A New Oppenheimer Moment

We’ve had a resurgence of interest in and conversation about nuclear energy since the release at the end of April of Oliver Stone’s exceptional documentary, Nuclear Now. But Stone’s historic film, much like Robert Stone’s Pandora’s Promise and Dave Schumacher’s The New Fire, before it, suffers from the endemic unpopularity of documentaries. People don’t flock to theaters to see them. Which made (what was called) “Barbenheimer,”  the culturally clashing concurrence of opening nights for Greta Gerwig’s very pink Barbie movie and Christopher Nolan’s explosive Oppenheimer so different. Theaters were packed. People went to see them as double-features. The press had a field day for a week and both films exceeded box-office expectations, providing welcome relief for movie theaters everywhere.

The public is, as a result, reacquainted with J. Robert Oppenheimer (JRO to those who knew him) and his tortured if heroic role in leading the U.S.’s war time emergency program, dubbed “The Manhattan Project,” to a successful conclusion: creation of the first atomic bomb. Whether or not this crowning achievement by the secretive project—that recruited the world’s top physicists, engineers and scientific minds to Los Alamos, a remote area in New Mexico—and let the atomic genie out of bottle was a net positive or a net negative, may still be debated. But now that it has, we must rely on our ability to self-regulate the use of this technology for good, as JRO understood so well.

We are now in the throes of sorting out how best to limit nuclear bombs but expand the beneficial uses of atomic tech for energy, industry, agriculture and medicine. Which is why we were so pleased to have been connected with Charles Oppenheimer some weeks ago and to have been invited to participate in the Oppenheimer Exchanges, a day long event bringing together leadership from within the DOE’s National Labs and a few business groups, orchestrated to coincide with opening night for the Oppenheimer film. Fortunately, this included tickets to the San Francisco premiere at the Metreon iMax Theatre and a brief pre-screening conversation between younger members of the Oppenheimer family, who provided some perspective on the family’s legacy and ongoing initiatives. 

For many of us, this was an eye-opening discussion. It was just in December of 2022, that the DOE finally restored Oppenheimer’s long lost—but still widely lauded reputation—with an order vacating the Atomic Energy Commission’s 1954 decision to revoke JRO’s security clearance. While largely symbollic, since JRO died in 1967, the DOE’s order, and Secretary Granholm’s Statement about it, addressed and began to reverse the damage that had been done to the Oppenheimer name, through what the DOE called a “flawed” process.

In 1954, the Atomic Energy Commission revoked Dr. Oppenheimer’s security clearance through a flawed process that violated the Commission’s own regulations. As time has passed, more evidence has come to light of the bias and unfairness of the process that Dr. Oppenheimer was subjected to while the evidence of his loyalty and love of country have only been further affirmed. The Atomic Energy Commission even selected Dr. Oppenheimer in 1963 for its prestigious Enrico Fermi Award citing his “scientific and administrative leadership not only in the development of the atomic bomb, but also in establishing the groundwork for the many peaceful applications of atomic energy.”

Among scientists and those who knew Oppenheimer’s legacy, vindication had already begun as far back as 1963, when the Atomic Energy Commission selected Oppenheimer for the prestigious Enrico Fermi Award for his “scientific and administrative leadership not only in the development of the atomic bomb, but also in establishing the groundwork fo rthe many peaceful applications of atomic energy.”

Then, in 2017, the DOE recognized JRO with the creation of the Oppenheimer Science and Energy Leadership Program, which was designed to support early and mid-career scientists and engineers to “carry on [RJO’s] legacy of science serving society.”

This DOE program has now graduated multiple cohorts. Many of these alumni gathered in San Francisco to discuss the Oppenheimer legacy and explore relevant topics, in particular the need for science and scientists to rise to the challenge of solving global crises with technology. Oppenheimer’s leadership example is a model by which the scientific community can organize itself to tackle problems, such as climate change.  Given how badly we are doing responding to the threat posed by climate change, this is a very welcome concept.

The Oppenheimer Science and Energy Leadership Program (OSELP) run by the DOE is “the premier leadership development program of the national Laboratory Directors’ Council, which comprises the leadership of all 17 National Labs.  The program exposes emerging leaders to the singular breadth, diversity and complexity of the National Labs and their partners in government, industry, and academia. OSELP represents a collective commitment from all 17 DOE labs to cultivate the leaders needed to sustain long-term impacts throughout the complex.
Out of the OSELP has grown an alumni group now called the Oppenheimer Leadership Network, who are those who have been through the OSELP program.  The OLN is the formal network of ESELP alumni to collaboratively engage on strategic issues and produce deliverables that address major organizational, policy, scientific or other challenges within the National Labs’ mission space. We were pleased to meet many members of the OLN at the event.
Now the Oppenheimer family has a new vision.  They are aiming to develop several initiatives, under the banner of The Oppenheimer Project, whose mission is to promote and advocate for solutions to mitigate the risks posed by technological development.  
1) Promote JRO’s legacy and encourage scientific leaders to discuss and address today’s existential threats.
2) Advocate and educate about nuclear energy, for increased cooperation on energy and decreased threats of weapons.
3) Invest in the energy transition to carbon-free energy sources including nuclear energy.
Already, Charles Oppenheimer, JRO’s grandson, has come out strongly for nuclear power in a Time Magazine Ideas article, entitled Nuclear Energy’s Moment Has Come, published May 11, 2023. In it, Charles calls for a “Manhattan Project” for carbon-free energy production.

In addition to having the support of the younger members of the Oppenheimer family, The Oppenheimer Project has received the support of Lynn Orr, a former Under Secretary for Science and Energy at the DOE and now at Stanford University, and Dr. Larry Brilliant, a physician, epidemiologist and senior counselor at the Skoll Foundation, as advisers. There are now some dozens of graduates of the OSELP and OLN members who could also participate. Given how poorly we are doing mounting the appropriate response to the threat from continued emissions, extending Oppenheimer’s inimitable complex project management legacy to tackling this new global challenge has the potential to be significant development in the fight against climate change.