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 You are in: Bureaus/Offices Reporting Directly to the Secretary > Policy Planning Staff > Releases > 2003

"Atoms for Peace: A Future After Fifty Years?"

Mitchell B. Reiss, Director of Policy Planning
Remarks to the Conference hosted by Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
and the College of William & Mary, Washington, DC
December 9, 2003

When President Eisenhower put forward his “Atoms for Peace” proposal 50 years ago, he presented a surprisingly optimistic worldview, characterized by the spread of peaceful nuclear technology, a means to control the arms race, and a way to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. In 1963, President Kennedy famously predicted that 15 to 20 countries would be armed with nuclear weapons within ten years. Happily, President Kennedy was proved wrong. Unhappily, so was President Eisenhower.

Fifty years after Eisenhower’s famous “Atoms for Peace” speech, we find that less than ten countries have acknowledged producing nuclear weapons. This audience well knows the scorecard. On the plus side, one of these, South Africa, voluntarily dismantled its nuclear weapons. Also on the plus side, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine voluntarily surrendered the nuclear weapons systems they inherited at the breakup of the Soviet Union. In South America, Argentina and Brazil abandoned nuclear weapons programs in the early 1990s and pioneered a regional confidence-building mechanism. More recently, of course, Iraq has been eliminated as a nuclear threat.

Notwithstanding these positive achievements, the negative side of the nuclear proliferation ledger is heavily weighted. India, Pakistan and Israel have not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). India was directly assisted in the development of its nuclear arsenal through the dissemination of civil nuclear technology, while Pakistan used pirated centrifuge technology to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for its weapons program, despite numerous pledges to the United States that it would not do so. North Korea has openly violated the NPT and its associated safeguards agreement and, in defiance of the international community, expelled IAEA inspectors and withdrew from the Treaty this year. Iran has taken a different approach, seeking to remain within the NPT regime while developing all the necessary components for a nuclear weapons program. Only when its perfidy was uncovered did it grudgingly acknowledge its violations. But it has yet to acknowledge its nuclear weapons aspirations. And of course, other countries such as Libya have evidenced an interest in acquiring WMD.

And of course, when President Eisenhower proposed “Atoms for Peace,” the principal threat to international peace and security was the then-developing Cold War between the superpowers. The phrase “rogue states” was unheard of, and terrorists largely were limited to tossing hand-grenades at police stations in third-world countries. Clearly, nothing like the chemical and biological weapons developed by Aum Shinrikyo and sought by Al Qaeda had been experienced.

As unsettling as this is, the proliferation balance is further skewed toward the negative side by the emergence of threats entirely unforeseen when the “Atoms for Peace” program was launched. Fifty years ago, the term “weapons of mass destruction” or “WMD” was not part of our everyday lexicon. Today, regretfully, it is a household word. Likewise, fifty years ago “ballistic missiles” belonged almost exclusively to two countries. Today, ballistic missiles are deployed worldwide and there is a flourishing, illicit market in ballistic missile – and now cruise missile – technology. Similarly, other countries have worked assiduously to acquire chemical and biological weapons and to make them even more deadly, even as the United States and its allies have taken steps to eliminate such weapons.

Adding to the problem of nuclear proliferation is the essentially dual-use nature of the facilities required for their fabrication. For example, facilities to enrich uranium for nuclear reactor fuel also can enrich it for the production of weapons. Facilities for reprocessing highly radioactive spent fuel can extract plutonium for bombs. These dual-purpose facilities essentially permit would-be proliferators to maintain a stockpile of “virtual weapons” or develop nuclear infrastructure that could be the basis for a future “break out” scenario.

The International Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime

As this threat has evolved over the past 50 years, so too has the U.S. approach to countering nuclear proliferation. The United States, along with other responsible members of the world community, has adopted a wide-ranging network to stigmatize the development and acquisition, beyond the P-5, of nuclear weapons capabilities by any country, in any region, for any reason. Implementation of this strategy has been effected through a series of multilateral treaties and agreements, their accompanying international institutions, and multilateral suppliers’ groups to control exports of sensitive technologies. Multilateral alliances like NATO and bilateral alliances between the United States and other countries such as Japan also have played a role in dissuading countries from seeing nuclear weapons as a means to enhance their national security. Collectively, these arrangements comprise the global nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Imperfect as it may be, this regime provides a legal ban on nuclear proliferation (beyond the five nuclear weapons states recognized by the NPT) and establishes the important norm that nuclear proliferation is illegitimate. Even in cases where proliferation activity might technically not be “illegal” -- such as when a proliferator is not a party to a particular WMD ban -- the regime still stigmatizes proliferation activity.

It is widely understood that the web of treaties, agreements, and inspection mechanisms that comprise the non-proliferation regime is a necessary but not sufficient condition for international security. Individually, and even collectively, they cannot be relied upon to counter nuclear proliferation in all circumstances. Often, the existing regime can only delay determined proliferators; it cannot prevent them from eventual acquisition. Indeed, under the cover of existing nonproliferation arrangements, countries like North Korea and Iran have acquired the expertise and technology needed to develop nuclear weapons.

Developing New Concepts

The NPT was negotiated in the early 1960s, signed in 1968, and entered into force in 1970. In the three decades since, the nonproliferation regime constructed on the foundation of the NPT has served us well. But like the “Atoms for Peace” proposal that fathered it, the NPT was crafted in a different era – and it is beginning to show its age. If it is going to continue in its usefulness, it needs to be continually reinvigorated to meet the proliferation challenges of the 21st century. What new thinking is needed to help preserve international peace and security in the 21st century? How do we address the new challenges?

The National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, which President Bush issued just one year ago, outlines a comprehensive approach to counter nuclear and other WMD. The strategy has three principal pillars:

  • Counterproliferation to Combat WMD Use – recognizing that the possession and increased likelihood of WMD use by hostile states and terrorists are realities of the contemporary security environment;
  • Strengthened Nonproliferation to Combat WMD Proliferation – determined to undertake every effort to prevent states and terrorists from acquiring WMD and missiles; and
  • Consequence Management to Respond to WMD Use – to reduce to the extent possible the potentially horrific consequences of WMD use at home and abroad.

Today, I want to discuss some key elements of the second pillar, Strengthened Nonproliferation.

Strengthening the IAEA

The direct result of “Atoms for Peace” was the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This Administration strongly supports strengthening the IAEA as a critical element of our nonproliferation policy.

The IAEA safeguards system helps deter the diversion of nuclear materials from peaceful purposes and provides a means to detect diversions should they occur. Since 1999, the United States has increased its voluntary contribution to the Safeguards Program by some 32% (with assistance valued at $23.8 million in 2003, up from $16.3 million in 1999); this is in addition to our annual assessed contribution of 25% of the IAEA’s entire budget. This year, the 47th General Conference of the IAEA approved a $25.1 million budget increase to be phased in over four years, breaking decades of zero-growth budgets. Over three-quarters of this increase will be directed to safeguards. We should continue to support appropriate increases in the safeguards budget, as required.

Safeguards also should be strengthened through the universal adoption of the model Additional Protocol negotiated in the mid-1990s. The Additional Protocol expands the information related to nuclear activities that states are required to declare to the IAEA. It also provides greater latitude to IAEA inspectors in investigating undeclared, suspect facilities.

Of special importance, better compliance with IAEA safeguards must also be pursued. Violations cannot be allowed to go unnoticed and willful violations cannot go unchallenged. Non-compliance must be the concern of all, not just a few. All of the parties to the NPT should join in condemning violations and in pressing for sanctions or other penalties in the absence of a return to compliance.

These efforts are necessary to strengthen the IAEA and NPT in the near-term. But strengthening these international nonproliferation instruments cannot take place divorced from efforts by member states to recommit themselves to their nonproliferation obligations and consider these obligations in light of current challenges. If the NPT is to remain a viable instrument in the struggle to counter proliferation into the 21st century, much more will be required.

The Article IV “Grand Bargain

Article IV of the NPT codifies part of the so-called “grand bargain” envisioned in President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” proposal. In exchange for the their commitment in Article II to forgo the acquisition of nuclear weapons and in Article III to agree to IAEA safeguards and inspections, Article IV guarantees the “inalienable right” of the non-nuclear weapon state parties to the Treaty to the peaceful development and use of nuclear energy. This bargain is the core of the agreement. And as a consequence, since “Atoms for Peace” we have witnessed the spread of peaceful nuclear technology to provide energy throughout the globe. Today, some sixty countries possess small-scale nuclear research reactors, while over thirty operate nuclear power plants for the generation of electricity. The “Atoms for Peace” legacy to humanity also includes the use of nuclear research for science, medicine and agricultural development.

Over the years, nuclear supplier states have taken steps to ensure that their support for peaceful nuclear energy did not inadvertently lead to diversion for nuclear weapons purposes. India’s self-proclaimed peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974 made clear to all that nuclear supplier states had to pay more attention to controls on fuel-cycle technologies with direct application to nuclear weapons, i.e., enrichment and reprocessing. In response, nuclear suppliers agreed to exercise restraint in the transfer of “sensitive” facilities, technologies and weapons-usable materials; they also agreed, in the case of enrichment and reprocessing facilities, to encourage recipients to accept, as an alternative to national plants, supplier or multinational involvement in such projects.

More recently, North Korea and Iran have sought to develop these capabilities to produce the fissile materials necessary to build nuclear weapons. These countries have betrayed the promise of “Atoms for Peace” and subverted Article IV of the NPT. They have used Article IV as a cover for the development of infrastructure necessary for the production of nuclear weapons. If we are to sustain the NPT and the entire global non-proliferation regime well into the 21st century, we need to do a better job of detecting and deterring such activities.

We must seriously limit enrichment and reprocessing capabilities while allowing access to appropriate reactor fuels. The “grand bargain” of the NPT was never meant, and should never be used, to allow proliferators to develop and maintain a fissile material production capability under cover of an alleged “peaceful” program. As you know, the IAEA’s Director-General, Mohammed El-Baredei, has recently highlighted this issue.

The Other Half of the Bargain: Article VI

The five nuclear weapons states recognized by the NPT also undertook nonproliferation obligations under the Treaty. Article VI of the NPT commits the nuclear weapons states, as it does all the members, to pursue negotiations in good faith leading to nuclear disarmament. In the 30 years since the NPT was signed, there have been significant accomplishments in reducing the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia.

The United States has dismantled more than 13,000 nuclear weapons. We have eliminated over a dozen different types of warheads. We have reduced the overall number of weapons in our nuclear arsenal by 60 percent, and the number of tactical nuclear weapons by 80 percent. With the entry into force earlier this year of the U.S.-Russian Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions, known as the “Moscow Treaty,” we will reduce our operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons even further. By December 31, 2012, under the terms of this Treaty, we will cut our strategic nuclear warheads by about two-thirds, to less than 2,200. Thus, in the space of two decades, the United States will have eliminated or decommissioned some three-quarters of its strategic nuclear arsenal. (It should be noted that the United States also long ago eliminated all biological weapons from its inventory, and is in the process of eliminating its chemical weapons.) These are not insignificant accomplishments. But should further reductions be expected?

There has been a great deal of misunderstanding about the United States and Article VI. As a matter of law and policy, the United States remains committed to the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons.

Yet countries outside of the NPT regime are building up their nuclear weapons capabilities and some non-nuclear weapons states within the NPT regime are seeking to create nuclear arsenals anew. Nuclear proliferation has occurred in South Asia, North Korea threatens to unveil a “physical deterrent,” Iran has been caught developing a nuclear weapons infrastructure, and there may be others within the NPT regime seeking to create nuclear arsenals. So the United States is demonstrating its commitment while others remain outside of this process.

Additionally, others are developing and proliferating chemical and biological weapons and sophisticated missile delivery systems. It is particularly disturbing to note that in excess of 40 states that are parties to the NPT have not signed up to either the BWC or the CWC. This would appear to be a direct violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of another obligation Article VI imposes on its members, namely, that they pursue negotiations in good faith towards general and complete disarmament. While pursuing the goal of global security, stability, and peace through universal adherence to the NPT, we should not lose sight of the equally important necessity of obtaining universal adherence to and full compliance with both of these WMD treaties as well.

A final point. U.S. efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons not only are designed to enhance American security, they are designed to enhance the security of all countries. All members of the NPT have a fundamental self-interest in developing and implementing rigorous IAEA safeguards, adhering to the NPT, and sanctioning countries that violate their IAEA and NPT commitments. These actions are not a gift or a favor bestowed by the non-nuclear weapons states upon the United States and the other nuclear powers. All countries have an interest in the strict enforcement of the NPT.

Indeed, with the new threats of a new century, security is more indivisible than ever before. The forces of globalization, clandestine networks of nuclear suppliers, new lethal technologies, failing and failed states, and the global threat of terrorism mean that no country is truly safe from the threat of nuclear proliferation. There is no sanctuary. The international nonproliferation regime benefits all, or it benefits none.

Article X: “The Great Escape”

As with other arms control and nonproliferation agreements, the NPT contains a “Supreme National Interests” clause. This clause, contained in Article X of the NPT, permits state parties to withdraw from the Treaty should “extraordinary events” related to the Treaty negatively impact their security.

The intent of this “escape clause” is to provide nations with the flexibility to respond to events that are entirely unanticipated at the time they adhere to the Treaty. There is an inherent logic to this, understood and generally accepted by all. No country wants to be indefinitely bound to an agreement that could be harmful to its national interests.

But the withdrawal clause was never intended as a means for a state party to evade or undercut its Treaty obligations and escape the consequences. Nothing in Article X suggests that the extraordinary events required to withdraw from the Treaty can be one’s own violations of the Treaty. Likewise, nothing in Article X suggests that a state party can use the benefits of NPT membership to posture itself for the rapid development of a nuclear weapons capability following withdrawal from the Treaty. Indeed, such duplicitous actions directly violate the central obligations of the Treaty. If the Treaty is to remain a viable instrument of non-proliferation, attempts to subvert the NPT in this manner cannot be tolerated.

Although North Korea withdrew from the NPT earlier this year, the community of nations has continued to insist that it must come back into compliance with its Treaty obligations. The international community also has made clear that North Korea must still answer for the violations it has committed as an NPT party. Would-be violators of the NPT should take note.

Other Initiatives

Careful consideration must be given to these central Treaty Articles as we seek to reinvigorate the NPT for the 21st Century. At the same time, we cannot afford to wait to take action to bolster the global non-proliferation regime. The United States and other nations have launched a series of initiatives designed to promote that regime and foster international peace and security.

HEU Minimization

In the decades following President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” Speech, large quantities of highly enriched uranium (HEU) were exported to more than 50 countries by both the United States and the Soviet Union. Most of this material was used to fuel nuclear research reactors. Much of it still remains, stored at or near those reactors under security arrangements that vary widely. Since the late 1970s, the United States has sought to eliminate these stocks of weapons-usable material and, where this has not been immediately feasible, to enhance physical security at the storage sites.

In the last several years, we have sought to expand this effort in collaboration with Russia. Ongoing efforts include programs to develop new low enriched uranium (LEU) fuels, to assist in converting research reactors around the world to use LEU, and to return U.S.-origin HEU from reactors in some 40 countries for permanent disposition in the United States. Russia also is pursuing a program to return Russian-origin HEU to Russia from as many as 17 countries. Our goal is to reduce to an absolute minimum international commerce in and unsecure storage of weapons-usable uranium throughout the world.

Radioactive Source Initiative

Complementing the HEU Minimization effort is the G-8 Radioactive Source Initiative. At the time of President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech, the threat of a radiological dispersion device, or “dirty bomb,” was hardly a central concern. Today, it is an all too real possibility. Indeed, such a device may be particularly appealing to terrorist entities that may lack the technological sophistication to develop more sophisticated nuclear or biological weapons.

The G-8 initiative is intended to strengthen national controls on radioactive materials that, although not useable in the construction of a nuclear weapon, could readily be employed in creating a dirty bomb. In furtherance of this effort, in September the IAEA General Conference approved a Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources to provide states with guidelines for the control of radioactive materials. The IAEA has encouraged its member states to commit themselves to implement the Code and to so inform the Director General of the Agency. The United States has done so, and is encouraging other IAEA members to do so as well.

Follow-on activities by the G-8 countries will include the establishment of national registries for tracking radioactive sources; implementation of programs to recover abandoned, lost, or stolen radioactive sources; putting effective measures into place on the export of radioactive sources; and adoption of national measures to penalize the theft or misuse of radioactive sources.

In this regard, the United States has already moved to implement this initiative. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham announced last month the establishment within the Department of Energy of a special high-level task force that will focus its attention on reducing potential threats from high risk radiological sources, including those that may be found at research and test reactors. The Task Force will identify, secure, and provide interim storage for high-risk radiological materials that could be used in radiological dispersion devices. In the short time since its creation, the new Task Force has initiated several cooperative efforts with the IAEA and its member states to secure radiological materials worldwide.

G-8 Global Partnership

Another important G-8 nonproliferation initiative is the Global Partnership launched at the Kananaskis Summit last year. The goal of this initiative is to provide at least $20 billion over ten years for non-proliferation, threat-reduction, disarmament, and nuclear safety cooperation projects. The initial focus of this initiative has been on projects in Russia. In the coming year, we expect the Global Partnership to include projects in additional states.

The United States has committed to raising half of the $20 billion for the Initiative. Another $6 billion has been pledged to date, including $2 billion by Russia, $1.72 billion by Germany, and $1.5 billion by Italy. We hope to see the remaining $4 billion pledged by early next year. The G-8 also welcomed the participation in the Global Partnership of six additional countries this past summer – Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Securing improved Russian cooperation to facilitate implementation of Global Partnership projects will be a key challenge. Several issues are impeding progress. The most pressing relates to the question of liability, namely, What protections should be provided to donor countries, their contractors, and their employees against exposure to liability risks resulting from activities under cooperative agreement with Russia? In addition to the question of liability, taxation exemption and access to work sites are continuing concerns. These issues must be satisfactorily resolved if the Global Partnership Initiative is to achieve success.

Proliferation Security Initiative

President Bush announced on May 31 in Krakow, Poland the latest initiative in the struggle to counter WMD proliferation – the Proliferation Security Initiative or PSI. This multilateral effort is intended to develop and implement a new, more robust approach to preventing the flow of WMD, missiles, and related technologies to and from state or non-state actors of proliferation concern. The United States initiated this effort with the help of ten other countries: Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom. In September, these eleven PSI participants agreed to and published a “Statement of Interdiction Principles.” Since that time, more than 50 other countries from around the globe also have indicated their support for the PSI.

The PSI is specifically focused on disrupting the proliferation trade at sea, in the air, and on land. The interdiction of WMD components and critical technologies in transit to countries and non-state actors of proliferation concern can prevent these entities from acquiring these capabilities. At the very least, interception of such seaborne, airborne, and overland shipments can substantially lengthen the amount of time would-be proliferators will need to acquire WMD capabilities, as well as increase their acquisition costs. The PSI is now moving to establish the necessary mechanisms for interdiction cooperation. Our objective is to create a web of counter-proliferation partnerships through which proliferators will have increasing difficulty in carrying out their trade in WMD- and missile-related materials and technologies.

The PSI “Statement of Interdiction Principles” envisions cooperation among states on interdiction actions based on national legal authorities and international law and frameworks. A series of interdiction training exercises are being carried out throughout the globe to develop the capabilities that will further operationalize the initiative. Several of these exercises have already been successfully completed, including at-sea exercises in the Coral Sea and the Mediterranean. Planning for further development of PSI activities will take place in the 5th Operational Experts meeting next week in Washington. This meeting will include participation by countries in addition to the original eleven PSI participants, as the PSI begins to broaden its participation and global reach.

The Terrorist Threat

All of these initiatives are intended to keep WMD and missile delivery systems out of the hands of would-be proliferators – both states and non-state entities. As I noted at the outset, the idea of terrorists armed with nuclear weapons, or other WMD, was largely unheard of at the time of President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” Speech in 1953. Today, it is a real concern. Terrorist groups have increasingly evidenced their interest in obtaining – and using – weapons of mass destruction. For such groups, WMD is not a weapon of last resort, the ultimate guarantee of a nation’s survival, but rather a weapon of first choice, designed to destroy societies and spread terror.

The proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological materials, knowledge, and technologies, as well as of legitimate facilities with inherent dual-use capabilities, increases the risk that a terrorist group will acquire the wherewithal to construct and use WMD. Indeed, the use of chemical and biological weapons by terrorist groups such as the Aum Shinrikyo is already well documented.

A number of state sponsors of terrorism, including Iran, Libya, North Korea, and Syria, are actively seeking to acquire WMD and missile delivery systems and, in some cases, to sell such technologies to other states. As President Bush stated when he appeared at the United Nations in September, “Outlaw regimes that possess nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons – and the means to deliver them – would be able to use blackmail and create chaos in entire regions. These weapons could be used by terrorists to bring sudden disaster and suffering on a scale we can scarcely imagine. The deadly combination of outlaw regimes and terror networks and weapons of mass murder is a peril that cannot be ignored or wished away.” Our nonproliferation policy, indeed, the entire international community, has an obligation to ensure this doomsday scenario never takes place.


Fifty years ago, President Eisenhower presented a vision to the community of nations – a vision of a world simultaneously enjoying the benefits of nuclear energy without the threat of nuclear proliferation. It was a hopeful vision, full of optimism about the prospects for mankind. Fifty years later, we must acknowledge that Eisenhower’s vision has yet to be achieved. The world remains dependent upon fossil fuels. Even more disturbing, the threat of nuclear proliferation has not only not diminished, it has assumed new shapes and forms that present new dangers.

But we also should note that more than half a century after the invention of the atomic bomb, well fewer than a dozen states actually have acquired nuclear weapons. Moreover, the community of nations has taken important steps to ensure the abolition of biological and chemical weapons. Other steps have been initiated to reign in the would-be proliferators of the world, and to keep WMD technology out of the hands of “rogue” states and terrorist groups alike. Much has been accomplished to ensure global security. More work needs to done. Fifty years after it was first presented to the world, Eishenhower’s vision of “Atoms for Peace” remains a worthy, but still distant, goal.

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