January 13, 2023
Bret Kugelmass [00:01:05] So you're here today on Titans of Nuclear with Charles Oppenheimer, and I'm sure people recognize that last name. This is the grandson of Robert Oppenheimer. So Charles, thank you so much for joining us.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:01:15] Thanks for having me on. I reached out because of your podcast and I really like saw what you had done. And I really wanted to reach out and get advice from you. And then, the people said, "You want to come on a podcast?" And here I am.
Bret Kugelmass [00:01:30] Yeah. I mean, we couldn't pass up on the opportunity just to hear... I'd love to maybe start off with just your experiences growing up and then I'd love to kind of dovetail that into your grandfather's story, hear it from your perspective and have you tell the story that you want to tell. And then maybe we can conclude with just a little bit of your interests and your work moving forward as well.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:01:55] Great. That's perfect. I thought about this because I think that's a great interview technique. You said, tell me your story and where did you come from? And I was like, how far back should I take it? And I thought, I will go all the way back. I come from a log cabin in New Mexico with no electricity. That's where I grew up, up on a ranch. That was only until I was like five or seven, but that's the same ranch, really, that caused the Manhattan Project to be in New Mexico. So it's part of the family history and just that's the way it was in the 70's in New Mexico, running around we had kerosene lanterns and a log cabin, and it was a pretty cool way to grow up. Often I shock people with that fact, not my family's last name or anything, because people are like, "What, you grew up in a log cabin?? And so that was the start of it.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:02:51] Being an Oppenheimer, of course, as a kid, and also kind of growing up in not that traditional of an environment, people often ask me, "What was it like to be an Oppenheimer and when did you understand who your grandfather was?" Well first, I didn't stay on the ranch forever. We moved to town and I went to school and kind of went back there for the summer. So it's not as wild as it sounds, but that really was the origin. So a lot of my experience with that was through family discussions. I remember being pretty young when I heard about it from my parents, and that's my memory of it. I don't know, I was very young and hearing in effect something like, "Your grandfather worked during the war. He did something really important." My memory of it is that my dad said something like, "He would have been a soldier during this really bad war, but he was a scientist so he ended up doing science during the war." And that was kind of like the level of detail. And then through my life, I'd hear more things from kids. Sometimes it was like really kind of perplexing and sometimes not. It was something we would talk about openly in the family, but it was really unemphasized as like, "You're an Oppenheimer, you have this legacy of..." Just really, especially in relation to other people, it was never ever something that I experienced. It's only later in my life, at this time I'm like, "Well, I want to talk about that publicly and really kind of turn towards it."
Bret Kugelmass [00:04:29] That's amazing. I mean, you answered the questions I was going to ask, like what was your family's relationship to the legacy? So that was great to hear. So tell me the stories that maybe you feel aren't communicated in the textbooks or the Wikipedia articles, but that you had some special insight into.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:04:55] Yeah. That's a good question. You know, there's the personal side. It's interesting being related to a very famous person. It depends on where it comes down. I think my father more or less had a much harder time with that. And it's hard to say if it's because of the historical context, but it's not something he enjoys at all. He doesn't want anything. And I think I see that a lot in the second generation of somebody who's pretty prolific. It's like, it's just so overwhelming, the exact opposite of somebody... I was discussing with my daughter this morning where her friends will say, "Oh, you're an Oppenheimer. That's cool." And for her she's like, "Yeah, it's cool." It's like not really a big deal. And then for my dad, it is not. So that part of being in the family and just seeing other people talk about this public historical legacy thing and then you're over here saying, "Gee, they're talking about my relatives, but I don't really have input." It's been a lifelong thing that you can either turn away from or like get into. And for me, although it wasn't overemphasized in my family, I found my own interest in it. I started reading books and then I'd ask my dad, "What do you think of this?" And so we've had an ongoing discussion for 30 or 40 years. Anything I'll read, which he really won't read or consume any media about his father, even the non-fiction, but definitely not the fiction stuff. He doesn't like it. He doesn't want anything to do with it. So I will read it and and ask him and we get into these dialogs about what do you think Robert thought and what is he like?
Charles Oppenheimer [00:06:32] To distill those down into something that's really interesting to the audience, it's tougher. I think I can just give my perspective that I've always consumed what I could of other people's writing and then tried to pass it through a family perspective to understand. The thing that's retained in the family is how important that was, his work. It's not a sense of shame or a problem, but it just, it is important to everybody. Literally everybody in the world thinks about could I die from nuclear weapons and what should we do about it? And so it was something I grew up being told about and thought of it as a really important thing, but I didn't really directly connect, "Okay, I'm going to put my life into working on that." That wasn't a requirement and it wasn't where I ended up initially.
Bret Kugelmass [00:07:25] Maybe a question I would ask if I were in the room with your family is was the development of nuclear weapons an inevitability of humankind? If you were to rerun the human experiment a thousand times, was it just a matter of time? Or was there something in the physics itself that was particularly complex to understand or that our natural inclination as human beings would have sent us in the wrong direction that would have made it impossible to develop that individuals such as your grandfather, bringing a unique perspective to the table, were able to push past how difficult it was? Which way do you think it would have gone?
Charles Oppenheimer [00:08:13] Yeah, such a great question. Such the heart of it. And so when I run into those difficult things, I like to go back to Robert Oppenheimer's words because he talked about this and he said what he thought, that he believed science was a pure and a good thing to do and that people didn't have a choice. You couldn't just choose to ignore that what was going on with physics and the fact that you can make a bomb out of this material is a fact of nature. And the act of exploring that was something that had to happen. So that is an element of it, and I think that's most of the truth, especially the closer you get to science, you just say, "Well, it really is the way the world works." And if you look at the way physics was developing from 1900 to 1940, it was such an amazing time of these people working in groups and this collaborative effort to understand the nature of reality. And they all understood at the same time that this was going to happen, within months and days. So there's some element of that, that it was going to happen and it's part of nature. Then there's the other element of the people who worked with Robert Oppenheimer, and this isn't something I've heard from my dad, it's not really an inside perspective, but when you talk to... If you really look at thousands of people who worked with him, they said, "If he wasn't there, I don't think this would've happened," or, "I don't think we could have succeeded." And that happens in history. There are times when people are there that things have to happen. And that's why I think people are still talking about him so much in an increasing level to this day. You look at it and those are both true, that if it wasn't Groves and Teller and those guys...
Bret Kugelmass [00:10:02] Yeah. And I almost think that what they're drawing upon isn't necessarily like the contradiction between those two things, but maybe they're of a different kind. Like yes, the physics always existed, but maybe the engineering, the problem solving to bring that physics into a useful manifestation relies more on the individuals.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:10:24] That's right. And there's also even more tactical parts. I mean, I'm in the technology field and I know you are. And it's funny, you know, the common feeling about that is I don't feel that way about technology. I don't say, "We have to create AI over..." It's like, it's a choice. So when do things cross over to the way you implement and the choices you make? There's clearly... The closer to engineering and technology, it's absolutely all the way over to human choices to create those, and then you could back off it. When I look at World War II, I don't know if it's a family bias or science, I'm like, "Oh, it was science and it had to happen." I'm not willing to have that part of history interrogated and say, "Well, those guys just should have done something different." It doesn't feel that way. It doesn't seem that that's what was going on. That does happen as you cross that technology thing, you're making a choice. And no matter what happens with the understanding physics and what's going on, you're always making a choice of the outcomes of those. There's always this group, "How should we deal with this? Okay, we can make an AI bot that replaces all people. Should we do that? How should we do that?" And that ongoing dialog is part of humanity and science and what we do.
Bret Kugelmass [00:11:42] Help me explore... When your grandfather was selected to lead the Manhattan Project, that came as a surprise to some people. Is that just how it's represented, or was he always the right man for the job? There's political and media stuff that casts questions about that.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:12:10] There's definitely elements of it being surprising. It was surprising to a lot of people. And people say, "Groves wasn't a genius, but picking Oppenheimer was the smartest thing he did." But when I look at Groves writing, I'm like, "He was a genius." That guy was really smart. But anyway, I think by today's standards, somehow intellectual stuff. So anyway, Groves made a really good and strong choice there, but I also came to a little better understanding of what was going on in physics at that time by, in the end, rereading these books over and over. And it's so funny to live an examined life like that. My grandfather didn't spend a minute in his life that is not written down and discussed and in books and journals and interviews. Like not a minute. Can you imagine living like that? Like what you did on spring break at 20 is literally interrogated and debated to this day.
Bret Kugelmass [00:13:02] Who captured that? Was that captured by third parties or did he have a set of journals and notes that he diligently tracked?
Charles Oppenheimer [00:13:10] It was all of the above, but it's just the massive amount of focus. So he was a prolific writer in those days and those kind of things, but when it was already clear that he was going to be important, so it was his journals, but it's really the public record and the amount of diligence. Like "American Prometheus," the first author, Marty, who unfortunately passed away, was working on that for 20 or 30 years. So he was going back and literally interviewing his friends from every single class and every journal and most of it's recorded. And then you go into the level of being recorded by the FBI and everything you're doing in public. Every part of his life has been interrogated, put on trial. I can't imagine that level of pressure and frankly, in my opinion, a biased opinion, how well he's held up.
Bret Kugelmass [00:13:57] How did he deal with the pressure? Having the FBI investigating me would be like a horror. How did he deal with that?
Charles Oppenheimer [00:14:08] I think he had this tremendous sense of duty. He believed in duty, deriving from some probably pretty mystical experiences he had, and then going into the Bhagavad Gita and the study of it. And just his understanding when you read what he wrote to his brother Frank about it, "I believe duty is the only way out of the pain of existence," it's like almost totally aligned with Hinduism and Buddhism.
Bret Kugelmass [00:14:35] Where did that come from, because obviously he's famous for those quotes, but where did this mystical nature... Do we understand the origin of his interest in that? And when you say mystical, what else? What other ways did that take form?
Charles Oppenheimer [00:14:49] Well, it's interesting. This is my secret sauce, going out on the thing. My interpretation is there's been a huge amount of historical interest on his spring break of 1922. Actually, I can't remember the year, '25. Can you imagine that? Walking around Corsica with his nerdy friends from Cambridge and you have historians writing around, "What did you do, and what did you do the next night, and where are you sleeping?" So there was a portion of that story where he gets up from Corsica, apparently. This is according to two guys that were interviewed 50 years later who were hanging out with him in Corsica. And it was never part of his life, according to the FBI and his friends and stuff. And he rushes back to Cambridge, or he says, "I've got to leave. I've got to go back to Cambridge." And during that time on that trip, he spoke in enough terms, these are like small segments, of saying that he had effectively had a mystical experience. He said, one of his quotes about that time in Corsica is that, "You put me through this trial and you think you know everything about me. You don't even know the first thing about what's important to me." I've got to reread the quote, but that's basically what he said about that experience of being examined, unbelievably examined and attacked by his enemies. It didn't even bother him. But I think in that experience, which the historians haven't really called out, he said that he had found love, not a person, but the nature of love, and that has happened pretty regularly if you look into mystical experiences. People go through them at regular intervals, and he never really talked about it in that terms, but it really did follow that pattern of shaping his life because after that, he got into Sanskrit and Hinduism and Buddhism. And he never said, I'm a Buddhist or a Hinduist, but I think if one does go through that and then recognizes this 2,000 year version that happened 2,000 years ago, where these people are talking about the nature of consciousness and unity, then you can recognize a number of his points, just little fragments of it over the years where he talked about that affecting him.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:17:00] But the duty thing was very straightforward. Like, for example, that quote about, "I become Death, Destroyer of Worlds," he is really... First of all, he says, "I thought about the Bhagavad Gita," and then, the quote, and then he said, "I think all of us did in one way or the other," which I find hilariously, Robert Oppenheimer. Like, nobody thought about the Bhagavad Gita, you know? He had read it out of Sanskrit because he spent every moment of his life buried in a library and learning Sanskrit. I mean, in my view, I'm no Robert Oppenheimer, I'm Charles Oppenheimer, and I'm like, I couldn't have learned all that stuff. And he had the historical allegory to apply it to that time. And one of the things I learned about that, I read the Bhagavad Gita, and it describes a mushroom cloud over a battlefield blowing up 2,000 years ago and a warrior, Arjuna, who he was really talking about, who's the prince, who's forced to do his duty and kill his relatives. And he's talking to the god Krishna about how terrible this is and Krishna's saying, "You have to do that. There's duty and you have to kill and you have to die. In fact, you're going to die anyway whether you do this or not." And understanding the depth of that entire literary, you need that to understand what he was saying, and in a YouTube comment, people will say, "This guy was crying in his beer and regretting everything." He wasn't. He was talking about the depths of like what he went through and what humanity was going through as this bomb was going off.
Bret Kugelmass [00:18:30] It sounds to me that this mystical nature to him allowed him to navigate the moral complexity of his work. But I'm also interested if it allowed him to literally see the universe in a way that he could examine its physics beyond the abstraction that like our pathetic eyeballs like cover things up, right? If he could literally see the atom, you see what I'm saying?
Charles Oppenheimer [00:19:02] I think there's some element of... The guys, when I read what they were going through of understanding how the universe worked... And my grandfather was not the only example; he kept up with that quantum stuff. They were understanding how the universe worked. Was the mystical part that important? I think the best example of that is Bohr. Niels Bohr was known as, what was that quote, that Niels Bohr was God and Oppenheimer was prophet. They both had this view that there was a connection. And Bohr in particular, I mean, he was such a leader in the quantum field and his belief ultimately that things that were going on in the quanta, that there was a connection to the rest of humanity. And an average, incredibly smart, intelligent scientist like Dirac wouldn't have believed any of that stuff. He's like, "What are you talking about? That's gobbledygook." And to this day you would find that gobbledygook in the Bhagavad Gita, in New Age spirituality, and it hasn't been tied to science. But Bohr ultimately believed that they could end war through this effort. And did their insights of the atom come about from, not exactly that mysticism, but it was very important that these people had a philosophy that reached beyond,"What is our security procedure in 1942?" They had wisdom, Bohr influencing my grandfather, and my grandfather being able to lead thousands of scientists in a way where they would follow and they said, "This guy is a good leader for this, and he's thinking about the next steps," which is one of my favorite things to talk about.
Bret Kugelmass [00:20:38] Tell me more about, beyond the technical ability, the leadership ability. I'd like to hear a little bit more about that.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:20:47] Yeah, and I realize I never got back to your question, was it a surprise that he was picked? So in reading about that, he was developing this method of science where his strongest thing was leading a colloquium, where when in a room, and this was happening in Berkeley with the best physicists and in Michigan when they were talking about the nature of fission. It wasn't just that he knew everything; there was a period of this time where he was an arrogant student, he knew everything. You know what that's like being on your 20s. But at this point, he was becoming a leader who the people in his field, his peers, were saying, "Hey, when we're in a group of scientists, he seems to be like moving us along in the right way and pulling the right stuff." And that was ultimately... So by the time Groves picked him, other people were saying, "Hey, we've been in these colloquiums. Oppenheimer's about as good of a leader of this kind of science." But then he actually blossomed when... That's the thing about history. You put this pressure on somebody and you say, "You've got to make a bomb. You work for the military." And Robert Oppenheimer said, "All right, I'm going to do that." That was not where he came from, and he just was the right guy to do that.
Bret Kugelmass [00:21:57] Did Groves show up to any of the colloquiums? Like, did he sit in the back? I can almost imagine a scene where like sits in the back of the room and...
Charles Oppenheimer [00:22:03] No, this was the pure science stuff before Groves was really involved. And then there was a couple other coincidences like Lawrence would have been just the straightforward science leader. Robert Oppenheimer had no leadership background, so that was truly why some people were like shocked. And I think there was another guy from Caltech who was top of the list and he said no. So there's some element of him being the only guy, you know, a few people who were more qualified weren't available and he was there. But there was also an element of him raising up. And then Groves was just a really good judge of people. Like, he met a bunch of people, but when you when you look at the records of when and how he talked to Robert, he said he wasn't taking a guess. He's like, "This guy can do it." And I mean, I recognize that. Anybody can work with people and you start getting a feeling, you know.
Bret Kugelmass [00:22:54] I totally agree, too. And that's why like interviewing is more of a skill than it is something that can just be like broken down into a prescriptive set of questions. Just a little bit more on that. What led to Groves' conviction? Was there a specific interaction, a specific set of questions, a specific dialog, a specific feeling that he got?
Charles Oppenheimer [00:23:20] I'm going to go with yes. I don't remember. You can read the exact number of meetings and they were on a train track, but he just came away with that feeling, with spending some deep time in understanding Robert's attitude, but I think it was more than just his knowledge. He recognized... He said something like, "This guy's a genius. He knows about everything except sports." And so he recognized he was a top scientist, but I think he recognized the practical nature. He had dealt with other scientists who had Nobel Prizes and were scientist's scientists, but something about Robert was more than just a scientist. It was that connection to literature and arts and leadership even though he wasn't any of those things at the time. Groves said, "If we put this guy in charge, we're going to get our bomb out of it. And that turned out to be the case.
Bret Kugelmass [00:24:08] What about doubt? Were there moments of doubt throughout the program and how did he handle the difficult times?
Charles Oppenheimer [00:24:21] Yeah, I mean, obviously, I know less about this and only the historical records, but being tuned in, he's a sensitive person. I think that's something that retains in the family so I can relate and am empathetic with understanding what they were doing and the tremendous stress of doing that. And some people perform better under that kind of stress. And my grandfather was like that. I have a little bit of that, sometimes when I've been in work situations where it's more stressful. He was able to just work through that. But the doubts that are probably most important is that if you're looking at what they were doing during World War II, they were building a bomb just like your grandma was and like every German... It was a normal thing to do. You're building bombs and you're in a war and you're going to drop on people. So there wasn't a lot of like, "Let's not do this." You weren't going to slow the train down. And they even described, I think, Frank Oppenheimer...
Bret Kugelmass [00:25:15] And sorry, I actually didn't mean... Let me correct my question because I want to direct this in a specific way. I didn't mean doubt as to the moral case. I actually specifically meant doubt as in the ability to pull off the scientific achievement.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:25:29] Yeah, that's interesting. I think that the matter of physics was well known where they assumed they could do it. He was a theoretician. So they took that, and what he was able to do was, "Theoretically, we can do that and then we're going to have to work through these engineering problems." And it's interesting, I think, I relate to you as a technology guy. You can look at a theory of like putting a database together. There's nothing to it. That theory is totally proven and you do and 50% of the time it fails. So that is the interesting thing about the Manhattan Project. It sounds simple now, but in reading, my knowledge of it is, they were just all in on it. There was no hand-wringing, they were just like, "We're going to move this through." And in fact, I guess they had maybe a typical technology thing. There is a famous time where I think Robert said to Groves, "Oh, we're going to need 50 people or something." It was two orders, three, four orders of magnitude under what actually ended up causing. So that's a typical thing, "We know we can do this. I know some really smart guys, we were up in Los Alamos," and so that part of it was was underestimated. And other than that, I don't think... It was just knowledge or working during the war on a project and they were going through that. But that's as far as I know about that part.
Bret Kugelmass [00:26:57] Who in your family was he closest to?
Charles Oppenheimer [00:27:01] Well, I mean, the only person I know in my family is my dad. He doesn't do media interviews, so when you read about Robert Oppenheimer's family by these authors who kind of interrogated the secretaries and the friends and stuff, it's this very outside perspective. It's hard to talk about inside of the family. You know, every family has that stuff, but my dad has very simple summaries of it. My dad was a good dad. He spent time with me. He was really nice guy. My father himself is eccentric and awkward. He was never going to fit in in society in any way. And Robert didn't hold that against him at all. It wasn't like, "You have to go and be a nuclear scientist." It was just accepted. But he was a busy guy. If you look at it in today's terms, the way they raised their kids, it's kind of shocking sometimes seeing the way my grandmother and my grandfather treated their kids, but maybe it wasn't so much in the '50s.
Bret Kugelmass [00:27:57] Tell me, tell me.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:28:01] They left Peter, my dad, with like a nanny as soon as he was born and went off for a few months. That probably was not a good idea for my dad's health. And the same stuff like that happened, some parts for the war and some parts from just family culture. So my understanding of my grandfather is, just from the family perspective, is as warm in our family to this day... You know it has its weird quirks, but when we're together, we're like really close and really tight. And he took walks with his family on the weekends and this whole just normal human side of Robert that I never experienced. I knew Frank, but I didn't know Robert.
Bret Kugelmass [00:28:42] And what about his wife? What was the relationship there like?
Charles Oppenheimer [00:28:45] So Kitty, I mean, she in the history books is a famously difficult person. It's something that my dad won't talk about. I think he knows even if he talks to me, it's going to get out there. So it is almost not discussed. So I think maybe I'll go along with that.
Bret Kugelmass [00:29:07] That's fine. I'm just curious because I often think about... And the reason I'm asking this line of questions really is just like when I think about even solving engineering problems when I get stuck, and that's like, that's really where my curiosity is, like, how do you get unstuck? And sometimes it's talking to someone, not necessarily even another technical person, but just a confidant and just having someone to talk out loud to, and you're really kind of talking to yourself.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:29:38] Did that go on? That's kind of an interesting question. Well, one thing that is kind of clear is Kitty was much more real world and practical than Robert. Obviously, a theoretical physicist walking around in Berkeley, having a communist girlfriend. He was in another world. And she, definitely the influence of their just kind of real world, practical marriage is seen historically and probably true, but had a lot of influence on, "Get a good job at Los Alamos and stop hanging out with these commies," and stuff like that. And I know when the security hearing went on, she was a great witness. She's like, "Shut up. What are you talking about? That's the way you need to be." Robert Oppenheimer's like, "I'll tell you anything you want to know. This is how I'm feeling." That's not what you want to do when you're on a security trial. For the inside stuff, my dad does say that their relationship was Robert was very formally treating his wife with a ton of respect, and that's how he lived his life. And I think that's some elements of Robert Oppenheimer. He was so exemplary in all these areas that still people pick out if you... "Well, he had this flaw and he was a complicated man." But I think you could also look at him and say, "Oh, he's a hero. He's a great guy." And maybe that's still coming out. It's amazing that people are talking about him that much just because of the circumstances and who he was.
Bret Kugelmass [00:31:09] Yeah, it's pretty incredible. I mean, I think we all have flaws and, you even see it almost like with Elon Musk today, people are able to take small mistakes that he's made and blow them out of proportion just because he's such like an imposing figure on society. Whereas if you really try to look at the totality of his work, I mean, at least in my perspective it is overwhelmingly positive.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:31:35] I notice that when people speak about another public figure, and I'm used to that, that other people are voicing their opinion about a public figure, in my case, my grandfather has such a historical record, but people have a lot of opinions about it. And I notice that historian opinions are that: opinions. And they do have a lot of what sounds like it's a fact, but if you want to compare how factual history it is to have somebody talk about your grandmother that way, you're like, "Wait, you don't know what you're talking about. You didn't even know this person." And I see the same thing with Elon and other public figures where people these days, and this is an aspect of social media, feel fine to weigh in and say, "I'm going to go ahead and judge what you're doing here," as if they know everything about what's going on. And that does happen.
Bret Kugelmass [00:32:27] Yeah. And then I think also one more component is that as individuals, I don't think that we have like one identity. I think we evolve over time. Sometimes we can have conflicting thoughts in our mind at the exact same time. And so how can you really say, "This person is that," when there's so many layers and levels to it.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:32:53] That's a great point. I always want to bring that up and now you're bringing it up. Yeah, to get to know yourself, you'll find that there's not one version of yourself. And if you look very philosophically down or very psychologically, you'll find that there's no one definite there. So you can't have somebody else come along and say, "I recognize and know this person." It's much easier to believe that's possible through kind of fictional and historical takes. But that really, I think, is the substance of it, that it's so difficult to know oneself you can't really know another person. Wow, we got really woo woo here.
Bret Kugelmass [00:33:27] I don't even think that's woo woo.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:33:28] It is true.
Bret Kugelmass [00:33:30] I think it's just examining... I think it's just a different mode of examination. Because I don't think of myself as a woo woo person, but it is a bit more philosophical and less scientific. I don't know, it's just more philosophical.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:33:45] Philosophy is so important. I'm sorry if I'm babbling on.
Bret Kugelmass [00:33:50] Oh please, please. I'm enjoying it.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:33:50] I did want to segway into this because if you look at what the scientists were dealing with, like Bohr and Oppenheimer, and they see the bomb being made and they come to peace with... There was kind of a combination of it's not our decision and it's going to happen anyway. They weren't making the decision to drop the bomb, but they did turn completely focused on how do we deal with this? And Bohr spent all his time seeing this coming, seeing an arms race coming and seeing a way to head it off. And it really... Is it possible for humanity to have not done what we did. World War II is an example of what we did, but there was a time, at the end of '45, where Oppenheimer and the other scientific committee wrote up a five point memo of what we should do with the effect of weapons. And when I went back, I had thought maybe they got through the arms race and then realized that. But when I went back and looked at it, they saw the whole thing coming and they put together a logical sequence that we're probably going to go on making more of these bombs. They're going to get more and more powerful. Other nations are going to get them because that's a fact of nature, and what we're working on here is ending war, because if we don't do that, we are going to destroy all of ourselves. And that was the scientific philosophy woo woo thing that they were saying. They were saying, "We need to get along in a new way.".
Charles Oppenheimer [00:35:23] And it's surprising to me, and what I want to continue talking about Robert Oppenheimer's legacy isn't necessarily the inside family perspective and the cult of personality where other people make movies about him and profit off that. Like, that's never something we were going to do in the family. But what he said in '45 to '47 to '54 and his entire life was dealing with that effect of technology and what can be done today. And when I look at their advice, it is as relevant today as it was in '45. The difference is if it had just been listened to and acted on as given out by, if I may, the most intelligent people in the world, you have Fermi and Compton who invented this stuff, and they're like, "This is how you deal with it." It was that close to being just received and acted on. Scientists were so much more respected. And Truman and some of the other... the Secretary of War, were receptive to this. Churchill, "Okay, let's do what you say." It was about that close to them just listening and managing nuclear technology in a way that wouldn't of had us where we are now.
Bret Kugelmass [00:36:31] Okay. So what did they say and what do we do differently than that?
Charles Oppenheimer [00:36:36] What they said is that's what would happen. We would have an arms race. And the military view was like, "Oh no, no, we just keep this secret. We're going to make a lot of bombs and we will take over the view." It was a very simplistic thing without understanding even the basics of it. So those were the two choices. But what they said in a sense was this is possible to do. The only way to control it is to have scientific cooperation, particularly on fissile material. So it wasn't just like, "Let's all transcend all desires of humans and get along." It was a very practical, military cooperation based model that the U.K., who had been very primary in the Manhattan Project, they owned the stuff, and the U.S. and Russia would just simply need to decide that we're going to work on it together and we won't let other countries produce a huge amount of fissile material because that is monitorable. Even in '45, you couldn't do it without everybody noticing. It was accurate and it was practical, and it literally got that close to being acted on. And if we had, we wouldn't have the carbon we would have now. We would have massive nuclear energy all over the world in cooperation.
Bret Kugelmass [00:37:50] So what you're saying is kind of like forming a United Nations of nuclear technology.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:37:55] Right.
Bret Kugelmass [00:37:57] Using that as a focal point to bring the world together.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:37:58] Right. That was exactly what it was. That was their initial suggestion in '45. August 16th, 17th, days after it happened. And Robert brought it back to Washington, D.C., to Stimson, the Secretary of War, who was like exhausted and convalescing. And so he delivered it to this guy, Byrnes, who is, in my view, a mid-level bureaucrat, although he was a secretary of state. But anyway, Robert Oppenheimer was like as high stature as him. And Byrnes took it and basically threw it in the trash and said, "Oh, that's cute. Go back to Los Alamos and make more bombs." And that is how the decision to go into an arms race happened. It wasn't... They took days, Lawrence and Oppenheimer and Fermi working through this to create a report, a really well-thought report of what to do, and people were receptive to that. We're coming out of World War II, and even people like Truman, they were like, "Let's do the United Nations. We need to do things.".
Charles Oppenheimer [00:38:59] So that didn't work. That's the most critical time where Truman went into these negotiations with England, and they didn't even agree to share the knowledge that the British program had helped create. They said, "No, we're going to keep it secret." So that movement towards secrecy and continuing to grow it out of the military thing was a choice. And the scientists said, "Don't do that." Not because... Because it won't work. That's the wisdom that they had to recognize at the time what would happen. It will not work. If we're taking a guess, we'd say, "Oh, maybe these military guys will know, or "This secretary of state saying, 'let's build up a bunch of bombs and we'll be the most powerful.' Maybe he's right." But we've had 70 years and we know that what they said would happen of owning this technology, keeping it, doesn't work, and the only way to do it is this collaborative thing. But if you go in with bad faith and say, "Hey, even my colleagues who helped me build this, I'm not going to even work with you on it and I'm going to keep it secret," then... We've done that in the United States consistently as the leader. And so that set up this chain where it's so hard to deal with it now, because once you have weapons, you can't really take them away, .
Charles Oppenheimer [00:40:17] And it did get to the point, to the U.N. thing, by '47 where it was really... It wasn't kind of like a U.N. thing, it was an official Russia, U.S., U.N. negotiation. How are we going to deal with this? And that one was even... it was called the Acheson-Lilienthal report. I don't know if you're familiar with that. It took even more months of consultation of Robert Oppenheimer's official role, but many other people officially, officially going into this. And they read a plan that would be applicable today and eventually ended up happening with our nonproliferation treaties and stuff. But absolutely on point. And again, it ended up being that Byrnes guy appointed Baruch, both of them who owned uranium mines, who went in, crossed out a bunch of stuff, said, "The Russians can never have weapons. We're going to have all the weapons. We're going to control everything," put stuff in there that they knew... And it's sad to read the historical record. Robert was willing to work on this stuff as a sense of duty. He many times knew it wouldn't work, but he was just going to soldier on and do it. He had to do it. He knew what way it was going to go, but he tried and he tried so hard through his life. I guess you'd argue it was in a hopeless way because he did kind of know, but then he'd work with people who like Lilienthal who said "Let's get this plan together." And it came that close in '47 to being our policy that would of removed our podcast because we would have had tons of nuclear energy, no weapons and no carbon problems. That's the alternate history, you know.
Bret Kugelmass [00:41:54] Yeah, it's amazing. It's very counterintuitive that sharing a dangerous technology would limit the dangerous technology. I mean, that's why it was the geniuses that came up with it and the mid-level bureaucrats that refudiated it, because it's hard...
Charles Oppenheimer [00:42:16] It's understandable how wrong they got it, the decision makers. And the question is, is it valid? Is it worth talking about? Is it worth going back to history?
Bret Kugelmass [00:42:28] We're going to run into this again with AI and biotechnology.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:42:31] That's right. And it's still relevant today. And so I found that it basically is worth really... And there are things that you can find in history when you have the benefit of 70 years. In 1951, it seemed like a great idea to make hydrogen bombs. And they were all in on it, that's going to solve our problems. We know now that didn't solve our problems. And then you can look back to the people who said, "That will not solve our problems," and they're like literally provably right. And you can't tell at the time, the military did what they did, military wants to make a lot of weapons and they had an undue influence ultimately on civilian stuff and did stuff which brings up a point that I did want to bring up, the Department of Energy reversing my grandfather's security clearance. That was amazing news for us. The biggest thing that's happened in the Oppenheimer family, unlike these movies, this is real news that happened at the end of December.
Bret Kugelmass [00:43:32] What happened? Explain to the audience real quick.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:43:34] So in 1954, Robert Oppenheimer had been put through a security hearing to remove his clearance as a consultant. He was only a consultant at that time. And everybody knew the assumption that it was a political smear job. But at the time, he had such high stature. He was as famous as you could get in the U.S. And they used some of these security complaints. But they effectively, if you read the transcript, they really did literally accuse him of insufficient enthusiasm. Some of those words are used in building a hydrogen bomb. And they said that's a character flaw. That was the accusation, that he had a character flaw. And he wasn't actually even opposed to the hydrogen bomb because he was such a, almost soldier. He was opposed to a crash program to do it. And I think he was right about that, rationally. A crash program, a Manhattan-style, put everything you can into building the bombs. And to that one, he was opposed. So when they dragged him into the security hearing, there was a very big divide. All the scientists in the world, and certainly the people in the trial, even Groves testified for him. But it turned out to be a very corrupt process. And he knew that. He knew going into it that he was going to get crucified. But again, he did it because he had to. He couldn't just resign.
Bret Kugelmass [00:44:57] Duty.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:44:57] Yeah, he did it out of duty. He said that. He said, "You don't want my advice. I'd love to not give you advice, but I can't ignore that you said I'm unfit to serve my country." So he did it, and it went the way, basically as they expected. But the value of history is interesting because if "American Prometheus" hadn't reinterrogated that and looked again and again at the number of illegal things that were done through that entire process, like it was a mishandling of justice and so clear in the end, just a purely political effort, that it wouldn't have come up over and over. The AEC lawyers in 1958, they took over with Kennedy and they looked at it and they were like, "This is corrupt, this is terrible. We have to reverse this," at that time, even in '58, so there's some records of it then. But it was really interesting that the DOE announced that they've vacated the decision, it was called.
Bret Kugelmass [00:46:02] Why? Who pushed that through?
Charles Oppenheimer [00:46:04] Well, there's been a constant lobbying for this, and it's actually not the family at all. It's effectively Los Alamos scientists starting from the day that started in the security... Not Los Alamos scientists, all scientists except, famously Edward Teller, effectively said, "This is ridiculous. You can't prosecute this man, our hero, our leader for this." And they were always against it. But that didn't translate to very much political pressure. All they accused him of in the end is insufficient enthusiasm as a sign of character flaw. And then they threw in this security thing. Well, they said he lied in 1943 to a thing. He did not; and I've been trying to rebuild that. His problem was too much honesty. When he talked to these security guys, he was like, "Oh yeah, I met a communist. My friend knew a Russian. And that got him into all the trouble. And he was accused later of lying about it, but he really didn't. He was so careful and he didn't lie. So if you look at what he actually said to this day, it's not very tasteful. It's better to just not even address it, which is a family tradition. But I might go back and say, "This is why he didn't lie," because there's still historians today, including some of his spokespeople, who say, "Oh, it was fair to think he was a security risk in 1954." And I disagree with that. And the DOE, it turns out, disagrees with it, when the new Secretary of Energy, Granholm, looked at it.
Bret Kugelmass [00:47:32] I'm wondering how did the political pressure come about now, of all times, to actually...
Charles Oppenheimer [00:47:39] I mean, it's been there consistently. I was asked to join a lawsuit in 2008 or something. I said, "Oh, we don't do that in the Oppenheimer family." We've always considered he has his legacy, he speaks for himself. All these other people write books, it has nothing to do with that. So I didn't do it then. But the authors of "American Prometheus," other senators and lawyers go back to the DOE and they say, "Here's our proof that this was corrupt." The DOE looks at it and depending who's on the administration, they look into it at different levels. And sometimes they they've started a program to kind of do an apology, but it's always been there. And Senator Leahy is somebody who's really focused on it. So Oppenheimer has so many advocates from around. It's not it's not exactly a political thing, but I guess the new leadership of the DOE, which I think is amazing, I don't know Granholm, but I know her work at this point with the fusion announcement, which I think is really hopeful for big science. And my cousin Art Pack, shoutout Art Pack, was one of the main researchers on that. And so supporting that, and then I think it's a direct support. Like, she can look at the legal record and the historical record and for no political reason, this didn't make political waves, not even the right wing. It didn't make any noise. They don't care about it. It just said, "This was a wrong thing to do, and we're not going to treat our scientists like that. We're not going to attack them for their political views." And he didn't even have political views. And so it is kind of amazing. And one of the historians who talked about it recently wasn't able to say anything positive about it. He's like, "I don't know why they did that," but I think it's a good sign for big science and the secretary of energy to right the wrong.
Bret Kugelmass [00:49:16] I think it's a great sign. I'm just so confused as to why like all this time later. And like, yeah, I get what you're saying, the how, there's been like this continuous beat, but if it didn't work 10 years ago, why should it work today? Like, I just don't get it.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:49:28] I think it's the leadership. I was familiar with one about six years ago and the leader at that time, who I'm sure you know, Moniz, and I respect that...
Bret Kugelmass [00:49:37] Yeah, why didn't he do it? He should have done it.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:49:39] Well, he should have. I talked to the undersecretary; he's turned into a big friend of mine, Lynn Orr, and a real inspiration for being in the Oppenheimer field. And he had proposed, "Let's do an Oppenheimer program at the DOE." And it went to my dad, who was like, "Hang up." And I said, "I'll talk to you guys. Let's discuss things." And so I ended up talking to Lynn Orr a lot, and he inspired me to kind of promote... He didn't mean to do that, but I ended up getting inspired to work on it. Moniz was told by his lawyers, "Oh, no, we can't do it because he lied on trial." So he took a cursory view. I don't think he spent days and weeks looking at what his own lawyers said in 1958. He listened to whatever the current lawyers said, "Oh, we can't reverse that stuff." And Granholm looked much deeper at it and she must have looked at that. And she did. It's all in the statement. They were like, "This is wrong. It violated our own procedures." And she was willing to just say what their lawyers... There was a trail of lawyers at the AEC saying, "This was not a good proceeding." And she did overturn it on technicality. An important technicality; they were withholding information from his own lawyers and putting stuff in this summary that was not there in the trial. So there were all kinds of stuff for which you could have done it. And I think Moniz thought it was important, thought starting a new program was a good thing. I was fine with it. In the family, at least my dad's perspective, is that it wasn't important. Like we always talked about it as a farce, not a tragedy. That's what Robert Oppenheimer said, because I think he felt that. He knew he was being accused of lying to these couple security goons when he didn't, and he knew what they were doing. So he never complained about it. He never made a single statement. He had a better lifestyle after. So our family perspective is just like everybody else's: why bother doing that? But I certainly appreciate that they did that and they've righted it, and it made me very happy, unexpectedly, and I didn't even advocate for it. It was all these other people doing all this stuff. That's part of being in Oppenheimer. A lot of other people talk about it, not just me.
Bret Kugelmass [00:51:57] Yeah. Well, now that we're at the present day, let's actually come back to you. What do you have in your future?
Charles Oppenheimer [00:52:03] Yeah. So, I thought I was only going to be talking about this, and I went on an Oppenheimer bender. There is this Nolan movie coming out that puts focus on the whole thing. And actually, when I was talking to Lynn Orr in the DOE, I started saying, "Well, why can't the family have some perspective in the public thing, even though it's not our tradition? So, can I be a spokesman for my grandfather?" And usually the thing that's retained is nuclear weapons are such a problem that if you could use your name to help with that problem, you should do it. I felt permission to do that, but it also felt like kind of a depressing and unsolvable problem. And so I didn't ever in my career go into "let me work on getting rid of nuclear weapons." Maybe now that I'm much more interested in it, I should have done that, but I didn't think about it. And so when I've been thinking about advocating for my grandfather, it's not just for historical terms, but what does it mean today? What are these lessons from history going to do going forward and can it have an effect going forward, the lessons we've learned? And even can his reputation help today? That's what I'm most interested in. Can his legacy brand bring people together today?
Bret Kugelmass [00:53:19] I love your perspective. I think you're approaching this in a very wise manner.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:53:23] And that's how I found Titans of Nuclear, because when I was thinking about it, I was like, "If I just only focus on how these weapons are terrible like the other advocacy organizations which I believe and say," you can't move the needle. But energy to me seems much more hopeful. It's something that can be done in a positive manner. And I believe that there's an intersection that creating more nuclear energy and more nuclear infrastructure can help with the proliferation problems, that there's things that superpowers can't talk about. China and Russia can't talk with the U.S. right now about weapons, it's so difficult, but you could talk about joint investment to create more energy in sub-Saharan Africa, right? And then to do that, you say, "Well, we need to know where the fissile material..." Kind of expand on the existing treaties and proliferation stuff. So I started becoming more interested in nuclear energy coming from a more kind of standard liberal background, like some of your guests said. Even you, I think your first interview, I was vaguely negative on it, it seemed bad. And the Oppenheimer perspective was the same. It was like it didn't seem great. And what I've learned, most of what I know about nuclear energy is from your podcast and your guests and stuff, it just seems more and more appealing as something that they should really be focused on. And I found myself trying to do that. By promoting nuclear energy in some form and some elements of nonproliferation and this cooperation we need, can we have a joint win there?
Bret Kugelmass [00:55:01] I love it. It's so funny because I actually haven't really explored this topic that much. When I think about the benefits of nuclear, I've often just kept focused first on the climate benefits. Let's say that was the first couple of years of my exploration. And then getting to know the energy prosperity, like curing energy poverty and just like elevating all of humanity. That has been like the last few years of how I think about the advantages. But from the nonproliferation perspective, I actually think it's quite obvious that the more nuclear energy that you have, the easier it's going to be to deal with these very thorny issues of proliferation, weapons development, if nothing other than to have a global community of nuclear scientists that are in communication with each other, developing relationships with each other, that when the political powers come into misalignment, to have the scientists be the conduit for negotiation and communication, I just think is going to help resolve conflict so much easier.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:56:01] Yeah, I absolutely agree. And it brings me back to the purpose of why I came on this. I just wanted your advice. I'm like, "You've done this for three years, Bret." I'm basically five months before you started where I'm thinking about it and I look at all this stuff you've learned and accomplished. And I think there's room to do... I'm prepared to work on this as much as I can. If I may, what's your current feeling in your evolution of going through this, learning about it, ultimately starting a private startup company, which I'm familiar with because I'm a startup guy, and advocating for it, and then I'm sure running into the frustrations of such a big system and how slow it moves. What's your current perspective on the future and what could be most useful to affect right now?
Bret Kugelmass [00:56:54] Yeah, I mean the bureaucracy is tough. Having to deal with governments for these last few years and trying to actually take our learnings and manifest it and realizing that what's stymied nuclear energy is not technology related at all. It is like pure bureaucracy and licensing and these challenges that's really held it back. And then also seeing so many of my colleagues and peers try to apply technical solutions to cure non-technical issues. And then also examining the history of how many nuclear startups and how many nuclear efforts and nuclear programs have failed when you try to solve social or governmental issues with technology and it never works. That can be frustrating. But what I will say is that the exploration part, these conversations, the ones I'm having with you right now is so rewarding, so emotionally rewarding, that it is able to overcome any frustrations on the business progress side.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:58:10] You might say we just have to do our duty, right? Like, march through the hard stuff. You look at how hard it's going to be. I've come to think about... do you know Richard Rhodes? He wrote "The Making of the Atomic Bomb." I don't know if you interviewed him, but he has a good book.
Bret Kugelmass [00:58:25] I haven't yet. We email corresponded years ago. I have to pick that one up. Thank you for reminding me.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:58:29] His energy book, I mean, all his writing is amazing. We really respect him and the family. And I've become, personally, friends with him. And when I read his energy book and he talks about energy transitions, they always take 50 years and 100 years. That made me more comfortable. I'm like, this is something I can work on for a long time. Okay, if it doesn't happen today or tomorrow, I think there can be a combination of things. And when I started... I've started something called the Oppenheimer Project, but it's mainly at this point exploration phase, starting with talking to you and of course talking about my grandfather. But some of the first things I've identified through the research, obviously, is that the problems with nuclear, it's very easy to say that it's regulatory problems and public perception, everybody says that. So if I was going to work on things, why not start with regulatory and public perception stuff? That might be one of the top things you start with.
Charles Oppenheimer [00:59:26] And for me, actually to your point, because I'm not an expert in the field, can there be a convening or bringing people together under the Oppenheimer umbrella as a starting point. When I listen to your hundreds of guests, unfortunately I haven't gotten through hundreds, but with almost every one, I'm like, "That's so amazing. I want to talk to this person." And sometimes I go to nonproliferation events and I thought could we have a convening where you have some element of nonproliferation stuff and some element of this huge amount of energy, excuse the pun, in the commercial energy field and bring people together. That might be the one of the best things that you could start with, that kind of convening, bringing people together and then have it come out in policy, trying to influence policy and public perceptions for some part of it.
Bret Kugelmass [01:00:14] I love it. I love it. We've often thought about hosting, at some point when we're bigger and better resourced, I would love to like host a major nuclear conference and especially bring all the titans and the guests out. I just think some of the conversations that would come out of it would be so incredible. I'm thinking as just we're talking right now, I mean, if you can use our platform as almost like a prototype, we'd love to have you guest host some episodes on this topic. I think it'd be a lot of fun to do that.
Charles Oppenheimer [01:00:44] That would be cool. And also, I don't think a conference is out of the ordinary. You have a lot of listeners that are probably going to listen to this and say, "Hey, I would go to an Oppenheimer-Titans conference." And so I was planning at least one event this summer. Planning is loose, I have a rough plan. You know there's this movie announcement, and what I want out of the movie experience is can we shed light on these, kind of going forward, ideas? Not the kind of...
Bret Kugelmass [01:01:12] A strike while the iron is hot, I think...
Charles Oppenheimer [01:01:14] Exactly. It's obviously the time to do it. And what we care about is not defending every fictional interpretation of my grandfather, but what could be leveraged, what could bring people together. That's probably not enough time for a big conference, but it could be the start of something, that with your community, and I'd be happy to host and interview any guests and collaborate on that. I think that's one of the top things. I know we're at time, but I wanted to throw one more question.
Bret Kugelmass [01:01:43] Yeah, please go for it.
Charles Oppenheimer [01:01:43] How are you on time?
Bret Kugelmass [01:01:45] Yeah, yeah, I'll stay a few extra minutes. This is too much fun.
Charles Oppenheimer [01:01:48] I could go on forever here. So the other leg that I thought of, and I wanted your perspective on this, is investment. So, I'm a tech guy. I think I've ruled out, safely, I hope, I'm sure you did then you went back on your word, of doing a startup. I'm like, "I'm not going to do a startup in this space. I'm going to find the people who are already making things." But this advocacy and promoting and convening is a thing that I think can be done as an Oppenheimer project. But the investment side, I think, would need to be a little more of the private equity type commercial investment. And so I'm looking into that and I'll let you answer that because I don't know what you'll say, but the one other thing that I thought of is promoting a Manhattan Project-style effort, like that's what you're lobbying for. Can we get the government and the urgency and get a Groves involved and some other Oppenheimer, not me, to run the thing? Where you're really trying to vastly increase the amount of of nuclear energy. And I would want to see that measured in gigawatts and carbon, right? Because when I look at the effort on talking about climate change, there's still the same amount of carbon in the air. There's still the same increasing amount being produced. When I look at nuclear energy, it's going down. So I want to get involved in the early stage of this, but I also want to shift the curve. I want 10 years, 20 years from now to be more. And what can you do to start optimizing to those outcomes?
Bret Kugelmass [01:03:17] Yeah, I mean, the idea of a Manhattan Project-style effort I think is quite compelling. People talk about like the Space Race-style efforts and it's very compelling. But unfortunately, I struggle with seeing that as a viable solution because whenever I see... In today's day, I don't see government-led projects as viable pathways towards real hard solutions. I just see too many special interests, and once again, bureaucracy taking. You could put unlimited money, unlimited money, and you can waste unlimited money.
Charles Oppenheimer [01:04:06] It's also a cliché. Every time somebody does it, they're like Manhattan Project for fixing the roads and it doesn't work.
Bret Kugelmass [01:04:12] I know, I know. I think there's something fundamentally wrong with government-led programs. And that's tough, right? Because the government has a lot of money and like a lot of these projects need a lot of money, so it's like an obvious source. It's like, "Oh, yeah, .001% of the government's budget should be hundreds of billions of dollars. You know, we threw $6 trillion at COVID, why not throw a trillion at energy? How hard could that be?" I just, I don't know. I just don't see it working.
Charles Oppenheimer [01:04:44] Well, I'll use my startup foo and challenge it. I mean, I've seen some element, like I've seen you do with your guests. And I understand that you talk to somebody who's five years in nuclear and you're like, "What if you had to do it faster?" And they're like, "Can't do it faster," you know?
Bret Kugelmass [01:04:57] Well, there's a major problem with nuclear in politics.
Charles Oppenheimer [01:05:01] I'll get the Republicans, I'll get the military together, like that view, I agree that it's unlikely to be able to cause that because the Manhattan Project had its own dynamics and a war. But it's something worth exploring. Like, could it be bipartisan to kind of promote some effort? And I don't think it'd be the ultimate solution.
Bret Kugelmass [01:05:17] I don't know. It's funny because I used to be very liberal. Now I'm like in the middle, right? But I just see government as getting in the way, government is the problem. Listen, I always like to come back to Point Beach 1 and 2. There are two nuclear power plants they built here, medium sized, like 500 megawatts each. They built them in under three years. This is 1968, the whole industry has this all like, "Oh, Nth of a kind, we need experience." Okay, they had no experience. They didn't have computers. They had like 1960s construction technology. And yet they were able to bring these plants... Oh, and they built the plants, in today's dollars, sub $1,000 a kilowatt in under three years. So if all you did was allow a private company not even to innovate, but literally to replicate Point Beach 1 and 2, bolt for bolt, nut for nut, everything, if you just allowed it to happen, the whole world would be carbon free. And by the way, how cheap this power is, it's like a $20 a megawatt hour, like $0.02 a kilowatt hour. We'd have the cheapest, most... And all we have to do is copy what was built in 1968 sitting in Wisconsin right now. But we won't do it. And why won't we do it? I think it's because government programs, government bureaucracy, licensing, all of this stuff is standing in the way. And so I just don't know. I just don't see any government program solving what is so easy to do and not just making it worse.
Charles Oppenheimer [01:06:53] I agree and that's accurate. And maybe that's job one. If there's a way to influence things, then you have to go for the regulatory understanding that's holding it back. I've come to an understanding that you just summarized by listening to your guests and understanding that is what the problem is with the NRC and the way it's developed. So I don't know if it's addressable, but I started off with that as an idea. So anyway, maybe we pause there because I know we've gone on so long, but we could have a second one, which is not about Oppenheimer's history and just like, what do we do going forward? What are the ideas? What could happen, or some other form of future collaboration.
Bret Kugelmass [01:07:37] I've loved this conversation. I love the way that you've articulated your philosophy. This has just been awesome. So I'd love to keep it going.
Charles Oppenheimer [01:07:47] Likewise. Thanks a lot, Bret.