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Theodore Taylor Dies; Tried To Redirect Nuclear Power

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2004; Page B06

Theodore Brewster Taylor, 79, a nuclear physicist and maker of bombs who came to despise the devices of death and destruction that he created, died Oct. 28 at the Forest Glen Skilled Nursing and Rehab Center in Silver Spring. He had coronary artery disease.

Dr. Taylor worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1948 to 1956, where he designed atomic weapons. Although they were never used, they were stockpiled, and he felt anguish, his daughter Kathy Robertson said, that someday they might be used.

Theodore Brewster Taylor, 79, considered among the most talented bomb designers, came to believe that all nuclear power was dangerous. (Family Photo)

"He was famous in the community of bomb experts as the most creative and imaginative of the designers," said Freeman Dyson, a physicist, author and retired Princeton University professor who was a friend of Dr. Taylor's. "His bomb designs were the smallest, the most elegant and the most efficient. He was able to draw his designs freehand, without elaborate calculations. When they were built and tested, they worked."

At the time, Dr. Taylor believed his efforts were helping to prevent the world from erupting into a nuclear World War III, but he began to have deep misgivings about his life's work. He told his daughter that at the time she was born, in 1950, he was working at the Pentagon on plans to annihilate Moscow. The stark juxtaposition of those two experiences -- literally life and death -- compelled him to begin redirecting his scientific expertise.

In 1956, he left Los Alamos to work on peaceful applications of nuclear energy at General Atomics, a division of General Dynamics founded in San Diego in 1955. He helped design the TRIGA reactor, used mainly to produce short-lived isotopes for medical diagnosis in hospitals.

In response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, he worked with others on a project at General Atomics to design a spaceship called Orion that would be propelled by nuclear bombs. He led the project for six years, until 1964. Orion, he hoped, would allow mankind to explore the solar system while reducing nuclear stockpiles.

"The project was technically promising and politically hopeless," said Dyson, who worked for a year on the project. The 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty made testing Orion impossible, and the project came to an end.

"With it died Taylor's dream that nuclear bombs could be used for a better purpose than killing people," Dyson said.

Ted Taylor was born and raised in Mexico City, where his father was director of the YMCA. He received a bachelor's degree from the California Institute of Technology and pursued graduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley and at Cornell University. He received his doctorate in theoretical physics from Cornell in 1954.

He was on active duty with the Navy from 1943 to 1946 and was honorably discharged from the Naval Reserves in 1954.

After his years at Los Alamos building bombs and with General Atomics building reactors, he began looking for ways to, in Dyson's words, "kill the monster that he had helped grow."

From 1964 to 1966, he was deputy director of the Defense Atomic Support Agency of the Department of Defense, responsible for the care and maintenance of the nuclear stockpile. He resigned from the government in 1966 and for the next two years served as a consultant to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, hoping to establish safeguards to protect nuclear materials from being diverted to clandestine weapons programs. He served as a visiting professor at Princeton and the University of California at Santa Cruz and co-authored three books on nuclear proliferation and renewable energy.

"Many of the people in the bomb business got to where they wanted nothing to do with it," Dyson said, "whereas, generally speaking, those working with reactors still believed in nuclear energy. Ted was unusual in that he became opposed to nuclear energy in general as too risky, too dangerous."

"Sooner or later, a terrorist group or a psychotic working alone will build a nuclear device," Dr. Taylor told The Washington Post in 1983. What the terrorist wants is attention, he said, and a nuclear threat is "an instant display."

The dangers of nuclear proliferation remained a lifelong obsession, particularly in recent years when Dr. Taylor felt that neither governments nor individuals were doing enough to address the threat.

A resident of Wellsville, N.Y., for the last 12 years, he lived in Montgomery County from 1964 to 1987, in Bethesda and Damascus.

In his work on energy alternatives, he focused on ways of producing hydrogen from solar photovoltaics, cooling from ice ponds and heating from solar ponds. He also worked on energy conservation in buildings and water purification from the natural freezing of water spray. In Montgomery, he put together a nonprofit organization called Damascus Energy that promoted energy efficiency in the home.

He loved magic tricks, music -- Bach, especially -- and the outdoors, which nurtured his belief that it was his duty to help care for the environment.

Dr. Taylor's marriage to Caro Dwight Arnin ended in divorce in 1992.

Survivors include five children, Clare Hastings of Washington, Kathy Robertson of Davis, Calif., Chris Taylor of Colorado Springs, Bob Taylor of Rockville, and Jeff Taylor of Brooklyn; two half brothers; 10 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

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