The Power of a Transformative Idea

Thomas Neff B.A.’65 helps turn Russian warheads into American electricity.

Illustration by Esther Bunning

 By Jeffrey Lott

Lewis and Clark Chronicle, Fall 2014

Editor: Shelly Meyer

Like most Americans born in the 1940s, Thomas Neff B.A. ’65 remembers the “duck-and-cover” days. He recalls the siren tests, the Civil Defense ads, the emergency broadcast system, and Life magazine stories about nuclear fallout shelters. This was the national Cold War anxiety that Neff absorbed as a child in Portland, where his father taught at Lewis & Clark.

Even though Neff says Portland was “kind of remote” in the 1950s, “we had to go through all these nuclear attack drills in grade school and high school. At the time, I really didn’t understand how getting under my desk was going to do any good.”

Thomas Neff proposed that nuclear fuel be created from former Soviet weapons and sold to the United States to generate electricity. It worked. (Photograph by TBD)

Thomas Neff, 2014 (Photograph by Peter Goldberg)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Decades later, as the Cold War angst of Neff’s youth was defused by détente, a different form of nuclear anxiety emerged. As the Soviet Union broke apart, many feared that cash-strapped Russia would sell or lose control of thousands of “loose nukes” then deployed across the former Soviet Union—and that its underemployed nuclear scientists and technicians would offer their knowledge and skills to the highest bidder. Nuclear weapons expert Rose Gottemoeller—now under secretary of state for arms control and international security—describes American policy-makers in 1991 as fearing “nuclear mayhem.”

For Tom Neff, it was not a time to duck and cover…. [read more]

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