The Black Sea Experiment

By Shelly Lesher, Tom Cochran, Frank von Hippel, and Steve Fetter

April 30, 2024

IMAGE: The NRDC team during the Black Sea Experiment. (Photo: Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University)


Audio Story

Prelude: The Soviets Reach Out

This episode sets the stage for the Black Sea Experiment. Shelly Lesher speaks to Tom Cochran and Frank von Hippel, two people who had a hand in changing the way the US viewed arms control verification. This episode introduces seismic verification, used to verify nuclear tests for decades. This podcast episode is a collaboration between My Nuclear Life and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.



The Black Sea Experiment: Data Taking and Legacy

The team returns to the Soviet Union to take data on the Slava. We hear about the spectroscopy of a nuclear weapon and the legacy of the Black Sea Experiment. This podcast episode is a collaboration between My Nuclear Life and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.



Prelude: The Soviets Reach Out

The transcript below may contain errors.

TOM COCHRAN: You needed three people to do this work. You needed a Gorbachev at the top. You needed a Velikhov who could make decisions independent of Gorbachev, but who didn’t have time to do the work. You needed under him, under Velikhov, someone who was senior enough who could make the train run. And in the case of verification, that was Mikhail Kaban. We had Kaban, Velikhov and Gorbachev.

SHELLY LESHER: Welcome to My Nuclear Life. I’m Shelly Lesher. In 2023, the Stanley Center for Peace and Security contacted me about a joint project. They were interested in recording an oral history of the Black Sea Experiment. I had never heard of this experiment, but quickly became interested. When researching the event, three names kept appearing. Frank von Hippel, Tom Cochran, and Steve Fetter. Frank is a professor and founding co-director of the program on Science and Global Security at Princeton. At the time of the experiment, Frank was the chairman of the Federation of American Scientists. Tom is now retired, but at the time was the director of the nuclear program of the Natural Resources Defense Council. You might remember Steve Fetter from episode 39, US Nuclear Weapons and the Nuclear Posture Review. He is currently a professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. At the time of the project, he had just arrived at the university to start his career after leaving a postdoc at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

The Black Sea Experiment is an amazing story on many levels, but it is too long to tell in one episode, so this will be two. We will first meet Tom and Frank today with the background information and the next episode will feature the experiment itself, which is where Steve comes in. I want to note the project was a joint endeavor with the Soviet scientists. I attempted to contact them, but the only ones that are alive are still in Russia. And with this current state of US-Russian relations, I was unable to speak to them. I want to start with the Natural Resource Defense Council.

TOM COCHRAN: Natural Resources Defense Council.

SHELLY LESHER: Yes. So what was it and how were you involved?

TOM COCHRAN: There were a half a dozen Yale Law School graduates in the late 60s, around ’69 that wanted to start an environmental law organization, a non-profit, and they went to the Ford Foundation and the Ford Foundation teamed them up with some senior lawyers in New York and gave them the seed money. And they spent the first year fighting with the Nixon administration to get a tax exemption and then got off the ground in 1970 as a law firm with these partners, and the senior partner was John Adams, but the other, who was from New York and formerly with the feds. The students, he was a little more senior, but the students says, “Okay, John, you can be the executive director, but you only get the same vote that we get. This is a partnership.” And I came to know one of the partners, Gus Speth, who is a brilliant lawyer. He was suing the AEC over the breeder reactor program to force them to prepare a programmatic environmental impact statement.

And I had been hired a couple of years earlier and was working at Resources for the Future to write a book on the nuclear power industry. And I wrote a book on the breeder reactor program. So I was looking for a job and I teamed up with Gus to go after the breeder program, in the event he won the lawsuit, which he did on appeal. And Gus went into the Carter administration and I stayed at NRDC and spent from ’73 to ’83 fighting the breeder program and reprocessing with attorneys, suing the government and suing the Atomic Energy Commission and commenting on environmental impact statements and draft impact statements and giving congressional testimony and the like. When Reagan came into office in ’83, I decided we had killed the Clinch River Breeder Reactor in Tennessee. It was actually a coalition that led to its demise. The Congress quit funding it. When Reagan came in because he was beefing up the weapons program, the nuclear weapons program, I wanted to get in that side of the business.

But in those days, the only people outside of government that the government would listen to was the Arms Control Association. And I realized that in order to get into that business, I needed to establish myself. And I teamed up with a young man named William Arkin, Bill Akin, and we started writing what was called the Nuclear Weapons Databook Series, and we published the first volume on US nuclear warheads and delivery systems. It was reviewed by McGeorge Bundy, who was then at the Ford Foundation, but he gave it a good book review in the New York Times Book Review, and so that put us on the map.

And while we were writing them, we were interested in collecting data on nuclear testing. And I read some technical papers out of Livermore, a technical paper, and realized they were conducting secret tests. When they fired off a very small test and decided that nobody could detect it, they wouldn’t declare it as a test. And this guy at Livermore had plotted a curve of tests and he’d fudged it a little bit to make it unclassified. And I used that curve to back out how many secret tests there were, published a little paper on US secret nuclear tests.

SHELLY LESHER: So these secret tests were not from the Soviet Union, these were US secret tests?

TOM COCHRAN: Right. And then we sat around the office and were talking about this. And in those days, Greenpeace was sending in teams to the test site, and we would help them by telling them when the next test would be. Arkin figured out how to learn when they were going to test. But it occurred to me that if we had seismic stations close to the test site and we didn’t have to be on the test site, we could actually reveal these secret tests when they occurred. But I also realized nobody was going to fund that because it would be one-sided and reveal US secrets and so forth. And one day, a reporter that was also my friend suggested, “Well, why don’t you do the seismic recordings of Soviet tests as well?” And that led to me drafting a letter to Reagan and Gorbachev. Gorbachev, when he came into office in ’85 declared a moratorium on testing.

Reagan said, “No, it’s all propaganda and you can’t verify it, and they won’t let us in the Soviet Union,” and so forth. That cheating on the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, which turned out to be not the case. So I drafted a letter and went, and through this reporter friend got a meeting with Vitaly Churkin, who was a junior officer at the Soviet Embassy in Washington. He later became the Russian spokesman at the UN, but he’s deceased now. But I proposed writing these letters and he had some suggestions that were not helpful. And so my next step was to go to Jeremy Stone, who was the head of the Federation of American Scientists, had been interacting with Soviet scientists, doing seminars and retreats and so forth. So I called him up and said, “Jeremy, how do I talk to these Soviet guys?” And he said, “Well, I’ll invite you to the next conference we’re having with them outside of Washington DC.”

I went to that conference and there was a delegation headed by a guy in the academy named Kokoshin, Andrei Kokoshin, later became head of the Industrial Defense Operations. But at the time, he was just a researcher and a member of the academy. And so at this meeting, I pitched this idea of joining together and monitoring the two test sites. I got a favorable response or I thought I got a favorable response from him. And so I started talking to Frank von Hippel who was at the same meeting, and Frank said, “Well, I’m going to Moscow fairly soon with the Five Continent Peace Initiative and I’ll talk to Velikhov.” So he goes and talks to Velikhov and they agree to have a meeting in Moscow on test ban verification.

SHELLY LESHER: I’m sorry. Who’s Velikhov?

TOM COCHRAN: Evgeny Velikhov was one of several, but a few vice-presidents of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. But he had known Gorbachev before Gorbachev became chairman of the Communist Party, when Gorbachev was doing some agricultural work. And so Velikhov became one of Gorbachev’s principal science advisors. And so he could get hold of Velikhov and get things done through him. But Evgeny Velikhov was also an academician. Velikhov was also a risk-taker and was willing to do things even if he didn’t have Gorbachev’s permission, which was great.

SHELLY LESHER: So he was a good ally to have. He was the right contact.

TOM COCHRAN: It turns out, this is jumping forward a little, you needed three people to do this work that I ended up doing. You needed Gorbachev at the top. We now have Putin at the top, and so you can’t do it anymore. You needed a Velikhov who could get to Gorbachev, who could make decisions independent of Gorbachev, but who didn’t have time to do the work. He had about 40 different projects. He had children’s camp projects going on with the US and he was a fusion energy physicist. So you needed under him, under Velikhov, someone who is senior enough who could make the train run. In the case of verification that was a senior administrator at the Institute of Physics of the Earth that does all this seismology named Mikhail Kaban. So we had Kaban, Velikhov and Gorbachev.

SHELLY LESHER: And so if one of those people weren’t involved, none of this would’ve happened?

TOM COCHRAN: Nothing would have worked.

FRANK VON HIPPEL: I’m Frank von Hippel and we’re in the Princeton University’s program on Science and Global Security.

SHELLY LESHER: So how did you become the president of the Federation of American Physicists?

FRANK VON HIPPEL: Yeah. I was the chairman-

SHELLY LESHER: The chairman?

FRANK VON HIPPEL: Not the president. The elected chairman. In the 1970s, they got a new full-time CEO, president, Jeremy Stone, who revived the FAS, and we got to know each other and he decided I should be the chairman of the FAS. And somehow I was elected chairman. At that time, the FAS had about 5,000 members. So that’s how I became the chairman. And we’re now in the late… Around 1980.

SHELLY LESHER: Do you think that’s why the Soviet scientist reached out to you?

FRANK VON HIPPEL: Well, we now get to President Reagan’s 1983 Star Wars speech announcing the Star Wars program. And that led to the Soviet Academy of Sciences setting up a Committee of Soviet Scientists for Peace Against the Nuclear Threat.

SHELLY LESHER: They’re really for those punchy titles, aren’t they?

FRANK VON HIPPEL: Right. Later on, when I was on a foundation board with Andrei Sakharov, Sakharov proposed the title for the Foundation for the Survival and Development of Humanity.

SHELLY LESHER: I had that highlighted because I’m like that is a great title.

FRANK VON HIPPEL: And I said, “That’s a little long. Could we make it shorter?” And he says, “Well, Frank, what do you want to leave out? Humanity? Survival? Development?” So that’s the name. The name stuck.

SHELLY LESHER: He certainly wasn’t going for an acronym. He was to the point. This is what the committee’s about.

FRANK VON HIPPEL: So anyway, the Committee of Soviet Scientists for Peace and Against the Nuclear Threat wrote a letter. I think there’s probably several organizations, probably the National Academy of Sciences. And one came to the FAS, and Jeremy had actually been to Moscow a number of times to promote the idea of a treaty limiting ballistic missile defenses. And it didn’t make sense to the Soviet leadership. But after a while, they became persuaded. And in fact, this helped lead to the 1972 ABM Treaty, which limited both missile defenses on both sides to ultimately to a hundred interceptors at one location, which the Soviets had around Moscow. We couldn’t just defend Washington, so we ended up with no interceptor. So they wrote us a letter and said, “You helped persuade us, our missile defense was bad, ineffective, and provocative of an offense, defense arms race. Have you changed your mind?” And Jeremy wrote back that we had not changed our mind. And he proposed, actually, we come to Moscow, go to Moscow to discuss this, and they invited us to Moscow.

SHELLY LESHER: So were these the scientists or were these the people in Moscow in the government?

FRANK VON HIPPEL: No. These were members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. It turned out to be one non-scientist in the leadership of this group. It was under the chairman of Evgeny Velikhov, who was the vice president of the Soviet Academy. And he had his deputies, [inaudible 00:15:41], who was the head of the Space Research Institute, and Sergey Kapitsa, who was the physicist. His father had won the Nobel Prize. Kapitsa had become the Carl Sagan of the Soviet Union. He had a weekly television show on science on national TV. He said that Carl Sagan was the Sergey Kapitsa of the United States. Then Andrei Kokoshin, who was the non-scientist, I think trained as an engineer who was at the US-Canada Institute, which was pushing for detente at the time under Georgi Arbatov.

SHELLY LESHER: So as a physicist, did you think that you could have an impact in changing the relationship between the Soviet Union and the US?

FRANK VON HIPPEL: No, I had no idea that we would have an impact. But it was interesting to talk to the Soviet scientists, and we went back and forth a number of times. This was for two years from 1983 to 1985, and then Gorbachev took over as the chairman of the central committee of the Communist Party, the Soviet Union. And we learned that this group was also advising Gorbachev. And then after that, the sky was the limit in terms of actually having things happen as a result of our brainstorming.

SHELLY LESHER: What was the idea then when you got together? You said sky was the limit, so what were you thinking?

FRANK VON HIPPEL: Well, actually, Gorbachev had the first initiative, and I don’t know what role Velikhov and company played in this. He picked up something that Khrushchev had done, which was he wanted to accomplish the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Khrushchev had actually only achieved a limited test ban treaty, which had ended testing everywhere, except underground, testing had continued underground. So on the way to that, Khrushchev had actually initiated a unilateral test moratorium, and ultimately the underground part of it had been defeated by Edward Teller and his colleagues who claimed that you could conceal underground testing. And so Gorbachev initiated a unilateral test moratorium on Hiroshima Day, 1983, August 6th. But he said it would continue only for a limited time unless the US joined. The Reagan administration made clear they were not interested in joining.

SHELLY LESHER: What was the reasons that the Reagan administration didn’t want to join?

FRANK VON HIPPEL: One was Star Wars. Teller had actually been part of the selling of Star Wars by saying that he had invented a nuclear explosion power X-ray laser that could be launched into space and shoot X-ray beams that would shoot down Soviet warheads.

SHELLY LESHER: Why did anyone believe that?

FRANK VON HIPPEL: It was a scandal at Livermore, actually. But Reagan believed it. Teller had been an advisor of his. He sort of respected Teller greatly as the self-declared father of the U.S.H bomb.

SHELLY LESHER: Yeah, okay. Sorry. Didn’t expect you to know why anyone would believe that, but it’s just…

FRANK VON HIPPEL: Well, there was a lot of criticism-

SHELLY LESHER: Isn’t that crazy?

FRANK VON HIPPEL: There was a lot of criticism in the physics community by really eminent people like Garwin and Bethe and so on. So anyway, so then time was running out and a lot of pressure on Gorbachev. I was recruited. There was an organization called the Parliamentarians for Global Security, I think, I’m not sure, that it recruited me to be their advisor and a visit to Shevardnadze to try to encourage them to keep it up, that it was making a difference politically in the world. And then I met Velikhov later in 1985 in Copenhagen at the 100th centennial of Niels Bohr that we were both invited to. And he said to me, “Maybe we can get more attention if we invite somebody to come in and verify.” Because the Reagan administration also is saying, “How do we know that they’re not testing?”

SHELLY LESHER: Trust but verify, of course.

FRANK VON HIPPEL: And he said, “Well, maybe we can get an international group to come in and verify that we’re not testing.” And so we organized a meeting, I think it was May 1986, where I found three groups that were interested in doing this. And they came and it turned out that the only group that actually could move on this was the Natural Resources Defense Council.

TOM COCHRAN: We go to this meeting in May at the Soviet Academy in Moscow. So we get over there and have a conference for a couple of days, and there are three presentations made, four actually by Americans. One was by a guy named Charles Archambeau from the University of Colorado who was pushing the idea of using high frequency seismic signals, recordings to distinguish chemical explosions from nuclear explosions. And then there was [inaudible 00:20:54] from Five Continents Peace Initiative, but they couldn’t do anything without the permission of the Reagan and Gorbachev together. So they had a presentation, but they were toast because they would never get…

SHELLY LESHER: They couldn’t take action.

TOM COCHRAN: Right. And then they had a presentation from a man from the US Geological Survey who also couldn’t get anything done. He was really more interested in, not so much in the test issue, but in furthering the USGS Geological survey issues. I said, “Let’s just do it. We’ll put together a seismic team and you put together a seismic team. We’ll show that we can work together, monitor the test sites, get the data out, show the world you can verify a low threshold test ban treaty.” And Velikhov met with his team and decided right away that they wanted to do this, but they didn’t have permission. So they sent us off to Saint Petersburg for weekend vacation while they sorted things out. And when we got back, Velikhov calls Frank and says, “We want to do the NRDC proposal.” So Adrian DeWind and I go in with Frank and others, meet with Velikhov, and Velikhov says, “Okay, who am I agreeing with?”

And we said, “The Natural Resources Defense Council, here’s chairman of the board.” And so says, “You guys go off and work up an agreement. We’ll sign it tonight. I’ve got to go to another meeting.” And so we did that, and we signed the agreement that night. And since DeWind was there, we could agree on how big this project was going to be. When we got it, [inaudible 00:22:42]. I wasn’t a seismologist. I didn’t know anything about pulling together a team. So I went to Archie [inaudible 00:22:48] and said, “Arch, would you help us?” And he became our technical advisor, and he pulled together the team, an initial team, and then a more permanent group from Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

SHELLY LESHER: So how important was it that the NRDC was a non-profit and not part of the government?

TOM COCHRAN: Oh, it wouldn’t have happened. I mean, first of all, before we went to Moscow, DeWind knew the Deputy Secretary of State. We went over and talked to him and Paul Nitze and one other person told him what we were planning, got a letter from Whitehead, the Deputy Secretary of State, which didn’t say don’t do it. He just said, “Keep in mind what the US government position is and so forth.” So we took that as a green light, but the defense department, when they’ve got wind of it after it happened, they started opposing it.

But DeWind had the foresight. As soon as we got the signed agreement, we went to the Bolshoi and then went to the New York Times. And Bill Keller at that time was the head of the Moscow office. He writes a story in the New York Times. It says, New York attorney signs arms control agreement with Soviet Union. That appears in the paper the day before we get back to New York. And fortuitously, it turned out that the big funders were meeting the day after we got back and we walked into this funder meeting, they’d read the paper and told them what we had and immediately got funding for the project from Carnegie and Ford.

SHELLY LESHER: So you’re getting emotional talking about this?


SHELLY LESHER: Is this a really proud moment in your career?

TOM COCHRAN: My career was a series of lucky breaks, and this was one of them. It turns out that the lesson learned from this and the Black Sea Experiment, which we’re coming to is you can write proposals, scholarly articles, which I’ve done and you’ve done, and you’re lucky if people read them and if people in the government read them, they’ve got their own agenda and they’re probably going to do something else. If you do a demonstration, it takes it to a new level. We went to Moscow with 20 tons of seismic equipment, a team of seismologists, go out to the test site area. We have 50 reporters with us.

SHELLY LESHER: So that was something that you did that… I mean, that wasn’t luck on your part, that was strategic for you.

TOM COCHRAN: Yes, we invited the New York Times and Washington Post. And the lesson though is if you do a demonstration, you’ll get a lot more attention. I mean, if it’s a decent demonstration, you’ll get a lot more attention than if you just write an article. That’s kind of what distinguished my path after that from von Hippel’s path. He was great and we worked symbiotically, we worked together. He was great at-

SHELLY LESHER: Absolutely.

TOM COCHRAN: Getting the right people together, having technical meetings, writing papers and so forth. And it turns out through this proposal and the fact that DeWind was with me and so forth, we became a demonstration crew. NRDC since 1970, we were doing public policy advocacy. So we knew how to advocate for our issues. And the lesson there is you have a playing field. You can play in the Congress, you can play in the administration, you can play in the courts, in the non-profit area, and there’s a symbiotic relationship between these. And you can play with the press. The press won’t write a story unless they’ve got a hook. The hook could be a lawsuit or something. NRDC was good at knowing how to play in these various fields in a symbiotic way. And the demonstrations added a new level to that because you immediately got world attention.

SHELLY LESHER: So the seismic test, you were able to see a low yield test that was done?

TOM COCHRAN: Well, interestingly, see, Velikhov didn’t have permission. We show up in Moscow. He says, “I want you back in a month.” We had to get export licenses to take 20 tons of equipment to the Soviet Union, and we get over to Moscow with a seismic team and 20 tons of equipment and Velikhov’s kind of sick and in the hospital. And he hadn’t gotten permission for us to go out to the test site. So we were stuck in Moscow while we negotiated a solution to this little problem. And the solution was if the Soviets resume testing, we would shut off our instruments. And we said, “Fine.” Actually, the politicians didn’t realize that the seismologists were more interested in listening to US tests from the Soviet test site than listening to the Soviet tests, because that would enable them to verify the attenuation as the seismic signals travel from the United States to-

SHELLY LESHER: So explain that to me. So you would set up your seismographs at the Soviet test site so that you could detect the US tests from Nevada?

TOM COCHRAN: Soviet Union and vice versa. I’m just saying the seismologists were more interested in listening to a US test in Nevada because that enabled them to understand the density of the earth under the Soviet test site and the transmission attenuation. And so when they put the instruments in the US and listen to the Soviet tests-

SHELLY LESHER: Interesting.

TOM COCHRAN: And that by the way, resolves some disputes over whether the Soviets were testing above the 150 kiloton threshold. And so when we first went back… First we went over to set up just some surface detectors. The seismologists wanted to put some really first-rate underground systems and high-frequency instruments. The Soviets built the underground cavities after they agreed on the sites. We went back to look at these new sites and what they’d done, and took three congressmen with us and a lot of reporters, and they took us to the edge of the test site and set off a 20 ton chemical explosion to then go back and show how sensitive the seismic instruments were in recording this chemical explosion. This gets written up by Bill Broad in the New York Times and so forth, and Washington Post.

SHELLY LESHER: So in that paper, you have this wonderful graph of a seismic signal. And what is this show?

FRANK VON HIPPEL: Well, this was a graph I showed Gorbachev, actually. It was July 1986. Velikhov organized an international meeting of scientists on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as part of his campaign to keep the moratorium alive. And Gorbachev came, and Velikhov asked me to give a presentation to Gorbachev, and I showed this presentation that one of the seismologists had given me on how much seismology had improved since the 1960s, and it showed a seismogram of an earthquake using traditional seismology. And then they had gone to higher frequencies, recording higher frequencies. And when you tuned into the higher frequencies, you saw a spike in the middle of this earthquake. And that was a very low yield test at Semipalatinsk.

SHELLY LESHER: And I mean, it’s obvious.


SHELLY LESHER: I mean, it’s beautiful, and I bet the technology now is even better.

FRANK VON HIPPEL: Yeah. I think the high frequency was a big breakthrough, going to the higher frequencies, and that also reduced the impact of the decoupling mechanism that Teller had proposed of exploding the bombs in a big cavity to muffle the seismic signal. The effectiveness on higher frequencies, much less.

SHELLY LESHER: The other thing that’s curious to me is that the idea of hiding a nuclear test during an earthquake, you don’t know when an earthquake is coming, so you have to have someone there 24/7 waiting for an earthquake to start, and then… I mean, it’s just so ridiculous.

FRANK VON HIPPEL: Well, they had other scenarios, testing behind the sun and things like that to fight the idea of a nuclear test ban.

SHELLY LESHER: Was this the US thinking that’s what the Soviets would do, or was this…

FRANK VON HIPPEL: Yeah, this was scenarios that Teller’s people were making up for how the Soviets could cheat.

SHELLY LESHER: That just… They all just seem so ridiculous.

FRANK VON HIPPEL: Yeah. Well, I mean that shows you the paranoia of the times, really, and the idea that in fact, cheating could result in a breakthrough like Teller’s x-ray lasers.

SHELLY LESHER: I think that just tells me how much the US was thinking about how they would cheat.

FRANK VON HIPPEL: Well, perhaps. Yeah, perhaps.

SHELLY LESHER: Because I wouldn’t have thought of any of this, but I’m not thinking of cheating.

FRANK VON HIPPEL: Well, I think it was mostly to promote paranoia and opposition. We would, of course comply with any treaty that we signed, but the Soviets would cheat in any way that they possibly could.

SHELLY LESHER: But it’s interesting that it was the Soviets that reached out to you.

FRANK VON HIPPEL: Yeah, this was a new Soviet Union, and they ended up breaking down US skepticism with initiatives like this, like allowing in-country monitoring and that became the basis. In-country monitoring became part of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was finally signed in 1996, although US still has not ratified it.

SHELLY LESHER: So the seismic activity was one way to see if someone was cheating. What was the other stumbling block to getting the US to trust the Soviets?

FRANK VON HIPPEL: Velikhov then started dealing with these issues one by one, and Tom Cochran was his primary partner on this. Tom had been so effective, including in getting journalists interested and Congress interested.

TOM COCHRAN: In the subsequent year, we were fighting the DOD over whether we could get Soviets into the United States to man the similar setup around the Nevada test site. That finding was resolved, and we took a bunch of people and Velikhov out to one of the sites we had set up in Nevada. I say we, by this time this is Scripps Institution of Oceanography. This is John Berger. John arranges to set off a chemical explosion in Nevada near the test site and test the instruments like the Russians did, like the explosion in Kazakhstan.

Now coming back, I’m on the plane with Velikhov coming back from Reno. We sit next to each other and we say, “Okay, what are we going to do next?” At that time in ADA, there was a lot of discussion by the governments about lowering the number of nuclear weapons on each side. And the problem with verifying tactical nuclear weapons and particularly tactical nuclear weapons on ships, surface ships, not the SLBMs, but the cruise missiles. Velikhov had been told by the head of [inaudible 00:35:48] Institute, this guy told Velikhov he had an instrument, he could see a nuclear weapon a mile away. That was incorrect. The guys around Velikhov who were working with von Hippel knew that was incorrect.

There was this group called the Committee of Soviet Scientists Against the Global Threat or something like that, working with FAS, writing papers, and they were writing a paper about how well you could detect a nuclear weapon, how far away and so forth. So Velikhov was in tune to the issue, and we agree on the plane. Okay, let’s do an experiment with some radiation detectors, passive radiation detectors to see what the utility of these passive detectors are in detecting the presence or absence of nuclear weapons. So he goes back to Moscow and I start doing research on detectors and people to do this work. And I learned that one of the best detectors you could get was made by a company called Princeton Gamma-Tech, and it was a intrinsic germanium detector that operates at liquid air temperature. And so I was ready to buy $70,000 worth of equipment, and there I was, am I going to buy this? This is big money for NRDC, and then the thing falls apart. So I’m communicating with Velikhov, fax or however, and are we going to have a ship or not? I get the word back. Yes.

SHELLY LESHER: Thank you for listening. And a special thanks to Tom and his many pictures of the Black Sea Experiment. Frank for his hospitality at Princeton and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security for sponsoring this episode. You can find more information on the podcast website Until next time, I’m Shelly Lesher, and this has been My Nuclear Life.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Stanley Center for Peace and Security or any other agency, institution, or partner.



Shelly Lesher
Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse (UWL)

Shelly Lesher is a Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse (UWL) where she teaches undergraduate physics and conducts nuclear research. The My Nuclear Life podcast is based on a class she taught at UWL about how physics impacts society, and society impacts physics. A version of this class was also taught as a seminar at Yale University.

Frank von Hippel
Senior Research Physicist

Frank von Hippel is a senior research physicist and professor of public and international affairs emeritus with Princeton’s Program on Science & Global Security which he co-founded.

Thomas Cochran
Former Senior Scientist for Nuclear Policy, NRDC

Dr. Thomas B. Cochran was a senior scientist in the nuclear program and held the Wade Greene Chair for Nuclear Policy at NRDC until he retired in 2016. He served as director of the nuclear program until 2007. He initiated NRDC’s Nuclear Weapons Databook project. He also initiated a series of joint nuclear weapons verification projects with the Soviet Academy of Sciences. These include the Nuclear Test Ban Verification Project, which demonstrated the feasibility of utilizing seismic monitoring to verify a low-threshold test ban, and the Black Sea Experiment, which examined the utility of passive radiation detectors for verifying limits on sea-launched cruise missiles. He has served as a consultant to numerous government and non-government agencies on energy, nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear reactor matters. He is a member of the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy Research Advisory Committee.

Steve Fetter
Professor and Senior Fellow at the Center for International & Security Studies at Maryland

Steve Fetter has been a professor in the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy since 1988, serving as dean from 2005 to 2009. He also has served as associate provost and dean of the Graduate School and as associate provost for academic affairs.

Adventures in Nuclear Risk Reduction

The Stories