It’s now been 65 years since President Dwight Eisenhower gave his famous Atoms for Peace speech at the United Nations. At a time when the nuclear arms race was starting, Eisenhower sought to turn the focus of the atom away from military to peaceful uses. In one of the more eloquent passages of the speech, he noted, “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.”
In some ways, it might appear that not much has been done in the pursuit of peaceful uses of the atom. Nuclear power, a major product of this pursuit, has experienced three major nuclear reactor accidents over the past 40 years. Further, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved the hands of its Doomsday Clock to two minutes until midnight, the closest it’s come since 1953, the year it was established and the year that Eisenhower gave his speech. However, other threats such as climate change and bioterrorism now contribute to this dismal outlook.
In other ways, a considerable amount has been accomplished. In the United States, there is more electricity generated from nuclear power today than all the electricity produced when Eisenhower gave his speech. Nuclear power is also the leading source of non-carbon producing electricity in the U.S., at a time when climate change, which was not much of an issue in 1953, is of growing concern. For certain countries around the world, nuclear power is a major and sometimes the main source of electricity generation and carbon abatement.
Today, climate change is so great a concern that many environmental groups which have previously shunned nuclear energy either embrace it or begrudgingly acknowledge its benefits. In this regard, there is a recognition that nuclear power, despite whatever faults it may have, can be used to combat the greater threat of climate change. Of course, Eisenhower’s speech was concerned with addressing man’s greatest existential threat at that time, nuclear war and the spread of nuclear weapons. It is somewhat ironic that the operation of commercial nuclear power plants now represents the most effective way to combat another potential existential threat.
Significantly, nuclear power has also helped to finance the eradication of the highly enriched cores of thousands of nuclear warheads. Talk of Russian uranium has dominated media in recent years, but the real story of Russian uranium is more positive and consequential, if perhaps not as well known. In this regard, over the 1994 to 2013 period, the highly enriched uranium in 20,000 Russian nuclear warheads was blended down for fuel in nuclear reactors and consumed therein, turning weapons that once threatened U.S. cities into fuel to power them. This is a literal fulfillment of Eisenhower’s charge of stripping weapons of their military casing for peaceful uses, and one which would not have been possible without the development of nuclear energy.
The hope and promise of the Atoms for Peace speech is still before us. There are still plenty of “power-starved regions of the world,” as Eisenhower noted in his speech, that could benefit from reliable, nuclear-generated electricity. There is similarly the need for clean water which can be met by desalination plants powered by nuclear energy. In addition, with the considerable population growth over the past 65 years, the need for clean air and carbon-free electricity generation is greater than ever.
Importantly, nuclear power has served to bring a greater balance to energy and the environment. Countries that are lacking in natural energy resources can turn to nuclear power for electricity generation, while all countries benefit from the carbon abatement associated with the operation of nuclear reactors. While nuclear power may not be a perfect energy source, surely this balance helps to enhance living standards and to promote peace. Nuclear power may not be too cheap to meter, but it is too important to ignore.
Like other technologies, nuclear power is evolving. The next phase will likely involve smaller, safer reactors that can accommodate changing needs, including those of advanced electrical grids, complementing other energy sources. In the not-too-distant future, perhaps by the 75th anniversary of the Atoms for Peace speech, one might see electric vehicles traversing the Eisenhower Interstate system being recharged by inherently-safe and reliable micro-reactors dotting the countryside. I think that Ike would approve of such a peaceful use of the atom.