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Citizen Scientist:
Frank von Hippel’s Adventures in Nuclear Arms Control

Interviews by Tomoko Kurokawa

Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament

For 50 years, Frank von Hippel has been working as a citizen-scientist to reduce the grave dangers to humankind from nuclear-weapon and nuclear-energy programs around the world. In this special collection of edited, illustrated and footnoted interviews, von Hippel describes in vivid personal detail the many policy battles he has taken on, the state of nuclear dangers today, and his hopes for a path forward.

Born into an illustrious scientific family that included his grandfather, Nobel laureate James Franck, a leader of the opposition within the Manhattan Project to the use of nuclear weapons against Japan, von Hippel got his PhD in physics from Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He was inspired by student activists opposed to the Vietnam War to move from teaching physics at Stanford into a career of policy activism based in Princeton University, where he co-founded the Program on Science and Global Security a leading international center for nuclear arms control, nonproliferation and disarmament research. During the 1980s, von Hippel joined the US citizens’ uprising to “freeze” the nuclear arms race. He describes here going to Moscow to work with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s science advisors to take advantage of the moment to end nuclear testing and begin deep cuts in the Soviet and US nuclear arsenals. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he worked in the White House to launch programs to help Russia secure its nuclear materials. Now, he is working with experts from over a dozen countries, including China, India, Iran and Pakistan, to end the production and use of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, the key ingredients for nuclear weapons.

With a new nuclear arms race emerging between the US, Russia and China, von Hippel continues to make the case for reducing and ending the enormous dangers posed by nuclear weapons, and is working to recruit and train a new generation of physicists to take up the cause of building a safer, more peaceful world.

Autobiographical Overview by Frank von Hippel

I am currently a Senior Research Physicist at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security, which Harold Feiveson and I co-founded in 1975. That Program, which includes the Project on Peace and Security in South Asia led by one of our successors, Zia Mian, fostered counterpart programs at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology led by Anatoli Diakov and at Tsinghua University in Beijing led by Li Bin.


In the early 1970s, I looked before I leapt from a career in theoretical physics into one in public policy. Joel Primack and I wrote a book in which we studied the role of scientists in public policy debates and concluded that independent scientists could make important contributions. I also became acquainted with nuclear power reactor safety issues by organizing an independent review sponsored by the American Physical Society. And, after being invited to Princeton by Robert Socolow, I became acquainted with the nuclear proliferation problem and joined with Feiveson, Tom Cochran, Ted Taylor and Robert H. Williams in critiquing the US Atomic Energy Commission’s promotion of nuclear-weapon-usable plutonium as the nuclear fuel of the future. Cochran, Williams and I had the opportunity to advise the Carter Administration, which initiated the termination of that effort.


During the 1980s, as the Cold War heated up, a group of us in the Program did a series of studies showing that “limited” nuclear exchanges in which just the enemy’s nuclear forces were targeted, would kill tens of millions. After being recruited by Jeremy Stone to become chairman of the Federation of American Scientists, I had the opportunity to work with President Gorbachev’s advisor, Evgenyi Velikhov, to develop a number of initiatives to help end nuclear testing, the production of nuclear-weapon materials and the arms race.


During 1993-4, I was invited to serve in the Clinton Administration as Assistant Director for National Security in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and worked with Kenneth Luongo, Director of the Office of Arms Control and Nonproliferation in the U.S. Department of Energy, to support cooperative efforts between the US and Russian nuclear laboratories to improve the security of Russian nuclear materials.


In 2006, I joined with some of our Program’s former international visitors and post-docs to found the International Panel on Fissile Materials, which has been funded by the MacArthur Foundation to publish analyses advancing the goal of ending the production and use of nuclear-weapon-usable materials for reactor fuel, including naval propulsion reactors.


After the terrorist attacks of 2001 and after the Fukushima accident of 2011, I returned to the issue of reactor safety with Gordon Thompson and others, to make proposals to reduce the danger of spent fuel pool fires. Such a fire almost occurred in the spent-fuel pool of Fukushima unit 4. It would have resulted in a hundred-times-worse accident.


In 2019, with signs of a developing new nuclear arms race between the US, Russia and China, some colleagues and I, under the leadership of Stewart Prager, and with the backing of the American Physical Society, launched a new Physicists Coalition for Nuclear Threat Reduction.


I have included the names of some of my key collaborators above because it was often they who opened the doors to the adventures I describe.    


Finally, I am grateful to Tomoko Kurokawa and Fumihiko Yoshida for generously sitting with me for 18 hours over three days in a small conference room in the International House of Japan in Tokyo, asking me questions, and to Hibiki Yamaguchi for shepherding me through the editorial process that finally produced a readable story.

*The title “Citizen Scientist” has previously been used as the title of a collection of articles, F. N. von Hippel, Citizen Scientist (Simon and Schuster, 1991) published in the American Physical Society’s Masters of Modern Physics series.

Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament

An Open Access publication with a mission to create a new global governance regime for nuclear activities to facilitate the elimination of nuclear weapons. It also aims to serve as an important vehicle that puts forward proposals for policies and other ideas that could further contribute to nuclear disarmament.

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