Interviews

DR. FRANK VON HIPPEL

DR. FRANK VON HIPPEL is the former Assistant Director for National Security in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In that capacity, he advised the Clinton White House on many aspects of the joint U.S.-Russian non-proliferation programs initiated after the fall of the Soviet Union. He is currently Professor of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

This interview was conducted in 1996.


Q: How concerned are you about the potential leakage of nuclear material from the former Soviet Union, from Russia.

MR. VON HIPPEL: Oh, I'm very concerned. I think we're lucky that there haven't been large losses so far, as far as we know. I think that reflects well on the Russians who are responsible for this material, their discipline and their commitment. But they are in a chaotic situation.

It's a race really between efforts to improve the situation and the black marketeers. And as far as we know, nothing really major has happened and that's been amazing good fortune.

Q: But we don't know what we don't know.

MR. VON HIPPEL: Of course, we don't know what we don't know and, you know, it could be that we will find out that there have been thefts and they've been going to Iran or someplace like that.

Ultimately there is a market and the invisible hand works, unfortunately, in all areas. And we've got to be concerned, of course, about this because nuclear weapons are very small. They are very destructive and a loss anywhere in the world can result in a nuclear explosion anywhere else in the world.

When we were engaging in this craziness, which was the nuclear dimensions of the cold war, we never figured that one of the nuclear weapons states might collapse and then we'd have a situation where there were tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and the nuclear materials equivalents up for grabs.

The cold war may be over, but the threat from the cold war is far from over.

Q: You said that if it were to be a nuclear explosion and terrorist incident, for example, it would dwarf Oklahoma City. Is it possible to explain that in a way that people would understand?

MR. VON HIPPEL: For a small nuclear explosion, the smallest one you could expect from even a terrorist bomb would be on the order of a thousand tons of TNT equivalent. That would mean that the area affected, to the degree that around that the area around that explosion in Oklahoma City was affected, would be a hundred times larger.

If you went to a Nagasaki-type bomb with plutonium or Hiroshima with highly enriched uranium, it would go out another--it would go out maybe 20 or 30 times the radius and so a thousand times the area of the Oklahoma City bomb.

Q: You have visited a number of the facilities sites in the former Soviet Union and Russia. Can you describe for me what you see there that concerns you about security and safeguards?

MR. VON HIPPEL: Well, the most dramatic visit I had was to a plutonium storage facility at one of the formerly secret cities in the Ural mountains. It is one of the three cities where the plutonium for Russian, for Soviet nuclear weapons, was produced.

I went to one 50 year old warehouse, one of the oldest buildings at the site and, you know, went--and found 12,000 canisters, coffee can-sized canisters of plutonium there, 30,000 tons. So, you know, any two of these 12,000 canisters would be sufficient to make a Nagasaki-type bomb.

They had lots of guards around. There was even a fence around the city. So, they were well-protected against some kind of attack, you know, the Green Berets or something like that, but they had almost no protection against an inside job. They had no surveillance, no television cameras or sensors inside the building to detect if there was somebody in there that shouldn't be.

It alarmed us. This facility is actually now the object of one of our cooperative projects to upgrade the security there.

But there are about a hundred sites, not--you know, most of them don't have this much material in Russia, you know, where this kind of upgrade has to take place. Some of them are considered sensitive. And so, it's been a delicate process of negotiation to figure out how we can help with-- while they worry about protecting their secrets.

There is always the accusation by right-wingers over there that we are really interested in spying, not helping secure their materials. So, it's quite a situation and it will take a few years.

And the question is whether--and we've been rather slow moving about this, because we are a ponderous, bureaucratic operation and there are all sorts of interagency squabbles and so on. My concern all this time has been whether we'll move fast enough to be ahead of the black marketeers. And so far, you know, so good.

Q: Tell me what your experience was when you first came to the White House to work on this problem among others. We had had a program theoretically in place for a couple of years.

MR. VON HIPPEL: That's right. But very little had been accomplished. That was partly due to Russian sensitivities, concerns that that this was a spying program and our not being clever enough to allay that concern, to respond to that concern.

So that was one thing. And the obvious answer, which finally--about six months later, we actually implemented was, we'll let you see ours if you let us see yours, which worked.

The other problem was that this was money that was going through the Defense Department and the Defense Department was damned if it was going to give the Russians any of that money. You know, they would fly over U. S. consultants and equipment, but they were scared to death of giving the Russians any money.

But you know, the program can't work without putting the Russians to work on their own problem. And the Department of Energy later in the Lab-to-Lab--it's the Lab-to-Lab program which is the most successful program in this area--worked it out. And it's been very successful at putting the Russians to work and this has been much cheaper than putting our own people there, than flying our own people over there.

We lost basically three years, you know, learning these simple things.

It just wasn't understood in our bureaucracy, especially the Department of Defense, but also in the Congress, in large parts of the Congress. They said, well, look it. We are providing the money. Why do we have to show them our stuff as well? This is a one-sided relationship because it's our money, was the argument.

Of course, that neglected the fact that this was also our security that we were defending by helping the Russians secure their material.

There has been an attitude, well, you know, we are the victor in the cold war. So, why don't they behave like they are the losers. In fact, as you say, nuclear weapons are all they have left in a way, the only thing that does make them different from a developing country an India. That comes hard to a country which saw itself as an equal to the United States.

Q: When you and I first talked, you also described the Pentagon's unwillingness to cooperate very much in this program as cold war mentality. Explain that to me a little bit.

MR. VON HIPPEL: There was a certain amount of cold war thinking in terms of, you know, why are we working with these guys anyway and sort of the idea that we can switch from a mode where, where we're demonizing these people and assuming that even threats with thousands of nuclear weapons, you know, can't hold them back from overrunning Europe. And now, all of a sudden, we're suppose to help these guys?

That is a pretty, pretty serious shift of gears.

One of my friends said, we're trying to get the guys who built the $500 toilet seat together with the guys who built the Gulag and solve our problem. We're putting these two bureaucracies back to back and trying to get some results. That's really, really something.

Q: You mentioned earlier Lab-to-Lab.... Do you still have concerns about that effort, about Lab-to-Lab?

MR. VON HIPPEL: Well, it's been going wonderfully as far as I can tell. Congress has recognized that and funded it generously. It just started in mid-1994 as a small program. Originally, a little money was pried out of the Department of Defense for this, but they were very reluctant to continue. And the Department of Energy started getting money directly from the Congress.

And now this coming year, the funding level is more than $100 million. I think about half of that money is being spent in Russia, on Russian service, work and equipment.

By most standards, $100 million is a lot of money but, of course, compared to the $300 billion U. S. defense budget, it's not much. I can't say enough good things about this Lab to Lab program and I just wish we had some more programs that were going forward like that.

Q: In the summer of 1994, the spectacular cases in Europe were happening of smuggling, albeit some or most were stings. Was that having any effect in Washington in terms of spurring the need to get something done?

MR. VON HIPPEL: Surprisingly little. And that's actually been one of the frustrations here, that in this administration, it's been recognized, I think, rhetorically as a urgent problem, but nobody really above the working level--maybe three levels down from the cabinet level--has really been given lead responsibility for this.

So, everything has to be worked out in the interagency process and my experience has been that 90 percent of the concerns relate to turf. Who is actually going to have the lead on this? Who is going to get the money and who is going to get the credit? And only ten percent focused on the objective. And there was nobody really to knock heads on this.

I remember once when we managed to get President Yeltsin to agree to something in the January, 1994 summit statement--the joint summit statement with President Clinton--it took us about five months to figure out what to do next, how to follow up on this breakthrough. We were going around and around in the interagency process.

Q: When we were at Obninsk, the director, in explaining what they have there--not how much they have--he was saying that essentially, their research reactors have done jobs for all kinds of people. So, they have all sorts of material, shapes, sizes, enrichments. You name it, they've got it lying around somewhere.

MR. VON HIPPEL: Right.

And this is a program which, in my view, has no purpose whatsoever. But the people grew up with this dream, let go of it very grudgingly and they haven't let go in Russia.

We've said, well, if we need plutonium breeder reactors it will maybe be a hundred years from now. We'll worry about that some time in the future. The French and the British have also abandoned their development programs. The Japanese are saying, well, maybe in 2040. We're a country that plans a long way ahead and then every couple of years they said, well, maybe 2050 and so on.

Maybe because the nuclear people are still so much in control of their own shop and haven't been subject to outside supervision and are, in a way, still at least democratic--the Russians are still convinced that somebody will give them money to build plutonium reactors before too long.

Q: At this moment, what is sort of the nightmare scenario until we get this problem solved in Russia?

MR. VON HIPPEL: Well, I guess the nightmare scenario is that if there is a breakdown in the security in one of these facilities where there is a large amount of plutonium or highly enriched uranium. Obninsk could be one of those places and that tens of kilograms, several bombs' worth of material is stolen and is not recaptured. It just disappears into the underground world.

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