On December 8, 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his forward-leaning Atoms for Peace speech at a gathering of the United Nations General Assembly in Bermuda. His vision for the world has not yet been realized, but remembering some of his thoughts might inspire some thinkers to take action.
There are many reasons why many decision makers have resisted implementing Eisenhower’s ideas. There has been a sustained effort to sell the false notion that developing a large number of nuclear power plants would require the world to accept a significantly increased risk from nuclear weapons. I reject that notion, especially when it is to justify adding so many burdens on nuclear energy technology that it becomes too expensive to compete against other sources of reliable energy.
The task of creating a weapon from plutonium extracted from reasonably high burnup reactor fuel is so close to impossible that it will never happen. Implementing severe security controls on material from high burnup reactors is a way to add cost and slow nuclear energy development without any increase in actual safety.
That is, in my opinion, exactly the reason why UCS, Von Hipple, and much of the rest of the non proliferation crowd refuses to budge in their assertions that nuclear power = risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. It is also why they continue to play the terrorist card. Their paymasters do not want a plutonium economy. Their paymasters also don’t want a uranium or thorium based economy; the Establishment is making oodles of money from the hydrocarbon based economy that we have today.
It should be acknowledged that any reactor capable of a self-sustaining chain reaction is a source of neutrons that make it possible — with a great deal of effort, by the way — for any state whose technology and resources match those of the United State in 1942 to build a bomb using irradiated natural uranium to make plutonium. It should also be understood, however, that it is relatively straightforward to implement systems that can detect the operational actions required to produce weapons usable material. As long as access is allowed, there is no reason to assume nefarious intent.
The most important action needed to limit the spread of nuclear weapons while encouraging the beneficial use of nuclear energy is establishment of an international norm that discourages nations from expending valuable resources on a weapons program. There is a pretty reasonable agreement in place already, but we should get rid of the extraneous “additional protocols”.
We should do all we can to achieve the inspiring vision that Eisenhower provided almost exactly 60 years ago in his Atoms for Peace speech.
The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. That capability, already proved, is here–now–today. Who can doubt, if the entire body of the world’s scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas, that this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient, and economic usage?
Compared to 1953, we have an enormous body of experience in nuclear reactor construction, operations and repair. We know that nuclear fission works. Nuclear technologists know there are an almost infinite number of ways to improve the way that the technology works. They also know that those improvements are being hampered by misunderstanding, excessive regulations, excessive fear of radiation, excessive fear of nuclear weapons from used nuclear fuel, and intentional efforts to slow nuclear projects, thus inevitably increasing their cost of completion.
The prospect of allowing the “entire body of the world’s scientists and engineers” to have essentially unrestricted access to “adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas” is an amazing vision of hope and trust. It should only scare that limited — but extremely rich and influential — group of people whose power depends on maintaining the current hydrocarbon hegemony.
Unfortunately, that group has done a pretty fair job of convincing most of the rest of the world to fear the prospect that some of the world’s scientists and engineer would put fissionable material to use in an explosive device instead of using it to produce valuable, emission-free, hydrocarbon independent power.
We need to free the world from that constraining notion. We must stop being afraid of the remote possibility that something bad might happen and focus on the benefits that will accrue to us all by allowing atomic creativity to flourish. Atomic tinkerers who work in the proverbial “garage” should be allowed and enabled; there is no telling what kinds of good things can be invented.
Other nations recognize the possibilities enabled by a visionary treatment of fissionable material. They will ignore strictures imposed by the United States or other states like the UK that are working to defend their hydrocarbon based control. The US might be able to make it more difficult to move forward, but we have insufficient power to stop progress. Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to us all to lead and inspire rather than to try — in vain — to hold back the tide?
One more paragraph of Eisenhower’s visionary speech that needs to be emphasized:
The more important responsibility of this Atomic Energy Agency would be to devise methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind. Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world. Thus the contributing powers would be dedicating some of their strength to serve the needs rather than the fears of mankind.
He did not see his proposed IAEA as being a means of limiting access, but as a means of expanding access.
I like Ike.
Atomic Power Review Anniversary of Eisenhower’s Atomic Power for Peace
Nobel Week Blog Future of Nuclear Power – Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom