Saturday, July 23, 2011

What's Sig Hecker Up To?

Appearing in the latest issue of Physics Today /July 2011 / is an article entitled “Adventures in scientific nuclear diplomacy’’, by past director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sigfried Hecker .

This may be nothing more than a straight-forward exercise in self-promotion. Or it may be a sincere attempt to  encourage scientists and engineers, who might have an interest in public policy, to become more involved in the creation of that policy. Alternately, it may be part of an ongoing effort to cast doubt on the advisability of the United States federal government’s proceeding further along a road toward nuclear disarmament.

Headings in Hecker's Physics Today article include:

“From competition to collaboration”
“Lab-to-lab contact”
“Securing Kazakhstan
“Collaboration with China
South Asia’s nuclear risks”
“The most difficult countries in the world”
“Scientists’ important role”

Under this last heading Hecker asserts that:

Twenty years after I started lab-to-lab contacts, I believe more firmly than ever that scientists can be an important part of international security diplomacy. Scientists look through different lenses than politicians and build different relationships – often deeply personal friendships. They speak a common language and usually respect each other, which makes it easier to build trust. Communications are more less formal, with email instead of diplomatic cables, and scientists can explore a broader spectrum of solutions than government officials can.

Fair enough; however, Hecker also includes a figure from his much earlier article  entitled “A tale of two diagrams”, in Los Alamos Science  26, 244 (2000) (an issue devoted to plutonium metallurgy and chemistry, Hecker’s area of technical expertise.) The point of that article was to show that, prior to 2000, American understanding of plutonium metallurgy and chemistry was incomplete. An implication of this, although not stated explicitly, was that conclusions being drawn about the continued and long-term reliability of the American nuclear weapons stockpile should be regarded with some skepticism.  

As I have remarked before in this blog (blogpost entitled “Nuke Enthusiasts Fight New Start Treaty”, November 21, 2010), Hecker was a signatory to a letter admonishing theObama administration that the latest Nuclear Posture Review unduly constrained the R&D of nuclear weapons at the nuclear weapons laboratories and, therefore, placed the US nuclear deterrent in jeopardy.  I reprise these remarks below:

The New York Times today is running a William J Broad story about the New Start Treaty, and its relation to controversy over upgrading of the US nuclear deterrent, with corresponding costly nuke building programs at the DOE/NNSA's nuke labs, especially LANL and ORNL, but also the Kansas City Plant. In order to entice a few Republican Treaty ratification votes, Pres. Obama is offering more money for nuke program upgrades, but the Republican point man on this issue, Sen. Jon Kyl, still says no.

The Los Angeles Times contains a more comprehensive story about Hecker's trip to N Korea, pointing out that he traveled with Jack Pritchard, a former US ambassador to S Korea, and a current publicist for S Korean interests. According to the LAT, both Hecker and Pritchard will shortly give a talk about their trip to the Korean Economic Institute, Pritchard's organization. They had both also just finished briefing the Institute for Science and International Security, a group focused on world-wide nuclear proliferation matters.

Hecker, a past director of LANL and a strong proponent of continuing the American nuclear weapons program, was a signatory to a May 2010 letter by 10 former nuke lab directors criticizing the April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. The former directors asserted that the NPR restricts the creative freedom of scientists and engineers who work at the nuke labs, thus denying the nation the full benefit of its nuclear weapons designers' expertise, and placing the nation at unnecessary risk of a possible future nuclear attack. 

One wonders about the timing of the release of information about Hecker's latest visit to
N Korea, and the effect that this information might have on the New Start Treaty ratification process.

Perhaps it’s time for Dr. Hecker to give us all a clearer view of his true intentions. If these are benign, then a good next step might be to publicly renounce his support for the May 2010 letter criticizing the Nuclear Posture Review.

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