Atoms for peace - 30 years later

By , Charles E. Robbins was president of the Atomic Industrial Forum Inc.

Today's sobering rhetoric of nuclear freeze proponents was foreshadowed in a historic speech 30 years ago. On Dec. 8, 1953, President Eisenhower counted out ''the awful arithmetic of the atomic bomb'' to the United Nations, and gravely warned of ''the probability of civilization destroyed'' if the world plunged ahead into nuclear arsenals and showdowns.

Unlike more recent commentators, though, Eisenhower sought more than the reduction or elimination of nuclear weapons. ''A great boon for the benefit of mankind'' is on the horizon if that energy is harnessed for peace. His proposal took the shape of an ambitious Marshall Plan for nuclear energy, a program of international ''Atoms for Peace.''

The President offered, if Congress would go along, to share US atomic secrets. He also proposed the pooling of uranium and fissionable material, making it available to scientists for the enrichment of people's lives throughout the globe.

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Pauline Frederick, the NBC correspondent at the UN (and later my wife), said in her broadcast that she had gone to the closing session of the General Assembly ''with a feeling of futility. But when Eisenhower spoke I felt that instead of this being the ending of an Assembly it could be a new beginning.''

The President, she said, ''pointed to a new era in which the big powers might learn the elementary principles of cooperation, while the anxious multitude benefited from the means of better living rather than facing more horrible dying.''

Those were the days. The hope of all, especially those of us in the nuclear field, was that the atom would provide not only an abundant source of energy but also other important uses that could be determined only when secrecy was lifted and the world's scientists and engineers could probe the atom's secrets.

Career opportunities in the new industry were soon to attract the best and the brightest from universities and graduate schools, both here and abroad. Young physicists, chemists, and engineers in electrical, chemical, and civil disciplines sought places in this promising field. Electric utilities, manufacturers, and others assigned their best employees to nuclear studies or work. The enthusiasm for nuclear careers matched the enthusiasm of bright young people today for computers and other high technologies.

The national mood has turned half-circle, from great hope to apprehension. Will it someday complete the circle and bring the atom back into the public's confidence and favor? Time and national interest may be the ingredients necessary to restore public acceptance. And national interest may become a compelling reason, once the current excess capacity is reduced to a more modest figure and as the business recovery requires more energy. Thirteen percent of United States electricity is nuclear powered, and will increase to 20 percent by 1990.

Other countries are more upbeat toward nuclear energy. France produces 43 percent of its electricity from the atom, and plans an increase to 70 percent by 1993. Sweden and Finland obtain about 40 percent. Japan, West Germany, Switzerland, and other industrialized countries rely on nuclear power more than the US. In the past five years other countries have ordered 40 nuclear power plants, while American utilities have ordered none.

Eisenhower's proposal stimulated discussion here and overseas. The Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy began a series of hearings in 1953 culminating in the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which opened up the atom for the development of its peaceful uses.

In the three decades since, the atom has had a profound influence in almost all countries. Splitting the atom has outdated medical textbooks and practices. Radio-isotopes produced in nuclear reactors are routinely employed in medical research, diagnosis, and treatment. Almost 100 million nuclear procedures are performed annually in this country, according to the American College of Nuclear Physicians.

In agriculture, new strains of grains, grasses, and other foodstuffs have boosted food production, in some instances dramatically. Nuclear sources sterilize or preserve or otherwise affect agriculture significantly. And in industry, nuclear technologies assist in fundamental and applied research, and in manufacture do such things as measure speeds and the thickness of materials, control quantities, and improve quality.

Does the production of nuclear materials in reactors worsen or strengthen efforts of governments and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which Eisenhower had recommended in his UN address, to limit and control the proliferation of nuclear weapons? There are strong arguments that it does. In any event, a third world war has been avoided for almost 40 years, largely because of the awful alternative of a nuclear holocaust. That terrible possibility might yet induce the superpowers to find accommodation of their aggressions.

The world has benefited from Eisenhower's vision of atoms for peace. As the world's economy continues to improve, at some point nuclear power will be brought back into the family of energies. And many other uses of radioisotopes and radiation and nuclear heat will be found, to expand our knowledge, improve health care, and in other ways improve the quality of our lives.

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