A Chat with Alvin M. Weinberg

This article appeared in the ORNL Review magazine. For more information on ORNL and its research and development activities, please refer to one of our Media Contacts.

In anticipation of Alvin Weinberg's 80th birthday in April 1995, Bill Cabage, editor of the ORNL Reporter, and Carolyn Krause, editor of the ORNL Review, interviewed the former ORNL director (1955-1973) in his home in Oak Ridge. The edited interview with Weinberg follows.

Weinberg points out a feature of the Oak Ridge Research Reactor to Senator John Kennedy (left of Weinberg), Senator Albert Gore, Sr., and Jackie Kennedy. Looking on at far left is Sam Hurt.
Weinberg points out a feature of the Oak Ridge Research Reactor to Senator John Kennedy (left of Weinberg), Senator Albert Gore, Sr., and Jackie Kennedy. Looking on at far left is Sam Hurt.


Emphasis on reduction of U.S. budget deficits may threaten the survival of many scientific programs and even some Department of Energy national laboratories. What is your view on this situation?


Today's situation is analogous to the situation 50 years ago. The issue 50 years ago was what would be the future of the entity then known as Clinton Laboratories. What the Oak Ridge laboratory is for and where the money will come from have always been central issues.

Norris Bradbury, director of Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory for a long time, used to scare other lab directors by saying, "Suppose an earthquake destroyed your laboratory. Would the AEC or DOE decide to rebuild it?" The implication was that he wasn't sure.

The contract between the scientific establishment and the government is being reviewed again. In 1945 Vannevar Bush wrote a paper that set forth why science should be supported by society. That provided the underlying understanding for why these big laboratories and science are supported. Well, 50 years later, we seem to be reopening that question. The advantage today is that we have people very adept at exploiting the political process. Why should science be supported? Only the government can decide the proper role of science and the labs.

Q: What was your reaction to the decision to terminate the Advanced Neutron Source research reactor, which would have been built at ORNL to produce medical isotopes, test materials, and provide beams for neutron-scattering research?

Weinberg: It was an awful error on the part of the government to cancel the ANS. A dreadful decision. The government is prepared to spend $30 billion on an international space station, but it won't spend one-tenth of that on something of central importance.

Q: Do you think scientists have lived in a golden era that may be ending?

Weinberg: For 50 years, the contract between scientists and government has been firmly in place, and it has been very generous. We scientists were very lucky people. It is a much colder world today. Perhaps it will mean that scientific careers will revert to the way they were in the 1930s, some 60 years ago. In that time, scientists didn't have large sums of money. College professors were poor then. They lived a life of genteel poverty. It was a trade-off--you did something you enjoyed doing, but you had to pay by living a life of genteel poverty. I hope this does not happen. I hope people realize that science must be pursued and that government must have a dominant role in supporting it.

Weinberg shows the Oak Ridge Research Reactor control panel to King Hussein of Jordan.
Weinberg shows the Oak Ridge Research Reactor control panel to King Hussein of Jordan.

Q: Your mentor, Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner, always seemed to be two steps ahead of everyone. Was that really so?

Weinberg: Eugene Wigner was smarter than anyone else by a good deal. No one at the Laboratory was in the same intellectual class as Eugene Wigner. That was so evident during a scientific discussion. His intellectual power was phenomenal.

His aptitude as an engineer was remarkable. He would argue details of design for the Hanford plutonium-producing reactors, invoking common engineering principles. Yet he was not a trained engineer or physicist. He started out as a chemist. In his eulogy on Wigner (who died January 1, 1995), Frederick Seitz recalled that Wigner knew how to prepare every known inorganic chemical compound. Isn't that extraordinary?

Wigner attributes much of his excellence in science to having gone to the best high school in the world. It was a Lutheran high school in Budapest. His classmate and best friend, John von Neumann, was a genius like Wigner.

ORNL is wonderfully fortunate in having had this close interaction with a great genius. Even the people there who didn't know him are aware of Wigner's influence on the Laboratory. He had a tremendous influence on me.

Q: One-third of the DOE budget is devoted to environmental restoration. What is your position on the goal to remediate all hazardous sites even though many of them may pose no more of a health risk than areas where most people live and work?

Weinberg: I think it's nonsense. We've gone crazy. I have argued at various times that one of the prices of nuclear energy is the commitment of certain pieces of real estate in perpetuity to nuclear activity, including waste disposal. This is not all that big a commitment because there are only 85 reactor sites and 50 other nuclear-related sites throughout the United States. That's the price we pay, and I'm prepared to pay that price. Not that these sites are not useful. They are.

Recently, Donna Cragle, director of the Center for Epidemiologic Research at Oak Ridge Associated Universities, led a study at the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina that found that long-term exposure to low-level radiation may increase workers' risk of leukemia. (The study found that workers exposed to higher doses had a higher rate of leukemia deaths than workers exposed to lower doses; however, the study did not find a significant increase in leukemia cases over the expected rate for the general population.) The study also showed that the Savannah River worker population had a lower risk of developing certain other cancers and a lower death rate than the national population. Overall, life expectancy is rather long for nuclear workers.

Q: Why do you think people worry so much about the hazards of nuclear power plants and hazardous waste sites when greater health risks are closer to home in the form of cigarettes, food, alcoholic beverages, and cars?

Weinberg: You look around and Americans are fat. This is the fat generation. I think eating the wrong foods in large amounts is a more serious risk to health than smoking. Not everybody smokes, but everybody eats.

Weinberg shows the controls of ORNL's Molten Salt Reactor to Glenn Seaborg, Nobel Prize winner.
Weinberg shows the controls of ORNL's Molten Salt Reactor to Glenn Seaborg, Nobel Prize winner.

Q: In your book The First Nuclear Era: The Life and Times of a Technological Fixer, you come across as a man of integrity. You have spoken out on your beliefs, even when your views were, as we say today, politically incorrect. Should researchers at government laboratories speak out truthfully about their findings and concerns even if their careers could be jeopardized?

Weinberg: Karl Morgan, once director of ORNL's Health Physics Division, disagreed with the way reactor development was going. He thought the thorium cycle (breeding uranium-233 in a reactor by neutron bombardment of thorium) should be pursued because the waste disposal problem was simpler to handle. We had some difficult times there. The problem that Laboratory management always faced was that our survival depended on our ability to get money, mostly from the Atomic Energy Commission's Reactor Division under Milton Shaw. Karl Morgan's dissenting views on reactors placed ORNL in an awkward position, but Karl's career didn't suffer. He's going strong even though he's close to 90. Milton Shaw had a singleness of purpose. In many ways I admired him, and in many ways he drove me nutty. He had a single-minded commitment to do what he was told to do, which was to get the Clinch River Breeder Reactor built. My views were different from his. I think the Commission decided that my views were out of touch with the way the nuclear industry was actually going.

Q: Which views were these?

Weinberg: I wasn't a great believer in the liquid metal fast breeder reactor (which was designed to breed plutonium using neutrons from the plutonium fuel). I pushed for the molten salt breeder reactor, which used the thorium cycle. Also, I was outspoken on how much effort should go into developing safety systems for reactors.

Q: In your book, you mentioned that Rep. Chet Holifield, chairman of the congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, said, "Alvin, if you are concerned about the safety of reactors, then I think it might be time for you to leave nuclear energy."

Weinberg: I did include that anecdote in my book, but I'm not quite proud that I'd done that because Chet Holifield was a remarkable man. He, perhaps more than any other person, was responsible for the government spending billions and billions of dollars on nuclear energy. It was kind of odd. Toward the end, he and I did disagree in 1970 when the establishment of national environmental laboratories was proposed. I had worked with senators Howard Baker and Edmund Muskie on this issue, and we advocated that ORNL become an environmental laboratory. That really caused Chet Holifield to blow his stack.

Q: Speaking of national environmental labs, you wrote in your book that you proposed the idea for a solar energy national lab, which became the Solar Energy Research Institute, or SERI, which has since been renamed the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Are you in favor of making more labs single-subject labs?

Weinberg: Not necessarily. I guess I feel that the establishment of SERI was the one thing I was really proud of in that year (1974) I spent in Washington (as director of the Energy Research and Development Office of the Federal Energy Administration). We were to have a think tank in Washington, but no one told us what to think about. I'm pleased that we came up with this idea of a solar energy national laboratory. Most people are unaware of where the idea for that got started.

What the focus of the national labs ought to be for the future is very difficult for me to say. I think a big environmental component is inevitable. I still have this notion that nuclear energy will reemerge. Although we spent 50 years and an awful lot of money on the development of nuclear energy, I don't see the development as completed. If I had my druthers, I would say, "Let's take out a clean sheet of paper and let's design a new category of reactor that avoids all difficulties and is inherently safe."

Q: Do you think that nuclear energy is less popular in the United States than in France and Japan because there is more reverence for human life in this country? Does this reverence make us overly concerned about health risks of environmental agents?

Weinberg: I don't think so, the main thing is that we have enormous amounts of coal. It has always been problematic whether nuclear energy can compete with coal.

Weinberg prepares to give his State of the Laboratory address in 1971 at Oak Ridge High School's auditorium.
Weinberg prepares to give his State of the Laboratory address in 1971 at Oak Ridge High School's auditorium.

Q: But someday we'll run out of the coal.

Weinberg: Yes, someday we'll run out of the coal. That's when many of us say a second nuclear era may begin. But we don't really know when.

In the meantime, the problem with coal is that burning it produces carbon dioxide, which can intensify the greenhouse effect and may produce undesirable climate changes. I was the first to alert the Energy Research and Development Administration, AEC's successor, to the carbon dioxide question. The head of ERDA then established a carbon dioxide effects office in 1975. ERDA gave the new Institute for Energy Analysis that I had established in Oak Ridge the responsibility of assessing the impacts of increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. From 1976 to 1984, IEA became the nation's center for studies of the carbon dioxide issue.

Q: Do you think the United States will ever be energy independent?

Weinberg: It depends on the time scale you are talking about. How long will the oil and gas last? 100 years? 200 years? In a sense the question answers itself. When I worked on Project Independence in 1975 under AEC Chairman Dixy Lee Ray, the goal was that we would be energy independent by 1980. It was utter nonsense.

The question is, is energy independence all that important? When I was in Washington it was of central concern. It is no longer regarded as a central concern except that it contributes a lot to our trade imbalance.

Q: Dixy Lee Ray claimed in her autobiography Is It True What They Say about Dixy? (by Louis R. Guzzo) that she saved the Laboratory back in 1972. Is that a realistic claim?

Weinberg: Let me read to you what she said in her book: "One of the notions he (Milton Shaw) had was his stated desire to destroy the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. I never really knew exactly why but I was equally determined that that fine American institution should live forever. At one time he (Milton Shaw) could have accomplished his goal, because he had Congressman Holifield on his side and both of them detested my old friend, Dr. Alvin Weinberg, who ran the Oak Ridge lab. To this day I don't understand the Holifield-Shaw dislike of Oak Ridge, but I had to believe it had no place in the Holifield nuclear empire."

So she fired Milton Shaw. Her claim that he was out to destroy the Lab is not realistic because the Lab is a big place. Shaw was out to get me fired, and I did get fired. But, in looking back, I think I had outlived my usefulness at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. I left at an appropriate time. I had been director and research director for 26 years, which is an awfully long time.

Weinberg chats with Dixy Lee Ray, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and later governor of Washington. Weinberg introduced her to an ORNL audience in 1992 before she gave a talk on environmental research and regulation.
Weinberg chats with Dixy Lee Ray, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and later governor of Washington. Weinberg introduced her to an ORNL audience in 1992 before she gave a talk on environmental research and regulation.

Q: What contributions are you most proud of as a scientist, scientific administrator, and writer and thinker?

Weinberg: My career as a practicing scientist was really quite short. But the formulation and codification of the theory of nuclear reactors culminated in the book I coauthored with Wigner called The Physical Theory of Nuclear Chain Reactors. That's probably my most important contribution to science.

I'm known as the person who proposed to Admiral Rickover that the Nautilus submarine be powered by a pressurized-water reactor. We were working on the Materials Testing Reactor at the time, so it was easy enough for me to say, "Take the MTR and put it under pressure and put it in your submarine." (After that, the pressurized-water reactor was used in many commercial nuclear power plants throughout the world.)

As a scientific administrator, I am proud that under my leadership, ORNL became a very viable entity.

But my contribution to what I call the philosophy of scientific administration is probably the most important and original thing that I did in my life. The philosophy of science is concerned with how you decide if a scientific finding is correct or true. You have to establish criteria to determine if the finding or theory is valid. Validity is a fundamental problem in the philosophy of science, but the fundamental problem in the philosophy of scientific administration is the question of value. Two scientific activities are equally valid if they achieve results that are true. Now, how do you decide which activity is more valuable? The question of value is the basic question that the scientific administrator asks so that decisions can be made about funding priorities. Criteria for measuring value of competing scientific ventures that I set forth in a series of papers have been accepted by people in the National Science Foundation.

Another thing I've done is to promote the Friendship Bell now in Oak Ridge as a way to live with the bomb. (Weinberg showed us his miniature copy of the replica of the Hiroshima bonshoo friendship bell now in Oak Ridge; he chaired the International Friendship Bell Committee, which raised money for the project.) It's pretty controversial, and I'm prepared to live with the controversy.

In my most recent book, I wrote about what I call the sanctification of Hiroshima. People ask, `Was the Hiroshima bomb justified?' Well, it was justified on two accounts. I believe that Hiroshima really did end World War II, that it saved many lives. I was a signer of several petitions urging that the bomb not be dropped on Japan, just demonstrated by blowing up a tower in the desert. I've come to decide that dropping the bomb actually saved lives.

The other justification is that we will have to live with bombs for the rest of time. Is there some way we can invest in the bomb some "aura of forbiddenness" so people won't use it again? We should look upon an event such as Hiroshima as one to be remembered 1000 years from now because it killed a lot of people like the Holocaust in Germany, which is passing into the Jewish tradition as a religious tradition. This bronze bell, which was made by the same bellmaker who cast the original Hiroshima bell, will last 1000 years. Years from now, people seeing the Oak Ridge bell will have forgotten the controversy and remember the lesson of Hiroshima--we have to live with the bomb, but we must avoid using it. Through sanctification of Hiroshima, we will establish a tradition of non-use.

Q: You have been concerned with the proliferation of scientific information. We are even more aware of it on the Internet, which offers researchers a "virtual lab" in which they can communicate with each other. What is your view of new trends in communicating scientific information?

Weinberg: I was on the President's Science Advisory Committee from 1959 to 1961. The panel I chaired produced the report Science, Government, and Information. I acquired a reputation for my leadership in dealing with burgeoning scientific information.

As for the Internet, I tend to have profound doubts about the value of this communication advance to science. I wonder if, in an era of the Internet, we can have somebody like Eugene Wigner. Eugene Wigner's genius manifested itself in his ability to concentrate for a long time on a single idea. If you are constantly beset by outside ideas, can you really get to the true heart of the matter? It's a very different way of doing science. Things have changed a lot in 50 years.