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DEMAND EXCELLENCE, TAKE RISKS

Paul L. Leventhal, Class of '59
President, Nuclear Control Institute

Commencement Address to the Class of 2001
Franklin & Marshall College
Lancaster, PA
Sunday, May 13, 2001

It has been 42 years since I sat, as you are sitting, as a member of the graduating class of Franklin and Marshall College, looking up at the commencement speaker and thinking to myself, as you may well be thinking, "This guy is the last thing standing between me and my diploma."

With that in mind, let me tell you a story about Mario Cuomo, the former Governor of New York when he received his first invitation to speak at a graduation from his alma mater, St. John's University. He asked Father Flynn, the President of St. John's University how he should approach it. "Commencement speakers," said Father Flynn, "should think of themselves as the body at an old-fashioned Irish wake. They need you in order to have the party, but nobody expects you to say very much."

That's advice I intend to follow today, and I thank President Kneedler and the college trustees for giving me this opportunity to return to F & M and deliver my first graduation speech. And I will particularly cherish the Doctor of Laws degree I have just received. I am an ex-newspaperman who works in Washington and is always surrounded by lawyers. Now I outrank most of them.

At my graduation in 1959, I felt what many of you may be feeling today---above all, a magnificent and exultant sense of relief, but beneath it all, a persistent sense of confusion and trepidation about what lies ahead. Today marks your day of commencement, so let me help you put this glorious and conflicted moment of self-esteem and self-doubt into perspective. Consider this the friendly shove that launches you on that proverbial journey of a thousand miles that begins with but a single step.

First, let me assure you that while that first step is a big one, you come well-equipped for the journey. I have grown to appreciate the remarkable education I received here at F & M, and I think over time, each of you will come to your own appreciation of what it is about this college that serves you so well over a lifetime. For me, it is an appreciation of Franklin & Marshall as, above all, a teaching school. Here there is a faculty of scholars who love to teach, and to reach the students they teach, and the impact these teachers had upon me was profound.

From Professor Vanderzell, in constitutional law, I learned of the overriding importance of the test of reasonableness, not only in assessing the political orientation of the Supreme Court at various periods in its history, but in evaluating the policies of the Executive Branch and the initiatives of Congress. The F & M Department of Government in those days had but three professors, extraordinary teachers all. We government majors used to joke about them being Philosopher Kings, the ruling elite from Plato's "The Republic." I owe a special debt to those three professors---John Vanderzell, Sid Wise and Dick Schier---because they disciplined my mind, taught me the values of social justice, stimulated my appetite for public affairs and---perhaps most important---got me used to unreasonable demands and hard work.

Which brings me back to the voyage upon which you are about to embark. What kind of trip will it be? You are embarking in an auspicious year.

The year 2001, thanks to the combined genius of screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick, has a special meaning associated with human discovery and evolution. But while art often imitates life, life rarely lives up to the expectations of art. Mankind has not yet colonized the moon, much less sent an expedition of human beings to Saturn. Yet, the inscrutable complexities of this remarkable motion picture, especially its soaring finale of re-birth, somehow seem to be reflected in a technology-driven self-confidence that characterizes the human spirit we find in America today.

Compare this vision of 2001 with George Orwell's vision of 1984. To me and my F & M classmates in 1959, Orwell provided a disturbingly plausible version of what the future might hold. We had just lived through the political nightmare of McCarthyism and we were still living under the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, a threat that was to reach its crescendo in the Cuban missile crisis three years later. Fortunately, 1984 came and went without a nuclear war, nor with an Orwellian Big Brother and his Thought Police displacing American democracy.

Yet, the question of whether American democracy is becoming dangerously dysfunctional has been the subject of a lively debate at F & M this year, with one visiting scholar warning that self-government is devolving into what he called "a process of socialization in which a political class tells us how to live." Today there is a growing sense of powerlessness in the face of Big Government, Big Money and the combining of the two into Big Power over our daily lives. More and more Americans are tuning out the politicians and the political process and are lasering in on making a good living and enjoying the good life. This pursuit of happiness, of course, is as American as apple pie, not to mention the Bill of Rights.

But these science- and political-fiction visions of the future are pertinent to the journey you begin today because, in truth, we have no way of predicting what the future will bring, or what our own role in shaping that future might be. Einstein once said, "Knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be." But of one thing we can be quite sure. Whether we ultimately experience a great spiritual rebirth on the wings of technology, as envisioned in 2001, the movie, or a subjugation of the human spirit, as foreseen by Orwell, or a "return of the Stone Age on the wings of science," as Winston Churchill described the nuclear peril in 1946, depends not on some cosmic roll of the dice, but on a personal commitment by you to engage in the decisions by your government on which your future depends.

Be vigilant because, even in these seemingly good and peaceful times, there are dangers that are not widely understood and sometimes not easily seen, both at home and abroad. If we fail to recognize and reverse them, they could threaten our very survival. One such danger that I have been addressing in my work is the spread of nuclear weapons to additional nations and possibly even to terrorist groups. But when I set out 42 years ago as you are doing today, I had no way of knowing I would wind up, of all things, a nuclear non-proliferator.

I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I graduated from F & M. I wanted to be a journalist, and spent a decade in pursuit of this dream, most of it at Newsday as an investigative and political reporter. Journalism is a wonderful career because you never know what you might be covering next or where your work will lead. A classmate of mine at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism who was also a night copyboy with me at The New York Times was Joseph Lelyveld, now the Executive Editor of the Times. He recently told me, "What I've liked about this business from the start is that you can't see your path to the grave as clearly as you can in the more respectable professions."

I eventually came to feel, after covering politicians at the local, state and national levels, that a journalist was confined to being an observer, a commentator. The real challenge, I decided, was to get inside government and try to make it work. My big break came when the press secretary's job opened up in the office of a brainy, gutsy and workaholic United States Senator, Jacob Javits of New York, and he hired me to come to Washington. Javits was a liberal Republican. (In those days, "liberal Republican" was not an oxymoron!) I joined him in turbulent times at the start of the Nixon-Agnew Administration when Washington was under siege by anti-Vietnam War protesters. What a political learning experience that was!

By the way, perhaps the best piece of advice I ever got came from Javits, and I'd like to pass it on to you now. It was some years later when he was suffering the ravages of Lou Gehrig's disease. This disease destroys the body but leaves the brain intact. Sitting in a wheelchair and hooked to a respirator, Javits bid farewell to a reunion of his Senate staff "I leave you with four words," he whispered, which made us take notice because this Senator was famous for not being able to say anything in less than four thousand. And he said: "Demand excellence, take risks." Brilliant, I thought. Those words surely summed up his distinguished career, which began in poverty on New York's Lower East Side. And I have sought to apply them to my own work. And I say to you, if you demand excellence of yourself and those who may someday work for you, and you are prepared to take risks, you will probably reach where you are trying to go.

It's when I later went to work for a Democratic Senator, Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, that I had my first encounter with atomic energy. As an aide to a government operations subcommittee chaired by Ribicoff, I was assigned to handle a bill that came from the Nixon White House to reorganize the Atomic Energy Commission. We needed to transform the AEC into an all-energy agency capable of responding to challenges posed by the first Arab oil embargo of 1973. So, by chance of a bill referral, I was introduced to atomic energy.

For me, it was a baptism in fire, with no advanced warning, and it changed my life. This was the first time atomic energy legislation was assigned to a Congressional committee other than the then all-powerful Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, which had close ties with the nuclear industry and bureaucracy. But I saw a need to do things different from the way the Joint Committee wanted things done---in particular, to make a clean break between regulation and promotion of atomic energy. There was a need to eliminate conflicts of interest inside the AEC that compromised the safety and security of nuclear power plants. So, with support from Chairman Ribicoff, we overcame objections from the Joint Committee and crafted a new law that "fissioned" the AEC---split it into the present-day Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Department of Energy.

There were some eye-openers for me in the course of doing this work. I learned that plutonium, the essential material of nuclear weapons, is produced in civilian nuclear power plants as a byproduct of generating electricity with uranium fuel. The United States was planning to extract plutonium from the highly radioactive, self-protecting spent fuel of these plants. And we were going to give permission to other countries to remove plutonium from the uranium we exported to them for use in their plants. This atom bomb material was going to be "recycled" as fuel in civilian nuclear plants. But there was a big problem, and that was that the level of protection against thefts and diversions of civilian plutonium was far below protection of military plutonium. And there was another problem: Plutonium is so poisonous that if a speck of it the size of a pollen grain gets caught in the lung, it causes cancer.

Through domestic law and regulation, we stopped the plutonium business in the United States. Spent fuel from U.S. nuclear power plants is now supposed to be disposed of as waste inside a mountain in Nevada, without recovering plutonium. But export controls enacted in another law I worked on---the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978---failed to stop extraction of plutonium from fuel the United States supplied to Europe and Japan. And the flow of nuclear technology and materials from industrial countries to the developing world has continued. As a result, there is now more plutonium in civilian hands than in all of the nuclear weapons in the world. And some of it has already been turned into bombs, as in India, Pakistan and North Korea, while others have used or are now using civilian nuclear programs as a cover for weapons programs. Of greatest immediate concern are Iran and Iraq, and Japan's neighbors are wondering why the Japanese are accumulating so much plutonium.

I founded the Nuclear Control Institute 20 years ago after the Reagan landslide cost me my Democratic Senate job, then with Gary Hart of Colorado. I had just finished co-directing the Senate's investigation of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and became acutely aware of that ineffable combination of human fallibility and mechanical failure that makes nuclear plants vulnerable to accidents, and also sabotage. This institute now serves as a research and advocacy center where work can continue on reducing nuclear dangers, especially on preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons and raising effective barriers against nuclear terrorism.

So, what lessons can I share with you from my own journey since graduating from Franklin & Marshall College? The first is this: Be prepared to be surprised, just as I was surprised to become a nuclear specialist. You never know where your work will lead. If you have no clear career objective now, that's O.K. The important thing is to get a job, work hard at it, and see where it leads. If you know what you want to do, pursue that career passionately and see if it leads to where you want to go.

I ended up working in public affairs. You surely don't get rich laboring in the public interest, but it can be an enriching experience. At the same time, if you manage to be effective in taking on powerful political and industrial interests, the frustrations can run high and the going can get rough. For the large majority of you who will work in the private sector, you still have a responsibility to engage in public affairs. President Eisenhower, in his famous farewell, warned of "the acquisition of unwarranted influence…by the military-industrial complex." But he also declared that "only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry" can ensure "that security and liberty may prosper together."

Vigilance and tenacity are absolutely essential. In public affairs, it is distressing to find that there is a tendency for issues to come full circle, and to find yourself back where you started. I will offer a few examples from my field.

  • Nearly 30 years after Congress established an independent nuclear regulator, there are complaints from Capitol Hill that the nuclear power industry is being crippled by over-regulation. The agency is now being intimidated by budget cuts to be more compliant. It has begun a process of granting life extension to America's aging fleet of 104 power reactors even in the face of a rash of forced shut-downs due to equipment failures caused by aging. It was a forced shut-down that triggered the Three Mile Island accident.

  • In addition, the security guards at half the nuclear power plants in the United States have failed to repel mock terrorist attacks against safety systems designed to prevent a reactor meltdown. These are so-called "force-on-force" exercises supervised by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC refuses to take enforcement action in response to the failures, and is in the process of weakening the rules of the game in response to industry complaints. Sabotage of nuclear power plants may be the greatest domestic vulnerability in the United States today. This is the time to strengthen, not weaken, nuclear regulation.

  • Some 25 years after enactment of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, there is a push on Capitol Hill to lift sanctions against nuclear and military transfers to India and Pakistan despite their nuclear weapons tests of 1998. Both countries used civilian nuclear power programs as a cover for development of nuclear weapons. Other nations known to be or suspected of developing nuclear weapons, like Iraq, North Korea and Iran, will be watching closely to see if U.S. and international sanctions against proliferation are weakening.

  • The 20-year ban on use of plutonium fuel in U.S. power reactors is now at risk. There is a U.S.-Russian plan to dispose of excess military plutonium from retired warheads by using it as fuel in power reactors in both countries, rather than dispose of it directly as waste. The plutonium fuel plan raises safety and security risks, especially in Russia. But the Bush Administration has just zeroed out funding for the alternative approach of combining the excess plutonium with highly radioactive waste for disposal in the mountain in Nevada along with civilian spent fuel. And now plutonium advocates on Capitol Hill are even suggesting that the program for geological disposal of spent fuel was a mistake and want to emulate the highly uneconomic and extremely risky European and Japanese plutonium programs.

  • It's been more than 20 years since construction began on a U.S. nuclear power plant, but the Bush Administration may announce next week a plan to encourage nuclear power plant construction in response to electricity shortages and global warming. This policy is flawed for three reasons. First, new nuclear plants could not be brought on line quickly enough to offset present shortages, which are caused primarily by lack of electrical transmission capacity, not production capacity. Second, these plants could not make a big dent in global warming because two-thirds of carbon-dioxide emissions, a major contributor to global warming, come from transport and other non-electric sources. Third, turning to the world stage, if carbon-free nuclear plants were used to replace coal plants worldwide, there would have to be a 10-fold increase to 3,000 nuclear plants. That would reduce carbon emissions by only 20%, but plutonium commerce would expand enormously, to millions of kilograms a year.

    To give you an idea of the weapons significance of millions of kilograms of plutonium, listen to Dr. Theodore Taylor, who was America's most creative atomic bomb designer in the 1950s and is a member of our Institute's board. "The bomb that destroyed Nagasaki," he said, "set off an instant of explosive energy equivalent to a pile of dynamite as big as the White House that was contained in a sphere of plutonium no bigger than a baseball." That was a first-generation atomic bomb, made with about 6 kilograms of plutonium, and it is a technological feat that is now within the grasp of radical states or terrorists, if they manage to get their hands on the plutonium.

    Ultimately it comes down to a test of reasonableness. Is it reasonable to assume, over time, that millions of kilograms of plutonium can be sequestered down to the few kilograms needed for a bomb that can destroy a city? This question, in my view, must be answered before giving any further comfort to an industry that remains officially committed to using plutonium as a fuel---and surely before supporting an extension and expansion of that industry in response to electricity shortages and global warming.

    Today, there is an historic opportunity to turn away from plutonium, by supporting development of non-nuclear energy strategies and by supporting nuclear arms control and disarmament. The question is, will we seize this opportunity, or will we squander it?

    On our Institute's original Board was the late historian, Barbara Tuchman, who in her book The March of Folly gave a sobering description of a phenomenon, one repeated throughout recorded history, that drives nations to destruction. Folly, she wrote, was "pervasive persistence in a policy demonstrably unworkable or counterproductive." To qualify as folly, she said, it "must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight,…(and) a feasible alternative course of action must have been available."

    But on this joyous day, let me close on an optimistic note. I would not be in the business I am in if I were not an optimist. I remain confident that our great nation will avoid the march of folly and steer the world clear of the slippery slope of nuclear proliferation. DeTocqueville, in observing democracy in a much younger America, wrote, "…(T)he great privilege enjoyed by the Americans is not only to be more enlightened than the other nations, but also to have the chance to make mistakes that can be retrieved."

    I believe what deTocqueville said remains true to this day, and that an informed and engaged citizenry--- led by you, the F & M graduates of 2001---will ensure that an enlightened America will endure and prevail.

    Finally, let me say that I could not be in this business without the support and advice of my wife, Sharon Tanzer, the vice-president of Nuclear Control Institute, who is here today with our sons, Ted and Josh, and without the further encouragement of my brother, Warren Leventhal, F & M Class of '53, and his wife Gloria, who are also here today.

    To the Class of 2001, my congratulations to you all, for all the hard work that has brought you to this day of commencement---and for all your achievements in days to come. And on this Mother's Day, congratulations to the mothers, and the fathers, too, whom you have made so very proud.

    Thank you and good luck to you all.

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