On December 8, 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower gave his famous “Atoms for Peace” speech at the United Nations General Assembly, imploring nations to focus on peaceful uses of the atom and move away from military uses. Eisenhower recognized the terrible destructive force of the atom, but also saw its great potential for good.
This greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind.
In the 65 years since then, much progress has been made on these fronts, but much needs to be done. Today, nuclear power is the primary source of carbon-free electricity in the world. There have been advances in nuclear medicine and other peaceful uses of the atom. Importantly, the highly enriched uranium in 20,000 Russian nuclear warheads has been blended down for fuel in nuclear reactors, literally fulfilling the challenge raised by Eisenhower in his speech:
It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers. It must be put into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace.
While there has been significant progress, much remains to be done. Eisenhower sought to bring electricity to the “power starved areas of the world,” but many regions are still without sufficient electricity, nuclear or otherwise. Although nuclear power appears to be the perfect antidote for climate change as it emits no greenhouse gases, reactors are being shut down all over the world before the end of their useful lives. Most worrisome is the fact that countries still possess nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear proliferation is still very real. Because of the current state of threats, nuclear and otherwise, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved the hands of its “Doomsday Clock” to two minutes before midnight, the closest it’s been since 1953, the year Eisenhower gave his “Atoms for Peace” speech.
Because of the dangers and challenges that remain, we believe is time to revisit Eisenhower’s vision to see how it can be applied to current challenges. There have been many technological advances since the time of his speech, and it is useful to re-examine some of the early nuclear innovations in light of new technological capabilities.