Learning to Love the Bomb | The Nation


Learning to Love the Bomb

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Teller's obsession with the hydrogen bomb preceded Los Alamos. Once there, it was all he really wanted to work on. At that time, and for many years thereafter, he devoted himself to what was known as the "classical Super." Put very crudely, this is a container into which you put the light elements that you hope to fuse together with the release of energy. Typically these are isotopes of hydrogen, such as deuterium and tritium. Into the container you put a fission bomb. When it explodes, you hope that it generates enough heat to cause the fusion. The advantage of the classical Super is that there is no limit to the amount of fusion fuel you can put into the container and so no limit to the strength of the bomb. The disadvantage is that it does not work. For almost a decade Teller tried different configurations, only to have them shot down. His response each time was to call into question the competence of the messenger. But the laws of nature are quite impersonal and do not yield to ad hominem arguments.

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Jeremy Bernstein
Jeremy Bernstein's most recent book is a biography, Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma (Ivan R. Dee). He is currently...

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The situation with regard to the possibilities of making a hydrogen bomb changed radically in December 1950. The exact sequence of events has been disputed ever since. It will probably never be settled, because a number of the principals are now dead and because the material is still in considerable part classified. Goodchild gives various versions, none of which can be verified for the reasons I cited. But it must be said that here again Goodchild clearly does not understand the physics. I believe that what happened was the Polish mathematician Stanislaw Ulam had the breakthrough idea. He was not working directly on the hydrogen bomb. Indeed, he was one of the people who showed that the classical Super would not work. He was trying to improve the efficiency of the fission bomb. His idea was to use the material flux from an exploding fission weapon to compress a container that held the light isotopes. This compression would dramatically increase the fission reaction rates. Once Teller became persuaded that this notion might work, he modified the design so that it became the basis of a hydrogen bomb. Teller had the idea of using the X-rays that carry off most of the energy from the primary fission bomb to do the compression. Exactly how this works is still classified. When this modified design was presented to the people in the field, they agreed with Oppenheimer that it was "technically sweet," so we have hydrogen bombs.

There are two ironies to report. Once the design was accepted, Teller left Los Alamos because he could no longer control the project. In his mind it had become his, and he was to the end very ungracious about Ulam's role. The second irony was emphasized to me by Freeman Dyson: The hydrogen bomb was irrelevant. Ordinary fission bombs can be made powerful enough. Indeed, the current arsenals of the United States and Russia look the same as if they consisted of fission bombs alone.

Teller was adamantly opposed to any agreement to stop nuclear testing in the atmosphere. His concern was the continual development of nuclear weapons, but he argued for his position like a charlatan. He found some statistic that Denver had, for a period, a lower rate of leukemia than some cities at sea level. He argued that small amounts of radiation might therefore be good for you. His most cynical attempt to prolong testing above ground was something that was called Project Plowshare. This was presented as a program to accomplish useful tasks, like earth-moving, with atomic explosions. An example, noted by Goodchild, was to dig a harbor at Cape Thompson in Alaska. As was pointed out to Teller, this harbor would have had no economic value. Among other things, the water was frozen for most of the year. Teller told the local people that surely they could find some useful task for these explosions. Teller could not have cared less so long as the tests went on. Finally, we have Star Wars.

Alas, this chimera is still with us, two decades after Teller persuaded President Reagan that a defense against nuclear-armed missiles was not only possible but feasible in a reasonably near future. The elements of the system kept changing as the various brainstorms emanating from Livermore turned out not to work. With each of them Teller announced how wonderful they were, conveniently ignoring data that disagreed. The final one was something called "Brilliant Pebbles," involving devices whose number and size kept changing and that were supposed to float around in outer space. Teller managed to persuade the first President Bush to invest heavily in this scheme. The problem with it, and with the schemes that so captivate Bush's son, is that it is easy and inexpensive to modify the offense to defeat them. Even worse, the effect of this development is, and was, to enhance the arms race. The current Administration has abandoned part of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and appears to be working on the development of new tactical nuclear weapons. Teller would have been pleased.

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