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UCS Statement on 50th Anniversary of Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" Speech

December 8, 2003

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the "Atoms for Peace" speech delivered by President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the United Nations, in which he called on the United States and the Soviet Union "to make joint contributions from their stockpiles of normal uranium and fissionable materials to an international Atomic Energy Agency" that would then "devise methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind." The speech was, in fact, a shrewd piece of Cold War propaganda, intended to shame the Soviets into donating much of their weapon-usable fissile material to a "bank" under international control. However, although it ultimately failed to achieve this goal, the United States later sold this speech to the international community as a visionary tribute to the promise of civilian applications of nuclear energy. 

But, the actual legacy of Atoms for Peace was far darker than the optimistic projections of its early cheerleaders. For example, under the auspices of the program, the United States and other nuclear weapon states supplied hundreds of research reactors fueled by highly enriched uranium (HEU) to dozens of countries, including Iraq, Iran, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Yugoslavia.  Because HEU can be used to make nuclear weapons of a relatively simple design, it is highly attractive to terrorists. The United States belatedly recognized this dangerous situation and eventually began to take steps to address it by developing alternative fuels made from low-enriched uranium (LEU), which cannot be used directly to make nuclear weapons. Today, however, HEU remains at dozens of poorly secured research reactors worldwide, where it is vulnerable to theft.
Nuclear energy programs have stagnated over the last quarter-century in the United States and many other developed nations. However, nuclear power proponents in government, academia, and think tanks have been energized by the Bush administration and the current congressional leadership, who have shown a 1950s-type enthusiasm for huge government subsidies to jumpstart new nuclear power development despite little interest by private industry. Now, officials at nuclear weapon laboratories, in a continuing search for new funding and relevance, are using the anniversary of the speech as a platform to promote a second Atoms for Peace era that they hope will herald a major worldwide expansion of nuclear energy. 

Most nuclear power reactors worldwide use fuel made from low-enriched uranium. The spent fuel can either be disposed of directly (known as a "once-through" fuel cycle) or reprocessed to extract the plutonium in the spent fuel. This plutonium can be used to fuel reactors but, like HEU, can also be used to make nuclear weapons. In a "closed" fuel cycle, the spent fuel is reprocessed and the extracted plutonium is used to make fresh reactor fuel. Thus, the closed fuel cycle requires the production, transportation, and storage of weapon-usable materials. In recognition of the dangers associated with reprocessing, the United States declared a moratorium on reprocessing commercial spent nuclear fuel in the 1970s. As a result, the United States is not saddled with the security and cost burden of storing large stockpiles of civil plutonium, unlike countries that do reprocess spent fuel such as France, Japan, and the United Kingdom. 

The most dangerous aspect of the new U.S. nuclear energy program is its renunciation of a quarter-century-old nuclear nonproliferation policy, which was adopted in part to correct the excesses of the Atoms for Peace era. Today, with the assent of Congress (to the tune of $92 million in fiscal year (FY) 2004), the Department of Energy is undertaking a huge international program to develop a new generation of plutonium-fueled fast-breeder reactors and reprocessing plants. Some scientists at the national laboratories are also hoping to develop small plutonium-fueled reactors for export to the developing world. Indonesia, in particular, has expressed interest in powering remote parts of its archipelago with such reactors. 

In October, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General, Mohammed ElBaradei, proposed that all civilian facilities for producing enriched uranium and plutonium be placed under international control. Nations seeking access to those materials would presumably have to demonstrate a legitimate need for them.
While ElBaradei's proposal has some merit, it doesn't go nearly far enough. Eisenhower's proposal of a fissile material "bank" assumed that the material would be stored in "special safe conditions" so as to be "essentially immune to surprise seizure." Any weapon-usable material produced in these international facilities should be required to meet the same standard during its transport to recipient sites, as well as during storage and use. However, meeting this challenging and costly standard over the entire life-cycle of weapon-usable materials is far beyond the capacity of private industry, especially in view of the sophistication and resources of the terrorist organizations operating today. 
The reaction of U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to ElBaradei's proposal was reportedly noncommittal. This should be no surprise—such a regime would constrain the Department of Energy's own plans to develop new "Generation IV" breeder reactor systems and make them available for international deployment by the year 2030. Some proposed systems would have their own reprocessing plants attached, so would not generally be permitted under ElBaradei's proposal. 

Both ElBaradei and Abraham argue that development of a new generation of nuclear energy systems, designed to be proliferation- and terrorist-resistant, can solve the security problems associated with the large-scale shipment and use of weapon-usable materials around the world. But it is unreasonable to believe that a technological fix will be found to what is largely a political problem. This fact is reflected in the view of State Department officials who would oppose the export of any nuclear technology to countries like Iran, no matter how "proliferation-resistant" its designers claim it to be. 

It's time to acknowledge that weapon-usable material in commerce cannot be made "essentially immune to surprise seizure." The only way to increase assurance that weapon-usable material will be kept out of terrorist hands is to ban its production and use altogether. The Bush administration should pull the plug on its grandiose reprocessing plans, and work instead to encourage its allies to follow suit. Although the "once-through" nuclear fuel cycle that is now the norm in the United States is not invulnerable, it remains the most proliferation-resistant nuclear energy system that has been devised.

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