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February 25, 2002
Volume 80, Number 8
CENEAR 80 8 pp. 44-45
ISSN 0009-2347
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A hybrid of a book, "Megawatts and Megatons" is not an easy read. But it is worth the effort. It is part scientific text on nuclear physics, fission, and fusion; part primer on the technology of nuclear weaponry and nuclear power; part policy analysis; and part proposals and recommendations. It is crammed with an almost overwhelming amount of authoritative information and thought-provoking comment on two incredibly complex subjects--nuclear power and nuclear weapons--and the convoluted relationships between them.

The book is an expansion of an earlier French-language version published in Paris in 1997. It is a both a masterful exposition of mankind's ability to manipulate the atom to obliterate civilization or to serve it, and an analysis of how to avoid the former while doing the latter. Its bottom line is twofold:

  • Nuclear weapons have to go, even if they can't go soon.
  • Nuclear power should stay and grow, as long as it is handled properly and does not aid the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

MEGAWATTS AND MEGATONS, by Richard L. Garwin and Georges Charpak, Alfred A. Knopf, 2001, 412 pages, $30 (ISBN 0-375-40394-9)
What makes the book particularly fascinating and important is the consummate authority of the two eminent physicists who wrote it.

Richard L. Garwin is credited by none other than Edward Teller with playing the leading role in converting Teller's concept for a thermonuclear explosion into a practical reality. This conversion occurred in the early 1950s when Garwin was a freshly minted doctoral physicist from the University of Chicago.

Now retired, Garwin spent his professional career inventing things for IBM. In addition, he has chaired or served on a host of government science advisory groups, mostly related to national security, under every Administration since Dwight D. Eisenhower's.

In the 1960s and '70s, he was a member of both the President's Science Advisory Committee and the Defense Science Board. He is one of only eight scientists who are members of all three National Academies--Science, Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine.

Polish-born Georges Charpak won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1992 for his numerous contributions to the instrumentation used in experiments in high-energy accelerators. He joined the staff of CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Geneva in 1959 after receiving his doctorate in 1955 from the Collège de France, Paris, where he worked in the laboratory of Frederic Joliet-Curie.

During World War II, Charpak served in the French resistance. Imprisoned by Vichy authorities, he was deported to the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau in 1944, where he remained until the end of the war. He became a French citizen in 1946 and a member of the French Academy of Science in 1985.

In their introduction, Garwin and Charpak write: "If it is to benefit humanity, concern for our planet and the future of our civilization needs to be matched by an understanding of the facts. High among such apprehensions should be the potential destruction of populations and the entire fabric of society by the use of the existing arsenals of nuclear weapons in Russia, the United States, and other countries."

They go on: "A second worry is the plundering of the planet for carbon-based energy, with the accompanying increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide and the resulting rise in world temperature. Our purpose in this book is to provide sound information for resolving the conundrum of control of nuclear weapons and for providing acceptable energy for the future, whether or not society uses nuclear power."

Over the past 50 years, logic and common sense have not been the dominant characteristics of discussions of nuclear matters.

Although they have written a book that provides such information with cold logic and in a scholarly and thorough way, they face a problem that transcends all their best efforts. Over the past 50 years, logic and common sense have not been the dominant characteristics of discussions of nuclear matters.

Nuclear weapons policy has always been distorted by the limitation of full access to the facts to a tiny minority--a national security elite whose arguments, in the final analysis, have too often boiled down to a less than convincing, "If you knew what we know--but you are not allowed to know--you would agree with us."

The situation has been somewhat different, but not a lot better, with nuclear power. Here, there is less outright secrecy. But the complex and confusing claims and counterclaims, scientific and otherwise, of advocates and opponents have left the general public in the U.S. bewildered and disenchanted.

Garwin and Charpak remove much of the mythology surrounding nuclear weapons, their current role in national security, and their future role. In doing so, they doubtless displease the military/industrial hierarchy that was of concern to President Eisenhower and has continued--regardless of presidential Administration--to dominate U.S. national defense policies ever since. Its unchanging mantra has been insistence on a nuclear arsenal of titanic proportions and intractable resistance to any attempts, unilateral or multinational, to constrain it in any way.

CONUNDRUM Nuclear power and nuclear weapons are still part of the landscape.
On the other hand, the book's acknowledgment of nuclear power as one of the few well-developed and affordable approaches to satisfying the world's future energy needs without contributing to global warming is doubtless equally disquieting to those who believe that safety and environmental concerns should continue to stymie nuclear power development in the U.S. Of the nuclear plants operating today, none was ordered since 1973.

?Garwin and Charpak emphasize the necessity of operating nuclear reactors and the entire nuclear fuel cycle in a responsible fashion. This runs all the way from the appropriate handling of ground-up rock from uranium mines to the disposal of spent reactor fuel and radioactive wastes. And it includes the essential role of the International Atomic Energy Agency in ensuring that recycled materials are not diverted or stolen for weaponry.

The book points out, "Whether or not the U.S. rebuilds or expands its population of power reactors in the next 50 years, nuclear power will continue to operate in much of the rest of the world: In either event, the U.S. has an interest in moderating the rate of rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere."

The authors go on: "America also has a vital interest in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weaponry. If it is going to influence the world toward these goals, it will need to maintain its competence within the government, the engagement of its citizens, and the investment to produce new knowledge and options to solve these problems."

They also point out that banishing nuclear power is neither necessary nor sufficient to eliminate nuclear weapons.

According to the book, both Russia and the U.S. should reduce their deployed arsenals of close to 10,000 nuclear warheads each to about 1,000 right away with further reductions to a few hundred--still far more than enough for deterrence--as soon as possible. There have recently been some very preliminary Russia-U.S. discussions of a cut to about 2,000 warheads each.

Garwin and Charpak argue that as nuclear arsenals are eventually reduced into the hundreds it will become apparent that the remaining weapons serve the purpose of maintaining security for every nation. Then, more attention should be given to coalitions for international security in general, especially for the nonnuclear states, with a growing role for the United Nations.

In the meantime, the authors believe, unlike the Bush Administration, that current international agreements--such as the nonproliferation treaty and the test ban treaty--greatly support American national security interests as well as those of all treaty partners.

Garwin and Charpak also believe that the current stewardship program for the U.S.'s nuclear warheads is fully capable of guaranteeing that they remain safe and reliable without nuclear testing--something the Administration has doubts about. And they consider, for a range of carefully explained reasons, that the missile defense program now being undertaken by the U.S. is entirely worthless.

The book concludes with an almost wistful hope: "In a complex world, we have pointed a path that for many centuries can allow the world to profit from the benefits of nuclear energy while minimizing the threat posed by nuclear weaponry. It is well within the ability of governments and industry to achieve these goals. But it will happen only if an informed and concerned public pushes them to recognize and solve these problems."


Michael Heylin was editor of C&EN from 1977 to 1995. Now editor-at-large, he has reported extensively on national security issues.

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