Globally respected nuclear scientist and professor at Stanford University Dr. Siegfried Hecker spoke at the U in January as part of the Frontiers of Science lecture series. His lecture, titled ​“North Korean Nukes: What, How and Why?”, focused on North Korea’s nuclear program and his decades of work to make the world safer from nuclear threats. Hecker visited North Korea’s nuclear facilities multiple times between 2004 to 2010. The country’s nuclear capabilities have become a hot-button issue after the recent announcement that they are nearing the ability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Hecker explained that the North Korean nuclear program was originally meant to be a deterrent to foreign aggression. However, since the Clinton administration, North Korea has been on the offensive and now poses a significant nuclear threat. Hecker said that there must be a reconciliatory stance between the US and North Korea to avoid further nuclear escalation.

The scientist’s experience with nuclear capable countries goes far beyond North Korea. For 25 years Hecker worked with the Russian scientific community to secure the vast post-Soviet nuclear stockpile. These experiences were chronicled in his new book “Doomed to Cooperate.” However, his collaboration has stalled in recent years due to political tension between the US and Russia.

In an interview, Hecker explained that there are currently three categories of nuclear threats. The first type includes the use of potentially one hundred nuclear weapons, a world-ending event. The only countries capable of such an attack would be the US and Russia. Hecker said this is highly unlikely.

The second category of nuclear threat would involve the exchange of ten to twelve nuclear weapons. Considering the current strain between nuclear powers, this is not out of the question, but Hecker says this is still not a likely scenario.

The third category would be the use of one or two nuclear weapons. This level includes the possibility of terrorist use of an improvised nuclear device. According to Hecker, international cooperation is critical in order to avoid this kind of terrorist attack.

Hecker said the nuclear threat with the highest likelihood is the use of a dirty bomb that uses a mixture of chemical and nuclear material. These weapons would most likely use a substance like cobalt-60 that can be found in medical or industrial areas. Dirty bombs are nowhere near as destructive as traditional nuclear weapons. Hecker said that understanding these bombs and their relative danger is important in dissuading such attacks.

“I hope that you don’t have to worry and that your generation and the next generation doesn’t have to worry about living in a world where we have a nuclear exchange,” said Hecker.

The knowledge of the reality of nuclear threats might make some pessimistic about the future, but Hecker maintains his hope for nuclear peace. He also sees promise in nuclear power as a more environmentally friendly form of energy. Hecker said in the next hundred years of combating climate change “you’re going to need nuclear to play a big part.”


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