Richard Wolfson & Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress

Energy, Nukes, and Deterring WWIII

Air Date: May 2, 2022

Nuclear Choices for the Twenty-First Century coauthors and scientists Richard Wolfson and Ferenc Dalnoki discuss the potential for nuclear annihilation.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome our guests today, Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress and Rich Wolfson. They are together co-authors of “Nuclear Choices for the 21st Century.” Rich is a physicist at Middlebury College and Ferenc is a scientist in residence at the Middlebury Institute. Welcome gentlemen.




HEFFNER: Let me ask you, Rich, to begin with. You have studied, for much of your career, including in this most recent book, nuclear technology and nukes, and we’d seen a few decades go by without really concern about their deployment or use, and suddenly you know, Russia invades Ukraine, and there is the prospect of not just a single weapon of mass destruction being deployed, but a nuclear annihilation. Were you surprised at how quickly that became part of the discussion, since Russia invaded Ukraine?


WOLFSON: Well, that’s an interesting question. I both was, and I wasn’t. In the book we go to great lengths to remind our readers that we are in fact, in this situation of potential nuclear annihilation at all times. And we make the statement that our country could be destroyed in half an hour. And there’s absolutely nothing we can do to prevent it. So in that sense, nothing has changed. What has changed of course, is the saber rattling and the actual threats possibly to use these weapons. And I must say I found myself quite surprised to go back to the mindset of thinking of a great power nuclear exchange. In the book, we actually probably put more emphasis on terrorist nuclear devices or rogue nations, North Korea particularly. But we really played down, I think, the danger, the political danger that this would actually happen between the superpowers. Nevertheless, we kept reminding our readers that the potential is there in these thousands of nuclear weapons that both the superpowers have. But I am very surprised to find myself thinking again, as I did in the cold war.


HEFFNER: Ferenc, how about you?


DALNOKI-VERESS: Yeah, I agree with that, I am also very sad in some sense, because it’s been years now that we’ve had this problem with all these nuclear weapons in the United States and in Russia. And we had a chance to really remove them and get rid of them. And now we see that we missed that chance. In other cases we have made tremendous progress, but in that case, we really missed our chance.


HEFFNER: When you say we missed our chance, you mean that you thought it was realistic. In fact, I was just reading President Kennedy’s address at American University in which he discusses, the, you know, tamping down of nuclear building and the arsenal of nukes that, you know, were being built. And so you’re suggesting that had we had different leadership, or public policy in the U.S., and in the Soviet Union and ultimately Russia, a mission of non-proliferation or deescalating nuclear buildup could have been possible?


DALNOKI-VERESS: I don’t, of course it would be a change in policy. I want to distinguish non-proliferation from disarmament. There should be a strong push and there, there, there was on many different sides, but we never really went to the level really disarming. And if we would’ve done then this risk, the scary risk that we’re in right now, you know, we wouldn’t have this nuclear blackmail scenario, as some people have looked at it.


HEFFNER: Rich, was that ever a realistic notion? Not just non-proliferation, but disarmament? It seems like it’s a little bit naive to think that it was ever even theoretically possible that at least in the case of the U.S. and the Soviets, that either country would do that.


WOLFSON: Well, I think disarmament doesn’t have to mean getting rid of all your weapons. I think personally, although it is a noble goal, I think at this point, it’s an unrealistic one. But when we talk about missed opportunities, we’re talking about things like disarmament treaties, I mean, it is remarkable that we’re down to several thousand strategic weapons, 1500 or so actually on each side, 1500 to 2000, from a time when it was tens of thousands, back in the 1980s and seventies. So we really disarmed.


HEFFNER: Can you spell that out a little bit more for the viewer when you say that that, reduction talk about specifically what that means, what, what was reduced?


WOLFSON: The strategic weapons, the ones that can reach each other’s homeland probably numbered in the tens of thousands at the height of the cold war. It’s now down to about 1500 to 2000 each, for Russia and the United States. And those are, those are numbers set by treaties that we have negotiated. So we have done a lot of disarmament and we were prepared to go further, not to zero perhaps, but considerably further. And I would say the thing that prevented that was the souring, two things probably, the souring of relations between the U.S. and Russia, to the point where we, the United States was the first to abandon a really important treaty, the anti-ballistic missile treaty. We’re now supposed to be negotiating the next round of a disarmament treaty that is supposed to, the start that is supposed to expire soon, and we’re not in the right frame of mind to do that successfully.


So I think I think Ferenc is absolutely right that we have missed an opportunity, and the “we” is particularly the leadership of the United States and the leadership of Russia and our relationship between those two countries. It’s also complicated by the rise of other nuclear powers, China, particularly, to the point where they really need to be brought into these negotiations also. And so the treaties become not bilateral, but multi-lateral, and we’re having a hard time making that happen, also. But right now the mood is so bad that we don’t have any of the kinds of contacts we used to have that allowed our scientists and our, most of our scientists, most of our political leaders to talk with each other.


HEFFNER: Ferenc, do we still have though the back-channel discussions that are operating from the M.O. or from the hopeful wisdom that any use, even a single use, even a smaller scale use, of nuclear weapons would result in our collective annihilation. The theory, which really has been more than a theory, but the practice of understanding mutually assured destruction you know, that that’s what has enabled the de-escalation of the strategic reserves. But are you confident that while the moods have soured geopolitically that there still is basically that operating principle that a single use of nuclear weapons would result in the annihilation of all people?


DALNOKI-VERESS: I guess I would answer that in two ways. I mean, the machinery of this disarmament practice going through these treaties, that’s still there. The same people are still in, you know, there in the United States and in Russia. And we know what to do. So that’s a, that’s a good thing. The problem I have is there has been some erosion in terms of the real serious impact of nuclear weapons and really having that perspective. So, for example, you know, Hiroshima happened 70-something years ago and Nagasaki, and now we’re building nuclear weapons that are lower-yield nuclear weapons, which sounds like a great thing, but it’s actually something that can be quite destabilizing because it means that you could potentially use that. It’s more usable nuclear weapons. So the perspective that you started with by saying, you know, do we still have this mentality of you really can’t use nuclear weapons? I don’t know. I really am kind of on edge about that. I think because, because of these low yield nuclear weapons, I get concerned that they could be used in a conflict. And then of course it could escalate further into something you know, larger and wider conflict. So I worry about those, those kinds of things.


HEFFNER: Rich, in the context of our current geopolitical tension, the Ukraine and Russia situation, it has been speculated that given the either ineptitude or antiquated nature of the Russian conventional military and its operations, that it might take nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, in order for Russia to achieve its goal, if in fact it is its goal to take over the whole of the country. So I suppose people have been mentally preparing for a chemical weapon attack, possibly against the Ukrainian people and keeping open the possibility that Russia would more aggressively bomb the entirety of the country, if not deploy a nuke. You know, in gameplaying those situations in the hope of preserving as much humanity as possible, where do you kind of fall in thinking about some of these possible scenarios?


WOLFSON: Well, I’d like to think that there is still enough rationality in the Russian leadership that they will not cross that nuclear threshold. And I think what we’re seeing in the last week or so, I’m actually considerably more confident in the last week or two that that’s not likely to happen. So I, you know, I, the use of nuclear weapons in any form would be horrific. And I think as Ferenc pointed out would probably lead to an all-out escalation that would probably not destroy all life on the planet or all of humanity but would certainly set all of humanity back centuries. So we don’t want that to happen. And you know, I hope there’s enough rationality left that it won’t happen. There are, there are other worries. For example, there have been a number of incidents throughout the years of false alarms in which there was a warning of an incoming missile attack and brave individuals paused and thought before responding. And so we have avoided nuclear war on several occasions, you know, by accident. But we’re now in a very tense situation where the response is likely to be less reasoned to something accidental like that.


HEFFNER: And have the physicists, the scientists, and also the policy makers come to accept that there, there really are no shields of the Star Wars nature that are going to block a nuclear attack at any point as long as the chemical realities and properties of nukes don’t change, which they are not anticipated to, correct, Rich?


WOLFSON: Yeah, there are anti-ballistic missile systems in place. There are more of them now that we’ve abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and they occasionally have successes at shooting down a carefully launched test missile. But that’s not the same as a barrage of thousands of warheads coming at you. And so, you know, it really is the case that there is no defense against the world strategic nuclear arsenals, there’s simply isn’t. And I think a lot of people assume that our military has such defenses and there simply aren’t such defenses. By the way, I’d like to, since we’ve been talking about this all in the context of the Ukraine situation, I’d like to point out that our book is both is about nuclear choices. It’s not just about nuclear weapons. It’s about nuclear power, nuclear technologies for medicine and other things. And I think the Ukraine war has given us a link between those two that we really didn’t think about much before and that is the role of nuclear power plants under attack in a war. So that’s something else I think we who look at nuclear issues are quite worried about. And it has frankly colored my own opinion about nuclear power. Ferenc and I don’t necessarily agree eye-to-eye on nuclear power issues. But you know, I’ve become a little more skeptical because of seeing what happens in war time.


HEFFNER: Ferenc, in terms of those choices, sort of the expanded menu of ways that a nation or a society can use nuclear technology, what is fair game in kind of being synonymous with civil society? I mean, what uses of nuclear technology can help sustain civil society as opposed to potentially injure civil society?


DALNOKI-VERESS: Yeah, I mean, that’s a terrific question. Nuclear materials themselves can be hazardous, are dangerous. And so the use of them has to be done very carefully. So when you look at nuclear reactors, you have to ask your question: are you making nuclear reactors in a safe place? Is it a location where there’s serious seismic hazards? And now we see, is it in a war zone? I want to point out that the case of you know, what we see in Ukraine which personally I see as a form of nuclear terrorism, is not the first time. So for example, was it last year that Azerbaijan threatened Armenia with saying they were going to blow up a nuclear reactor, the Metsamor nuclear reactor. There’s also been cases where Iran has kind of made a video or, you know, mock-up or something like this of bombing a facility in Israel, a nuclear facility in Israel. So it’s starting to become in my head, at least in my mind crystallizing that that threat is, is now pretty serious. And so you have to ask the question, how do you design this kind of equipment to make sure that even in the case of war time, you can shut it down in a safe way so that it doesn’t cause further issues. And we have to remember that there’s no reactor that’s been designed to be able to withstand missiles. It just hasn’t. There have been studies done, and even the most sophisticated South Korean reactors right now cannot withstand a missile. So that threat is, it’s really serious, and it’s still there in Ukraine.


HEFFNER: And I suppose, Rich, you might take a different perspective in the sense of, if you’re suggesting Ferenc is more open-minded to the deployment of nuclear technologies, one area that really you can’t control, of course, there can be malfunctions of nuclear technology. Some of that can be attributed to human error. Some of it could just be inexplicable. But the other thing that is inexplicable, when you think of the safety or security of nuclear power is climate events and you know, specifically the barrage of extreme weather, tornadoes, hurricanes, and, you know, other droughts as well, that have intensified these kinds of super storm scenarios. So you know, on our current track, Rich, does it make sense to invest in nuclear power when we know, you know, climate can basically without any human malfunction or error, can, you know, potentially have the effect of a missile hitting a nuclear energy facility?


WOLFSON: Well, that’s an interesting question and, I just, two hours ago, I gave a talk called “Can Nuclear Energy Solve the Climate Crisis?”


HEFFNER: (Laughs),


WOLFSON: I’m actually more open to nuclear power, I think, than my co-author is. But my conclusion is no. And it’s not because of the reason you suggested. I don’t think I can imagine any climatic event that would have the impact of a missile on a nuclear power plant. I can imagine a seismic event, which is what happened at Fukushima. But that’s not a climate event and it’s not going to be affected by climate change. So the, the main question people are asking about climate change and nuclear power is do we need to ramp up nuclear power because it is a relatively, almost completely carbon-free source of energy.  And my answer to that question, and as somebody who is not inherently imposed to nuclear power, although as Ferenc points out, we need to be careful where we put them, if we’re going to put them at all, my answer to that question is, is simply no, and it’s no because we have about a decade to achieve the carbon emissions reductions that would get us, keep us to 1.5 degree Celsius of warming since industrial, the industrial era started. And if you look at the delays in nuclear power plants, it takes 10 to 20 years from the idea to getting a nuclear power plant online. And that’s not just in the United States, that’s most of the world. And there are 440 operating nuclear power plants in the world. Their average age is 40 years. And so we’re going to have a hard time just keeping the amount of electricity we get from nuclear power at what it is now, about 10 percent of the world’s electricity, let alone solving the climate problem. And we’re certainly not going to do it in the eight years remaining until 2030. So, yeah, so mm-hmm,


HEFFNER: No, that that’s helpful. And, and thank you for delineating the pro and con or the conservatism with which one of you might view the nuclear technology advances. But, you know, Ferenc is it true though that that climate could actually affect seismic events, like certain conditions of the climate might precipitate or exacerbate, make it more likely for instance, there to be, you know, a certain magnitude earthquake in California?


DALNOKI-VERESS: That I’m not sure about. I’ve never, never heard of that.


HEFFNER: So let me ask you this, then.


DALNOKI-VERESS: There there’s influence of water, of course, that you have, which is a, is a concern, and that could of course affect seismic events, but…


HEFFNER: I thought that that, that is something that may be mentioned, and may be mentioned without scientific evidence to date, it may just be a speculation. But, but what I want to ask you is, you know, as someone who is more skeptical, or just more concerned about the placement of nuclear energy facilities, have we been smart, just speaking from your study of America and maybe you can expand it to of the world, have folks been smart in where they have constructed these facilities, especially in light of what Rich mentioned, the disaster in Japan?


DALNOKI-VERESS: Well, I think there’s many places, for example, here in California, the reactor, Diablo Canyon, where I believe they found faults there after it was built, that they did not know about. So, and that’s been happening over and over again. So I’m sincerely concerned about placing reactors in areas where there, where there is serious seismic activity. However, on the other hand, you can of course design for that, which is another something to think about, which is that you design your reactor for certain seismic, certain amount of seismic movement and then you know, account for that. But that’s another level. But if you find it out after you’ve placed the reactor, that there happens to be a fault line that you did not know about. Those are the things that are my concern, you know.


HEFFNER: Rich, what about you in terms of this question of geography, which seems pretty salient in considering how strategically, how safely, folks would be building the nuclear technologies that you envision in your previous talk that you mentioned, you know, can help resolve the climate crisis. So, you know, in the last decade, for example, have the folks building in the U.S. been smart about where they have built?


WOLFSON: Well, we haven’t been building nuclear reactors in the United States for a very long time. We have two under construction now in Georgia. They’re the first new reactors in decades that are being built in the United States. One of the issues…


HEFFNER: And, and, explain why that is…


WOLFSON: Well it’s largely for economic reasons, but it’s also partly the reaction to Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and the sort of general decline of nuclear power. In the talk I just gave I showed a graph where nuclear power’s percentage of the world’s electricity rose to about 19 percent in the mid 1990s and has now declined to about 10 percent. And nuclear power is undergoing a decline, and the reasons are largely economic, but also concerns about safety. I don’t think the sighting issues are the main things we need to worry about. We do need to be smart about sighting these things and what one thing everyone needs to understand is large power plants require huge amounts of cooling water. So that’s why we find them sighted, as in Fukushima on the ocean, in the, the two California plants, right along the coast because they need huge amounts of cooling water. And in California, of course you have the seismic risks. But you know, this business about whether the climate is going to affect the seismic risk, I think that is with the exception of extra water getting in and lubricating faults, which is I think, a fairly minor effect, that’s not something we need to worry about.


HEFFNER: And you mean it, you know, the effect of floods or coastal erosion, you know, that those are, those are possibilities, but not large enough to consider, you know, potentially stopping potential plans.


WOLFSON: Well, I think, yeah, I, you know, the plant, the one remaining plant in California that Ferenc mentioned, is about to be shut down and California will have to replace that electricity. I think we do need to be careful where we sight nuclear plants. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is I don’t think there’s a connection between climate change and increased seismicity that is at all significant.


HEFFNER: As we close in these last couple minutes, just to revisit the question of potential nuclear accidents or the use of nuclear fissile material you know, there had been the concern about nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists, you both alluded to it. What is facing us presently is the Ukraine, Russia situation. But in the event, and I’ll just pose this question to you both as a concluding question. In the event that there was a single use of nuclear weapons, would you imagine it to be on the same scale of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or, you know, what scale do you think or form would it, would it take starting with Ferenc and then Rich.


DALNOKI-VERESS: You can design nuclear weapons to be different yields. You can design them to be smaller than the yield that you have when the bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But I think that’s the kind of destruction that you would look at. And the purpose would not necessarily be for destroying a city, or right now, I’m not sure anymore. But it would be for destroying hardened targets. So particular underground locations and for these kinds of things. But I want to emphasize, if that would happen, it would cause a major escalation. So, you know, that’s why I think it’s really unthinkable, or very unlikely that it would escalate in this direction, given how careful NATO has been to not, not you know, go to the next level and support Ukraine with fighter jets and those kinds of things. That’s exactly what they’re afraid of.




WOLFSON: I just don’t like to imagine that. You know, you asked about a single use of a nuclear weapon. If we’re talking about in Ukraine, if it happens, it’s likely to be a low-yield weapon as Ferenc has indicated, but the problem is you escalate from there. And so the strategic weapons in our arsenals have been sitting on our missiles are typically in 30 times the explosive yield of the Hiroshima bomb. So we’re talking about big weapons.


HEFFNER: Well, we pray cooler heads always prevail. Thank you both gentlemen, for your insight today.


DALNOKI-VERESS: You’re very welcome. Thank you.


WOLFSON: Thank you.


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