Oppenheimer Movie Reflections: Nuclear Energy & Family History (Podcast Transcript)

Co-host Anna speaks with her father about her grandfather’s involvement in the Manhattan Project, and about the role of nuclear technology today as safe, reliable, clean energy that can advance climate action. The following is a transcript of the conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full episode here.

[Anna:] In today’s episode, we’re talking about the new Oppenheimer movie, and what its portrayal of nuclear weapons means for nuclear energy.

I also wanted to take this opportunity to bring in some of my own family history. My grandfather, John Michel, was a nuclear engineer for the Manhattan Project, and after that, he worked on clean energy technologies for the rest of his career. 

Sadly, I never got to meet my grandpa– he passed away before I was born– but my dad still remembers a lot of his story. So I thought, why not have my dad on the podcast? 

Hey, Dad. 

[Anna’s Dad:] Hey, Anna. 

[Anna:] Welcome. Thank you for joining us today. 

[Anna’s Dad:] It’s my pleasure. 

[Anna:] So, we went to go see Oppenheimer last night. I remember you saying right as we exited the theater that it made you think a lot about your dad. It was his era. 

[Anna’s Dad:] Yes, for sure– just the way the movie portrayed the characters, the style, the clothing, the cars. It’s everything that I remember him talking about in that era. 

[Anna:] Mm hmm. So, what exactly was your dad’s role in the Manhattan Project? How did he get involved? 

[Anna’s Dad:] Well he had, he got a double degree in chemistry and chemical engineering and he was actually with the Fermi Lab in Chicago, if you remember that one scene in the movie.

He worked in the Fermi Lab for a while and then he got a job with DuPont. And very soon after he was working for DuPont, in Chicago, he got a knock on the door by men in black suits, just like something out of the movie, right? These FBI agents, or whoever they really work for, said to him: ‘We would like you to come work on a special project for the war effort.’

And of course, he said yes, because that’s what you did back then. You said yes to any kind of call to action for your country. And so they said, ‘Well, you’ve got three days to get your things in order, and here’s your train tickets and your bus tickets. And we’ve already talked to your employer. So in three days, you need to get on this train.’

And he looked at the tickets and the final destination was Knoxville, Tennessee. And he thought to himself, ‘What the heck is in Knoxville, Tennessee?’ And so he asked that question. They said, ‘Well, someone will be there to greet you.’ And that’s how he eventually made his way to Oak Ridge, which is just very close to Knoxville.

But Oak Ridge, no one knew that it existed as a town because it was being built, you know, by the army. General Groves, who was in the movie, was in charge of building the Manhattan Project piece in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. There, they were working on gaseous diffusion as a technology to enrich the uranium that was actually being mined and processed in Hanford and then sent to Oak Ridge for processing into the material that could be used in a bomb. And then that was sent to Los Alamos to actually build the bomb and test it there. 

[Anna:] So, your dad and a lot of the other scientists at the Manhattan Projects were, to varying degrees, unaware or not necessarily aware of what they were doing, exactly. When was it that your dad found out what the uranium was being used for and how did he react to that?

[Anna’s Dad:] Yeah. You remember in the movie, they talked a lot about compartmentalization, right? If you can keep everything compartmentalized, you have a better chance of controlling security and awareness of the overall project mission. 

It was pretty soon after my dad got to Oak Ridge that he figured it out, but security was so tight in Oak Ridge, just like it was depicted in Los Alamos, and everywhere you looked, there were billboards, you know, things like– he would say– ‘Loose lips sink ships, and ‘What you see here, leave here’.

I remember him telling me one time that people just did not talk about their work. They had dances and fun things in the evening, and played tennis and things like that. But you never talked about what you did, and he carried that with him the rest of his life, just that secret city mentality.

He figured it out pretty soon, but he couldn’t really talk about it. He had four housemates, and they were all working on different parts of the project, but they didn’t talk about it with each other. He only talked about it with his lab partners. 

[Anna:] A few days ago, we had the 78th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I think it’s just so hard for us now to imagine what it must have been like to be in that war, and what the stakes were for human lives and human rights. The movie does a pretty good job of depicting the vast array of emotional responses in the aftermath of the bomb being dropped, and you’ve told me your dad, like many of his colleagues, was really sad about it, and then he dedicated his life to peaceful applications of nuclear.

[Anna’s Dad:] He knew it was a very powerful weapon, but he did not fully understand how powerful until the weapons were used, just like many of the scientists. And so, he was relieved on the one hand that the war was coming to an end and very happy about that, but also just very sad about the level of devastation and destruction that he had been a part of creating. He very soon afterwards got involved in building nuclear reactors for domestic use of nuclear energy, and then later on in his life worked on solar energy and hydrogen fuel cell development

 [Anna:] And wave energy, right?

[Anna’s Dad:] Some wave energy, some ocean thermal energy conversion, some different things that were funded by the Carter administration that were then killed by the Reagan administration. 

[Anna:] Of course. 

[Anna’s Dad:] He said that they figured out the hydrogen fuel cell back in the early 70s. And it just wasn’t ever put to use because of the oil and gas hold on the economy. He actually has a patent for one of the cooling rods that they use at nuclear power plants today. 

[Anna:] That’s so cool. I didn’t know that. 

[Anna’s Dad:] It’s a cooling rod, so it’s cool. (*laughter*) So my dad met my mom during the Manhattan Project. She was sort of a lab tech. She had a high school education, but they needed people so badly. She started off in a secretarial pool, but then she eventually convinced somebody that she could be better utilized in the lab. 

And actually what they had her do, and many other women, was take lab samples back and forth to the lab to see how enriched the uranium samples were. So they’re carrying around trays of radioactive material.

[Anna:] No protective equipment.

[Anna’s Dad:] No, they didn’t have any protection back then. But anyway, that’s how my mom and dad met. And that’s why I glow at night. (*laughter*)

[Anna:] So I know both from the movie and just from Oppenheimer’s story that he was very big on international cooperation as a means to not having all-out nuclear war. It’s like what Oppenheimer said at the end of the movie to Einstein, you know, setting off this chain reaction. He wasn’t just talking about physics.

[Anna’s Dad:] Right.

[Anna:] So he understood that, and at the time there was no international group that was tasked with that type of cooperation to discourage proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world. 

[Anna’s Dad:] Well, you remember in the movie, Oppenheimer was not very excited about the hydrogen bomb. They called it the super. He knew that things would just escalate, as the arms race would unfold during the Cold War years, as the Russians built more and more atomic weapons and eventually developed a hydrogen bomb, just like we did. And so Oppenheimer’s conclusion was international cooperation is the only way. 

My dad had very similar views. In fact, I remember as a kid in our basement, there was a big poster on the wall and it was the League of Nations. And that’s what emerged after World War II, was the League of Nations, which eventually became the United Nations. I often wondered why we had that poster in our basement, but it was a reflection of his views about what was necessary to try to keep the world from an arms race to destruction, essentially.

You know, I remember as a kid in elementary school having duck and cover drills, because we were at the height of the Cold War, and just what that did to our minds of thinking there could be total destruction or close to it–

[Anna:] At any moment–

[Anna’s Dad:] At any moment. And so you had to be ready to dive under your desk. People built bomb shelters. I knew people in our neighborhood that had them. 

[Anna:] Yeah, especially in Oak Ridge.

[Anna’s Dad:] Right. But I think there’s a new generation of thinkers and people that are more open to nuclear as a safe and reliable source of energy. And with new renewable energy goals in our country, nuclear is going to have to be part of our energy portfolio if we’re truly going to get off oil and gas.

[Anna:] I just wonder what this movie means for nuclear energy. What most people think of when they hear the word nuclear is weapons. That’s true already, but then you have a movie like Oppenheimer, which just completely reinforces that. 

[Anna’s Dad:] Or they think of disasters like Chernobyl, or Fukushima. 

[Anna:] Accidents do happen, of course. It’s important to note that when you compare nuclear to all other energy sources, nuclear comes out on top in terms of being the safest, in terms of deaths per unit of energy produced, and obviously fossil fuels are way higher. 

I’m thinking of this talk that I listened to the other day by Senator Whitehouse, he was saying that the ocean is warming at such an alarming rate. I mean, just this summer off the coast of Florida, it’s literally hot tub temperatures– not safe for marine life. And he was saying that last year, the ocean absorbed the equivalent of seven Hiroshima bombs detonating– in terms of heat energy– every second, every day, all year long. Which is just absolutely mind-blowing. 

And then he also mentioned that in the US, last year alone, there were 18 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, exceeding 175 billion in total, and costing at least 500 Americans their lives. And that number is definitely under. We’re definitely undercounting. We don’t have the same standards, say, as Europe, where they recorded 60,000 excess deaths last year from extreme heat alone. 

And so, how do we kind of zoom out and provide that context of, like, nuclear is a very powerful technology. Extremely powerful. We have this very powerful tool that we can use for good. The big threat today, as opposed to back then when it was a world war, is climate change. What is one of our biggest ‘weapons’? It’s still nuclear, but it’s in a different way. It’s in a much more positive way. 

[Anna’s Dad:] That’s right, and we need a Manhattan Project style response from our government today to combat climate change. All hands on deck. Do what it takes. Spend every dollar that you have. 

[Anna:] They spent two billion dollars, in the 1940s. Like, yeah, that’s pretty much in line with what climate science is saying– we do need to spend on everything from clean energy investment, to carbon removal, to upgrading our infrastructure, to adapting. 

And it sounds like a lot of money, but it’s nothing compared to what we’re spending and will continue to spend on disaster relief, climate refugees, etc. We can spend a lot now and avoid having to spend way more in the future. 

[Anna’s Dad:] This is the hottest year on record in the past hundred years. But think of it this way, it could be the coolest year for the next one hundred years. 

[Anna:] Let that sink in. But also, let’s not veer into doom and gloom here. There’s no denying that a lot of the warming is baked in, but every tenth of a degree counts, and we already have the solutions, including nuclear. And we still have time to pressure big institutions to enact all these solutions at scale.

One thing that everybody listening can do is go sign the petition for President Biden to declare a climate emergency. Why is it important he do that? Well, declaring a state of emergency at the federal level opens up a lot more funding and other resources, which in this case would be used for climate action.