I noticed the physical resemblance between Charles Oppenheimer and his grandfather, physicist Robert J. Oppenheimer, immediately when we sat down for an interview over Zoom. As our conversation unfolded, I learned they also share a fierce commitment to the same ideals and values. Now the subject of a major motion picture, his grandfather’s legacy has reinvigorated conversations about nuclear energy and international cooperation. Charles, through his work at the Oppenheimer Project, hopes to encourage these discussions, advocating for increased energy production and decreased threats from nuclear weapons.
The Oppenheimer Project, which Charles founded in 2019 after a successful career in tech, is dedicated to promoting his grandfather’s values and ideas. Groups like the Atomic Heritage Foundation and the Robert J. Oppenheimer Memorial Committee are actively involved in preserving the Oppenheimer legacy and the Oppenheimer Project hopes to be the genealogical mouthpiece to carry on the task of building post-war consensus and living peacefully and safely with atomic power. “Why doesn’t our family have their own representation for my grandfather?” he kept asking himself.
Charles Oppenheimer and his family have gone on record repeatedly describing their complicated reactions to Chris Nolan’s sweeping epic of their brilliant, capable, but often anguished grandfather. Charles acknowledges the power of having his grandfather’s story as a catalyst for a debate about the role of scientists in geopolitical discourse, and a renewed interest in the peaceful uses of atomic power. He laughingly says he’s thought about quitting giving interviews to the press but knows that he needs “to strike while the fire is hot.”
Post War Nuclear Energy
In the race to decarbonize our energy systems, nuclear has the shakiest reputation but incredible potential, says, Charles. Solar and wind power are variable and intermittent. Hydrogen is still hard to scale. Carbon capture is also still experimental and difficult to scale. But nuclear power, he holds, is a well-known commodity, with decades of science on its side.
Recapping a brief history of post-war nuclear power, Oppenheimer recounts a promising technological story, thwarted by politics. “There was quite a flourishing of support for nuclear energy in the 1950s”, he says, “and there was funding for large energy reactors created to commercially generate electricity.” All this despite an escalating cold war with the Soviet Union and others. “Reactors to provide energy were being built right in the depths of the arms race with other countries. At the same time, we were keeping secrets and spying, he says, there was actually a concerted effort internationally to share and disseminate and cooperate on fission energy.