Doomed to Cooperate

Former Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker recalls the relationship between the United States and Russia at the end of the Cold War.

By J. Weston Phippen | July 6, 2020

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Russian theoretical physicist Evgeny Avrorin (right) congratulates Hecker on Los Alamos National Laboratory’s 50th anniversary. Courtesy Siegfried Hecker

It was 1965. Siegfried Hecker, a student at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, was looking for a summer job. “I picked up this brochure that said Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory,” Hecker remembers. “Of course, I knew the fame of Los Alamos, but what really got my attention was a photo of the Pajarito ski mountain.”

Hecker, who’d grown up skiing in Austria, ended up coming to Los Alamos, where he “probably put in more vertical feet skiing on Pajarito than anyone else at the Lab at the time.” He went on to serve as the president of the Los Alamos Ski Club, and more important, as the fifth director of the Laboratory.

When Hecker took the helm at Los Alamos in January 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded. In April, the FBI informed him it was investigating a spy at the Lab. That same month, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant suffered a catastrophic explosion and fire. But the most trying times were still to come. When the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, no one knew what would happen to the hundreds of thousands of kilograms of nuclear material the Soviet Union had controlled. The United States feared that Soviet researchers, who’d spent decades advancing nuclear science, might now sell their knowledge to other countries. So, for the first time since the Cold War began, America began to pivot from competing with the Soviets to working with them.

Fortunately, the Lab had built a relationship with many of the Soviet Union’s top nuclear scientists. It had started in 1988 with the Joint Verification Experiment (JVE), during which U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons scientists worked together at each other’s nuclear testing sites. The JVE was actually two experiments done to evaluate methods of measuring the yields of nuclear tests. Those methods, when proven accurate, would enable the 1990 ratification of the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, which limited nuclear tests to 150 kilotons. From that experience, Hecker says, “We learned that if things are going to turn out well in the nuclear sciences you have to cooperate.”

NSS spoke with Hecker about this momentous period in history.

The foundation for cooperation was laid in the late 1980s. How did it develop?

The Soviet Union was changing dramatically during Mikhail Gorbachev’s time. Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan met at the Reykjavik Summit in 1986, and they initially thought they might be able to get rid of nuclear weapons. Well, it turns out they didn’t get there. But they did decide the two countries would work together more, and they ended up ratifying a treaty four years later.

This was the so-called Threshold Test Ban Treaty , and as a result it was decided that the U.S. and Soviet nuclear labs were going to conduct joint tests at their respective sites. Our test in Nevada was scheduled for August 1988, and the Soviets would be onsite to measure yield. The device that would be tested was a Los Alamos device, so to a degree, I was responsible.

The treaty limited tests to 150-kiloton yields; were you nervous you’d be over?

We picked a device that would be very close to 150 kilotons. So moments before detonation, I’m sitting there in the control room, and across from me were the Soviets. I think to myself, We’re going to push this button, and I hope to God our guys are right. How embarrassing would it be if it went off at 200 kilotons? But then I think what would be even worse is if nothing happened—with the world watching, and the Soviets seeing that our test didn’t work. What that would have done to the faith in our entire nuclear arsenal would have been devastating.

Well, eventually we detonated the device, and it was pretty close to 150 kilotons. But the other significant moment happened afterward at a steakhouse.

What happened there?

We’d often gone to this steakhouse to eat after a test, so we were sitting down having a steak and beer. This time, of course, the Soviets are sitting across from us. So I said to one of the Russian scientists sitting by me, “It worked, you guys made all your measurements, and it all went great, don’t you think?” He seemed unimpressed, then said what we should be doing in the future is not these joint verification experiments but joint science experiments. Essentially, joining our research together. That moment really stuck in my mind. It was a moment when both sides realized the world was changing dramatically, and it really did benefit us to cooperate.

How evenly were we and the Soviets matched, as far as nuclear technology? Were you able to tell?

In 1992, we visited the Russian nuclear laboratories. This is when we could best assess how good these guys were. In the first half of the 20th century, they had some of the best scientists in the world, so we knew they were good. It wasn’t until these meetings, though, that we realized they were just good as we were.

The United States had a major advantage over the Russians in electronics and computers, particularly computers. The Russians didn’t have a private computer industry. So we thought that, for example, we would be significantly ahead of them in modeling and simulation. Then during that first visit in 1992, they showed us some of the three-dimensional calculations they’d done related to implosions, and they were exquisite. I asked them, “How can you do this? Your computers are 1,000 times worse than ours.” They said, “In America, you have these big, powerful computers. You got lazy. We didn’t have them, so we had to think better than you.”

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. As the director of Los Alamos, were you concerned about Soviet nuclear weapons?

The greatest concern was what we called loose nukes—loose fissile material [material that can sustain a nuclear chain reaction], loose people, and loose exports of this knowledge. Before that moment, we’d focused mostly on what weapons the Russian government had in its hands. When the Soviet Union collapsed, suddenly we were concerned that the weapons might leave Russia. Its nuclear program’s collapse coincided with economic collapse, so the U.S. worried about not only the physical nuclear material leaving the country but also a massive brain drain, with all these scientists going elsewhere to work on nuclear programs.

You led an unprecedented effort to work with these Russian scientists at their nuclear labs, some of which didn’t even appear on maps. What was it like trying to set up these meetings?

From that initial meeting in Russia we’d developed a list of things that we could work on together. This list included a lot of fundamental research and some things like nuclear safeguards [ensuring the peaceful use of nuclear materials]. I went to Washington, D.C., and the main response was, “No way are we going to do all those things.” They said they were mostly concerned about brain drain and about Russian nuclear scientists selling their knowledge to other countries. And the Russian government was very concerned about the Americans learning too much. So the governmental discussions weren’t getting anywhere.

By 1994, it grew easier, and gradually the governments opened up. The Department of Energy’s deputy secretary at the time, Charles Curtis, finally gave me the go-ahead to start working more closely with the Russians. That’s when we began working with them to do a better job of securing and safeguarding their nuclear materials.

How did you overcome that kind of political opposition?

These political systems couldn’t just turn on a dime. Of course, there were risks—risks that the other side would learn something you didn’t want them to know. But we tried to focus on the scientific areas where we could work together.

As scientists and engineers, we spoke the same language. We were able to demonstrate how much of an advantage it would be to work toward our common interests. And in that way, we brought the politicians along. If you go back to the book [Doomed to Cooperate, edited by Hecker in 2016] and look at the foreword by Charles Curtis, he wrote that we, the scientists, helped build trust where there was none.

If you want to avoid a world of nuclear war, nuclear proliferation, and nuclear accidents, you need cooperation. The title for the book came from a Russian who said, “We all arrived in the 20th century in the same nuclear boat. A movement by one of us will affect all of us, so therefore we are doomed to cooperate.”

What would have happened if we didn’t cooperate?

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it looked like a perfect storm. They had more nuclear weapons coming back to be disassembled than ever in history. The most dangerous part of a nuclear weapon’s life is when it’s being disassembled, and I was almost certain there’d be an accident.

It takes about six kilograms of plutonium or a few tens of kilograms of highly enriched uranium to build a bomb. The best we knew, the Russians had somewhere close to 150,000 kilograms of plutonium and somewhere around 1.3 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. The thought that none of it would get into the hands of another country was … well, I never thought it would be possible. And the Russian scientists didn’t go anywhere either. The brain drain never materialized. These were incredibly patriotic people who were willing to weather horrible economic conditions. So I attribute the success to them, and to the relationships we were able to build.

You capture these relationships in Doomed to Cooperate. How did the book come to be?

We started work on the book with the idea that our colleagues in the Russian labs would be co-editors of the book. As 2014 arrived, after the invasion of Crimea, they said they could no longer work on the book. But they told us, “Look, you have our articles. They’ve already been cleared through classification, so use them.” All that did was make me more determined than ever to finish the book.

A good part of the book demonstrates how important cooperation is in the nuclear world. I’ve taken this as a mantra, so to speak.

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On February 23, 1992, Hecker (right) greets physicist Yuli Khariton (left), who oversaw the creation of the Soviet Union’s f irst atomic bomb. Photo: courtesy Siegfried Hecker

Siegfried Hecker is the author of Doomed to Cooperate. The two-volume book tells the story of nuclear scientists from two former enemy nations, Russia and the United States, who reached across political, geographic, and cultural divides to confront, together, the nuclear threats that resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Union.