Half Lives, Half Stories and Half Truths from Department of Energy This Week

Photograph Source: JSquish – CC BY-SA 3.0

When Jennifer Granholm, U.S. Secretary of Energy, posthumously restored the security clearance of Robert Oppenheimer this week, she revealed little that had not been known about the “father of the Atomic Bomb”, and more about the culture of secrecy that surrounds the history of nuclear weapons.

Testimony in secret committee hearings about Oppenheimer’s loyalty to the United States, declassified after sixty years, attested to Oppenheimer’s patriotism, his singular contribution to the development of the fission bombs that destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and his ardent support for tactical nuclear weapons defending Europe against Soviet invasion.

Charges that Oppenheimer had communist sympathies prompted the hearings in 1954, though his acquaintance with “fellow travelers” during the 1930’s was well established by the time he assumed the directorship of the Los Alamos laboratory where he helped design the first uranium and plutonium bombs.

What becomes clear from the declassified Atomic Energy Commission Security hearings is that Oppenheimer’s opposition to the development of the fusion powered Hydrogen Bomb had alienated military leaders in the U.S. Air Force and Army, contradicted the leadership of the AEC, especially the chairman Louis Strauss who championed the H-Bomb. Strauss resented Oppenheimer’s star scientist status, independence, insubordination, and charisma.

Strauss was the driving force that revoked Oppenheimer’s “Q” top secret security clearance and ended his scientific career at Los Alamos Nuclear Lab. Oppenheimer’s opposition to the H-Bomb was nearly as complex as his personality.  He felt the fusion bombs were too powerful, too difficult to control, and immoral because they would target urban civilian populations. His opposition to the H-Bomb made recruitment of new scientists in the field of nuclear weapons difficult. And, disappointing to some anti-nuclear activists, he opposed the H-Bomb because it would divert scarce resources from the atomic arsenal he promoted for the protection of Europe.

Nonetheless, in 1946 the newly established United Nations called for the elimination of all nuclear weapons and created the UN Atomic Energy Commission to accomplish the UN’s first order of business, the elimination of nuclear weapons. To that end Oppenheimer, then chairman of the General Advisory Committee to President Truman, was the principal author of an international plan to regulate the mining and milling of uranium around the world, the Acheson-Lilienthal Plan Amended after bureaucratic in-fighting and growing distrust between the Soviet Union and the U.S. the plan presented by Bernard Baruch to the Security Council was defeated and the first of many opportunities to ban nuclear weapons was squandered

Oppenheimer contributed to the understanding of theoretical physics, including explanations of black holes, neutron stars, quantum mechanics and more. His bitter loss to H-Bomb developers and bureaucrats culminated in President Eisenhower, who had opposed the dropping of the A-Bombs on Japan, revoking Oppenheimer’s secret security clearance in 1954. Oppenheimer was devasted personally and professionally.

Eisenhower’s own support for the Hydrogen Bomb was a hapless bargain to reduce the defense budget. Interagency competition between the branches of the Armed Forces, a culture of secrecy that prevented scrutiny of nuclear weapons contracts, and the refusal of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union to agree a ban on nuclear weapons, led to the nuclear arms race; 18 638 nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal, and 1,605 in the Soviet Union arsenal by the time Eisenhower left office in 1960, warning finally, belated against “the military industrial complex” which he had failed to control.

Missing entirely from the Department of Energy’s headline making news was any reference to the monumental toxic trail left by the Manhattan Project, and led by Oppenheimer. By DOE’s own calculation, the “legacy cost” of remediating the industrial sites that fueled and created the Atomic Bomb exceeds one Trillion in today’s dollars. The most polluted place on Earth remains the Hanford Nuclear Reserve in Washington state, where plutonium for fission bombs was manufactured. More than three hundred other industrial sites associated with the Manhattan Project remain toxic, and many are so severely poisoned that they can never be reclaimed.

DOE’s second breaking half story reported the first successful fusion experiment at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a theoretical milestone that cost billions of dollars and remains decades away from producing significant commercial energy if ever. The primary goal of the National Ignition Facility which achieved the fusion reaction is to test the reliability of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpiles, both existing and future modernized weapons, not to produce electricity, a priority briefly mentioned , if at all.

The National Nuclear Safety Administration which oversees the US nuclear arsenal, and the labs that produced the historic fusion reaction in early December receives nearly one half of the entire Department of Energy budget, far exceeding DOE’s expenditures for future renewable energy production or research and development or, clean- up of old  Manhattan Project sites.

What is apparent from the half- told stories about Oppenheimer, the periodic failed attempts to reduce and ban nuclear weapons, and the current decline in nuclear weapons treaty activity is that nuclear weapons and the industries that create them have a life and agenda unto themselves. The momentum to build more and bigger nuclear bombs, the enormous profits made in manufacturing these weapons, the culture of secrecy that stifles debate about eliminating these weapons is ascendant.

Still, these weapons pose an existential threat, and cannot be allowed to persist, that is the whole story about nuclear weapons and the man who created them.