Interview – Thomas Cochran

“Science and Activism”

Interview with Thomas Cochran
Conducted by Lawrence Wittner (State University of New York at Albany) Washington, DC, August 23, 1999
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Thomas Cochran is a nuclear physicist and environmentalist whose work has focused on nuclear weapons and nuclear energy policy. He received his Ph.D. in physics from Vanderbilt University in 1967; was an assistant professor of physics at the Naval Postgraduate School; worked in industry and then was a senior research associate at Resources for the Future, before joining the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in 1973.

Cochran, together with his colleagues at NRDC and other non-governmental organizations successfully fought to prevent the widespread commercial use of plutonium in the United States.  He and his colleagues at NRDC successfully sued the Department of Energy over regulation of environmental releases from the Y-12 weapon facility at Oak Ridge TN. As a consequence all of the U.S. nuclear weapon facilities were opened to public scrutiny and enforcement of federal and state environmental regulations. In the 1980s Cochran initiated NRDC’s multi-volume Nuclear Weapons Databook project providing a seminal collection of technical data, which for the first time established a comprehensive record on the scope of nuclear weaponry for the United States, Soviet Union, Britain, France and China.

Cochran and Academician Evgeniy Velikhov of the Soviet Academy of Sciences organized the US-USSR Nuclear Test Ban Verification Project, which demonstrated the scientific feasibility to verify a low-threshold nuclear test ban, and the Black Sea Experiment, which examined the utility of radiation detectors for verifying limits on naval nuclear weapons on surface ships. These verification projects, where U.S. and Soviet scientists worked together, contributed in some small measure to the ending of the Cold War and helped pave the way for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Until 2007, Thomas Cochran served as Director of the NRDCs Nuclear Program. He is currently a senior scientist in the program where he holds the Wade Greene Chair for Nuclear Policy.

Interview Transcript

“I got into this business through studying the breeder reactor program when I was at Resources for the Future — that was in mid-`71 to mid-`73.  Gus Spaeth, an attorney here, who was one of the co-founders of Natural Resources Defense Council, had filed a lawsuit against the Atomic Energy Commission to force them to prepare a programmatic, environmental impact statement on the breeder program.  And I was writing a book on the breeder program at RFF, and in April of `73 I came over to NRDC to help Gus in the event that he won the lawsuit on appeal, which he did. . . .  Actually, he left before it was over.  But we spent from that period until `83 trying to kill the breeder program. . . .  From the very early period, about `74, more broadly trying to stop the commercial use of plutonium in reprocessing plants. . . .  NRDC . . . were the leaders in that effort.  And part of that led to convincing the Carter administration to kill the plutonium recycling. . . .  There was a whole 12-year period in there leading up to our work on arms control. . . .

In that early period, I was looking for ways in which we could get involved in the arms race.  And, after discussing various options with other environmental groups, I decided that I would start writing a reference handbook on the nuclear weapons program.  Back in those days, no one knew how many warheads there were, what types, or what was produced at Savannah River, or Hanford, and so forth. . . .  I ran into, in the course of that work, Bill Arkin who at the time was at the Institute for Policy Studies, and discovered that he had real expertise on the Department of Defense.  And I had a lot of knowledge about the Department of Energy.  And so we collaborated and brought some other people in and that led to the publication of the first of a series of data books called The Nuclear Weapons Data Book. . . .    [In 1984] . . . published volume 1, which was on the U.S. nuclear warheads.  And so that got a very fine review in the New York Times Book Review. . . . 

And the following year Gorbachev came into office . . . and declared a moratorium on testing.  There was a lot of NGO interest in the testing issue.  And, in fact, Greenpeace was running people into the test site, protesting the testing.  We were sort of working behind the scenes trying to help Greenpeace identify when they were going to shoot the tests.  In fact . . . we would call out to the test site and find out when . . . is the such and such briefing?  But we never thought there was much we could do on the testing issue in the early period.”  Even so, “we published a little paper on unannounced tests, and that led to sitting around with Arkin and others, sort of casually talking about how we might put seismic monitors out west and detect them ourselves. . . .  Somebody I was talking to mentioned:  `Well, why don’t you monitor Soviet tests as well.’ And so I started thinking about proposing a project to monitor both U.S. and Soviet tests, and spent the better part of several months developing that idea and trying to figure out how to present it to the Russians. 

After a series of meetings, Frank [von Hippel] and I talked about it.  He was going to Moscow and getting a workshop on this issue.  And Frank actually went over and talked to Velikhov and organized the workshop.  And then he came back . . . and raised some money to do it.  Then we went over there and I presented the idea [May 25, 1986]. . . .  Velikhov and his group accepted my proposal. . . .  There were two proposals, and he rejected the other one. . . .  And he basically said:  `Well, it’s going to take me a while to get permission for this.’  And so we went off to St. Petersburg, came back, and waited around and, finally, he called us in and said:  `OK, it’s approved.’ . . .  We signed an agreement and he wanted us back in a month.  We raised a lot of money and took a team of seismologists over. . . .  We got to Moscow July 3 or 4, [1986] and went out to the test site . . . and got out there about the 9th.  The thing that was unique about it was that it was putting American scientists on Soviet soil for verification purposes and on an issue that had been a stumbling block during the Carter administration’s negotiations prior to the Afghan war. . . .  If you talk to [Herbert] York, who was part of that process, one of the ostensible arguments the Soviets were raising was the number of sites on Soviet territory that would be manned.  And Velikhov was willing to cut through all that for political reasons.  The idea was to set up a set of stations around the Soviet test site at Semipalatinsk and around the Nevada test site.

And then it gets into a real complicated political fight between us and the Reagan administration.  Because first thing, through support from Whitehead and the State Department, the administration supported our effort to go over there.  They, in fact, helped us get the Commerce Department to get the licenses for equipment, and do that expeditiously.  And without objections from the Defense Department.  And, then, once it came time to bring the Russians to Nevada, [Richard] Perle and his sidekick [Frank] Gaffney . . . sort of intervened and denied the Russian visas and set conditions on the Russians coming to the U.S.  They couldn’t go to these particular stations until they had first gone to the Nevada test site and witnessed a cortex demonstration.  This was all an effort to stall. . . .  The administration introduced this cortex verification as their preferred method of verifying the CTBT in order to basically kill the program.  And they wouldn’t let the Russians come to our sites in Nevada until they had gone to the test site.  So that program sort of ran its course.  The Russians eventually bought — I think Shevardnadze bought — into the U.S. position on cortex.  And then there were official government-to-government exchanges relating to cortex.  Our program wound down.

Chris Paine . . . worked first as an aide to Markey, handling all of the House legislative issues.  He led the House on the efforts to get a 1-kiloton threshold moratorium.  He got it in the House, but they could never get it in the Senate.  He subsequently moved over to work for [Senator Edward] Kennedy.  And he basically, working with Charles Archimbault [ ? ] and the seismologists, had our program transferred to IRIS,” a university consortium on seismology (located in the same building with the NRDC), which was funded by the government.

“While our program went forward, Velikhov and I would work on some ways to get greater public and political attention to the test ban issue.  And ultimately worked on other issues.  We . . . took press people over to look at these seismic studies we put up around Semipalatinsk.  And, then, the following year, I guess in `87, we took a Congressional delegation led by Tom Downey and two other Congressmen to witness some — we set off some chemical high explosives about 180 kilometers from the nearest seismic station, to show the sensitivity of the seismic station.  And we took this delegation over, did these chemical shots. . . .  We flew back to Moscow and then we [ began? ] pushing Velikhov to take the delegation to one of several other sites.  And so he arranged to take us to the Krasnoyarsk radar.  In the middle of the night.  We had flown from Siberia from Kazakhstan, flown to Moscow, got to Moscow 6 o’clock, [and at] midnight he said:  `Be back at the airport.  We’re going to Siberia to look at the Krasnoyarsk radar.’  And so we jumped on a military plane, flew to some little town, and on helicopter flew down to this radar.  We had a briefing, toured around the outside of the facility, and then convinced them that they should allow us to tour the inside.  And we toured the insides, had a big banquet there, and then flew back to Moscow.  Then there was a big press conference about that. . . .  And we demonstrated it wasn’t a battle management radar, which the Reagan administration said it was, but it was also pretty clear it was a violation of the ABM treaty, in terms of its placement.  And it wasn’t, as the Soviets had claimed, a space-tracking radar because it was pointed in the wrong direction and so forth. . . .  Frank went on that trip.

After that, . . . after they had agreed on the cortex, we brought the Russians over to the Nevada test site and we did some chemical explosions at the Nevada test site.  Flying back from that trip, Velikhov and I agreed that the next thing we would try to do would be to see if we could look at the utility of radiation detectors for monitoring the presence of nuclear weapons on ships.  So I spent about a year [in 1989] putting together a team and getting the equipment and getting Velikhov to agree on the timing. . . .  In `89, I took another team of Congressmen — some overlap this time — led by John Spratt . . . to Yalta.  Velikhov, because he was . . . chairman or vice-chairman of the Defense Committee, and the Defense Minister was sort of up for sort of confirmation before this committee, and he got the Defense Minister to loan him his private plane.  So we took all the Congressmen in this private military plane, flew out to Yalta.  And Velikhov had gotten the Navy to, in effect, loan us the flagship, The Black Sea Fleet, for the day.  A hospital ship put all the Americans up overnight. . . .  We went out the next morning to this cruiser, moored in the harbor at Yalta.  And they had taken all the nuclear weapons off except one.  We spent the better part of the day doing a series of experiments on this nuclear warhead on this cruiser. . . .  On the way back, Velikhov took us to Chelyabinsk-65, which was then called Chelyabinsk-40.  It’s their Hanford.  And so we . . . were the first foreigners that had ever been in one its closed cities. . . .  We spent the night there, and talked to the director, and toured one of the production reactors they had shut down.

After Velikhov and I got started doing the seismic experiments, Frank and Jeremy [Stone] got Velikhov to start a separate initiative to study verification of warhead reductions.  And so there was sort of a parallel study effort going on. . . . That effort began . . . right about `89 or `90 or somewhere in there.  So the discussion coming out of meetings in Chelyabinsk and Frank’s program (which was basically the FAS and the Soviet Academy of Sciences) started studying verification.  And Frank put out a publication . . . on that [Ending the Production of Fissile Materials for Weapons, FAS, June 1991]. . . .  It’s an important milestone in all of this, because it’s the beginning of what the government came in and later took over.  All the lab efforts that figure now how to verify warhead dismantlement and declarations and warheads.  So FAS and NRDC . . . were collaborating on some of these workshops, doing them jointly.

After we left Cheliyabinsk-65, we then flew down to Sary Shagan.  This was this thing with NRDC, the Soviet Academy, with the three Congressmen, and toured what the D and A [ DNA? ] touted as their Star Wars, anti-satellite, laser system.  And that’s the one that Frank says we came back and asked folks about, and [the Russians] could have built that in the first
[ ? ].  So we took lots of pictures. 

Through Velikhov, there was this whole series of efforts through glasnost and opening up the arms control process and sort of forcing the governments to address the test ban issue and verification issues. 

And we helped.  There was, for example, a workshop here in Washington, right after Bush and Gorbachev had done their unilateral declarations and gotten their weapons scientists to agree that the next step was to do declarations and set up a verification program, verifying the elimination of the warheads.  The administration refused to take that up, because they didn’t want Russians involved in their weapons programs.  We had another workshop in Kiev, where . . . we were also working directly with the Foreign Ministry in setting up these workshops.  And through Kortunov.  And he wanted a workshop both in Moscow and Kiev.  This was right after the breakup of the Soviet Union.  We flew down there with the Russian general who was in charge of their warheads. . . .  And it was the first time that this Russian general was face to face with the Ukrainean colonel or general in charge of Ukrainian warheads.  You’re literally beginning the negotiation of what is going to happen to all these warheads in the Ukraine!  I proposed they could have started a verification process with the Ukrainian warheads, and I showed them all the equipment, offered to buy all the equipment, to tag and seal all the Ukrainian warheads.  And the Russian general said he wouldn’t do it without American involvement.  The Bush administration wouldn’t launch a joint verification program,” because it didn’t want the Russians examining the U.S. nuclear program. 

“What happened next was, through Chris [Paine], we’d gotten Senator Biden to attach some conditions to the ratification of START I, which basically said the administration had to start a data-exchange process and so forth with the Russians prior to START II.  And, by the time the Clinton administration got around to doing that, which was at the end of `94, and then things hardened up in `95 and we lost the chance of having any serious verification.  Basically, the whole arms control process is sort of floundering since `95. . . .
When we did the Black Sea experiment, their negotiator was there . . . Karpov.  We had meetings with them, and talked about verification problems and I suggested that the U.S. and Russia agree just to take all the nuclear warheads off the ships.  I thought that was a good idea.  I came back and ran into [Colin] Powell, told him, wrote him a letter.  He writes me back a letter, saying:  `It’s unacceptable.’  And then, a year later, they agree to take the warheads off the ships!  They waited another year to do it.”  Asked if his work in this area might have led to this result, TC replied:  “It’s hard for me to say, `cause I don’t know what wheels turned in the government.  In the late `80s, I think we had a substantial influence on the process — working through Velikhov, who in turn had an influence on Gorbachev and the people surrounding Gorbachev.

We had a big influence on U.S. policies after Clinton came in, with respect to unilateral declarations.  This whole openness business of DOE was created because people pushed that, pushed it through people who used to work here and then went into DOE.”

On NRDC:  “NRDC was basically formed in about 1970. . . .  And one of the very early lawsuits was this one against the AEC.  The EPA was formed in about 1970, and NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act) was passed at that time, and this was the first test of whether you had to prepare an environmental impact statement on a programmatic issue, as opposed to a site-specific issue.  So, basically since the beginning, NRDC has been involved in the nuclear issues, but initially it was in the safeguards and non-proliferation arena.  Historically, the Union of Concerned Scientists had focused on the reactor safety issues. . . .  They led the fight over the adequacy of emergency core cooling systems and light water reactors.  And NRDC carved out a niche in looking at fuel cycle issues and particularly the advanced fuel cycle involving plutonium and safeguards issues surrounding that.  And then [NRDC] got involved in the international aspects of this after the Indian tests in `74. . . .  After the Indian explosion, we and others gave greater attention to the proliferation problem.

In the `70s, there were groups that called themselves arms control associations, and they thought they were the only sort of responsible spokespersons on that issue, and environmentalists were” in another realm.  “If you were in an environmental group, you wouldn’t be listened to on the arms control issue.”  So, to break into the field, “we decided we would write a reference guidebook on nuclear weapons.  And we put out a book that I think put the arms control community to shame, in terms of laying out the underlying technical information.”

Asked if NRDC ever dealt with groups like SANE and the broader peace movement, TC replied:  “Yes and no. . . .  We would go to some of the conferences and meetings, but we never considered ourselves a grassroots group and one of our strong points has never been grass roots organizing.  But some of the people involved in the Freeze were collecting data in a similar fashion.  And so was the Center for Defense Information.  But the combination of Arkin and myself and people that Arkin had trained . . . just had a better capability than anyone in ferreting out all of the pieces of data and putting it all together. . . .

After winning the Clinch River case, we took our legal department . . . and redirected it at the weapons complex.  And that was the beginning of opening up the weapons complex through a series of legal interventions.  We first intervened . . . in `83 or `84,” going after the weapons complex at Savannah River and the proposed plutonium isotope separation plant in Idaho.  “Then there was a landmark case, where we . . . sued over the operation of a Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge.  In that lawsuit, we argued DOE had to comply with all of the EPA and state environmental requirements. . . .  And we won, which basically meant EPA and state oversighted over all DOE weapons facilities.  So that basically opened up the complex to public scrutiny.  And, since the early `80s, you had this huge [ tome of ? ] environmental and other data about the complex.”

Asked if Pugwash lost its momentum to other groups, like FAS and NRDC, TC replied:  “In the `80s, yes.  Definitely.  I think Pugwash and certainly Rotblat deserve their awards, their Nobel prizes, for their early work.  I still go to these Pugwash meetings. . . .  But their effectiveness is not what it was in the `50s and `60s.”

U.S. government attitude toward Gorbachev:  “In the first two years — in fact, more than that, they were treating him like any other Soviet leader.  Everything he said was portrayed as propaganda, and they didn’t take him seriously.”  TC heard U.S. officials talking this way.  “In fact, when I was doing this test ban proposal, in the presentation in Moscow, here’s Gorbachev saying he really wants a test ban and he would take whatever steps necessary to get a test ban, which meant verification, and Reagan was saying:  `No; it’s all propaganda.  And they won’t give us the verification that it requires.’ My statement to `em is, in so many words:  `One of the two is not telling the truth. Let’s put it to the test.’  Velikhov, I think, saw the political significance of getting Americans in Russia, getting scientists in Russia, and doing a demonstration. . . .  The power of putting on a demonstration, as opposed to just a written document is tremendously persuasive in terms of forcing political change. . . .  In this arms control business, when you do the demonstrations, it’s just vastly more significant.  And these visits.  Opening up Chelyabinsk-65 and visiting Sary Shagan and visiting the radar site and the Black Sea experiment — all of these things I thought had a tremendous value in terms of public awareness and getting press attention and getting policy attention on these issues. . . .

Chris [Paine] was running this campaign on the Hill to get a one-kiloton threshold test ban treaty.  After we went over there the first time, and we came back, he organized a meeting with us to meet with the moderate Democrats who were unpersuaded.  And the fact that we had sent a team of Americans to the test site was what furnished enough votes in the House to get it so that they voted thereafter for a threshold moratorium. . . .  Chris’s efforts, and the NGO efforts” kept “the test ban issue . . . high on the Congressional agenda.  It was an important Democratic issue.  And then when Clinton came in, the people in policy positions did not want a test ban.  Look at the DOD — people like Deutch and Perry and so forth.  Support for a CTB came basically from Congress — from Exon, Hatfield, and Mitchell. . . .  Clinton didn’t just come in and decide he was going to take up the CTB issue.  He wasn’t given any choice.  And, in fact, there was an effort by the administration to crank up the testing after the moratorium . . . by 15 more tests.  And the Congress had boxed him in — to justify the tests on the basis of need — and they couldn’t do it.  O’Leary, basically, with the support of Congress, wanted to turn the administration around. . . .  There was an important meeting that O’Leary had in which Frank [von Hippel] was there, but also Ray Kidder, I think, was the one that turned O’Leary around.  But it wouldn’t have been on the table if it hadn’t been for Hatfield, Exon, and Mitchell, and it wouldn’t have been Hatfield, Exon, and Mitchell if it hadn’t been for Chris Paine.”