Nuclear Sleuth

Purdue Alumnus,
Summer 1994.

Some people chase power. Some chase the dollar. Some chase celebrity. Gary Milhollin chases the Bomb.

From a small office just northwest of the White House, Milhollin (ME61) heads the non-profit Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, which tracks the spread of weapons of mass destruction. His specialty is the nuclear wannabe’s-countries like Iraq and North Korea-which are dead-set on joining the “nuclear club.”

The once-exclusive “nuclear club” now has at least 11 members (see inset), and Milhollin considers this expansion to be pure evil. “If everybody has the bomb, that means the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) have the bomb. And the folks who blew up the New York World Trade Center would have the bomb.”

Plenty of people despise nuclear weapons-but few of them do so with Milhollin’s energy and tenacity. He has been digging nuclear dirt and telling tales of proliferation since he took a leave of absence from a law professorship at University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1986.

When Milhollin speaks, broadcast networks listen. “I have called him for information as often as three times a week,” says CBS Pentagon correspondent Jim Stewart. “He’s reliable and accurate. I believe him and have checked him out.”

“I probably don’t know anyone in Washington-outside the U.S. government-who is more knowledgeable on nuclear issues than he is,” says Wolf Blitzer, CNN’s White House correspondent and its former Pentagon correspondent. “He speaks with credibility.”

A dapper and fine-featured man whose brown hair has no trace of gray, the 55-year-old Milhollin also has published opinion pieces in the Washington Post and articles in the New Yorker. In 1993, on the op-ed page of The New York Times, he fingered the governments and companies which had supplied Iraq’s vast nuclear program.

Can shining a few rays of light on the murky corners of the nuclear trade make much difference? Yes. After his exposes, governments have banned sales of raw material and equipment to bombmakers and corporations have forsworn future contracts for fear their names would be linked to the spread of nuclear weapons.

MEDIA MARVEL Milhollin accomplishes all this with a tiny operation. Only recently did his budget reach $500,000, allowing him the luxury of four assistants. How can he be so effective on a shoestring? Because he’s a grandmaster at television’s ultimate weapon-the sound bite. In early December, when North Korea was refusing to honor its agreement to allow nuclear inspections, he produced these thoughtful, 15-second morsels for NBC news:

Question: “Is it worth risking war to force North Korea’s hand?”

Answer: “The international system of inspection is on the line, and we’re supposed to go to the (U.N.) Security Council, and we should. We’re coming to the end of the line. The North Koreans are not moving, and we have reached the end of the road diplomatically.”

Q: “What is at stake?”

A: “If North Korea gets the bomb, South Korea will get the bomb. Then Japan will get the bomb, and suddenly you have millions of people threatened with nuclear weapons who aren’t threatened today.”

Indeed, North Korea allowed the inspections in March, and Milhollin found his hard-line stance was vindicated. “It was very clear that unless North Korea relented, it was going to face international sanctions,” says Milhollin. “When it came down to the wire, they caved.”

HOOSIER ROOTS Purdue has played a key role Milhollin’s long journey from rural Indiana to the corridors of power. He was born in 1938 and raised in Albany, Ind., a farm town “so small that you knew all the dogs by name.” He remembers a “typical ’50s childhood-black Keds sneakers and a crewcut.”

Nuclear weapons were not much of a presence in Albany, which didn’t even have an air-raid siren. As a child, he says, “It never entered my mind that I’d wind up chasing nuclear weapons.

Perhaps because his father was an engineer, Milhollin entered Purdue’s School of Mechanical Engineering, where he immediately was struck by the intellectual climate. “I grew up in a town where your manhood was on the line if you were a good student,” says Milhollin. “I was exhilarated when I first got to Purdue, to be in a place where being a good student was positive.”

When an absent-minded student threw the wrong switch and sparked a gigantic electric arc in an engineering lab, Milhollin got an indelible lesson in gaining people’s attention. The student in question-Milhollin insists he was standing innocently to the side-was left white-faced, shaken and with vastly greater respect for the instructor’s wisdom. “It was an effective educational technique,” Milhollin says with a characteristic wry laugh.

After graduation, Milhollin entered Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, and used his engineering degree to get a night job as a patent examiner. He earned a law degree, worked for the federal poverty program for a year and began teaching law at Catholic University in 1971.

In 1975, feeling frustrated with academia and wanting a practical outlet, he asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) whether it could use a lawyer-engineer. He was hired as a part-time administrative judge for the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board.

It was here, while questioning witnesses about the safety of nuclear reactors, that Milhollin first applied his hybrid background. “Purdue was an excellent engineering school, and it gave me a solid foundation in science which has been indispensable to my work at the NRC and today,” he says.

In 1976, he joined the law faculty at Wisconsin and continued to hone his teaching skills, which would soon prove quite handy. “Teaching,” he says, “is good experience for working in front of the media, because you have to present a difficult, complicated subject in a clear way.”

DIFFERENT PATH But for a 1985 NRC assignment to study India’s supply of heavy water, which is used in reactors that make bomb fuel, Milhollin might still be teaching contract law. Milhollin realized the statistics did not add up, meaning that India’s nuclear program had something to hide. He found the press interested in somebody who could discuss nuclear proliferation on camera, and within a year, he moved his family to Washington to begin full-time work as what he calls a “nuclear-policy wonk.”

Milhollin and his wife, Monique, who directs the French language program at Johns Hopkins University, now live in Bethesda, Md. Their son, Elliott, 23, plans to enter law school this fall; Jessica, 19, is a sophomore at Harvard College.

In Washington, where his schedule is set by the headlines and the demands of the media, Milhollin’s engineering degree has again proven useful. “The best thing about a science degree is that you’re not intimidated by scientists,” he says.

Nor is Milhollin intimidated by governments. In nine years of nuclear sleuthing, he’s taken on Norway (for selling heavy water), Israel and India (for their secret and apparently successful nuclear weapons programs), Iraq and North Korea (for their dogged attempts to make nukes) and Germany (for exporting chemical and nuclear technology to Iraq and Libya).

He’s also confronted the United States government. For example, in a February op-ed in The Washington Post, he scourged the administration’s plan to loosen controls on “dual-use” technologies. This category of equipment-useful for peaceful or military purposes-includes supercomputers, vacuum furnaces and sophisticated scientific analysis equipment.

The administration justified the liberalization by saying that many dual-use items were already available on the world market, but Milhollin disagrees. “With a rare exception, it’s simply not true,” he says. “There are very few countries in the world that make the high-performance equipment on the U.S. control list.” And since the makers are all in friendly countries, Milhollin suggests “getting everybody to agree not to export this stuff to the bad guys.”

MAKE THEM SMILE Almost as important as the ability to coin sound bites is a sense of humor. To explain why he left a brief stint as a corporate lawyer on Wall Street he says dryly, “It was hard to become emotionally involved with clients like IBM.” To stress that nuclear weapons are hard to make but easy to hide, he adapted an adage “In the world of non-proliferation a gram of prevention is worth a megaton of cure.”

When asked the difference between working in a university and in the public spotlight, Milhollin recalls talking with staffers at a foreign embassy. “Everybody had read all my articles, including the footnotes!” With a gust of laughter at such a bizarre thought he admits, “That was a new experience for me as a scholar!” (Although he is on a leave of absence from Wisconsin, he’s still a tenured professor. His project is funded entirely through his foundation grants.)

SERIOUS BUSINESS Milhollin understands the gravity of the issues on the table. In 1995 the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the back-bone of international efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons, is due to expire. Events in the coming year will influence how many countries are willing to sign a renewal and continue to concede their “right” to possess these weapons, Milhollin says.

Even more pressing is the fate of 30,000 to 40,000 nuclear weapons left over by the collapse of the Soviet Union. “It’s probably the scariest problem in the world right now, but our group doesn’t have the capability to deal with it,” he says. “We’re small and we’re already the experts on Iraq, the most prominent critic of International Atomic Energy Agency (the U.N. ‘s nuclear inspectors), probably the most prominent critic of China; I’ve been very busy on North Korea. That’s enough – you have to have some private life.”

Although Milhollin may not win all of these struggles, he thinks slowing the nuclear throttle is valuable in its own right because it gives diplomacy time to work.

And despite the proliferation there have been some positive nuclear developments. Brazil and Argentina have vastly reduced their dangerous rivalry, South Africa renounced its bomb program during the abolition of apartheid and the United States and Russia have agreed to destroy large portions of their huge arsenals.

The U.S. reductions give him credibility when he gets on his nuclear soapbox, Milhollin says. “We’re slowly getting rid of these weapons, and that improves our moral position.”

Years of staring at Armageddon have accustomed Milhollin to thinking the unthinkable. Gazing out his window at the Washington Monument he muses, “If you had to predict where a third-world bombmaker would put a bomb, if he wanted to hurt the United States, I can probably see that place from my window.”

And forget ICBM’s: “We’re talking about a Ryder truck. It’s more accurate than an ICBM. And nobody can trace it,” he adds.

Yet even then, Milhollin showed a practical streak that reflects his training as an engineer and a lawyer. He’s used to facing the facts, and proceeding from there. “You have to do the best you can,” he says, “even though there’s no guarantee of success. Because the alternative is to do nothing and be sure to fail, and failure is not really acceptable. I look at my work as a lawyer would. I’m arguing to the public, and I want to win.”

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