BOOK REVIEW: The Wisdom of Sharing the Peaceful Atom

By Wulf, Norman A. | Arms Control Today, July/August 2007 | Go to article overview

BOOK REVIEW: The Wisdom of Sharing the Peaceful Atom


Wulf, Norman A., Arms Control Today


BOOK REVIEW: The Wisdom of Sharing the Peaceful Atom Atoms for Peace: A Future after Fifty Years? Edited by Joseph F. Pilat Johns Hopkins University Press, March 2007, 392 pp

When President Dwight Eisenhower made his historic Atoms for Peace address to the UN General Assembly in December 1953, that body had a total of 60 members. Now there are 192. By itself, this increase in independent countries, dramatic as it is, might be enough to justify a re-examination of the wisdom of sharing the peaceful atom. But other changes that have altered the assumptions underlying the proposal compel such a re-examination.

With the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in an arms race involving nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, Eisenhower's speech foresaw applying "atomic energy to the needs of agriculture [and] medicine... and to provide abundant electrical energy." To prevent misuse of the peaceful atom and to prevent acquisition of the capability to develop nuclear weapons, reliance was placed on international inspections (safeguards) and export controls. Few countries, it was believed, had the capability to develop the enrichment and reprocessing technology and equipment that would allow them to produce the enriched uranium or separated plutonium needed for nuclear weapons. Safeguards would prevent diversion of this material once imported from the few potential suppliers, and export controls would prevent those suppliers from providing critical technology and equipment to foreign weapons programs.

This approach can be seen in the subsequent drafting of the 1968 nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). While Article IV sought to enshrine the goal of Atoms for Peace, Article III requires non-nuclear-weapon states to accept International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards "for the exclusive purpose of verification of the fulfillment of its obligations assumed under this Treaty with a view to preventing the diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons" (emphasis added). This focus on diversion also is contained in the safeguards agreements developed for non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the NPT, commonly referred to as 123 agreements. Scant attention was devoted in those agreements to undeclared equipment or materials because of the assumption that constructing such capabilities was beyond most parties. Meanwhile, those countries capable of exporting technology related to enrichment, reprocessing, or use of fissile material would ensure that such items were subject to IAEA safeguards. To provide precision on what was subject to safeguards, NPT states-parties capable of such exports met and elaborated a list called the Zangger Committee Understandings. India's 1974 test of a "peaceful" nuclear explosive device led to the establishment of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and to even stricter controls on enrichment and reprocessing technology. These control lists were expanded several times throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

This system of enforced scarcity worked remarkably well for several decades. Because change is the only constant, however, it soon became necessary to adapt the original regimes. More countries were not only gaining their independence but also enhancing their industrial capability.

The 1991 discovery of Iraq's nuclear weapons program forced action. Through program 93+2 and the 1997 Model Additional Protocol, the IAEA sought to respond to the increasing capability of additional countries to manufacture nuclear-related technology by broadening its safeguards approach from merely looking for diversion of declared materials to looking for undeclared equipment and material. In the words of NPT Article III, the IAEA is now seeking to verify a party's "fulfillment of its [NPT] obligations."

Meanwhile, some countries were defeating export controls on sensitive technology and equipment by acquiring individual components. The NSG responded by placing limitations on such components and by making non-NPT states-parties with unsafeguarded programs ineligible for new civil nuclear supply. …

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