One of the key scientists who ushered in the Atomic Age, Edward Teller, 66, is now widely regarded as the dean of American nuclear physics. Budapest-born, he migrated to the United States in 1935. He was a key figure in the Manhattan Project and the so-called Father of the H-bomb. Today, Teller may well influence government weapons policy more than any other scientist. In addition to advising the White House, he is a professor emeritus at Berkeley and co-founder-associate director of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at nearby Liver-more. Recently Teller talked with Christopher P. Andersen of PEOPLE.
Is the danger of a nuclear war greater today than, say, a decade ago?
The danger is greater than it was a decade ago. Peace depends on power in the hands of those who want peace. I’m sure the United States wants peace. I’m also certain that the Russian people want peace. But unfortunately they have very little influence on their government. The fact is that the Soviet Union is now stronger than we are.
When the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks began in 1970, you were concerned that they might work to America’s disadvantage. Have they?
I am somewhat reassured—not about the state of our defense, but about the public’s awareness of a very serious imbalance. SALT I [the first phase of the talks which concluded in 1972] disclosed a lopsided picture in favor of the Soviet Union. This should have been known long ago but it was not until the talks that it was all brought out into the open. The healthy result was a sobering effect on the people of the United States.
Do you think most Americans are sufficiently concerned?
No, but I’m convinced that the most inert matter is the human brain, and you cannot expect people’s opinions to change quickly. SALT has made a start toward a badly needed change.
How serious is the imbalance in favor of the Soviet Union?
I believe it is not irreversible—yet. But the Russians are getting further ahead in missile strength each year. It will take years to regain our lead, but at least the process has begun. Congress, for example, has already passed a resolution to prohibit a further weakening of our position.
Do we now have a reliable deterrent capability?
Reliable deterrents don’t exist. We must be satisfied with an uncertain future where at least there is a chance for peace.
What do you think of the critics of détente?
I believe they are irresponsible—a few die-hard right-wingers and unrealistic left-wingers, who imagine that we might be able to bring freedom to those who are suppressed in Russia. I only wish we could. Criticism also comes from opportunists like [ex-Navy Secretary] Paul Nitze. Détente is an ingenious approach to a difficult situation.
You and Henry Kissinger are old friends. How do you rate him as Secretary of State?
Henry has sat down to a poker game with a pair of sevens and won—in Vietnam, the Middle East and now, hopefully, Cyprus. Since the Russians knew beforehand that we were at a serious disadvantage, it is remarkable that he didn’t lose his shirt. I don’t think the post of Secretary of State has ever been held by a man who was even in the same class with Henry Kissinger.
India recently detonated a nuclear device, and a number of other nations may not be far behind. How do you view this expansion of the nuclear club?
The proliferation of nuclear weapons is unavoidable. The Non-Proliferation Treaty has all the faults of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which certainly did nothing to prevent World War II. At the same time, only two countries—the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.—today possess massive nuclear arms. If the limited capabilities of small powers are used purely as a deterrent, they may even have a stabilizing influence in certain parts of the world. I don’t want proliferation, but we don’t know how to prevent it. And it is totally misleading to use it as a direct measure of global instability.
Washington has pledged nuclear assistance to a number of countries—most recently Egypt—for peaceful purposes. Is this wise?
Nuclear technology is available to anyone who wants it. Denying the Egyptians this help may set them back one or two years, but in the process we may alienate them the way we did when we denied aid for the Aswan Dam. When it comes to nuclear reactors, it is a buyer’s market.
To the surprise of some, you have come out strongly against long-term government secrecy. Why?
This is an open society. Our strength is in the independent, undirected thoughts of many people. They must know all the hard facts before they can be expected to make the kind of decisions that must be made in a democracy—and on which world survival depends. In a totalitarian country, secrecy is an evil that is hardly noticed among all the other evils. Hence the Soviet Union is very good at it. In the field of computer technology, where there is no government-imposed secrecy in the U.S., we are the undisputed leaders. But when it comes to weapons, we cannot say we are ahead of the Russians.
Is nuclear power the answer to the energy crisis?
It is an important part of the answer. It can produce electricity in a clean way, at relatively low cost and operate anywhere. Certainly oil, gas, coal and other forms of energy—and I am by no means excluding wind power in one or two special cases—will continue to be needed.
How can we immediately expand the role played by nuclear power?
For one thing, we have done far too little about converting existing reactors from uranium to thorium, which is more plentiful and, unlike uranium, can be used in its entirety. Another area which has been neglected is in situ coal gasification. In the past, we’ve always had to dig up coal before using it—a process that needs lots of labor, capital and water and tears up the landscape. We have discovered that, using explosives to break up the coal, you can transform it into gas while it is still underground.
What of possible dangers surrounding nuclear power plants?
Well, at one hearing, the question was raised: since potassium in the human body gives off radiation, would you get more radiation from leaning against a reactor all year or sleeping with your wife? Because the reactor gives off a tiny bit more radiation than a person, an AEC official answered that he would not make it mandatory for married couples to sleep in twin beds. But he did advise against sleeping with two people, because two bodies would emit more radiation than the reactor. Quite seriously, though, when I became chairman of the first Nuclear Safeguard Committee in 1950, people considered me to be a Ralph Nader type. We did much to establish safe procedures, and I’m glad to say they’ve gotten better.
But isn’t an accidental explosion at a reactor site still a possibility?
Such a mishap should never be allowed to happen, of course. Even though the safety of nuclear reactors is very great—greater than anything I can think of—I’d like to see as many as possible put about 200 feet underground.
Theodore B. Taylor, who has worked on the design of many atomic weapons for the government, has suggested that one man working alone in his garage with material stolen from the AEC could produce an atom bomb. Are you concerned about this?
I believe that nuclear reactors and nuclear materials should be guarded very, very carefully.
Why have you agreed to serve on Nelson Rockefeller’s Commission on Critical Choices?
De Tocqueville said 134 years ago, in Democracy in America, that if the American people want to get something done, they get together in small groups to do it. Now this country is suddenly faced with a tremendous challenge. Perhaps in 1950 we could say the United States was so powerful and so rich that it could keep the peace in the rest of the world. Obviously, things are no longer clear-cut. We can no longer get something without giving up something else. The commission has some of the best minds in the world working to articulate these choices. We hope, in time, to answer the most important question of all: how do we avert global disaster?