November 5, 2003: A moment with...

Harold Feiveson *72

Photo: Frank Wojciechowski

Harold Feiveson *72, a senior research scientist at the Woodrow Wilson School and codirector, with Frank von Hippel, of the Program in Science and Global Security, has been teaching at Princeton for 30 years. He earned a master’s degree in physics from U.C.L.A. and a doctorate in international relations from the Woodrow Wilson School. One of his principal research interests is nuclear weapons. This fall he is teaching a freshman seminar on a lighter subject: S.U.V.s. Here he talks with PAW’s Lolly O’Brien.

How dangerous is the situation with nuclear materials now?

It’s dangerous. For example, there’s a lot of fissile material — material that can be used to make weapons — in Russia, where it’s under imperfect security. You don’t want any of that stuff to leak out to terrorist groups. Right now, our research group is working on various fronts to control fissile materials.

What do we know about the trouble spots?

We know roughly how much plutonium and weapons-grade uranium Russia has produced, and we know how many weapons, roughly, it has dismantled, with the fissile material recovered. There are a lot of specifics we don’t know, but we have a pretty good picture. North Korea has withdrawn from the nonproliferation treaty and has hinted that it may have made nuclear weapons. Iran is still in the nonproliferation treaty, but it is doing a lot of things that would give it the capability to produce nuclear weapons.

The U.S. and Russia still have a lot of strategic nuclear missiles on high alert, which is really anachronistic 12 years after the end of the Cold War. Both of us still have missiles that could be launched in roughly 15 minutes. So Frank and I, and others here and in Washington, have been working to persuade the U.S. and Russia to take these weapons off high alert.

How do you do that?

We talk to people. We write articles. A few years ago we published an article in Scientific American pointing to the dangers of keeping so many nuclear warheads on high alert. We said it made no sense because they were not essential for deterrence and could raise the risk of miscalculation and accidents. Gen. Eugene Habinger, then commander of the Strategic Command, read it. He didn’t agree with us and invited us to to Strategic Command to persuade us we were wrong. He didn’t convince us, but since retiring, Gen. Habinger seems more willing to consider the advantages of de-alerting. There are people we work with in Washington in the N.G.O. (nongovernmental organization) community, and there are some people in the administration that we try to talk to.

Has this been effective?

Well, so far, I’d say not really. It is discouraging, but it’s not hopeless.

In an ideal world, what would satisfy you?

To see the U.S. Senate ratify the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty; to see all ballistic missiles taken off high alert; to see the nuclear weapons stockpiles in the U.S. and Russia, and the other nuclear weapons states, reduced to scores or hundreds of warheads, not thousands; and to see the U.S. and other nuclear weapons states take a strong no-first-nuclear-use position. We’d also like to see a strong verification protocol for the biological weapons convention.

Why are you opposed to nuclear weapons?

They’re nondiscriminatory. They could end civilization. This doesn’t mean I’m antiwar. There are times when you have to go to war. My colleagues and I all want to reduce the risk of nuclear war. The question is, how to do that?

Are you aware of work on anything more devastating than nuclear weapons?

There are some biological weapons that would be catastrophic. But the short answer, I think, is no.

Tell us about your seminar, The Rise (and Fall?) of the S.U.V.

It is an eccentric topic, but it connects with things I find fun to talk about, things unrelated, or loosely related, to nuclear arms. They include oil politics, environmental policy, global warming, fuel economy, air pollution, smog, and the idea of wilderness. I don’t know how many S.U.V.s really get out in the wilderness, but that’s the way they’re marketed. And these are things freshmen enjoy talking about.

Why is that?

A lot of their families have S.U.V.s, and they themselves have driven S.U.V.s, and they have feelings for the issue. It’s not something remote for them. It’s not the Peloponnesian War —which, by the way, would be a great freshman seminar. These are issues they can get passionate about and take a position on.

What do you drive?

I have a Honda Civic and a Toyota Camry.


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