along with that, sort of in the most likely category is not a nuclear attack from Russia, or from China, or from North Korea. Can't completely rule out India/Pakistan problem. That's very dangerous, so I do worry about that. But again, in terms of a nuclear problem is a terrorist use of a radiological bomb, a dirty bomb. That has worried me for a long, long time. I've worked with our National Academy of Engineering and Sciences. I've worked with the Russians; we still work with the Chinese on those issues. It turns out, unfortunately, because the best, if you can call it that, the best radiological materials that make the worst dirty bomb in terms of the biggest impact, do not use plutonium, or highly enriched uranium. Those are pretty benign, actually. They use the fission products, like cesium 137, and so forth. Those things are in medical facilities all over the world. Millions and millions of those. So, that's not a case like highly enriched uranium and plutonium, where it's reasonably well protected. It's not sufficiently protected, so you can almost say we can't avoid one of those. Then, the issue becomes how do we respond. That's the key. So, what I've tried to work is how do we get ourselves ready for a radiological attack. Particularly, for the second radiological attack. If one happens, and when it shows to the terrorists the sort of havoc that it causes -- it's not going to kill a lot of people but it's going to cause absolute, total havoc. When it shows how effective that is, then you're going to have the copycat effect. So, we need to do much more to get ready for that. Fortunately, there are some people like the Nuclear Threat Initiative that Ted Turner set up, and Sam Nunn and Ernie Moniz, the former Secretary of Energy, are running now. They still worry about those. They still do workshops and work with other countries. I continue to do that with my own contacts, but not enough of that. So, that's a long answer, but that sort of puts them all together. 

Zierler:

It's quite a sobering answer too, Sig. I think for the last part of our discussion, in happier news, let's talk about your life as a professor. You haven't just been a senior statesman at Stanford. You've also been a professor. Can you tell me a little bit about the classes the you've taught that give you greatest enjoyment? Some of your most successful work in student mentorship, and also going right back to the beginning, where and when you've had opportunity to do research in metallurgy, where it all begins for you?

Hecker:

The switch to Stanford and teaching was more rewarding, and more exciting than I had anticipated even. I was expecting to really enjoy teaching, and I've enjoyed it much more than even what I thought. It's been different than what I thought. Over the years, I'd learned pretty well how to give a good lecture. Of course, even before going to Stanford, I had given many, many lectures. So, then I got into the classrooms and I found out that lecturing to students is very different than giving lectures to other professionals, or public lecturers. For the students, it actually matters that they learn something. They have to learn, and if you want them to learn you have to teach differently. You really do have to teach. So, what helped me there is Professor Bill Perry, the former Secretary of Defense, also settled back in at Stanford after his Secretary of Defense assignment, and he was teaching a class that was called ‘The Role of Technology in National Security.’ As soon as I came to Stanford, he asked me to join him in teaching that class. So, the first year or two, I would lecture on nuclear things in his class, and started to help a little bit with grading the papers. The class was taught out of the School of Engineering. Actually, the department that I'm in, the Department of Management, Science, and Engineering, which wasn't the obvious place for me to go, because I'm a materials guy, and Stanford has a very good metallurgy and materials department. But they don't do nuclear things. They gave up nuclear stuff back in the late '60s. At this point, I just wanted to do nuclear.

So, it turns out, that department is also the one that Bill Perry is in and that Mike May from Livermore was in. The reason they picked it, and then I picked it, it deals with risk analysis and decision analysis. That's what's so important in the nuclear arena. I actually thought I could learn a lot from that. Bill had designed this course to do both the policy parts of technology, and then the risk parts, by having the students do things like build a decision tree, so they could actually learn an engineering pathway through making complex decisions. So, I joined him in that. After a couple of years, I sort of started to take over the class, and eventually took it over completely, where Bill just came and did a couple of guest lectures. So, that class I wound up enjoying enormously. It was a huge, I must say, a huge amount of work. Over the 12 years that I taught and ran that class, we averaged 255 students a class. In other words, I was able to reach 3,000 Stanford students. Not many of them were all that concerned about national security related aspects. They'd go to work for Google, Apple, and all the other guys, and Facebook. So, introducing them to these issues was really important.

Then, the teaching, I learned from Bill Perry, quite frankly. He's such a superb lecturer and teacher. So, the few things that I learned, for example, was that you're so much more effective when you lecture, or teach, in the first person. So, you actually know something about that subject, experience in that subject, and you talk about your experience. Bill Perry would talk about those things. He actually is a good historian also, so he'd talk about the Civil War. Then he'd switch to the Cold War and the Russian time, and he can talk about going to Ukraine, going to Russia, and so forth. So, I learned that's a very effective way of teaching. Bill would lecture, I would teach and run the class, and we would bring in people when we came to biological, or to things such as cyber. So, we put together one of the most popular courses at Stanford. It was a course that was taught out of the School of Engineering. However, it had both humanities and engineers, and scientists of course, and had both undergraduate and graduates. So, it was a full-spectrum course. I had so many superb students. I spent enormous amounts of time grading their policy papers, and then re-grading them because we gave them a chance to rewrite them after we marked them all up, on difficult problems, such as chemical weapons in Syria, for example. Or, North Korea is setting off another nuclear test, and what do you do? Or Iran, or Russia, or China. So, that was great fun. The other class that I taught I actually took over from Mike May, the former director of Livermore who came to Stanford. That was exactly the opposite. It was what's called Introsem, Introductory Seminar. It was somewhere around 15 students, typically sophomores. I taught that and essentially designed that course based on my experience. It was all things nuclear: nuclear weapons, nuclear energy, nuclear terrorism, nuclear proliferation. For that course, I really got to know the students, work with them closely, and I just taught it for the last time this spring online. I had 12 students. they were located all over the world, which presented a couple of challenges. So, that part has really been fun, and working with this incredibly bright collection of students at Stanford was just so much fun to do. Many of these students would become my assistants in one way or another, and I've worked with them, and published papers together, and with one of them I'm writing the North Korea book right now. 

Zierler:

What's most important to you personally as a scholar for metallurgy? What do you hope to accomplish in that field, looking forward?

Hecker:

I actually think in metallurgy, I have to look backwards. Not being able to get back in the laboratory at a place like Los Alamos -- of course, right now essentially nobody is in the plutonium laboratory -- not being able to get back in the laboratory, and I'm at heart an experimentalist, sort of limits what I can do in terms of breakthrough science for plutonium. So, in plutonium, the challenge that I'm still very interested and committed to, is with all of those complexities and the challenges that we face in today's world, with no nuclear testing, and essentially not having a real production capability is certainly -- whatever we can shoe nail together is very different from what we used to have. To think through what the issues are that really affect stockpile stewardship, and the future of our stockpile. It's not so much anymore generating new ideas, or new science in plutonium, but it's keeping track of what the new people are doing, the exciting stuff that they're doing in fundamentals of science, and then trying to use that with all the other knowledge I have of the systems, is to make sure that we can keep the nuclear stockpile safe and reliable. 

Zierler:

For my last question, I want to ask you something that's sort of broadly retrospective for your own career, and also has a forward looking component as you look to the future. That is, you came up at a time of -- a golden age in science for the United States, both in the way that the government supported basic science, a time of preeminence of American power in both a military and political and economic sense. Nowadays, a lot of people are looking at the 21st century and talking about the need to manage the decline of the United States in the world. I wonder if using your powers of extrapolation, in what ways is there opportunity to reverse those trends, and in what ways is there opportunity to embrace those trends toward a world of greater cooperation and multilateralism?

Hecker:

I don't necessarily view the U.S. as being in decline. Although, I must confess, in the last three years and this administration, it is declining. My hope is that's temporary. Before that, the way I interpreted what's happening in the rest of the world is we just have to share the world with the rest of the people and the countries. It's not that we're declining, it's that they're improving. They're improving in substantial ways, so we just have to get used to that. We're no longer going to be the single controller. The idea, then, is to take that exactly as you say it and turn it towards where cooperation gives us the advantage. Again, looking back over the years, I think we've done cooperation better than anybody on the whole globe. We used to be the country that the smartest kids in all the rest of the world wanted to come in order to study science, to make it in the sciences. Also, lots of them have stayed here as entrepreneurs. We had to get used to the fact that many of them are then going to go back to their own countries. I view that as generally positive. We used to have a United States where you could be proud of the fact that you hosted students here. You had people who saw how we really function, and they take that back to their own countries, and they're better off for them and for the country. So, I view this is being very differently than being on a permanent decline. We just have to get used to the fact that we have to share this with the rest of the world. We should now start to focus on transitioning to how to stay very, very good. Make sure that we do those things that we need based on cooperation. One of the single most important things is to stay to be the place that kids from all over the world want to come to study, and then perhaps work. Of course, for me, that especially is important because I was one of those kids. 

Zierler:

I was just going to say, it's full circle. 

Hecker:

I didn't come to this country because the U.S. wanted my scientific talents. They didn't know about any talents. I just came because my mother wanted to come here to join my brother, to be in the land of opportunity. The rest, the way I've always liked to look at it is that I certainly worked hard through school. Although high school was easy at Cleveland East High School. Case was not easy. I worked hard. And then I worked and enjoyed working in all of the other positions. So, part of it has been that I was willing to work hard. In the end, I had a good education. But the other part, if I ever look back and say, "How come I've been able to do all of these things?" A few years ago, let me go back and again mention Bob Galvin, who was the chair of Motorola who I got to know very well. He sent me a book that he wrote, and in that book, he had a quotation that I've taken and applied to myself. He was talking about his father, and I'm going to talk about this country. The quotation goes something like this: My country gave me the most demanding gift of all. It trusted me. We've lost that. We've completely lost that. So, as I thought about Galvin, he said that about his father. His father trusted him. I thought about it, this country trusted me. I came here in 1956. I became a citizen in April of 1962. By the summer of 1965, I got a Q-clearance (secret clearance) to go to Los Alamos. Just unbelievable. How could this country have the faith in a kid that came from a part of the world that had World War II not too long ago? It trusted me to do this. I've never forgotten that. So, that's what motivates so many people in this country. That's the part we're losing, but that's the part we can fix because it's self-inflicted. This isn't because of the Chinese, it's not because of the Russians, it's not because of anybody else. We're destroying what made us such a great country that people wanted to come to. 

Zierler:

Well, for all of our collective benefit and wellbeing, I hope we get that back. 

Hecker:

I hope so. 

Zierler:

Sig, it's been an absolute pleasure speaking with you. I want to thank you for your generosity in spending all of this time with me. It's hard to overstate what an important addition this is going to be for the historical record. I really appreciate our time together today. 

Hecker:

Well, thank you, David. Thanks for the good questions. All I can say is I'm sorry for the long answers. 

Zierler:

No, not at all.