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A miscalculation in a test leading to a mass fear of radioactivity


The Pre-mortem and Post-mortem committees
Edward Teller Scientist
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We also made changes in the design of the hydrogen bomb and that too worked not at all well. There we fired a shot in the Pacific which effectively misfired. That was an introduction to a second and more expensive shot. The analysis of what we failed to do was very rapidly and effectively carried out by one of my great physicist friends, Montgomery Johnson, and we found out not only - or he found out not only - that we did not succeed, which we knew, but the next shot could not possibly succeed. We were sitting there in the Pacific, spending money at an appreciable rate. That had to be stopped. Well, nobody could stop it, except possibly Ernest Lawrence. He came up to the laboratory, listened to our worries and when I rode back with him to Berkeley, he asked me- Well, are these people any good? I said- Yes, they are good, but there are mistakes and we understand them and one of the things that has to be done is that this particular line that has been proposed will not work; we should cancel the next shot. Ernest did something very remarkable. He refused to cancel it. He said- The people who have planned the shot - the laboratory director at that time, Herb York and the man more or less second in command who wound up later as Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, were out in the Pacific - Ernest said- I will not tell them what to do. If the right thing is not to fire the next shot and save the money for preparing it, you go out to the Pacific and you convince them. I won't interfere. So, that's what I did. And I first talked with Harold Brown who loved the ideas, wanted to go ahead but was fast in catching on. After half an hour he agreed but he could not stop the shot. It had to be Herb York. So Harold and I marched up to him and Herb was more so- stubborn; it took, I forget, not half an hour but an hour and a half. At any rate, quite a few million dollars were saved and incidentally that was the introduction of a new system at Livermore. In Livermore we had a committee called the Post-mortem Committee, put together after each shot to evaluate how it worked and if it did not, why it did not work. We instituted, and I had a lot to do with that, at least with the naming of it, we instituted a Pre-mortem Committee. Whenever a shot was going to be fired we put together a group of people who were not connected with planning of the shot and let them make all the possible objections that they could think of. Those committees went to work and our failure at that time in the Pacific was the last failure. From then on our shots worked. That very occasion when we tried to fire the shots in the Pa- in the Pacific I believe in 1952, Los Alamos got into trouble for the opposite reason as ourselves.

The late Hungarian-American physicist Edward Teller helped to develop the atomic bomb and provided the theoretical framework for the hydrogen bomb. During his long and sometimes controversial career he was a staunch advocate of nuclear power and also of a strong defence policy, calling for the development of advanced thermonuclear weapons.

Listeners: John H. Nuckolls

John H. Nuckolls was Director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from 1988 to 1994. He joined the Laboratory in 1955, 3 years after its establishment, with a masters degree in physics from Columbia. He rose to become the Laboratory's Associate Director for Physics before his appointment as Director in 1988.

Nuckolls, a laser fusion and nuclear weapons physicist, helped pioneer the use of computers to understand and simulate physics phenomena at extremes of temperature, density and short time scales. He is internationally recognised for his work in the development and control of nuclear explosions and as a pioneer in the development of laser fusion.

Duration: 5 minutes, 37 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1996

Date story went live: 29 September 2010