20th Anniversary Conference

Historian's View

William Lanouette

(a writer and public policy analyst) 

I'm identified on the paper, or on the program, as coming from the General Accounting Office. I want to distance any of my remarks from the General Accounting Office. I am working on the National Ignition Facility which, some people have said, poses a non-proliferation risk. However, in the spirit of full disclosure, the work I've done has had nothing to do with that question. Ive only studied the cost and schedule and technical problems with the National Ignition Facility.

I come to you, rather, as a recovering journalist who has spent a long time (really, since 1969) looking at nuclear issues, both nuclear power and nuclear weapons. And a lot of people in this room over the years have been my sources, and a lot of you have also been colleagues in doing research and writing on nuclear history.

I've covered nuclear proliferation since 1969 for Dow Jones, National Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. And, over those years, when I began covering this, there were five nuclear weapon states. There were the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China. Since then, we've had dire warnings that there would be more, and there's evidence that Israel, South Africa, India, and Pakistan have joined the club, as Paul [Leventhal] likes to call it.

There's also evidence of four who could have built the bomb. Norway, Sweden, and Canada have been mentioned in the press of having had the capability, but having decided not to go that route. And, then there's one example of a country that would have, but didn't. That would be South Korea. But for the Ford administration's scare tactics, South Korea would probably still have been pursuing a nuclear program. But, as I understand it, the Ford administration just said, okay, if you want a nuclear program, you'll have no more aid, and that's that.

So, a number of countries have gone nuclear since I've been covering this beat, and the question always is: Well, what else is it going to take for people to be serious about this problem? That, I would ask the panel members and you, the participants. What will it take now to elevate this issue of nuclear proliferation in the context of nuclear power so that the public---and certainly the policy people responsible---really give it some concern?

Will it take yet another state going nuclear? Will it take some publicized theft of nuclear material? Will it take some scandal involving nuclear secrets? We think of Mordecai Vanunu and Wen Ho Lee getting lot of ink. But, how does it really affect our consciousness about the ability of nuclear weapons to pose a threat to all of society?

We have Avner Cohen, it's good to see him here today. We were wondering about his latest visit to Israel and his writings about the Israeli bomb. We're glad you made it back in one piece.

The second thing is, is there a serious scare? Is it going to take a scare? Is there a scare from global warning that's going to force us to re-examine nuclear power?

I think, in this case (and the earlier panel mentioned some of the practical questions) there was the Zanger committee with its trigger list. And, the trigger list -- for journalists -- was wonderful. You like to find some issue that's just so precious that you just can't get away with it. And, the trigger list was one that provided a lot of fun, because the list kept its keepers debating endlessly: Well, if we make these items on the trigger list that we can't export too specific, then we're giving away blueprints. And, if we make them too general, then were creating so many loopholes that everybody can send things out. So, that's typical of the nuclear technology and the problem that policy people have with it.

I think the end of the bipolar Cold War should be a time to focus on nuclear power and nuclear weapons. And maybe what it will take is some truly original thinking. In this regard, I think of Leo Szilard (whose biography I wrote) who often provided truly original thinking to the control of nuclear weapons, sometimes to good benefit. But, his approach truly original approach to weapons testing, for example, as a contrary genius, was to go against the good thinking of the co-founders of the Pugwash Movement [for nuclear arms control]. They were all in favor of eliminating nuclear tests. And, Leo said, Oh, no! You shouldn't do that! He said, If you want to stop this whole thing, you've got to test them, test them all.

So, maybe what we do need is some truly original thinking perhaps even irreverent -- and that may get us through the next nuclear era.