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At 93, Edward Teller, nicknamed 'father of the hydrogen bomb,' releases his memoirs

Posted: Sunday, January 06, 2002

LIVERMORE, Calif. (AP) -- He was among the pioneering greats of nuclear science. He was scorned for disavowing former boss Robert Oppenheimer. He didn't get a Nobel but did pick up the unlovely title of ''father of the hydrogen bomb.''

At 93, Edward Teller looks back at a lifetime of science that saw him often controversial but always influential. One of the controversies involving Teller had an Alaska connection -- his campaign to use nuclear weapons to create an artificial harbor in northwestern Alaska.

''To put one point simply, I am blamed for having effectively worked on a horrible weapon,'' says Teller, who tells all -- or at least all as he remembers it -- in his recently published ''Memoirs: A Twentieth Century Journey in Science and Politics.''

In his book and in an interview with The Associated Press at his office at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Teller makes no apologies for his role as Cold Warrior.

He believed then, as he believes now, that the weapons he helped create kept the world from tumbling over the brink of global war.

He quotes an old Roman motto: ''If you want peace, prepare for war.'' There will be peace, he says, ''if the power is in the hands of those who want peace.''

On the issue of Oppenheimer, Teller is more ambivalent. Oppenheimer was the brilliant physicist who served as top civilian on the Manhattan Project, which developed the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After the war, a rift developed between the scientists over Oppenheimer's opposition to Teller's plans for a more powerful hydrogen bomb.

The feud climaxed in 1954 at an Atomic Energy Commission hearing to review Oppenheimer's security status where Teller recommended against granting Oppenheimer clearance. Oppenheimer was judged a security risk; Teller was judged a turncoat by many of his former friends.

Today, Teller admits he was wrong to testify.

He says he went into the hearing prepared to testify in support of Oppenheimer. But at the last minute, he learned that Oppenheimer had made up, then recanted, a damaging story about a leftist professor named Haakon Chevalier having been approached about passing secrets to the Soviets. Teller says he was shocked and confused by the incident and could no longer recommend clearance for Oppenheimer.

Teller notes that he never questioned Oppenheimer's loyalty to the United States, then or now, and appended a transcript of the testimony to his book to back that up.

Afterward, Teller said, Oppenheimer's friends treated him like a scapegoat. Teller, a Jew who fled anti-Semitism first in Hungary and then in Germany before arriving in the United States, described his ostracism as tantamount to a second exile.

Teller got a mixed reception when he visited Alaska in 1958 as the leader of a group of scientists trying to sell ''Project Chariot,'' which was intended to show the peaceful uses of nuclear weapons by blasting a huge hole at Cape Thompson, near Point Hope, with six nuclear bombs.

The explosion, scheduled for 1960 by the Atomic Energy Commission, would have used nuclear explosives with the explosive power of 2.4 million tons of TNT. It was later dropped due to concerns about the long-term environmental impact of the blasts.

Reactions to Teller's book, written with Judith Shoolery, vary from raves about his painstakingly detailed chronicle of a long and fascinating career to scathing denunciations of his version of the Oppenheimer affair.

Asked whether he thinks something good came out of writing the book, Teller waves his arm at the stacks of copies sitting on his desk awaiting his signature, all purchased by employees of Lawrence Livermore, the lab he helped found in the 1950s.

At home and at the lab, Teller relies on ''a crew of kindly women'' to maintain his still-active schedule. His much-loved wife of 66 years, Mici, died in 2000.

Approaching his 94th birthday this month, Teller is hard of hearing and going blind. But his wits -- and his wit -- remain sharp.

On the subject of the Nobel prize, he points out: ''The situation that I get the Nobel Prize and people ask, 'Why the hell did you get it?' is less desirable than the situation where I do not get the Nobel prize and people ask, 'Why the hell did you not get it.'''

That sly sense of humor pops up frequently in ''Memoirs.''

There's the story of how fellow scientist Bob Serber prepared for the dangers of the first test of the atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert. Teller writes that he asked Serber how he planned to deal with the rattlesnakes Oppenheimer had warned them about. Bring a bottle of whiskey was the reply. Then, Teller noted that some scientists feared the bomb could ignite the atmosphere. What would Serber do about that? Take a second bottle of whiskey.

Before the bombs were dropped on Japan, some scientists wanted to try demonstrating them first to try to scare the Japanese into surrender. Teller didn't sign their petition, but now says it might have been better if the bomb had been blown up in the sky over Tokyo, possibly ending the war without claiming so many lives.

His single-minded passion for defense through superior weaponry won him a title he thinks is in bad taste, ''father of the hydrogen bomb.''

''So many times I have been asked whether I regret having worked on the atomic and hydrogen bombs,'' Teller writes. ''My answer is no. I deeply regret the deaths and injuries that resulted from the atomic bombings, but my best explanation of why I do not regret working on weapons is a question: What if we hadn't?''



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