It was a bold response to a fearsome menace: erasing the threat of nuclear annihilation by establishing a global agency to keep nations from abusing the power of the atom. But 50 years after President Eisenhower’s landmark “Atoms for Peace” speech on Dec. 8, 1953, the U.N. nuclear agency born of his address is still struggling to contain the threat and move the world “out of the dark chamber of horrors into the light.”
Nuclear weaponry poses even more of a danger than it did during the arms race between the United States and the former Soviet Union, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, conceded in an interview marking Monday’s anniversary of the speech.
When Eisenhower addressed the U.N. General Assembly, there were just two nuclear powers. Today, there are at least seven: the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, India and Pakistan. Israel is widely believed to have nuclear weapons, and North Korea says it has them, a claim that has not been verified. Washington accuses Iran of covertly developing atomic arms, a charge the Tehran regime denies.
“I’d like us to see nuclear weapons the way we perceive slavery or genocide — that it’s taboo,” ElBaradei told a small group of reporters at his agency’s sprawling headquarters overlooking the Danube River.
“I would not be surprised if we see more countries acquire nuclear weapons,” he said. “We need to change that environment — to move toward a world free of nuclear weapons, which have no place in our defense arsenals of the future.”
This year alone, the IAEA has convened emergency meetings on Iraq, Iran and North Korea — the Bush administration’s “axis of evil” and the countries that pose the most immediate threat.
Not that ElBaradei, an Egyptian, caters to Washington. His inspectors angered U.S. officials before the war in Iraq by declaring they had found no signs of an active nuclear weapons program.
Coalition troops have not uncovered any evidence since toppling Saddam Hussein, although ElBaradei is pressing for the return of his U.N. inspection teams to make sure.
The IAEA also has clashed with Washington over how best to deal with Iran. Convinced that keeping Iran engaged is better than driving it back underground with an explicit threat of U.N. sanctions, the agency last month withstood American attempts to toughen a resolution demanding greater Iranian openness to inspections.
ElBaradei also has criticized Congress for releasing $6 million for U.S. research into “mini-nuke” weapons. “Far from aiming for nuclear disarmament, the United States is looking to improve its arsenal,” he told the Paris newspaper Le Figaro.
Eisenhower believed the best way to deal with the nuclear threat was to get countries to commit to using atomic technology for purely peaceful purposes. ElBaradei said in the interview that the IAEA is supporting efforts to develop a new “proliferation-free” fuel cycle that would produce waste unfit for reprocessing for weapons use.
The U.N. agency also is focusing on ways to minimize the risks of terrorists acquiring nuclear material that could be used to make “dirty bombs” — conventional explosives that would scatter radioactive material — a menace he said didn’t occur to the IAEA until after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Now we’re spending a great deal of time working on this threat,” ElBaradei said.
Eisenhower’s speech, anchored in his belief that “if a danger exists in the world, it is a danger shared by all,” envisioned a U.N. nuclear agency that would control the world’s atomic stockpile by putting it “into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace.”
The IAEA, created four years later, didn’t turn out that way.
It doesn’t have the world’s uranium and plutonium under lock and key. Instead, the agency polices more than 900 facilities in 70 countries to ensure they comply with their commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and other international accords.
IAEA inspectors regularly visit nuclear facilities to check records on the whereabouts and inventories of nuclear materials, looking for signs that uranium and plutonium at reactors or laboratories might be diverted to military uses.
“The vision is still as valid today as it was 50 years ago. We’re working diligently to rid ourselves of the destructive force of nuclear weaponry,” ElBaradei said.
“But we’re not there yet. `Atoms for Peace’ is still a work in progress. We need to do better.”