Looking Back and Looking Ahead on the 50th Anniversary of Atoms for Peace
FIXING IKE’S FLAWED NUCLEAR PLAN
By Paul L. Leventhal
Founding President, Nuclear Control Institute
December 8, 2003
Before drawing any new inspiration from Eisenhower’s plan, it would help to be clear about its flaws and how dangerous they have made the world today. These flaws are defeating the most effective ways to stop the further spread of nuclear weapons to nations and to groups.
The idea for the
speech occurred to President Eisenhower over a bowl of Wheaties at breakfast
with a small group of close aides, only two months before he spoke at the UN on
December 8, 1953. A strategy paper, dubbed the “Wheaties Memorandum” and
declassified 22 years later, reveals the main purpose was to capitalize on the
It might have
helped if Ike had paused longer to reflect on his idea. He recounted in his memoirs that his plan was
to allow the
everyone was blind to the consequences. Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav
Molotov stopped on his way out of the UN to protest to a dubious
There were other
prominent skeptics. Robert Oppenheimer, developer of
promoting a global spread of nuclear technology based on the science that had
been developed for nuclear bombs, Ike’s idea speeded up by many years the
ability of numerous countries to make bombs. Worries about nuclear weapons in
The essential problem the Eisenhower plan left for the future is the one the world is wrestling with today: how to protect the allowed “peaceful” activities involving plutonium and highly enriched uranium, the two key nuclear explosives, from misuse for bombs. Dulles’ aide, Smith, recalled that “the Soviets asked how we proposed to stop this spread. The best we could reply was ‘ways will be found’.”
It appears Ike had been misinformed by his nuclear advisors about the feasibility of a technical fix. He said in his speech, “The ingenuity of our scientists will provide special, safe conditions under which such a bank of fissionable material can be made essentially immune to surprise seizure.” They haven’t done it yet.
a minimum, two things that needed to be done in 1953 still must be done today
to establish a tolerable margin of protection. The first is to require that all
nuclear reactors use only low-grade uranium (which most power reactors use
anyhow) that cannot be used directly in bombs.
The second is to require that plutonium, an unavoidable byproduct of
reactor operation, not be separated from radioactive, used nuclear fuel. Once
separated, plutonium can be put to weapons use so quickly that periodic
international inspections can’t protect it. These two restrictions could have
been applied from the start but weren’t because of a fierce determination by
some governments like
Better progress is being made at ridding civilian programs of the other nuclear explosive, bomb-grade uranium, the original fuel of choice for operating research reactors and producing medical isotopes. Since this material is easier to turn into bombs than plutonium, it is fortunate that getting rid of it is relatively straightforward.
alloys of lower enriched uranium, which is unsuitable for weapons, are being
developed for these activities. Left-over
highly enriched uranium can be diluted into the low-grade form that is suitable
for fueling power and research reactors and for producing life-saving isotopes. The
against this positive trend is the recent discovery of a thriving black market
in high-speed centrifuges. These
uranium-enrichment machines are being built from designs that were stolen by a
Pakistani nuclear scientist from a European uranium-fuel consortium where he
had worked. Pakistani-type centrifuges have
been found in
All trade in such equipment can be banned under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as uneconomical, and therefore not peaceful, because there is sufficient enrichment capacity to meet the world’s legitimate needs. Unless such an outright ban is imposed, material capable of being used to destroy entire cities may spread rapidly throughout the world. Allowing such commerce to proceed legitimately was an original mistake of the Atoms for Peace program; failing to enforce effectively against its smuggling and illicit use is a failure of the current international non-proliferation regime, so-called.
of civilian plutonium present another grave danger. The largest ones are owned
The trouble is that chemically separating the plutonium, fabricating it, and shipping it to fuel reactors would inevitably involve significantly increased access to this bomb-capable material. (Plutonium, when mixed with uranium for reactor fuel, can still be chemically extracted for use in weapons.) Do we really want to expose this material to a world of renewed nationalism, religious fanaticism and trans-national terrorism?
The answer is not as some propose to create “international fuel cycle centers” or to restrict dangerous activities to “industrial democracies.” These ideas sound good in university and think-tank seminars but won’t work in practice. Plutonium separation and use would remain “legitimate”; under multinational auspices, the know-how and materials would continue to spread to those who have weapons in mind.
should we be deluded into thinking that there are no rogue states left to worry
about getting the stuff. That was a
popular notion after
anything useful is to be done, the
Disposed-of plutonium can be protected from reuse by mixing it with highly radioactive waste. The touted alternative of burning it in reactors defeats this purpose by making the material more accessible. We must also speed up the dilution of military and civilian stocks of bomb-grade uranium into lower-grade form unsuitable for bombs.
With civilian nuclear programs limited to non-explosive fuels, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN Security Council would be better positioned to deter bomb-making with a credible double threat of early detection and punishing sanctions. Inspections can’t do much if countries have material that they can turn to military use almost overnight. Policing the world for prohibited production of weapons-capable materials is a far easier task than the present one of trying to guarantee that “legitimate” production of these materials is really for peaceful purposes. But this can be accomplished only if there finally is a consensus among major nuclear industrial nations to rid themselves and the world of nuclear explosive materials.
Achieving an end to civilian use of bomb-usable materials is doubly difficult today because of the mistakes of the past and the tendency of policymakers and diplomats to avoid political frictions and go with the plutonium flow. Nor can these restrictions provide the whole answer to nuclear proliferation—there isn’t any—but they would, finally, put Atoms for Peace on the right course.
The link between atoms for peace and atoms for war was built into the Eisenhower plan and left for future generations to solve. Had it been identified as a problem up front that needed to be solved before the plan could go forward, we would not be facing the tons of civilian nuclear explosives and the spread of “legitimate” technologies for producing them that confront the world today.
The legitimacy conferred by Atoms for Peace on plutonium and bomb-grade uranium continues, and now there are new technologies on the drawing board for separating and utilizing even more plutonium. If we don’t act now to increase substantially the current slim margin between civilian nuclear uses and military ones, we may not have the chance to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ike’s fateful speech.
Paul Leventhal is founder of the Nuclear Control Institute and co-author of Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons---Can We Have One without the Other? (Brassey’s, 2002). On U.S. Senate staff he was responsible for the investigation and legislation leading to enactment of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978.