In October 1959, our
very first editorial statement, "The Contaminators," warned against the
dangers of radioactivity-in that case, from nuclear-bomb test fallout.
In the intervening years, we have provided a forum, through the "Playboy
Interview" and elsewhere in the magazine, for proponents of soft energy
alternatives to nuclear power: environmentalist Barry Commoner, actor /
solar-energy crusader Robert Redford, actress/activist Jane Fonda. Now,
in the wake of "The China Syndrome," the near catastrophe at Three Mile
Island and, in the biggest demonstration since Vietnam, the march of
some 65,000 persons on Washington, demanding that nuclear power Plants
be shut down, it seems an appropriate time to probe the other side of
the argument. We have chosen to present an interview with the man who is
perhaps nuclear energy's most outspoken advocate, Edward Teller
- the so-called father of the H-bomb. An
almost Strangelovian figure to his detractors, Teller is a man of
archconservative views who is now considering a race for the U. S.
Teller’s twin passions are nuclear energy and nuclear defense. He is
convinced that atomic energy is both needed and safe, and he is a
leading proponent of new and more potent weapons for the U. S.,
including the proposed neutron bomb. Because of these stands, he has
been castigated by his enemies as a mad scientist Playing with dangerous
His supporters, on the other hand, see him as the savior of American
economic and military might, as a Cassandra warning the country of
impending energy starvation and terrible defeat at the hands of a
In this post-Vietnam, ecologically sensitive era, Teller’s ideas are
often unpopular. The pointed manner in which he expresses them causes
even greater r'esentment. Yet his influence on national military and
energy policies has been telt through eight administrations, and he
retains close ties with many persons in political power. His
unquestioned ability as a scientist lends considerable weight to his
beliefs. In Washington, Teller is thought of as one of the last of the
Cold Warriors, and somewhat eccentric, at that. But even those who
oppose him ideologically respect his professional opinions.
Teller, a lawyer's son, was born in 1908 in Hungary. His early aptitude
for mathematics and science was encouraged by a first-rate education,
culminating in doctoral studies at Leipzig and postdoctoral studies at
Gottingen, Germany. Two notable things happened during his youth. In
1919, Hungary was briefly taken over by a Communist government. That
harsh period incubated Teller’s severe distaste for the left and his
lifelong Russophobia. And while a student in Germany, Teller lost his
right foot in an accident.
As World War Two approached, Teller fled to the United States. He was an
academic, a purely theoretical physicist until he was called upon to
join in building the first atomic bomb. At Los Alamos, the country's
first weapons laboratory, Teller Played an important but not central
role in the making of the A-bomb. That weapon was based on the principle
of fission (splitting an atomic nucleus to release large amounts of
energy), but during the war, Teller became intrigued with the idea of a
potentially far more powerful explosive, a fusion bomb (in which atomic
nuclei are united to form heavier nuclei, releasing huge amounts of
energy), and set the theoretical groundwork for it.
After the war, Teller was left with the preliminary plans for his super
atomic weapon. In vain, he sought the support of the Government and of
fellow scientists, but Hiroshima had spoiled the appetites of would-be
bomb makers. Then, in 1949, the Soviets tested their first nuclear
weapon. The West was frightened, the Cold War was on and Teller got the
support he wanted. In 1951, the first thermonuclear bomb was tested. It
remains the most powerful weapon ever devised.
About the same time, the Russians developed their own version of the
hydrogen bomb. The creator of the Soviet weapon was Andrei Sakharov,
whose public life is a curious counterpoint to Teller’s. The Russian
physicist has been the most visible of his count1fs political
dissidents. His outspoken opposition to repressive Soviet policies won
him the Nobel Peace Prize. But neither Sakharov nor Teller has won the
Nobel for physics; the H-bomb seems too hot to handle, even for the
committee that oversees the fortune of the inventor of dynamite.
In 1954, Teller became embroiled in a controversy that changed his life,
as well as the nature of the relationship between scientists and the
Government in the United States. J. Robert Oppenheimer, a brilliant
physicist and a major contributor to the development of the atomic bomb,
was denied continued security clearance on the basis of very casual
acquaintances with leftists. The hearings on the Oppenheimer case were
steeped in the spirit of McCarthyism. Teller was called upon to testify
against him, because Oppenheimer had long been opposed to the H-bomb and
other Teller projects. Teller denied that the accused was disloyal but
testified that he would prefer seeing the reins of power in other hands.
In the end, the charges of disloyalty were struck down, but Oppenheimer
still lost his security clearance and his career was effectively ended.
The scientific community saw the affair as a vicious attack by political
yahoos on a great scientist, with Teller as the hatchet man, a traitor
to his own kind. Teller and Oppenheimer made personal peace after some
years, but Teller has still not been forgiven by many of his colleagues.
Despite those resentments, Teller has been a productive man in his
field. He has always enjoyed suppot from some politicians and
industrialists-most notably, the late Nelson Rockefeller-which has been
vital in achieving his goals. He created the nation's second weapons
laboratory, the Lawrence Livermore in California, and developed numerous
ideas for the peaceful implementation of nuclear power.
Although he did not continue to concentrate on theoretical physics,
Teller was not a one-shot scientist. Even his political foes admit that
his intellect is superb; his friend, Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner, has
called Teller’s mind the most imaginative one in modem physics-and he
was not forgetting Albert Einstein.
Outside of the Pentagon, Teller is America's most outspoken supporter of
increased weapons research. For decades, he has decried what he sees as
the regression of the United States as a world power. That view made him
a popular man in the Fifties, a villain to the youth of the Sixties and
a subject of renewed controversy in the Seventies.
Playboy sent writer Gila Berkowitz to interview Teller. She reports:
"The initial request for an interview was squelched by a growling,
Hungarian accented 'No" I parried with examples of pre-eminent men who
had been subjects of the 'Playboy Interview,' men like Jim "y Carter and
Jerry Brown. It was the worst possible argument. Edward Teller disdained
the offer because liberals such as Carter and Brown had been
"It is a measure of the man that several weeks later, he changed his
mind. Colleagues at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University's
repository for Nobel laureates, professors emeritus and rightleaning
thinkers without portfolio, had persuaded him that Playboy was, after
all, an appropriate forum for his ideas. One colleague insisted: 'More
scientists read Playboy than any of the professional journals.'
"Teller is 71 years old, and looks it, but he does not look as if the
years have diminished his powers. Of course, the great drooping
eyebrows, the shock of hair are far less forbidding now that they are
white. But the biting wit is consistent; his brittle irony and stinging
opinions do not mellow after hours of interviewing.
"And yet, for so vigorous a personality, Teller is also remarkably
defensive. He clearly hates being branded a Dr. Strangelove, a
reactionary, even if it is by those for whom he has little respect. His
Place in the history books is already sealed, but he cares about what
his peers think now. In the midst ot describing his most controversial
views, his most unyielding positions, his face will suddenly melt into a
poignant little smile, as if he's asking for approval.
"Teller, of course, can also be imperious, stubborn and abrupt. He
dismisses his opponents with facile one-liners and glosses over the
faults of his favorites, whether they are people or ideas.
"By the time we concluded our last session, I regretted having to leave.
To know Edward Teller
is not necessarily to be persuaded, but it is certainly to be
[This part of the interview was conducted within five days of the
nuclear accident at the Three Mile Island Plant near Harrisburg,
Playboy: What do you make of this catastrophe?
Teller: I would not call it a catastrophe; I would not call it a
disaster; I would not call it an accident. I would call it a
If I undertake something really dangerous, such as driving a car, and
the car stops and I can't make it work, but no one is hurt, that is
called a malfunction. If someone is hurt, that is called an accident. In
the Three Mile Island malfunction, no one was hurt.
Playboy: But there is great fear that people will be hurt in the future.
Teller: I am very confident that no one will be hurt. Should I be
invited to visit there, I would do so, and I wouldn't feel like a hero,
as I have everv confidence that I would be all right. '
In the functioning of many reactors, health-damaging accidents have been
avoided. There is no exception. It just so happens that the antinuclear
movement, lacking a real accident, has latched on to this one, promoting
it into something that it isn't.
Playboy: Nevertheless, it is the most serious malfunction-if that's what
you want to call it-that has occurred so far.
Teller: Indeed. I estimate that the financial damage will be even
greater than it was in the Browns Ferry malfunction, which cost
$120,000,000. My hunch is this will cost even more.
Playboy: For which, of course, the utilities' customers will be paying.
Teller: If we don't have nuclear reactors, the utilities' customers will
be paying much more, because even counting in these costs for shutdowns,
nuclear reactors are still cheaper than the next cheapest source of
electricity, coal, and much cheaper than oil or gas.
A $500,000,000 loss, while it may hurt the customers in the long run,
has an immediate and severe impact on the utility concerned; it will
suffer loss, compared with other utilities. Therefore, the utility has
the most direct financial interest in seeing that such a malfunction
never occurs again. Right now, there are enormous numbers of responsible
engineers who are carefully analyzing the questions: What has gone wrong
and what other things may still go wrong? When the story is over, we
will know how this kind of nuclear plant might malfunction, and
therefore, we will know more about how to keep it safe. Utilities will
be more careful in seeing that every component is safe, that instruments
are employed in the reactor that will appropriately inform the
operators, so that wrong judgments can be avoided. They will train
operators to avoid mistakes that may have been made here. So, as a net
result, we will have bought added safety for our money, without
sacrificing human life or human health.
[This portion of the interview was conducted several weeks after the
Three Mile Island accident].
Playboy: When we were speaking just after the Three Mile Island
incident, you refused to call .it a catastrophe or a disaster. You would
concede only that it was a malfunction. What do you say now?
Teller: It was an accident. People have cried wolf so often that when I
heard about the catastrophe, I thought it was a false alarm. It turned
out that this time it wasn't. The accident was quite a bit more serious
than ever before. There's one very important point, however. Absolutely
no one was hurt. Now this, of course, is exceedingly important in
itself, because of the value of each human life and the health of each
individual. But it is also important for another reason. Since no one
was hurt, in the long run, I believe it will be possible to discuss this
accident in a detached manner with some objectivity and without any
exaggerated emotions-emotions that, of course, would be there if people
had really suffered.
Playboy: According to the information that you have now, isn't there a
possibility that people could have suffered, or might in some future
Teller: From each accident, we learn how to avoid its repetition. This
was an accident that, in a way, I expected. Many years ago, when I was
chairman of the first Reactor Safeguard Committee-more than 30 years
ago-I came to the conviction that nothing is foolproof. If you believe
that it is, it will turn out in the end that the fool is bigger than the
proof. The Pennsylvania reactor turned out to be even safer than we
expected, but the operators seemed to be less prepared than we hoped.
Playboy: What do you mean by that?
Teller: Well, nobody knows exactly what happened yet. To learn that, one
has to cool down the reactor completely, inspect the parts, make
measurements and reconstruct everything. It will be a long process, and
I believe it wrong to prejudge what will be found. But I want to take
the risk and tell you that from the way I can piece the information
together, I have now a good guess as to what happened. Not only did the
reactor work well but the instruments connected with the reactor worked,
on the whole, reasonably well. The valve in the reactor should have
closed at a certain moment. It did not. People should have been prepared
for that possibility. There is evidence, however, that on several
occasions the reactor operators made the wrong decision. They did so, I
believe, because they were not well enough informed. It should be
relatively simple to install some additional safety equipment, but the
major change should be to install better-paid, more highly qualified
Playboy: Are you claiming that the problems were mostly of human error?
Teller: There was, it seems to me, an accumulation of human errors-human
errors that are completely understandable, because I don't want to use
the word blame. These people worked under stress. The comparison that
comes to my mind is that not very long ago, over Flint Michigan, an
airplane lost a wing flap and went into a spin. The pilot took over at
once and, thinking very fast and very ingeniously, doing much more than
working by the book, managed to bring the airplane under control and
saved the plane and the passengers. Now some pilots, I guess, are being
paid $100,000 a year. Reactor operators, I have inquired, are being paid
$25,000 a year. We are not as careful in selecting and training reactor
operators as we are in training pilots. "\IVe could, and should, have
really excellent people at each plant. These people can be found and
more can be educated. This is a situation where mistake after mistake is
made simply because it seems the job is too hard for the people
presently there. It is very clear that we' need more competence and I'm
sure we can get it.
Playboy: 'We pay pilots well and accept the risks of air travel because
the advantages are obvious. But are the advantages of nuclear reactors
so obvious that we should take the risk of having something so
susceptible to human error, in which the possibilities of disaster are
Teller: First of all, reactors are not so easily susceptible to human
error. On Three Mile Island, insult after insult was suffered by the
reactor; yet not a single person was hurt. The estimate of the damage
now stands at approximately $500,000,000, but no human life was taken.
Now, if we didn't have reactors and if we did not build more, what would
we have? It has now been proposed, by Jane Fonda and other experts, that
all our reactors be shut down. If they were, we would pay six billion
dollars per year more for imported oil. The dollar would depreciate
further. All of us would be even more dependent on the tender mercies of
OPEC. If we continue to build reactors, there's a much greater chance to
break the monopoly of OPEC - a monopoly that would never be tolerated in
the United States, incidentally.
Now, you may ask, Why not coal? The answer is the health hazards of
coal-in coal mines, by accidents, by black-lung disease, by air
pollution to the general population - are almost 100 times greater than
any accident associated with the reactor. In the operation of the
reactors themselves, there have been no health hazards.
Playboy: Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano
would dispute that. He testified in front of a Senate subcommittee that
because twice as much radiation was emitted from Three Mile Island as
originally' estimated, at least one to ten cancer deaths could be
expected among the 2,000,000 people living near the power plant.
Teller: Secretary Califano wasn't speaking about real expectations but
about the worst possible case. The procedures for making those estimates
are difficult and are not, based on direct statistics. The committee of
the National Academy of Sciences that came up with the estimate was
split when it rendered its opinion, and it may even now be reconsidering
the latest estimate. But taking all that into account, remember that out
of a population of 2,000,000, some 325,000 cancer cases are expected
normally. In the worst possible case, ten more people might contract
cancer along with the 325,000. So, although even this cannot be verified
statistically, Califano's statement will have the effect of making any
of those 325,000 people think. Maybe I'm one of the ten. I believe this
an improper use of scientific hypothesis and an improper way to inform
Playboy: It nonetheless suggests to us that the nuclear plant poses a
greater health hazard than you were willing to admit. And you can't deny
that radiation poses a danger to pregnant women and children, can you?
Teller: Pregnant women, or, rather, their offspring, are in greater
danger. Small children are in less danger, old people like myself are in
least danger. Airline hostesses regularly get excess amounts of
radiation because cosmic radiation at the 30,000-foot altitude at which
jets fly is much greater than it is at sea level. The airlines used to
have a policy of grounding hostesses when they got married. The
hostesses protested and took the matter to court, and the courts decided
that they must be allowed to fly. Nobody bothered to enlighten the
hostesses that if they should get pregnant, even in the period before
their pregnancy is recognized, the excess radiation might be damaging to
their children. They are exposed to amounts larger than those the
protesters are protesting about. This kind of double standard makes me
feel that the reasons that the protesters are protesting are a little
more complex than they appear to be.
Playboy: Governor Jerry Brown asked to shut down the California plant
that is a replica of the T.M.I. plant. Don't you think that was a
prudent, justified move?
Teller: I am quite sure it is unjustified. If Governor Brown succeeds in
getting that plant shut down, there will be a need for another 30,000
barrels of oil a day.
[The Rancho Seco nuclear Plant in California was shut down on April 28].
We can't have that unless there is a good reason for it, and from
everything I know, there is no such reason. There may be some real or
imagined political advantage for Governor Brown, who is exceedingly
nimble in jumping on any band wagon, of any description, going at any
Playboy: How did you react when you first heard about the T.M.I.
incident? Didn't it strain your confidence in nuclear power plants?
Teller: I thought: Nobody has been hurt so far, nobody will get hurt, we
will learn something. It will cost something, but it's worth it.
But that mass hysteria should have reached this proportion, that it
should have remained top news for as long as it has, that is
unprecedented. And it is a thoroughly unhealthy sign; it shows that we
have lost all sense of balance. The very thing that makes reactors
safe-that we worry in detail about possibilities-gives fuel to the
antinuclear propagandists, who have exploited these worries literally to
scare people stiff. For example, detailed calculations lead to the
probably correct conclusion that in the Pennsylvania reactor there was a
gas bubble. Its existence was not proved but, on circumstantial
evidence, is highly likely. The newspapers were full of the term time
bomb. They said maybe it would go off in two days, maybe three. It was
reasonable to say, "There appears to be a bubble; it might be hydrogen;
it conceivably may lead to danger; let's get rid of it in the most
cautious manner possible". All those statements are reasonable. That
this should feed headlines, should give rise to petitions and marches,
is not as reasonable. I wonder: The energy industry lost, say,
$500,000,000, but did the newspaper industry make $500,000,000? Was that
money siphoned off from the energy industry, which needs the money
badly, and given over to the amusement industry, which served the public
by amusing it in a somewhat perverse way with horror stories?
Playboy: How do you assess the danger of living near a nuclear plant?
Teller: According to my daughter, this is a male-chauvinist-pig story,
but anyway, it is told that at the hearings about a certain Illinois
reactor, Dresden III, one of the protesters, a Dr. T., was confronted by
a young man from the Atomic Energy Commission. The man said, "Dr. T.,
what do you think you get more radiation from, leaning up against an
atomic reactor or sleeping with your wife?" Dr. T. didn't know and was
confused by the question. So the man from the Atomic Energy Commission
said, "I don't want to alarm you, but all human beings have radioactive
their blood-and that includes your wife. This reactor may have more
radioactivity but much greater shielding. If you compare the two for
radiation, you get just a bit more from Dresden III than from your
That's why I do not advocate a law forcing married couples to sleep in
twin beds, but from the point of view of radiation safety, I must warn
against the practice of sleeping every night with two girls, because
then you would get more radiation than from Dresden III.
The postscript to this story is that we had a very hard winter, a coal
strike, oil barges stuck on the frozen Ohio River. Illinois did not get
into trouble, thanks to Dresden III, which was able to supply the energy
needs of neighboring states.
Playboy: What about the Government's
reaction to the Three Mile Island accident? Has it been to your
Teller: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission made a great effort, an honest
effort and a useful effort-but perhaps not a sufficient one. I think
that agency should
be strengthened. However, President Carter did one tiling that I
think-at least I hope-will have a healthy effect. He appointed an
II-person commission. On the commission, there's not a single person
representing the utilities or the nuclear industry. There's also not a
single person representing the antinukes. I don't see how one can do
better than follow the old legal procedure of appointing people who have
Playboy: Despite your assurances, the dangers of radiation
are what people fear most from both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.
Does the need for nuclear energy justify the harm that it has done or
Teller: There has been one and only one test on February 28, 1954, in
the Pacific-that did hurt some people. That test was carried out by the
Los Alamos Laboratories. I had nothing to do with it, since I was
working at Livermore Laboratories at that time. Some of the islanders
got overexposed and 100 of them were affected. They would have gotten no
ill effects had they known to wash off the
fallout. As it was, they were taken care of and all of them recovered.
This unfortunate occurrence happened because the bomb was exploded when
there was a change in wind direction. Not enough caution was taken-but
the mistake has never been repeated.
During that same test, patrols were sent beforehand to see if there were
any ships in the area, but they missed one ship. One member of the crew
became very sick and shortly afterward he died, We don't have the
records to prove the man died of radiation, but I believe it would be
That death invoked terrible reaction, and rightly so. First of all, a
single human life is important. But there is more to it. It was, in my
mind, not justifiable that we should have bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki
before giving the Japanese warning. If there had been a warning, if
there had been a demonstration, we might have been able to end a
horrible war by showing the power of science without killing people. If
that had happened, all of us now would have a different impression of
science, of the atomic nucleus. We would all be safer and happier.
I don't want to criticize: There were strong reasons for the bombing, to
end the war as soon as possible, a war in which many people had died.
Those bombings may have prevented other events that would have been even
worse. But I still regret that we did not try a warning explosion.
At that time, however, there was no protest. Here is a remarkable
contrast: more than 100,000 people dead in Hiroshima and
Nagasaki-incidentally, very few of them, comparatively, from radiation.
They died from the shock, from fire-practically all of both cities
burned. The immediate physical effects were much more devastating than
the physiological effects of radiation. The fact is that very many
people died and there were no widespread protests. Later, in contrast,
one person died and there were all these protest marches. It was a
remarkable psychological situation: I believe it was a delayed reaction
Playboy: You're talking about radiation from a bomb blast.
What about the reports of harmful effects from lower levels of
Teller: These low-level radiations have not proved to be harmful, and
the scare stories are just that, scare stories. They are exaggerated,
they are unproved. People are easily frightened by what they don't
The fact is, the whole human race and the whole living world has been
exposed, during all of its existence, to radiation. The low-level
radiations that are permitted by Government regulations are no greater
than those we get from natural sources of radiation.
We have much more, and much more thorough and systematic, information
about the effects of radiation than we have about the harmful effects of
practically any other harmful agent, chemical or otherwise. Furthermore,
radiation can be detected in exceedingly small quantities, and that is
cause for safety, because when you see one millionth as much as is
dangerous, you are already warned. But remarkably enough, these
warnings, instead of reassuring people, excite them. There seems to be
nothing as frightening as a ticking Geiger counter.
Playboy: You have been quoted as claiming that more people have been
harmed by the fear of radiation than by radiation itself. Why do you say
Teller: It is a very real problem. Radiation has extremely important
medical applications, and people are now scared away from these
Things have gone so far that people refuse even medical chest X rays. I
know of a case where a woman became pregnant and a chest X ray was
recommended. It is right to say that embryos should not be exposed to
radiation; they are more sensitive to it than adults. A chest X ray,
however, properly shielded, separating the upper part of the body, would
not have affected the embryo. She refused the X ray and thereby an early
diagnosis of tuberculosis was missed. I don't know the end of the story,
but I do know that she was affected for the worse because of the
Playboy: But it's been shown that excessive irradiation
for SUell things as skin conditions has produced cancer. Isn't it
irresponsible to downplay the dangers of radiation?
Teller: That too much radiation is bad is quite clear. What scares me
more is that people will not dare use radiation where it is justified.
This normal radiation to which we are all exposed may have some adverse
effects, or it may have some beneficial effects-we don't know. There are
some experiments on rodents that have been exposed to 100 times the
maximum permissible dose, and on the average, they lived longer! People
have objected to these animal experiments because these colonies of
animals tend to be infected by pneumonia. What we know is that the life
expectancy of pneumonia-infected colonies has been improved by
radiation. But whether or not radiation stimulates something in the body
that counteracts pneumonia, or what the connection is, we don't
That there is no harmful effect from very little radiation, I don't
know. That there is no beneficial effect from very little radiation, I
don't know. And, furthermore, others don't know, either.
Playboy: What about the recent reports of leukemia incidence among
children in 5t. George, Utah?
Teller: There was a big population exposed to some low-level radiation
years ago in Nevada, near the Utah border. A study has been made of the
civilians who were exposed, with a peculiar result. I said that embryos
are more sensitive than people. It is also true that children are more
sensitive than adults, and particular emphasis was placed on
investigating those who were children at the time of this radiation. We
know that strong irradiation does have delayed effects and therefore is
difficult to find out. But we are beginning to find out.
Now, with regard to these Nevada results, something very remarkable has
happened. Thousands of people, I think even tens of thousands of people,
were exposed. Among these, there was an incidence in the exposed
population, as there is in all populations. In regard to leukemia, the
incidence seemed rather greater; in the case of the other cancers, it
seemed rather less. If you added up all the cancer cases, the effect was
zero, but the media's reporting of the study was selective. The fact
that there were more leukemia cases was reported; the fact that there
were fewer other cancer cases was not reported. Whether or not either of
these observations is significant, whether or not either has anything to
do with additional radiation, we don't know. But there is an enormous
amount of guessing and an enormous amount of fear. I cannot tell you
with absolute certainty that those experiments may not have caused a
dozen additional leukemia cases; they might have. I don't believe it,
but they might have. I can tell you that the radiation scare has hurt,
tens of thousands of people.
Playboy: What about the case of Karen Silkwood, who, some suspect, was
murdered to prevent her from telling what she knew about health hazards
in the nuclear plant in which she worked?
Teller: Karen Silkwood had a conflict with the establishment that ran
the place in which she worked. It was claimed that she was murdered and
this was covered up. If you want to believe, as in the movie The China
Playboy: Did you see it?
Teller: I didn't see it, but I know its plot. If you want to believe
that our public companies are at least as bad as the Mafia, then this is
a sad situation.
I don't believe it. I doubt that many people seriously believe that, but
this has nothing to do with nuclear energy. It has to do with common
questions of decency and of law enforcement. We share a respect for
decency and law enforcement in this country that not even the President
can escape, much less a company executive.
Playboy: Many people would consider that a naive confidence on your
part. Are you really as happy as you seem with the accumulation of power
in the hands of those who run the utilities?
Teller: I didn't say I'm happy about it. I am not. Utilities are,
however, under rigorous control. One can argue as to whether they are
under wise control or unwise control, but, at any rate, utilities, which
provide many people with needed energy, have in their systems something
of the checks and balances of the American way of life. Power
concentration in our society does occur. It is far greater in the
automobile industry and in labor unions than in the utilities. Whenever
and wherever these concentrations of power occur, they should be
Playboy: Chinese nuclear testing has resulted in fallout over American
urban areas. Do those incidents, this time executed by a Communist
power, worry you?
Teller: They don't worry me in the slightest. I do
know that nothing terrible has happened from fallout apart from the one
incident in the Pacific, when ~earby islands were exposed. It never
should have happened; originally, I wanted such tests to go on in
Antarctica. But if you disregard this one case, the worst other case of
fallout, at the time of much more frequent testing was an increase in
radiation to some parts of human bodies in some places by ten percent
over the normal level. In 1958, a friend, Albert Latter, and I wrote a
book “Our Nuclear Future”, in which we analyzed these cases in great
detail. I have not seen the figures on recent Chinese explosions. I am
quite sure that the fallout will not have added significant amounts of
radiation received by anybody. And by significant amounts I mean more
than what he would get by means of one year's normal radiation, more
than what he would get by a few round trips from California to the East
You cannot say with any certainty that nobody has been hurt by these
small amounts of fallout. But I know that if somebody has been hurt, we
can't find him. Furthermore, it is an honest statement that the effect
of low-level radiation-adverse, beneficial or otherwise-is something we
don't know. Probably, it's more adverse than anything else; that is at
least a cautious assumption that I would be willing to make and most
other people do make. But I don't worry about it more than I'd worry if
I were more than two percent overweight. Unfortunately, I am more than
two percent overweight, and I am absolutely certain that is a more
significant health problem.
Playboy: Since there are so few experts on this subject, perhaps we
should ask you for your thumbnail explanation of the nature of
radiation-and its effects on humans.
Teller: In the case of radiation, the only thing that matters
significantly is the total amount of energy delivered to a tissue. If we
know that irradiation has occurred, or if a radioactive substance has
been taken up by the body, has carried radiation into a specific tissue,
like the thyroid gland or the bone marrow, then we know that the effect
of this radiation is directly related to the amount of energy delivered
to that tissue. The paths of these radioactive substances in the body
can be easily studied and have been carefully studied; therefore, we
know the ammount of danger. We know the effect is similar to the effect
we get from background radiation, but we don't know whether or not the
effect is dangerous in small quantities.
What we are afraid of in fallout, what people talk most about, is
radiation taken up by the bone marrow through a particular kind of an
atom, strontium 90. When we say that there is no unusual danger, we say
that the bone marrow, which is most exposed in this case, is still
exposed to much less radiation than it is from cosmic rays.
Cosmic rays affect the whole body; so do some particles of radiation
that drift over after an explosion. But important effects of nuclear
radiation usually affect only a small part of the body. Our regulations
say that no part of the body must be exposed to more than our whole body
will get in the normal course of events.
I probably shouldn't say this, since it's a joke, and my intent might be
misinterpreted, but you know people are worried about genetic effects,
and there is no doubt that radiation increases the rate of genetic
mutation. It is also true that without mutations, we would still be in
the state of an amoeba. All changes in the living world have been due to
mutations. And while most of them are harmful, without mutations there
would be no adaptation and no development.
One view of very ancient history is that during the ice ages that
occurred in the past million years or so, people were driven into caves.
Radiation in those caves is known to be greater than in the open. That
the human race developed faster and became human may be due to
radiation. But now we are out of the caves, we have stopped developing
and we are becoming, therefore, stodgy and stupid. Now, please don't
take this seriously! This is not a good argument-but it is no worse than
the arguments people use to try to scare you about radiation. That this
argument is no worse than their arguments is no great claim.
Playboy: The question of nuclear energy is critical because of the
energy crunch. Since you're so adamant about the scare tactics used
against radiation, do you find that the energy crisis has been similarly
Teller: The energy shortage is very critical. It is due to a great
extent almost exclusively to lack of foresight. Years ago, it was
perfectly clear that the shortage was coming, and we did nothing about
it. Today, we still do too little about it.
There is no single solution. What we need to do is use every possible
available energy source that can be had at a reasonable price and
without unreasonable pollution. That means fossil fuels, hydroelectric
power, development of solar power in some forms, nuclear power, which
has been developed and continues to be cleaner, safer and, very
practically, less expensive than any other form of power; and that is
still not the end of the list. My most recent book is titled Energy from
Heaven and Earth. By that title, I mean that we need energy from
wherever we can get it, as long as it is reasonable. People who
capriciously and unreasonably object to a particular energy source, be
it coal or nuclear or oil, really do the community a very serious
Incidentally, the people who will be hurt in the worst way by the energy
crisis are the poor people in the Third World. Without energy, the
developing countries cannot develop, and without energy, we can't
produce the fertilizer that their increasing populations require.
Playboy: What about waste products from the production of nuclear
energy? There is great concern over nuclear end products that can't be
disposed of safely.
Teller: Waste disposal has been practiced in the nuclear-weapons program
for decades without accident, even though during the war, disposal was
not done nearly as carefully as we are doing it now.
The American Physical Society conducted an extremely careful study on
waste disposal and it published the results in January 1978. Now, the
American Physical Society is not especially favorable to any particular
form of energy. Its findings were unanimous: Waste disposal is a
completely solved problem. Its imple. mentation in civilian reactors has
been delayed by our bureaucracy, and this delay is just plain wrong. The
best characterization of this issue has been given by a very wonderful
lady, now the governor of Washington, Dixy Lee Ray, who was chairman of
the Atomic Energy Commission. "Waste disposal," she said, "is the
biggest contemporary non-problem".
Playboy: That's a rather abrupt dismissal of an important issue. [See
"Waste of the Pecos” page 130 in this issue.] Are you referring to
temporary storage of waste disposal rather than permanent storage?
Teller: I'm referring to both. Temporary storage is being practiced by
putting the burned-out fuel elements into big ponds. The water cools
them and stops the radiation. The temporary storage elements are easily
supervised and extremely safe. After a flue element has been in
temporary storage for, let us say, ten years then we are ready to
reprocess, to extract from it the valuable, long-lived, heavy elements,
such as plutonium. Those elements stick around for more than 1000 human
generations, but we can burn them up in other reactors within a few
years. We can reuse them and get rid of them. As to what remains, those
elements should be incorporated into an insoluble mass and buried a mile
underground. They will never again be in touch with anything that's
Playboy: What about reports that those waste products can contaminate
the water table-and eventually our drinking water?
Teller: One puts the waste in a layer that is geologically stable, that
has no water to carry away anything. And if there were water, the
material is not soluble. You then wait for the few hundred years that
radioactivity keeps diffusing, and by that time, it will be less than
the radioactivity found in a uranium mine. I want to add one thing: The
military has worked on the disposal of its products-a very similar
situation to what's left over in a reactor. Actually, the amount of the
material the military has disposed of is, at least for now, greater than
all the material from the reactors. There never has been any serious
trouble with that. A slight trouble did arise with the material that was
disposed of during the Second World War by quite primitive methods, not
in the elaborate way I have described. The question has been carefully
studied by the American Physical Society and it has found no real
Playboy: You may cite the American Physical Society, but the U. S.
Geological Survey has challenged the waste-disposal system we are
proposing in our SALT talks with the Russians.
Teller: That's because of a change in the system I have described, which
has been made by President Carter. He has insisted that the plutonium
not be separated out before disposal. He's afraid the misuse of
plutonium will lead to nuclear-weapons proliferation. So we've stopped
extracting and reprocessing the long-lived plutonium. But other nations
haven't. We should do so once again-and deal with the proliferation
problem by political means-to make waste disposal safer. It still should
work, but Carter has made the job unnecessarily difficult.
Playboy: What are the problems involved with nuclear reactors, as you
Teller: The problems are called Ralph Nader. As long as people who have
no understanding spread their views successfully, an important component
of our energy production will not make sufficient progress. Public
understanding is inhibited by people who should know better. Those who
are lacking in knowledge should at least talk a little less. Ralph Nader
was right about safety belts; I doubt that he was right about many other
Playboy: That's a bit glib of you, as a major proponent of nuclear
energy, to say…
Teller: Excuse me, I am not a big proponent of nuclear energy, no more
than I am of oil or coal or solar energy or geothermal energy or wave
energy or wind energy or your name it, as long as it is feasible. When
you have real shortages, you don't throwaway any important components
without very good reason. It so happens that nuclear energy is the
cleanest, safest, cheapest source of electricity where electricity is
required in large amounts. For small generating plants, nuclear energy
is no good. Furthermore, electricity is only a part of our energy
requirements. Therefore, nuclear energy is certainly not the whole of
Playboy: Haven't the large oil companies blocked research in other areas
Teller: Large companies don't suffer these days from too much
popularity. And oil companies seem to be less popular than others.
Actually, oil companies have supported research in other fields and they
have developed methods for finding and producing oil that are quite
ingenious. About three years ago, in California, we had a referendum,
Proposition 15, on nuclear reactors. I happen to know that the oil
companies supported nuclear reactors and gave money for that purpose.
But they did not stand up and say so. The result was that they wound up
being accused by everybody. Opponents of nuclear reactors found out that
they had given money; proponents of nuclear reactors noticed that the
oil companies wouldn't speak up for their convictions. They became
uncertain as to whose side the oil companies were really on. So
proponents didn't like them, either. Now, to be so cautious as not to
dare say what you believe in is not a lovely role, and to that extent, I
can fault the oil companies. I don't think it holds for all of them. In
general, I think that big and rich companies do have some responsibility
for the common good, and a part of that responsibility, it seems to me,
would be to take a stand that is, in their own eyes, the best. Their
judgment is probably better than their courage. Corporate courage is
usually no greater than personal courage.
Playboy: In terms of personal courage, have you not noted that many
opponents of nuclear plants are willing to put themselves at risk, even
go to jail, for their convictions?
Teller: How many did go to jail? And how many, instead, became famous
for nothing more than telling lies? Many, I believe, do it out of
mistaken conviction; some because it's an easy road to fame, and maybe
to fortune. There is a man, Amory Lovins, whose only accomplishment is
his opposition to nuclear energy and similar big enterprises. He has
become a famous man from this opposition alone.
One of Lovins' major criticisms of nuclear power is that we produce more
electricity than we need and that nuclear reactors lead us to
overproduction, that using them is like "cutting butter with a chain
Teller: I certainly cannot criticize Lovins for any lack of picturesque
expression, but let me talk about the butter and the chain saw. In the
Sixties, electric consumption was rising seven percent a year. That rise
has slackened. For a while, it was quite low; it is now back up to about
four percent. Perhaps we could save more, but when you stop producing
more electricity, the people you hurt are actually the poorest people,
who have not yet had their share of energy consumption. Let's say we
stop building new plants. In that case, our present excess would be gone
in two and a half years. To build these plants takes maybe ten years, so
you do have to plan ahead. Lovins says, Let's build smaller units, those
we can build faster. In a discussion, he was asked if the small units
exist now. He said no. Then he was asked when they will exist and he
said maybe in the year 2010. So he dreams about inventions that don't
yet exist and that he cannot himself invent, because he is not an
inventor. He's a dreamer with a remarkable vocabulary.
Playboy: You've written extensively about the use of unusual energy
sources, such as wave energy. Can such forms as wave energy and solar
energy fill major energy needs in advanced technological societies?
Teller: W'e have to take them case by case. By solar energy, people
often mean a lot of different things: growing plants and using the
plants for fuel; collecting solar heat for heating and even cooling
houses. Many of these are feasible. In my book, I try to visualize what
might happen in the year 2000-1 try to be fairly optimistic. I make
guesses: By the year. 2000, 20 percent of our energy may come from
nuclear sources, 12 percent from solar sources.
Playboy: You have argued that solar power is not yet developed enough
for mass use. Let us quote once again from Lovins. He has said that if
all the new houses built in the U. S. in the next 14 years were solar
heated, we could save as much energy as we expect to recover from the
North Slope oil system of Alaska.
Teller: I have not made this special calculation, but I can tel! you a
few things about this statement. Today, we have the means of heating
water with solar power, and in our Southern states, that certainly could
be done. Heating in the South, where we hardly need it, might also be
done in an economic manner by solar means. But what will you do in New
England or in the Midwest or in practically half the United States,
where there isn't enough sunshine? I heard Lovins say in Brussels that
all the electricity for Belgium could be produced by solar heat and
windmills. This is certainly not true. The question is, can solar energy
be . turned into electricity? It can, but only at a price that today is
at least five times as great as the price for nuclear electricity. These
high costs are due to a lot of fabrication that goes into making the
parts of the solar machine; unless we mass-produce, we won't be able to
pay for it. So small no longer will be beautiful; small will be
expensive. When' we mass-produce, that production will give incomparably
more pollution and more danger than nuclear reaction. I don't think that
solar electricity is impossible forever. There are people who are coming
up with new ideas and I am working with them. I want to get energy from
every possible source. From nuclear, from solar, from oil and from
gas-but, if possible, not from OPEC. To summarize, the problems of
nuclear and solar energies are very different. In the case of solar
energy, we don't have the practical technology yet, but it is slowly
approaching the stage where its cost will not be too great per unit of
energy produ.ced. In the case of nuclear energy, we know how to produce
it, but we don't apply common reason to something that is technically
well understood. Unfortunately, Jimmy Carter, the nuclear engineer in
the '!\Thite House, forgot what he learned, if, indeed, he ever learned
Playboy: But people far less sophisticated than Carter feel that the
enormity of nuclear power is simply beyond their grasp…
Teller: Nuclear power is certainly beyond the grasp of anyone who
doesn't want to hear about it. If you want to understand it, you can
grasp it very easily.
Playboy: Considering the reservations many people have about it, don't
we have a right to be informed about what nuclear power can provide that
we don't already have?
Teller: Today, nuclear power can produce electricity wherever it is
needed in large quantities. For any country that has a good
electrical-distribution net, it is the cheapest, cleanest, safest
source. For the horribly huge cities, the slums of the Third
World-Cairo, Mexico City, Bombay, Calcutta, Djakarta, where you have
10,000,000 people living in a crowded area-nuclear power could be' used
to great advantage without adding pollution. Even so, nuclear power is
most useful in the advanced countries, where the distribution net
By utilizing nuclear power, within ten years, the advanced countries
could decrease their need for oil by 30 percent. This oil could then go
to developing countries. What nuclear power could do, therefore, is not
only stabilize the shaky economics of the advanced world but also help a
lot of the development of the developing world, which will not develop
without energy. There are some very interesting statistics about this.
The United Nations' records from 1950 to 1975 show that per capita
commercial energy consumption in the developing countries increased in
that period threefold. In the developed countries, it increased twofold.
It is not true that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting
poorer. It is true that energy is needed for a decent standard of
living. And it is further true that the developing countries continue to
have too little energy. The great development in the third quarter of
the Twentieth Century has been made possible by oil. These possibilities
have not ended, but the limits are in sight. For the sake of the
developing world, we need added energy sources; nuclear and solar and
geothermal and wave energy and others. Among these, nuclear is already
here; so is coal. Nuclear energy could comprise, by the year 2000, about
one fifth of the energy of the world. Today, it produces only two to
three percent of the world's. energy. That 20 percent could make a
difference in the world, in stability, in the accelerated fight against
Playboy: The most spectacular of your scientific achievements has been
the development of the H-bomb. How do you feel about being called
"father of the hydrogen bomb"?
Teller: Well, it never sent me a Father's Day card. [Laughs]
Playboy: Do you feel any pride in that accomplishment?
Teller: You work on something because you feel it is the right thing to
do, and pride is just not the word.
Playboy: Then, are you ashamed? Do you regret your work?
Teller: Certainly not! I feel it was necessary to do.
Playboy: Is that how you feel about the rest of your work, too? Or are
there things you did because you really wanted to do them?
Teller: When I first chose my work, I decided not to work on applying
science but to work on understanding the meaning of the word. I did that
for many years with great pleasure and even occasionally with some
pride, not that I like the word in any sense. Then came World War Two
and I became involved in working on weapons because of necessity,
because it seemed that it had to be done.
After the war, it seemed to me that the job was left unfinished. When I
heard declarations of Stalin that he "had the atomic bomb and will have
much more" - that's literally what Stalin said there was even more
reason for me to be interested. Yet I went back to theoretical physics
and did nothing about it. But when the Russians exploded an atomic bomb,
I became uneasy. Moreover, several of my friends came to me and said
that it was now absolutely necessary that we do something about the
situation. Eventually, it became clear that the Russians and we had
gotten at the solution of how to make thermonuclear explosions at nearly
the same time. All this was connected with much more personal and
professional controversy than I have ever experienced before or after.
When it became clear that we had to work on the hydrogen bomb, I went to
see my friend Enrico Fermi and implored him to take over the job. I
would have been glad to work for him. He said no. I went to another
friend, Hans Bethe. He said yes; then, a day or two later, he reneged.
It's not that I wanted to do itit had to be done.
The idea that any person can accomplish a lot in a complicated field
like this one is quite misleading. Afterward, I wrote an article about
the development titled 'The Work of Many People". That is exactly
what it was. Perhaps I worked on the problem somewhat longer than other
people; perhaps I worked more consistently when the going, in a
psychological sense, became quite difficult. In a way, I'm glad that we
didn't fail. But all this has nothing to do with "pride".
Those words - father of the hydrogen bomb - are silly. I object to them
mostly because they are in poor taste. I have children.
Playboy: Did you advocate the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam?
Teller: I participated in the discussions of nuclear weapons in Vietnam
and I opposed their use as completely and as forcefully as I have ever
opposed anything ..
I had a very simple reason for doing so. Nuclear weapons are not
appropriate against guerrillas. They can be used against a massive
invading force, but that is not what we were dealing with in Vietnam.
Our forces had extensive military bases that. were vulnerable to nuclear
weapons. The Viet Cong was not vulnerable. For us to have initiated
nuclear warfare .in. Vietnam would have been not only inhuman but in
every sense of the word, complete madness.
Playboy: "Why do you urge the development of more weapons? Don't we
already have the capacity to kill our enemies in deed, the whole'
world-many times over?
Teller: The reason we need more and different weapons is that this idea
of overkill is, quite simply, not true. Let me say-on this I must
absolutely insist-that. the one purpose that I have is to avoid the
horrible event of a nuclear exchange with Russia. But if there should be
one, the Russians have taken precautions, so that, in all probability,
the damage to human life in Russia would be considerably less than it
was in the Second World War. They probably would lose less than five
percent of their population. Since we have done virtually nothing about
our civil defense, we would lose more than 50 percent of our population,
and the U. S. would no longer exist as a power, a political entity, even
as an idea. Our way of life would have become nonexistent, just as the
enemies of Stalin have become nonpersons.
Playboy: "Wait a minute. Less than five percent of the Soviet population
would be affected? Most published figures show that an 80 percent
destruction of Russia is expected in case of such an attack by the U. S.
''''here do you get your figures?
Teller: That 80 percent figure, to the best of my knowledge, is out of
date. The trouble is that all these discussions are carried out in
secret and I don't even know how much of it can be quoted. My figure,
five percent or less, comes from non-Government sources. It is
compatible with a high degree of property damage, but I wouldn't say as
high as 80 percent. However, the Russian people would survive, and the
Russians have a superiority in number of nuclear explosives that might
easily become great enough so that after such an exchange, they still
had a terrific striking force by which they could coerce any nation on
earth to deliver to, them whatever they wanted-food, machinery, labor-so
their property losses could be replaced in an exceedingly short time.
Remember the economic miracle in Germany and Japan. Remember that our
total national assets equal approximately three years of the gross
national product, so it shows that property can be replaced, and
rapidly, even without outside help. Human beings cannot.
Playboy: But, going back to your figures, what makes you sure that the
Russian population is so much more secure than the American? Does their
civil-defense program really make them more secure?
Teller: Our information shows that the great numbers of truly
well-constructed shelters exist for those workers who would have to stay
behind after evacuation.
Playboy: But wouldn't the radiation levels after nuclear attack make the
shelter programs useless?
Teller: In a nuclear war, the so-called maximum permissible dose of
nuclear radiation would be exceeded, perhaps for everybody in the whole
world, but a radiation dose even 1000 times the so called maximum
permissible dose would still produce only limited damage. Damage, yes,
but still limited. The direct effects of nuclear explosion-the shock,
the heat, the fires-these are terrible. Because we have been over
sensitized to the effects of low-level radiation, we have lost all sense
of proportion when discussing a situation' as bad as war. Just as
100,000 people were killed at the end of World War Two by nuclear
weapons, and then one person died by fallout and got the public
reaction, so in other cases where people talk about overkill, they
project a chance of something that is terrible, but could still be
avoided, into a prediction of certainty.
Playboy: Do the Russians, in fact, have an edge on us in military and
Teller: They have a proved edge on us in the quantity of weapons. We
like to claim that qualitatively we are ahead. Unfortunately, the
statement about quantity can be proved, but that about quality is much
In this country, military efforts are attacked from all sides.
Scientists are discouraged from pursuing military projects. In Russia,
work on weapons is encouraged to the limit.
Playboy: Doesn't the ingenuity of American scientists make up for
that-especially since Soviet scientists don't have much of a choice in
the projects they work on?
Teller: It may. The proverb "You can lead a
horse to water, but you can't make him drink" is true, but it has its
limits. Sooner or later, all horses want to drink. In the end, all
scientists want to work on some technical problem. Any scientist, under
most conditions, will try to do his best. Consider a man like Andrei
I don't know in any detail what is going on behind the Iron Curtain, but
it seems he has made great contributions to Russian military
preparedness. He turned around politically and is now in the opposition.
This took an incredible amount of courage. One person among thousands
has that kind of courage. The great majority will justify to themselves
what they are doing. If you grow up in a country where the only
permitted or publicized words are those of the Communist Party, it takes
a rare combination of courage and intelligence to speak differently.
There are matters on which I differ from any fellow scientists, but not
from the whole society. Even that limited experience has taught me how
difficult it is to take a different view from that of those who are
around you. What a man like Sakharov has to suffer is really terrible,
and I think I understand how rare that kind of behavior actually is.
From what we can find out, the Russian scientists are highly ingenious,
just as ingenious as American scientists. I think it is highly likely
that among these many ingenious people, a much greater fraction works
willingly on weapons than in the United States. It is likely that the'
Russians today have not only
a greater quantitative advantage but probably even a qualitative edge.
Our Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, a truly ingenious man, made a
public statement when he first took office. It contained the sentence,
"I consider it my job that we should not fall too far behind the
Russians". For a Secretary of Defense to be as open as that is, in
itself, a remarkable thing.
Playboy: Isn't your advice based on a rather extreme distrust of the
Teller: I trust the Russians to pursue their ideals. I don't happen to
agree with some of their ideals. For instance, I don't happen to believe
that the world would be best off under Russian rule. They feel that
their way of life is the best, but on that point, some refugees seem to
differ. I tend to agree with Alexander Solzhenitsyn more than I agree
with Leonid Brezhnev. I also trust Solzhenitsyn more than I trust
Playboy: Do you see any point to the SALT talks?
Teller: It may make sense to negotiate with the Russians from a position
of strength. But today we are negotiating from a position of weakness
and that makes less sense.
Playboy: Are you really convinced that the Russians want to conquer
Teller: It is very hard to be convinced of that, but their influence has
greatly increased recently: in Afghanistan, perhaps in Iran, in part of
Yemen, where one of the richest sources of oil, Saudi Arabia, may well
get involved. The Russian influence in Ethiopia, in Angola, in Somalia
is a matter of record. You cannot avoid the feeling that there is an
explanation for why Russia insists on having enough arms to defend
itself against an "attack" by the whole world. Their standard o( living
is low, yet they pour much more money and talent into military
preparedness than do we in the United States. I cannot exclude the
possibility that the Russians, who are convinced that their Communist
way of life is the only right one, are altruistic enough to want to make
sure that the rest of the world participates in their excellent way of
life-whether it wants to or not.
Playboy: If the Russians are both stronger and more aggressive than we
are, you must be pretty pessimistic about this nation's defense.
Teller: I am not pessimistic. I define a pessimist as a person who is
always right but does not get any enjoyment out of it. An optimist is a
person who imagines that the future is uncertain. I consider it a duty
to be an optimist, because if you imagine the future to be uncertain,
you are apt to do something about it.
Playboy: Optimistic or not, you're still claiming the Soviets are ahead
of us quantitatively and probably qualitatively. That doesn't square
with what we read about U. S. superiority in multiple-warhead missiles,
in missile submarines and in the superior accuracy of our weapons
systems in general. Isn't it a fact, for instance, that Russia's
missiles are bigger than ours because they are less accurate?
Teller: You are asking about Russian secrets, and Russian secrets are
not only unknown to us but, to the extent that they are known, we keep
them more rightly than our own secrets. I cannot talk about that. But
there is a dangerous effect that everybody should keep in mind. If you
do something your way, and I do something my way, I am very easily led
to jump to the conclusion that you do things your way because you are a
fool. It may be that you have reasons to do them that way, and if I were
fully aware of the circumstances in Russia, I could answer the questions
better-if I were allowed to answer them.
Playboy: We can deal only with what we know. Why should we assume that
the Soviets are more powerful than we are, if we have no solid evidence
to that effect?
Teller: We have quite a bit of evidence. For instance,
we have evidence of their number of ships, their number of explosives,
the weight of their explosives, from which we can quantitatively
conclude that they are ahead. In areas where we can only guess, we
imagine that we are ahead.
Playboy: Can't we draw some conclusions from their space program? That
deals with much the same technology as defense, and ours is considered
far superior to theirs.
Teller: By whom?
Playboy: You don't think so?
Teller: I don't think so and I don't think the opposite, either. I don't
know. The Americans' emphasis was on an effort to land on the moon. We
did, and in that respect, our victory was obvious and I'm happy about
it. The Russians don't talk about everything they are doing. We know
that they have very good people working on their space program. We know
that the best of the Russian scientists are deeply involved in their
military effort, while ours are not. We know that their
military-research expenditures are greater than ours. We have here, in
regard to quality, a race between the hare and the turtle. The American
hare could still outrun, the Russian turtle if he would only run; but we
are resting on the glories of past accomplishments and our scientists
generally don't like to work on the making of weapons.
Playboy: Is there an area in which you see the U. S. at a military
Teller: Yes. We're ahead in electronics, particularly computers. And
that brings us to one of my favorite hobbyhorses, secrecy. Let's
contrast nuclear weapons and electronic computers. In nuclear weapons,
we had secrecy-now the Russians are ahead of us. In electronics and
computers, we had practically no secrecy and we are way ahead of the
Russians. That is not due to chance. Computers and other electronics in
general, such as television and those other remarkable things, are badly
needed in a consumerist society. Therefore, we are motivated toward the
development of these instruments.
What we have not done but what we could and should do is to apply our
advanced electronics, particularly miniaturized electronics, to produce
instruments of war, so that we can take people farther away from the
scene of action. In other words, I want to see remotely piloted
airplanes, remotely navigated ships, remotely steered tanks. All these
instruments can have any number of sensors. They can see, they can hear,
they can feel, they can communicate. And they can take orders as to how
to act under any circumstances.
This is a field in which I would like nothing better than cooperation
with Israel. Israel has something to contribute. In the United States,
as I said, for a scientist to work on defense is not easy. If he does
so, and I should know, he is subject to all kinds of criticism-not all
of it truthful, not all of it agreeable. In Israel, defense has been
recognized as an honorable and necessary business.
Playboy: What do you think should be done to ensure our defense?
Teller: We cannot ensure. The world never has been safe, and it is not
safe now. The United States used to be much more secure than it is now
because of our ocean barriers. With the world having become much
smaller, with interactions with other nations so much greater, the
United States today is no safer than Poland was in 1939. Poland lasted
only a few weeks when Hitler's attack came. For Americans, this is a new
situation to which they have not yet really adjusted. The first step is
to notice that there IS trouble. Once we stop fooling ourselves, once we
stop asking the wrong questions, once we stop giving the wrong answers
because those answers are expected of us, then there may be some hope.
Playboy: Are you saying that we need to establish a mentality in this
country that is more militaristic?
Teller: Certainly not! Most people think of militaristic as not just
having military power but misusing that power.
In 1945, the U. S. occupied great regions of Western Europe and all of
Japan. West Germany and Japan recovered. Our military people had power,
but they did not misuse it. The proof is the simple fact that West
Germany and Japan are our friends today. Of course, there were places
where we misused our power. It would be inhuman if it never happened,
but on the whole, it did not happen.
We can and must call the Nazis militarists. When their military forces
occupied countries, power was misused. As for the Russians in Eastern
Europe; consider the unsuccessful uprising in Hungary in 1956. As a
Hungarian, I know that the Russians have misused their power. But if the
word militaristic signifies a minimum amount of preparedness, as much as
we need for the safety of freedom, then I am for it, no matter what word
you use. There is one reason why I particularly admire the Israelis. In
the rest of the world, practically without exception, there is a gulf
between intellectuals and the rest of the people, most certainly between
the intellectuals and the politicians: The one country where this gulf
does not exist is Israel. Israel was founded by intellectuals. "When
they got to Israel, they found that they could not survive without
turning into peasants, but they stayed intellectuals. To be an
intellectual is a hard habit to break. When they found that they'd be
destroyed by the Arabs unless they learned to defend themselves, they
turned into soldiers-but stayed intellectuals. That is why they are so
vital, why they continue to exist.
Playboy: What measures of defense can you recommend, besides weapons?
Teller: The thing we must do, first of all, is establish civil defense,
to make sure that in case of any disaster, earthquake, hurricane or war,
we can save people. This is neglected in this country. Do you know what
China, Russia," Sweden and Switzerland have in common? They all have
strong civil defense. Yet you would not call Sweden and Switzerland
militaristic. There are many things we ought to do, but among my
priorities, the highest is civil defense.
Playboy: Are you saying we should get back to building bomb shelters, as
we did in the Fifties during the bomb-scare period?
Teller: What we did was talk a lot about bomb shelters. The Russians
today are doing a lot with bomb shelters. We know they have a plan to
evacuate their cities in case they judge a conflict inevitable. We
should take the easy first step of arranging evacuation. Other steps may
Playboy: Aren't civil-defense measures pathetically ineffective in the
face of nuclear war and its awesome radiation?
Teller: I remember what people were talking about before World War Two.
They said that cities would be bombed and there would be no defense. But
there was defense. The bombings were dreadful. They were also relatively
ineffective in determining the outcome of the war. Measures taken -
evacuation and going into cellars - turned out to be, in most cases,
really effective. This feeling that you are now experiencing, that a war
would' be the end, is the feeling I encountered in 1937. One effect of
it was that it softened up the democracies for the attack by Hitler-it
did not deter Hitler. Today, it makes us disregard civil defense. The
same is not the case in Russia. I don't like to think about a nuclear
war, either. War is not unthinkable, but to think about it is very
disagreeable. Yet the only way to avoid it is to think about it.
The Russians have evacuation procedures, and if they do, it seems to
make sense that we should, too. Furthermore, they have a system of
inexpensive shelters that reduce radiation a hundredfold. They are
supplied for two weeks. In almost all cases, radiation will have dropped
to a tolerable level in two weeks. In the remaining cases, there could
probably be decontamination crews coming around. The difference between
nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs should be emphasized. In a nuclear
reactor, material is produced that is radioactive, not indefinitely but
for a long time. In a nuclear explosion, the radioactivity that is
produced lasts a very short time.
Playboy: It seems that all sorts of countries are acquiring nuclear
materials. Sometimes, as in the case of Pakistan, nuclear materials are
acquired for supposedly peaceful purposes but actually with the intent
to make weapons. How can we halt nuclear proliferation?
Teller: The ban on reprocessing is supposed to help limit the spread of
nuclear arms, but it does not. A ban is, however, a real impediment to
the development of nuclear energy and, as a result, the energy crisis
will become worse. More people will suffer, there will be violent lights
over short supplies. The instruments of war will not have been
diminished; the reasons for war will have increased. There is another
proposal, one that our President has made, but he has not so far
followed it up. Instead of banning reprocessing, we should bring
reprocessing under international control. The sense of this is not only
in having a strong hold over proliferation but in holding down the high
costs of reprocessing for each single reactor. It makes sense for small
countries to do their reprocessing with others. If we could build an
organization that serviced many countries and was under thorough
supervision, that would create progress, not only toward more and
cheaper energy but also toward more, and more peaceful, international
Playboy: What else can be done to increase our sense of security?
Teller: Minimizing secrecy to the extent that it is possible-which is to
a very great extent. One of our main dangers is that we don't inform our
public. We keep Russian secrets, in many cases, more carefully than our
own. Our people live in a fool's paradise. Perhaps a realistic
information campaign is even more important than any physical act of
defense. A few years ago, I gave a talk to the American Physical Society
and I was asked afterward if I realized what merits Daniel Ellsberg had
in fighting secrecy. My answer to that was that Ellsberg is guilty of a
crime and a misdemeanor. The crime was that he himself classified gossip
as secret while he worked at the Rand Corporation. The misdemeanor was
that after he had so classified it, he published it in The New York
As long as we have passed laws concerning secrecy - whether these laws
are right or wrong - I believe we should obey them. What we should do,
however, is to convince members of Congress that these laws do not serve
their purpose, that they should be changed. What I would like to see is
a situation in which anything could be classified - and we should
respect the classification - but the duration of that classification
should practically never exceed one year.
Most cases in which we really have to keep secrets are operational
matters - such as where a submarine has gone - and a year later, that
can be known. In technical matters, where developments have an enduring
validity, actual secrecy is hardly ever effective over a long period of
time. It is only effective in preventing us from communicating with our
colleagues, working with our allies.
Now, there may be a very few exceptional cases where permission to
prolong secrecy past one year should be granted by a small group of very
highly placed people. I could not justify such secrecy for more than,
perhaps, 1000 documents. We are now drowning in millions upon millions
of secret documents.
Playboy: How about other areas where secrecy is practiced? In
intelligence gathering, for example?
Teller: The identity of an agent is a matter that must be kept secret
for a long time. But there is no need to write documents about it. That
can be handled on a person-to-person basis, with very few people
involved. It is when the cooperation of large numbers of people is
needed that secrecy cannot last and should not be made to last. Once we
adopted an open system, we could deny help to any country that did not
exercise similar openness. That would have many advantages. We are
afraid of proliferation of nuclear weapons. I don't want to see them
proliferate. But what I am most afraid of is secret proliferation of
weapons. The chance of a, terrorist's being able to make a nuclear bomb
is very small. The chance that a government can make a nuclear bomb is
considerable. And they can make them with such confidence that the
weapons need never be tested.
Shortly after the Second World War, Niels Bohr, that remarkable man who
started modern atomic theory, said that in the Cold War, one should
expect that each side would use the weapon that it could handle in the
best way. The right weapon for a dictatorship is secrecy, the right
weapon for a democracy is openness. That sounds rather paradoxical.
Openness does not seem to be a weapon, but it could make us strong; it
could be the instrument by which peace were made more secure.
Playboy: Despite your calls for openness, you told us at the outset of
the interview that the one topic you would not discuss was the article
on the H-bomb that a court prevented The Progressive magazine from
publishing. Why not?
Teller: I feel very certain that something that is being contested in
the courts should not be discussed in an interview. [Ironically, nuclear
scientist Theodore Postol claims that the Progressive article, which he
has read, contains no new information beyond a previous article on' the
H-bomb written by Teller for the 1977 edition of "Encyclopedia
Playboy: How do you feel about being called a reactionary?
Teller: I deny that I am a left-winger or a right-winger. I am a
middle-of-the-roader. I am pretty sure that I used to be a liberal. I
used to be antimilitarist. Before the Second World War, the greatest
danger to freedom was Adolf Hitler. Today the greatest danger to freedom
is the Soviet Union. I don't think that I have changed my mind about
freedom. I cannot feel that I am less liberal than I used to be. But
there are people in this country and abroad who have not noticed that
there is something really dangerous in Communist imperialism. As a young
man, I was a liberal; today I feel I am a conservative. But I haven't
changed; the world around me has changed.
Playboy: What is the nature of your work now?
Teller: I'm feeling badly overworked now, after just finishing my book
on energy. I think that intellectuals who end up.in hell will have to
read page proofs and check indexes there. I am now editing a technical
book on controlled fusion for advanced students who might go into that
field. It has become an immensely complicated technical subject, and
there is much progress in the field. I am also, writing about the
history of technology. And I have been urged to write something rapidly
on the' influence of tech nology on modern warfare.
I lecture quite a bit. On top of that, I am trying to understand one or
two phenomena of nature. With all of this work, I would probably be
going crazy, except for the fact that, probably, I already am crazy!
Playboy: You've worked with some of the most famous scientists of the
20th Century-in physics and in mathematics. Who left particularly strong
impressions on you?
Teller: All of them. Of course, I was closer personally to some of them.
I would like to mention one to whom I was not close in the scien tific
field but very close to personally. This was the aerodynamicist Theodore
van Karman. He was a truly wonderful person, a Hungarian. Another very
close friend is the nuclear physicist Eugene Wigner. I seem to talk only
about Hungarians, I don't know why.
Playboy: What about Albert Einstein?
Teller: I had little opportunity to know Einstein. He, of course, did
really fabulous things when he was young. Later, he got involved in what
he called unified field theory. He did not get very far with it. He made
same moralistic statements with which I am in complete disagreement. He
said some terrible things, such as, "If I had known what would come out
of it, I would rather have been a plumber than a physicist". Actually,
his scientific work had very little to do with atomic energy. The job of
a scientist is to do science, maybe to apply it, and then, if he is
capable of doing so, to explain what he has found. To feel responsible
far what is in nature, or to feel responsible far having increased the
capability of people to accomplish something - such feelings are
completely misplaced. In a democratic society, the people should decide,
or their elected representatives to whom they have delegated their
decisions should. To believe that a scientist has mare responsibility
than to discover, to apply and to explain is a remarkable and wrong kind
Playboy: No fewer than 11 of your scientific co-authors have won the
Nobel Prize. A great many people think you ought to get it, too. Do you
regret not getting it? Do you want it?
Teller: In 1975, I got the Harvey Prize from Israel's Technion. That
prize means more to me than any honor, any other prize. I still have
some ambitions. My greatest one is to contribute what I can, in a very
disturbing situation, to a safer future. That other prize, which happens
to be named after the inventor of high explosives, is not one of my
Playboy: Many scientists with whom we've spoken feel your work clearly
deserves that prize…
Teller: But I disagree
Playboy: Nevertheless, there is a feeling among them that you were not
awarded the Nobel because of your political stance.
Teller: What makes me tick, what my motivations are, I understand only
partly. The motives of others I cannot know at all. As far as I'm
concerned, I wouldn't have awarded the prize to myself, and that should
Playboy: Few events have affected you personally as much as the
Oppenheimer affair. How do you recall it?
Teller: Oppenheimer was accused of security violations. The question was
raised whether his clearance, his access to secret material, in his
continuing contributions to the work of defense, should be continued or
not. In the hearings, one of the questions that were brought up was the
controversy of the H-bomb. I had been for it. Oppenheimer was against
it. The difference was brought up, I was asked to testify and I got -
very much to my regret - involved in the case. Because I disagreed with
a man who stood up at the time for practically no more arms for the
United States - I took the opposite view - I was harshly criticized. But
I doubt that all of that is of any real significance. There is one thing
about the Oppenheimer case that is extremely important. It crystallized
and reinforced in the minds of scientists the opinion that we should no
longer work on weapons. The fact that today America is in a weak
position and 'Russia is the strongest military power, and getting
stronger every year, is due to the Oppenheimer case and the events
The Oppenheimer hearings should never have occurred. They did because
two very difficult people were stubborn. One of them was President
Oppenheimer was accused of being a Communist, and it was clear that if
the case were brought up publicly, there would be a bitter fight. If
Eisenhower did not trust Oppenheimer, he simply should not have asked
for his advice. If he had taken that path, there would have been no
controversy, no case. The other stubborn man was Oppenheimer himself.
The chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, my friend Lewis Strauss,
said to Oppenheimer, "The President insists that your clearance be
terminated. We have only to terminate it, we do not need to explain
Oppenheimer said no, he wanted a hearing. The reasons why Eisenhower and
Oppenheimer wanted that confrontation were very different. That the
confrontation occurred was a tragedy. 1, unfortunately, was caught up in
that 'confrontation, and under oath I had to say what I thought about
the questions asked, even though my answers were quite unpopular among
Playboy: You were unpopular because you seemed to be supporting the
accusations against Oppenheimer. Of course he wanted a hearing. If you
were in his position, a loyal citizen whose clearance suddenly came into
question, wouldn't you want a hearing?
Teller: No, and I'll tell you why. If I were told that my advice on
military matters was not required, I would be perfectly content not to
have to do anything more about it. No one should be a judge in his own
Playboy: Are you saying that if your loyalty were questioned - as
Oppenheimer's was - and aspersions were cast on your character…
Teller: Look, excuse me, the aspersions were not a public affair.
Oppenheimer had taken the position that his main interest was
thenceforth in pure science. He was given the opportunity to withdraw
from those affairs in which he said he did not have a primary interest.
If one person felt that Oppenheimer was not loyal, well, perhaps that
required that the question be cleared up as completely as possible. But
you asked how I would react. I think I am loyal. If somebody wanted to
destroy my clearance for any reason, I would leave it to others to judge
and would not want to contest it. You asked me how I would behave and
that is what I would do.
Playboy: Most people wouldn't consider that an adequate answer.
Playboy: Because most people would not react that way. To have one's
loyalty questioned in public or in private is a serious matter that
caused Oppenheimer considerable grief.
Teller: Look, if in my own mind I have a fair idea of my motives,
whether others like my motives or not doesn't particularly bother me.
Playboy: Then, as to your motives, can you say definitely that there was
no feeling of malice in your testimony against Oppenheimer?
Teller: May I say that that testimony was delivered under oath? To speak
under oath is a heavy responsibility, and I felt it to be so. Under
those conditions, to say anything except what you're convinced of cannot
be pardoned, shouldn't be pardoned and usually is not pardoned.
Oppenheimer was a man whom I admired, whom in many ways I did not
understand, whom a few years later I recommended for the Fermi award. To
the extent that I know myself, there was not any more malice in my
testimony about Oppenheimer than there was in my recommendation that he
get that award.
Playboy: Your name has been linked with those of Nelson Rockefeller and
Henry Kissinger. To what extent did you know them?
Teller: To the extent that my name is connected with Rockefeller and
Kissinger, I am proud of it. Nelson Rockefeller was one of the few
politicians who was willing, anxious and able to listen. One thing that
I managed to convince Nelson of, though he didn't have much success with
it, was' the importance of civil defense. That Nelson Rockefeller never
became President of the United States is one of our great missed
opportunities. If there was any political figure with whom I agreed in
practically everything, it was Nelson Rockefeller.
Playboy: What do you think of Henry Kissinger?
Teller: Kissinger was one of Rockefeller's helpers. It was at one of the
continuing discussion groups that I first met Henry. I have known him
for more than 20 years and it is always a pleasure to talk to him. I had
an earlier opportunity than most Americans to en joy his intelligence
and his wit. I happen to believe that in an exceedingly difficult
situation for a number of years, he managed our foreign policy in the
best possible way, probably better than any of our other Secretaries of
Playboy: The way you react to people is unique. For example, you liked
Richard Nixon at first sight, but as for John F. Kennedy, you
cold-shouldered him despite his effort to please you by approving of
your role in the Oppenheimer case.
Teller: Kennedy was not only insincere, he imagined he could please me
by mentioning a scandalous book' that accused people who happened not to
be my friends of all sorts of things. I met Nixon because a friend of
mine wanted to build a subway in Los Angeles and asked me to talk to the
then Vice-President, who came from that area. He pointed out that if a
subway were built, it might also be useful for civil defense. Now, Nixon
completely neglected to make any flattering remarks, which most
politicians do. Instead, he invited me to sit down in a comfortable
chair, listened to me for half an hour, without interrupting, then
questioned me for another half hour, in a way that made it very clear
that he had listened in detail.
Playboy: Did you hold any position in the Nixon Administration?
Teller: Not really. I was named to an intelligence advisory board. In
that connection, we saw Nixon from time to time. I think it was a
somewhat useful position, on some occasions.
Playboy: And you can't tell us which, because that information's
Teller: Oh, everything was classified. The only thing I never heard
anything about was Watergate.
Playboy: Do you think that our society rewards scientists appropriately,
Teller: I doubt that in the greatest days of music, which is my favorite
kind of art, the giants of the period became particularly rich men. I
don't think that Bach, Mozart or Beethoven got rich. I don't think that
it is a real necessity that excellent scientists today should do better
in a financial respect.
Perhaps with fewer cares and difficulties, Mozart would have lived
longer. I don't want to underestimate the importance of material
rewards. Scientists get some. Whether or not it is enough, I am not
particularly concerned. The reason to work is the work itself. The nice
part of living in an affluent society is that financial rewards are no
longer quite as improbable as they were when the lot of the average
person was much harder than it is today in the United States.
Playboy: What is your opinion of the caliber of American science today?
Teller: There are a lot of excellent American scientists, a lot of
admirable achievements. To praise it is superfluous and, in a way,
meaningless, because you can't do so without going into details. It is
necessary, however, to criticize it. It tends to be overspecialized.
American scientists, unlike Israeli scientists, have lost touch with the
people. Perhaps because of that, they have tended to lose touch with one
another. More and more, I see that scientists split up into tiny groups
and only the "in" group understands the language. In the end, I suspect
that some scientists might find themselves in a position where only they
understand what they are talking about. More clarity, more attention to
expressing one's ideas, in a generally understandable fashion, and a
very little dose of modesty would do all of us good.
Playboy: Of your generation of scientists, many were educated abroad.
What is your opinion of scientific education in the United States today?
Teller: I got my Ph.D. degree when I was barely 22, years old. There
were many of my generation who got it at a younger age. American
education is strung out over too long a period. It is planned in too
great detail. Academic freedom today means that the professors can do
whatever they like. Academic freedom in Europe meant that the students
could study whatever they liked. I had the best of both worlds, because
I was a student in Europe and a professor here. I still believe that a
greater freedom of choice in the subjects of education and an earlier
completion of education would be helpful. I am greatly worried about
what is now going on in our high schools. I do not mean only the
distractions, such as violence, I also mean that scientific subjects are
presented in a boring manner and few students get the impression that
there is high excitement in understanding the laws of nature.
There is one subject that is taught to our young people in a really
first-class manner. Please don't take this in a facetious way-our
teaching of football is excellent. The indication of this is that
children who want to be good football players don't complain that the
work is too hard. If we can establish the spirit where the young people
want more rather than less, that is a good sign. But that sign is absent
in the science classes of our high schools.
Playboy: Science has been the religion of our time. You have been
present at some of its most spectacular moments. Is science the answer,
or a major answer, to the world's problems?
Teller: I have to say no. It was said about Gertrude Stein that she
asked on her deathbed, "What is the answer?" and didn't get any answer.
Then she asked, "What is the question?" and at that point she died. I
believe that not only does science lack the answer, it even lacks the
Science, like the very best of art, is fascinating. You could have asked
me with equal justification whether or not Mozart had the answer. Almost
equal justification, because science also has another role. Science has
become closely connected with technology. In my mind, technology is the
greatest of all humanizing influences. Of course, many young people
today say that science is dehumanizing. What they mean is that
technology can be misused. I say technology is humanizing because it
makes the difference between us humans and the rest of the living world
ever greater. Therefore, it makes us more human. I have not said whether
it is good or bad to be human. I believe, in fact, it is both. Now, we
have some sort of question, but it is not a question that can be
answered by any single portion of human activity.
Playboy: Are there any
particular discoveries you wish you had gotten to first?
Teller: There are many-but absolutely none about which I feel any
regret. Scientific insight is beautiful. That excludes,
or at least diminishes, any feeling of jealousy and any overemphasis on
competition. But all that holds only as long as scientists remain
Playboy: You may not remain strictly a scientist. There have been rumors
you might enter politics, perhaps run for the Senate from California
against Alan Cranston. Would you care to comment?
Teller: Now, I am going to tell you something that sounds very
improbable: that is that I am thinking-and you know, thinking is a very
dangerous occupation and I don't do it very often, partly because I find
it habit-forming, partly because it sometimes gives surprising results-I
am thinking of the possibility that I might conceivably be running for
the Senate seat from California. When one starts to think, one never
knows what will happen next.
Playboy: Those sound to us like the words of a politician tentatively
throwing his hat into the ring.
Teller: But I am not a politician. That's the only reason I might
consider doing such a crazy thing as to run against an exceedingly
popular Senator like Cranston. No man in his right senses would think
about that, but I do. And I'm really thinking about it.
Playboy: What do you think you could offer the citizens of California
that Cranston cannot?
Teller: Cranston is a popular Senator who does everything he possibly
can for his constituents. He is a nice man. I happen to disagree with
him on some very important issues. I believe the 1980s will be dangerous
years. The energy problem is only one of the danger signals. I think
that to look after everyone's special interests will not do. We have to
save ourselves all together. You know, I came from Hungary; I saw that
country go down and it was a nightmare. I studied in Germany; I saw
Hitler's rise to power because there were not enough farsighted people
who would put aside their differences to stop him. We are heading into
danger, and having had this experience, I don't know whether I can help.
Senator Hayakawa has mentioned that he might support me. And if a good
man like Hayakawa tells me to try, then I want to stop to listen and
Playboy: On what issues would you run?
Teller: The energy issue is obviously going to be of interest to voters.
There's another one: inflation. With something like 50 billion dollars
going abroad for oil each year, inflation cannot be stopped. You can
then try to quarrel about, who should bear the burden. The main point is
not to distribute the wealth but to get at the cause of it, to solve the
energy problem, to get energy from heaven and earth, in every possible
way, not only from nuclear reactors but from solar energy, from oil,
from wherever we can get it, from our good neighbors in Mexico.
One of the most important reasons for the strength of the United States
has throughout its existence been its spirit of innovation. Our young
people are beginning to be afraid of innovation, particularly innovation
in technology. They take all the good things that come to them for
granted. Without the development of the proper use of technology,
America will not remain strong and may not remain free. To discuss the
questions raised by technology in all fields is one of the main
reasons-perhaps the main reason I am thinking of such a strange thing as
politics. Because to most politicians, the very foundations of
technology are obscure. Of course, knowledge of technology and science
is not enough. But I have been buffeted around in a number of situations
where I got at least a little acquainted with the people in politics, so
I might just be able to be of some real use in the questions that
develop when technology and politics get into contact or conflict. The
elections in 1980 might turn out to be the last chance for Americans to
select the way of action that might save all of us from rather harsh
Playboy: Your reputation as a scientist has been contentious. Could you
learn the political arts of compromise?
Teller: There are many people I like from both political parties. There
might be a very few with whom, in the end, I could not work, But they
are a minority. You know, it turned out that even among physicists, I
managed to work with a great number at one time or another, and if there
is a group of people crazier than politicians, it may well be
Playboy: Well, that wraps it up, unless mere is something you would like
Teller: Best regards to the centerfold.