On April 5, 2009, President Obama made a speech in Prague in the Czech Republic about a renewed effort to reduce the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons and to encourage additional efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons ownership to countries that do not yet have them.
The full text of the speech is widely available. You can also find a number of places to watch the complete video of the president’s delivery so you can see the body language, the crowd response and other important details.
What you must be careful about doing is reading headlines from imprecise headline writers or from organizations that have a mission to obscure reality when it comes to discussions of nuclear topics. Stories like Obama outlines sweeping goal of nuclear-free world that start off with a leading paragraph as follows give a biased view of what the president said and meant:
PRAGUE (AP) — Declaring it “matters to all people everywhere,” President Barack Obama promised on Sunday to lead the world into a nuclear-free future, giving a hawkish edge to a peacenik pursuit even as North Korea upstaged him with the launch of a long-range rocket that theoretically could carry a warhead.
The reason that story and others like it are flat wrong is that they ignore a strong statement in the speech that the goal is a world free from nuclear weapons, not a “nuclear-free” world. First of all, that second phrasing is ridiculous – all matter is composed of atoms and every single atom has an nucleus. It is not remotely possible to have a nuclear-free world. It would also be a myopic decision to attempt to use a fear of nuclear explosions to impose a fear of controlled nuclear energy, just as it would be silly to teach people that they should avoid filling up their car with gasoline or having natural gas piped into their home because it is possible that each fluid could explode and cause painful death and destruction with long term, health affecting residues.
Fortunately, President Obama clearly recognizes the difference between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy and has no intention of supporting programs that would hamper the use of a valuable tool out of unreasonable fear. Here is what he said on April 5, 2009 about the peaceful use of nuclear energy:
The basic bargain is sound: countries with nuclear weapons will move toward disarmament, countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them; and all countries can access peaceful nuclear energy. To strengthen the treaty, we should embrace several principles. We need more resources and authority to strengthen international inspections. We need real and immediate consequences for countries caught breaking the rules or trying to leave the treaty without cause.
And we should build a new framework for civil nuclear cooperation, including an international fuel bank, so that countries can access peaceful power without increasing the risks of proliferation. That must be the right of every nation that renounces nuclear weapons, especially developing countries embarking on peaceful programs. No approach will succeed if it is based on the denial of rights to nations that play by the rules. We must harness the power of nuclear energy on behalf of our efforts to combat climate change, and to advance opportunity for all people. (Emphasis added)
That is a strong and welcome statement with a solid historical background rooted in Eisenhower’s important vision of Atoms for Peace. Sign me up as a strong supporter of the effort to reduce the importance of nuclear weapons in national security planning and to repurpose the resulting stockpile of fissile materials as important ingredients in peaceful nuclear power applications. In a fit of vanity, I’ll call my personal crusade in this area Adams for Peace.
One more nuance that needs to be clearly understood is that President Obama did not call for a halt in the production of fissile materials, since those materials are just as important as ever for the controlled use of atomic fission. (Fissile materials are the ones that produce immediate power and mainly consist of U-233, U-235 and Pu-239.) Here is the exact wording of what the president said about the production of those materials:
And to cut off the building blocks needed for a bomb, the United States will seek a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons. If we are serious about stopping the spread of these weapons, then we should put an end to the dedicated production of weapons grade materials that create them.
In other words, the production of fissile materials that are properly intended for peaceful use and protected in such a way as to prevent them from being used for unintended purposes should not and will NOT be inhibited or prohibited.