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If you like Glenn Seaborg's story, you might also like:
Francis Collins,
Freeman Dyson,
Murray Gell-Mann,
Leon Lederman,
John Mather,
Linus Pauling,
Edward Teller,
Charles Townes,
James Watson and
Edward O. Wilson

Glenn Seaborg's recommended reading:

Related Links:
Nobel Prize
Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory
Seaborg Center

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Glenn Seaborg
Glenn Seaborg
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Glenn Seaborg Interview (page: 2 / 8)

Discoverer of Plutonium

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  Glenn Seaborg

Many of your discoveries had two applications: one peaceful, and one for weapons and destruction. How did you reconcile the dual use of this, the fact that you were creating something that had a wonderful side to it but also had a terribly destructive side?

Glenn Seaborg: On the weapons side, we regarded it as a race with Adolf Hitler and his German scientists so there were no second thoughts about it. No qualms at all. I know of no scientist who felt that we shouldn't do this and let Hitler beat us. Not a single one at that time. We all felt that this was a matter of life and death and we had to give all of our effort. I had many meetings with leading scientists, like Eugene Wigner, and so forth, who would come over to tell me, "Glenn, we might as well admit it, we're losing the race. We're not going to get there in time." This only spurred us to greater effort. Then lurking in the background was the goal that here we also had a limitless source of energy for use in electricity-producing reactors and that was something developed after the war. It is probably not generally known, but in the power reactors that produce electricity in the United States today, about 40 percent of the energy which comes from the fission is from plutonium and about 60 percent from the U-235. They use the enriched U-235, enriched from its concentration in natural uranium, to run the reactor, but then the rest of it is U-238 capturing a neutron to form plutonium. That same thing happens in power reactors, and while you are producing energy by the fission of U-235, you are producing plutonium 239, which in turn is a nuclear fuel and adds to the nuclear fuel that keeps the reactor going. In the course of the lifetime of a fuel cycle, 40 percent of the energy is produced by plutonium 239, which is a source of satisfaction to me, of course.

Do people now fully understand what was going on at that time?

Glenn Seaborg: No, I don't think so. I can understand this.

There are young people today who feel that we shouldn't have developed the atomic bomb -- that it was a mistake. I believe that this is because, through no fault of their own, they don't have this sense of history. They didn't live through this most terrifying period when we thought we were losing the race with Adolf Hitler. I might go on and say that after we had developed the atomic bomb, and it looked like it was certainly going to work, and Germany had surrendered, the question arose then whether it should be used on Japan. I was a member of a group under the chairmanship of James Franck, an ex-German physicist who was working at the Metallurgical Laboratory as chairman of a committee of about seven to eight scientists who issued what has become known now as the Franck Report, where we recommended that the bomb not be used on Japan. That it be demonstrated first in the presence of Japanese observers on some uninhabited island, with the thought that they would see what a terrible weapon it was, what it would do to their country if it were used, and would induce the Emperor of Japan to surrender, without the need for the use of the atomic bomb on the Japanese people.

You were hoping that a message could be sent to the Japanese?

Glenn Seaborg: We were hoping that there could be a demonstration that Japanese representatives would attend and see the explosion. Anybody who saw the exploding of a nuclear weapon would realize what it would do to one's own people. We thought those representatives would go back to the Emperor and the leaders of Japan and tell them, "We'd better surrender."

And yet it took two of those bombs.

Glenn Seaborg: It took two to do it.

I've often thought that perhaps we could have waited a little longer on the second one -- it was only three days between August 6 and August 9 -- and saved those lives. However, there's another side to the story, of course. Those who made the decision that the United States would use the atomic bomb in warfare on Japan had in mind the fact that we only had one or two bombs, and if we made a demonstration and it didn't work, where would we stand? We certainly would have not convinced the Japanese. And the second reason is that we would save an awful lot of lives overall, American and Japanese, by ending the war even though we had to use atomic bombs to do it. The estimates are that there would have been hundreds of thousands of Japanese killed if it had been necessary to have an Allied invasion, and a large number of American lives lost in an invasion of Japan, and so overall, there were more lives saved than lost by the use of the atomic bomb. That's the other side of the story. But in balance, I still think it would have been better to have made a demonstration. Then in that way our country would never be in the position of being the only country in the world to use an atomic bomb in warfare.

What kind of discussions preceded the Franck Report?

Glenn Seaborg: We just met in the rooms there in the physics building of the University of Chicago and came to an agreement that we would make this recommendation. It was drafted by a chemist named Eugene Rabinowitch. He did the actual drafting of the language in the report. The report is now available. Anybody can read it. It made essentially two recommendations. One is that there be a demonstration with the hope of forestalling the need to use the bomb and the other one was that we should proceed immediately toward some system of international control of nuclear weapons. Those were the two main recommendations in the Franck Report. I was one of the signers.

Those who created this technology hoped that it would be used in a more limited way, and more wisely?

Yes, but that wasn't a unanimous opinion. I'm saying our committee made that recommendation. There were scientists who thought it should be used, and of course the highest level scientists that were consulted suggested that it be used.

One of the most defining characteristics of our history since the end of World War II has been the nuclear arms race. Something that the group you were involved in obviously worried about if, even if you didn't quite foresee it.

Glenn Seaborg: Well, we essentially foresaw it. That's right. We wanted to have some kind of international control right from the beginning, as soon as the war was over.

Because you knew that the Germans had been working on it, did you assume that other people might be working on it as well?

Glenn Seaborg Interview Photo
Glenn Seaborg: No, it wasn't so much that. By that time we knew the Germans weren't working on it, and there was nobody else eligible. We knew the Japanese hadn't been doing it, but we knew that the Russians, the Soviets, would be able to go through the manufacturing processes necessary for the fabrication of an atomic bomb, and we foresaw that if these two powers then faced off with nuclear weapons arsenals, the world would be in not too good a shape. And that's the way it turned out, of course.

But those scientists who felt that way lost control of the technology they helped to create?

Glenn Seaborg: No, they never had control. That was controlled on a higher political level, as it should be.

As it should be?

Glenn Seaborg: I think so. If a scientist gets elected to a high political position, sure. But I don't quite see any system whereby a group of scientists could overrule the President of the United States, the Congress and so forth.

That gets at a very tough issue. How much control should scientists have over the technology they create?

Glenn Seaborg: They should be listened to. They should give advice, and I believe they should run for political office. They should try to participate in the American system of government. I don't believe there are enough scientists in government. Some of us have participated. I participated for ten years as the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. I had the chance to be right in the top councils of the government of the United States, but I don't believe there are enough scientists doing that, in the past or at present.

In a sense, you are saying that in our system, our political leaders have control. We all can think of them as having control over the military, but are you saying they should have control over the products of science as well? In these circumstances?

Glenn Seaborg: Yes, they certainly have control over the atomic bomb -- the nuclear weapon. That is controlled at the highest political levels of our country, not by the scientist. I'm oversimplifying, but the answer to that is to have the scientist become part of the political apparatus of the country. I think more scientists should get into government.

We understand you've known every U.S. President since Harry Truman.

Glenn Seaborg: That's right.

I served on the prestigious General Advisory Committee of the first Atomic Energy Commission, appointed by Harry Truman. I served on the first President's Science Advisory Committee under President Dwight Eisenhower. I served as the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission under President John Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson, and part of the term of President Richard Nixon. I knew Gerald Ford when he was in Congress. My wife Helen and I had dinner on occasion with Mr. and Mrs. Ford. Of course, Jimmy Carter was a nuclear engineer, and I was familiar with him in that connection, and also advised him on occasion. I served on the National Commission on Excellence in Education for President Ronald Reagan, that came out with the report "A Nation at Risk" and have known President George (H.W.) Bush since the days of the Nixon administration when he served as the Ambassador to the United Nations, and have been in touch with him ever since. A year ago April, he had me back to Washington to brief him on "cold fusion." Fortunately, even though everybody thought this was a great discovery at that time, I had a feeling that it was probably not really a potential source of energy ,and I told President Bush that "cold fusion" is very "cold" indeed, and he used that advice and my suggestion that he create a high level committee of scientists to look into it. This he did, and they confirmed my view that this probably is not really a potential source of energy.

Over the years you had more association with some presidents than others. Which of the presidents were you closest with personally? Which did you seem to hit it off with?

Glenn Seaborg: Lyndon Johnson. Yes, I had a very good relationship with him. He apparently trusted me and he followed practically all of my recommendations. I can remember having disputes with governmental officials, particularly the director of the Bureau of the Budget. I would ask for more money for the Atomic Energy Commission than the director would want to allocate. Lyndon Johnson would fly us down to his ranch -- Pedernales Ranch in Texas -- to settle the issue. Lyndon Johnson would sit there and listen to us debate. I would give my case and the director of the Bureau of the Budget would give his case, and in every case, he ruled in my favor. He said, "Glenn, I think you've made the best case, I'll give you that." Whatever the item was. It usually was some item that cost some money, of course, which I was able to convince the President was worth including in the Atomic Energy Commission's budget.

I suppose it would be an understatement to say that LBJ was a real character?

Glenn Seaborg: Yes, LBJ was a real character, that's right. But as I indicated, I had a good relationship with him and I liked him. He was the most persuasive man that I've ever known. I would see him on occasion talking to a member of Congress at some social function in the White House. He'd envelop him and tell him about some bill that he wanted in Congress and go on and describe it and leave him and say, "Now of course I can count on your support. Thank you very much." Then he'd go on to the next person and the guy -- the congressman who had been the subject of that treatment -- was in a daze, and he'd come up afterward and say, "I don't know what happened to me, but I agreed to it and now I have to go and deliver." He was the most persuasive person I've every known.

And decisive.

Glenn Seaborg: A very decisive one.

He (LBJ) kept his finger on the individual items. I mean individual budget items for the Atomic Energy Commission. Perhaps I'd have six of them, that I was in dispute with the director of the Bureau of the Budget. I would describe them in detail and he would nod. I would usually win six out of six. I really had his confidence. He really believed that I didn't have a hidden agenda. He was convinced that I was doing what I thought was best for the country. Once I won his confidence like that, I was able to usually win out in the debates. On the other hand, if he lost confidence in somebody it was just as bad on the other side. That person would have trouble convincing him of anything.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

You mentioned the nuclear test ban treaty and your support for it. Could you tell us about that?

Glenn Seaborg Interview Photo
Glenn Seaborg: I think that for someone to be serious about arms control, the litmus test is to be positive on a comprehensive test ban. That's because with a comprehensive test ban you stop the qualitative improvement of nuclear weapons. And therefore you freeze the arms race at that level, whereas the other steps that are being taken with respect to nuclear weapons are to cut back quantitatively. But we have perhaps 25,000 nuclear weapons on each, the U.S. side and the Soviet side. These incremental cutbacks are relatively unimportant compared to a comprehensive test ban. We'd have to cut way, way back. I think that something like 500 weapons on each side would probably be enough to destroy each country in a nuclear exchange. We have 25,000, so sure it's important to cut back. You keep whittling away and cutting down, but while you are doing that, stop the qualitative improvement. Just freeze it where it is now.

Do you have a sense, having been involved in the early stages of this technology, that politicians squandered their control over the technology? There are so many more weapons than either side could possibly have needed.

Glenn Seaborg: Yes. I don't know whether I'd say squandered, but certainly it would have been possible to make more progress at the very beginning, in the first conferences right after the war.

In particular it would have been of tremendous benefit to both sides if we could have agreed on a comprehensive test ban in 1963, when we settled on both sides for a limited test ban -- that is a ban that forbid testing in the atmosphere and outer space and underwater, but allowed continued testing underground. We came so close in 1963, and think of where we would be today if we would have frozen the development of nuclear weapons on both sides. And I emphasize that, at the level where they stood in 1963, if we could have obtained a test ban at that time. At that time we asked for a large number of on-site inspections of a rather intrusive nature that the Soviet leadership wouldn't accept. I think we should have settled for a smaller number of on-site inspections, and tried to conclude a comprehensive test ban at the time when we settled for a limited test ban. But I have to say that we might not have been able to get that through Congress, through the Senate. John Kennedy made a masterful campaign at all levels to pave the way for the two-thirds vote of affirmation for the limited test ban, and he might not have been able to do that with a comprehensive. I have learned in recent years through Jerry Wiesner, who was the Science Advisor to President Kennedy, that before he died, President Kennedy wished that he had made a bigger try for a comprehensive test ban. Who knows, maybe he would have been able to swing it. It seems unlikely, but maybe he would. It might have been worth trying.

Are you saying that a test ban would have blocked the scientific advance of nuclear weapons?

Glenn Seaborg: That's right. It would block the improvement of weapons so that you couldn't get the more penetrating kind and the more accurate and improved weapons. It would block that improvement, but I have to say it would block it on both sides. That's where you have the problem. People don't want to block it on our side. They say we should get the most efficient weapons that we can, but it would be to our advantage if the improvement were blocked on both sides.

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This page last revised on Aug 23, 2008 14:01 EDT