LOS ANGELES: Fifty years ago this month President Dwight Eisenhower delivered his Atoms for Peace proposal at the United Nations. This seminal event laid the groundwork for much of the nuclear enterprise that we see around the world today. It also generated a nuclear Trojan horse.
Countries around the world greeted the prospects of the atom with glee: nuclear power plants would be too cheap to meter and nuclear isotopes would generate a renaissance in science, medicine and industry. While the atom contributed to some of these laudable objectives, it unwittingly booby-trapped the landscape with nuclear mines that terrorists can now set off.
The world is littered with possibilities. Dirty-bomb ingredients are ubiquitous. They are in hospitals and industry. They are transported through cities as nuclear waste to storage sites. They cannot just disappear. Nuclear power plants are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Nuclear weapons derived from the peaceful atom reside in such unstable countries as Pakistan and North Korea. In more stable regions, countries insist on recycling weapons useable plutonium which can be diverted.
Booby-trapping the world certainly was not Eisenhower’s intention. Anguished by the accelerating nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, he sought a way out. His solution was to reduce the capacity of the superpowers to produce nuclear weapons by conveying their “normal uranium and fissionable materials” to an atomic energy agency. The new organization would house and distribute the stocks for peaceful purposes.
While an international “bank of fissionable material” never came about, the Atoms for Peace address broke the American inhibition against spreading nuclear knowledge and technology to the rest of the world. In 1955, Washington initiated the United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy. Twenty-five thousand scientists descended on Geneva to take advantage of the declassification of documents that held many of the secrets of the nuclear age.
Washington did not proceed down this road naïvely. It knew that Atoms for Peace was not risk-free. But it faced a conundrum: if the United States did not promote the atom, it could not control it either. Knowledge is universal; inevitably, the rest of the world would catch up. The challenge was to build dikes to curtail the negative implications of the spread of nuclear technology. In 1957, the International Atomic Energy Agency was created to promote and monitor global nuclear markets. The 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty sought to halt the ambitions of nations to get the bomb in return for the peaceful nuclear assistance. Domestic and international controls over nuclear and dual-use exports followed. Most recently, Washington gathered several nations together in a Proliferation Security Initiative to intercept nuclear contraband.
The dikes were not enough to prevent seepage. Israel used the “peaceful” atom provided by a French research reactor to develop the bomb. India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iraq and South Africa followed. At the same time, the United States beat back the temptations of Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, West Germany and Taiwan. When regimes changed in Belarus, Ukraine, South Africa and now Iraq, nuclear weapons programs were abandoned.
As the international community reinforced its dikes against proliferation, it continued to build its peaceful nuclear infrastructure oblivious to another risk: nuclear terrorism. During the early nuclear era, terrorism as we know it today had not raised its ugly head. When it did emerge in the 1970’s, terrorists seemed mindful about the political costs of taking too many innocent lives.
Nonetheless, even from the beginning of the nuclear age, the creators speculated on the risks of nuclear terrorism. In 1944, scientists at University of Chicago working on the Manhattan Project conjectured that a political group could unleash a nuclear blitzkrieg by smuggling an atomic weapon into the United States on a commercial aircraft. The terrorism of the 1970’s prompted public policy groups, many driven by a phobia of all things nuclear, to demand that weapons-useable plutonium and highly enriched uranium no longer fuel nuclear power and research reactors. The Europeans, Russians and Japanese resisted. America wavered. Then, many of these same groups began asking questions about the vulnerability of nuclear plants to terrorist attack. American officials took umbrage.
As the 20th century ended, the absence of any serious act of nuclear violence convinced officials that nuclear terror would remain to province of fiction writers. Then the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. President George W. Bush announced that in the caves of Afghanistan, U.S. forces had uncovered plots to attack nuclear power plants. But eliminating the risks in the short run was impossible. Enhancing protection, while imperfect, remained the only option.
As we map our nuclear future we should be mindful of the closing remarks of Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace speech: “The United States pledges before you – and therefore before the world – its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma – to devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”
In the post-Sept. 11 world, solving “the fearful atomic dilemma” requires not more but less Atoms for Peace. The risk of nuclear terrorism, coupled to the environmental and proliferation burdens the initiative gave rise to, now requires that we roll back Eisenhower’s vision and try to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle.
*This article was originally published in Atoms for Peace’. The writer, who served in the State Department’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs during the first Bush administration, is author of “Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy.”