INTERVIEW WITH EDWARD TELLER
INTERVIEWER: First of all Dr Teller, could I ask what your feelings were when you discovered that the Soviets had detonated an atomic bomb in 1949?
EDWARD TELLER: I was surprised. I was just back from a trip in Europe and I'd been to the White House for a briefing, or was it the Pentagon, I don't know. A boring briefing, the end lasted what was incidentally what President Truman said, it's true, it's true. So I stopped the man when the meeting was over, what did President Truman say, that the Soviets have detonated an atomic bomb. It came to me as a complete surprise. I think I was however less surprised than the average American. I think I had a somewhat higher opinion - and I still have a high opinion - of Russian technical capabilities.
INT: How important do you feel that the role of espionage, such as Klaus Fuchs, possibly made in the development of the bomb?
ET: Klaus Fuchs, a very good scientist, a nice and gentle person and a completely convinced Communist, at least in the old days when I knew him, although I did not know it at that time. Klaus Fuchs was very helpful to the Soviets in an early detonation of the atomic bomb. He was not, and could not have been helpful to the Russians in detonating hydrogen bomb. I can say that now, after a number of discussions with Russian colleagues. We had in Los Alamos, an approach to an atomic bomb that was imaginative and little risky and I think that Soviet scientists would never have taken the risk, had they not known about our work. You know, if they did not succeed, their life was on the line, every day to be sent into a concentration camp. They learned from Fuchs what we did and therefore they not only dared think about it, but they had to do it.
INT: Good answer, sir. Can I ask you then, what was you your reaction when you first learnt that there had been a successful H-bomb detonation?
ET: An H-bomb detonation. Well, you know, in the planning of that I was deeply involved, but I already had moved to a second laboratory and the older laboratory, Los Alamos, carried out that plan. I hoped very much that it would succeed. I was kindly invited to attend, but I was hard at work, helping people to get started in the second laboratory in Livermore, I could not go. So, a friend of mine evaluated in detail what the effect... the visible effect would be. It would come, you know, through the atomic explosion, giving a little shock to the earth, giving rise to a quite moderate earthquake wave. All I had to do is to go down to seismograph in Berkeley and watch. Well, you know, I watched that little light spot moving, because my eyes were moving, held a pencil against it to make the spot steady and then came the time of the explosion and nothing happened. Nothing could have happened, because we need at the time for the earthquake wave to move across, maybe in fifteen minutes, from the test site to America. And just at the time when it was supposed to happen, I saw that little illuminous spot move. I did nothing, because I wanted to be sure to see everything, maybe more would come, nothing did. In ten minutes after... after that, I went up where the computers were, we looked at the record, it was what I expected. You know, seeing a luminous spot move cannot have a strong emotional effect. It did have that effect of confirming what I thought would happen and I was very... would have been very disappointed had it not happened. Now, my first thought was to let my friends in Los Alamos know, but of course, secrecy, I couldn't tell them, I couldn't send them a wire. So there was very nice wife, physicist's wife of a leading physicist, Elizabeth Graves, and I promptly sent off a wire to her, which I will repeat to you in full. The wire was: 'It's boy'. I was very happy to hear that it took several more hours in Los Alamos until they heard from their own people in the Pacific. They had to go through security to make sure that they were allowed to communicate, but my telling Elizabeth Graves, it's a boy, was very clear that the bomb succeeded.
INT: Excellent answer. Could I ask you, sir, in 1954 there were a series of tests called the Castle Bravo Tests. What happened at those tests and what was the public reaction?
ET: They were more tests, Los Alamos tests, of the atomic bomb, a little over-successful. The explosion was under-estimated, was somewhat bigger. People were warned of radioactivity, but the direction of wind changed, islands in the Pacific got some of the radioactivity, quite a few people, including many natives, were exposed to radioactivity, but none got sick. And a Japanese fishing boat, I think the American translated name of it was the Fortunate Dragon, got rained upon, the fall-out, couple of hundred miles away. We had instructed boats not to go there, the Japanese disregarded it. Those people got quite sick and one of them died of the effect of radiation. Now to my mind it is remarkable. I won't say it's bad and I certainly won't say it's good, but I will say remarkable, that this one death shocked Americans more than Hiroshima. It gave rise to enormous and unjustified fears of radioactivity. No, that fear was already there, but it seemed to justify that fear. In the meantime, many studies, including by another Japanese Kondo collected data from Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl, wherever there was a lot of radioactivity. We, of course, know that a lot of radioactivity's harmful, but what Kondo points out is that we all are exposed to radioactivity and if the natural amount of radioactivity is multiplied by a factor ten or more, the evidence does not show, the evidence seems to suggest that these low levels of radioactivity appear to be helpful rather than harmful. The fear of radioactivity has been greatly and improperly exaggerated and incidentally, interferes with reasonable plans to build more nuclear reactors for energy production.
INT: In 1957 Sputnik was launched by the Soviets, what was both your personal reaction and the reaction of the scientific community around you?
ET: Would you repeat the question please.
INT: What was your reaction to the 1957 launch of Sputnik?
ET: I had respect for Soviet scientists, particularly my very good friend, [Levlandow] was an enthusiastic Communist, but then learned enough about Stalin to lose all his respect before he died. They had good scientists. They had good technical people, although perhaps not on the same level as their science. By Sputnik, I was thoroughly surprised. The Russians went ahead faster than I expected and at that time I testified to Congress, trying to get more encouragement, not only for research and research money, but also for teaching, for having more science in our schools. I believe that is a lesson that we still have not learned.
INT: That's the six questions that we discussed earlier, sir. Now, what I'll do is if we can...
INT: Now, sir, if we can talk about the importance of the role of the H-bomb throughout the Cold War. First and foremost, why was the H-bomb needed?
ET: Look, let me answer an earlier part of the development, the role of the atomic bomb was absolutely decisive. In 1945, the democracies demobilized, they had to. Public opinion would not support a big military effort in peace time. Stalin did not demobilize. These facts were sufficient to establish a very probable victory of the Soviet Union in a conflict between very different views of the world. That was unavoidable. Because America could do better than anybody else in technical aspects, this period, called the Cold War, was in fact won by the United States. Now as to the hydrogen bomb, it was an important part of that effort. It was in the forefront of the discussion for a while. As it turned out, it's most important effect was not in the size of the explosion, although that counted. It was in the thoroughness of our knowledge of explosive release of nuclear energy. The effect was better ability to deliver explosives with as little expenditure as possible and giving effects by shock, by radioactivity that we cinfluence more. We just had a weapon much better under control and let me try to make this very clear. Ithe first atomic bomb, we used elements like uranium, which were ready to burst, ready to undergo fission, release neutrons and use the same kind of nuclear disintegration in other nuclei and thereby created an explosion. In the hydrogen bomb, we used the lightest element (unintelligible) hydrogen to release energy, not by coming apart, but by getting together. It was a new principle and it had to have and did have applications in making, in adapting nuclear explosives (unintelligible). I would, if I may, make a general comment. Because it was not expected by most people, I had been trying to emphasize it at an early stage, the most important thing about the hydrogen bomb was not that it could be made bigger and bigger. It was that it could be made more flexible. We are now talking about nuclear explosives, up to about a million tons of TNT, very big devastation possible if used. The hydrogen bomb, people could said we could increase that without limit. The Soviets in one of their tests, increased it by a factor hundred. Had they increased it by a factor a thousand, ... a million tons of TNT equivalent, that could have devastated an area ten miles in diameter and would have ejected the air over that area into space. Now the hydrogen bomb could have been made a thousand times bigger still, a trillion tons of TNT and the naive expectation is that would have destroyed the world. The facts are entirely different. A further increase by a thousand would hardly have increased the damage on earth. It would have ejected into space just a little more than this ten mile diameter air mass, but have ejected it at a speed thirty times higher. The fact is that not due to negotiations, not due to international agreements, simply due to military necessity, neither of the two main contestants, the United States and the Soviet Union, put emphasis on particularly big nuclear explosions. Up to a million tons of TNT, they are very effective. As accuracy increases, the importance of (unintelligible) high explosives decreases. For reasons of military necessity, military advantage, the size of the atomic bombs remains limited. The availability, the cost in really expert hands could decrease and that was the main effect, the main tactical effect of the hydrogen bomb.