Looking Back and Looking Ahead on the 50th Anniversary of Atoms for Peace




By Paul L. Leventhal

Founding President, Nuclear Control Institute

December 8, 2003  


            Washington---A number of 50th anniversary events are celebrating President Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech to the United Nations as a way of promoting a new international nuclear renaissance.  The rebirth comes complete with futuristic technologies for making efficient use of plutonium, an atom bomb material, to generate electricity.   


            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 U.S. “advantage of atomic plenty” to gain strategic and political advantage over the Soviet Union. The speech’s core proposal was for the Americans and Soviets to contribute fissionable materials into a UN “peaceful uses” bank—with the unstated object of depleting the Soviet stockpile.


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 U.S. “to reduce its atomic stockpile by two or three times the amount the Russians might contribute and still improve our relative position.”  It went nowhere. But the accompanying offer to share nuclear know-how internationally got an enthusiastic reception.


            Not everyone was blind to the consequences. Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov stopped on his way out of the UN to protest to a dubious U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that the proposal would spread stockpiles of weapons-grade materials worldwide. Dulles’ atomic energy aide, Gerard Smith, later related he had to explain to Dulles “that Molotov had been better informed technically than he.” 


There were other prominent skeptics. Robert Oppenheimer, developer of America’s first atomic bombs, said the proposal’s bearing on the prospects of nuclear war was “allusive and sentimental.” David Lilienthal, the first Atomic Energy Commission chairman, said that “Atoms for Peace, even as a propaganda move, was self-defeating and naïve.” Lilienthal was an author of an earlier plan to keep dangerous nuclear activities out of national hands—a policy that “Atoms for Peace” reversed.


            By 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 Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Libya, Iraq and, most recently, Iran, were all accelerated directly or indirectly by Atoms for Peace and the flood of nuclear technology it released.  Even the Israelis, who developed their bomb secretly in partnership with France’s original atom bomb project, benefited from the supply of civilian nuclear technology to enable it to produce more than 100 of these weapons.


            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.


            At 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 France and Britain to commercialize plutonium use and by others like Japan and India to maintain a nuclear weapons option.  This roadblock persists to this day.


            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. 


            Special 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 United States and Russia have set a valuable example by blending down some surplus Russian military uranium for use in U.S. power reactors.         


            Working 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 North Korea, Iran and Libya, providing uranium-enrichment capability to recidivist states that support terrorism.


            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.


            Stockpiles of civilian plutonium present another grave danger. The largest ones are owned by Britain, France and Japan and now eclipse the world’s military stocks. Using the stuff for reactor fuel has been shown to make no economic sense; plutonium is at least 20 times more expensive to produce than conventional low-enriched uranium fuel, as noted recently in the journal of the prestigious Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. This embarrassment has led plutonium advocates to come up with the superficially attractive argument that use of plutonium in reactors would be a way of disposing of it and so should be subsidized.


            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. 


            Nor 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 India and Pakistan used civilian plutonium and uranium to test nuclear weapons in 1998.  Then North Korea, Iran and Libya came along with secret centrifuge programs.  Today there are other potential surprises including Syria, Algeria and even Myanmar (Pakistani nuclear physicists have paid unexplained visits to the former Burma).  Although politically incorrect to say so, even Japan and Germany could easily and quickly convert large peaceful stocks of nuclear fuels into weapons.


            If anything useful is to be done, the United States should once again take the lead, this time to urge that all nations draw down both military and civilian stocks of plutonium for permanent disposal.  In other words, all nations should accept the same restrictions—one standard for all---and begin to engage in a reciprocal process of getting rid of nuclear explosives. This would have the effect of removing a cloak of legitimacy from dangerous nuclear activities and raising the tripwire for detecting nuclear weapons development.  Diplomacy then would have more time and a better chance to face down future nuclear offenders. And the United States and Russia would engage in a process toward nuclear disarmament that counts the most---drawing down stocks of plutonium and bomb-grade uranium.


            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.