Even in 1953, "atoms for peace" sounded like an oxymoron. The Soviet Union had just exploded its first hydrogen bomb, and the thermonuclear-arms race was shifting into very high gear. "The dread secret and the fearful engines of atomic might are not ours alone," said U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, predicting that nuclear technology "now possessed by several nations will eventually be shared by others--possibly all others."
Eisenhower's paradoxical answer to the threat of proliferation was to limit the spread of weapons by sharing the fissile materials that went into them, to use the technology to serve development and "provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world." In his December 1953 "Atoms for Peace" address to the United Nations, Eisenhower didn't exactly say nuclear swords would be turned into atomic plowshares, but that was the great dream, and perhaps the grand illusion.
More than 50 years later, the reality has gotten very complicated. Not every country has nuclear energy or nuclear weapons, but many are headed toward the former and some still harbor dreams of developing the latter. As of 2005 there were 31 nations with 443 reactors in operation; nine countries are now known to have some version of "the bomb," and dozens more have the power to become what analysts call "virtual weapons states." The distinction between the sword and the plow is getting ever harder to make. Yet from Washington to Melbourne, Hanoi to Pretoria--even in sunny Central America and the Caribbean--there is talk of a "nuclear renaissance" that will somehow meet the demands for global energy while helping to reduce the threat of global warming.
"It started in Asia," says Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the United Nations' Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). "In India they are increasing their nuclear-power capacity eightfold by 2020; in China it's sixfold in the same period. Russia is doubling its nuclear capacity. We're getting lots of interest from large developing countries--Indonesia, Turkey, Vietnam--and even small countries which I know cannot really sustain or maintain nuclear power."
Some of the richest nations in the world are onboard. The Bush administration is cutting red tape for opening new plants. France already gets almost 80 percent of its electricity from its nuclear reactors and is planning to build more. Responding to a request from the Group of Eight leading industrial nations to draw up plans for "a clean, clever and competitive energy future," the International Energy Agency has recommended a major increase in atomic energy. It argues that if oil prices remain above $45 a barrel and natural-gas prices follow suit, then nuclear power could actually be a cheaper source of electricity. If carbon emissions are taxed in various ways, then atomic energy gets even more competitive.
Critics of atomic energy get nervous when they see atoms touted as green. Arjun Makhani of a Maryland-based advocacy group, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, warned recently against "the return of the nuclear messiahs." The concerns run from the high cost to the risk of accidents or terror attacks and the problem of storing nuclear waste while preventing its diversion for use in weapons. Indeed, there are few definitive answers to those questions, and the IAEA's own scenario is a mass of "if"s.
In some rich countries, lingering resistance to nuclear power dates from its dark age. In 1979 there was a partial meltdown of a radioactive core at the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania just as "The China Syndrome," about a fictional reactor disaster, was opening in American movie theaters. The one-two punch of fact and fiction flattened investment in new plants, which now run upwards of $2 billion to build. The recovery of confidence was delayed by the 1986 Chernobyl accident in Ukraine, which killed hundreds of workers and spread fear across Europe.
Today, however, the dark images are widely forgotten, at least for the moment and especially in developing countries. For many, the temptations of the atom's bounty seem to dwarf the risks. Some 1.6 billion people in the world have no access to electricity at all, says ElBaradei, while 2.4 billion rely on wood or straw or dung for fuel. Crushed by old debts and new oil bills, people in what Eisenhower called "power-starved areas" still only dream of the "abundant electrical energy" he promised.
It is just that dream that Iran and North Korea have exploited lately to win sympathy for their nuclear programs. While the West focuses all its attention on their potential to develop nuclear weapons, many poorer countries sympathize with Tehran's and Pyongyang's contention that their main--Iran says its exclusive--interest is energy. "In a perverse way, the discussion about North Korea and about Iran has made people [in developing countries] feel that maybe this is something really worth looking at," says ElBaradei. "It is becoming somewhat fashionable: there is the feeling that this is the door to modernity."
There is an explosion of interest, at least throughout the Middle East. In November, six Arab countries--Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates--announced they were interested in master-ing nuclear technology, and immediately raised concerns about a "virtual" arms race. According to the IAEA, Yemen is looking to the United States and Canada to help it develop nuclear energy, Jordan is conducting a feasibility study and Turkey hopes to crank up its nuclear-power plant within a decade.
In Europe, Poland is reconsidering nuclear-power generation, and Moldova is exploring the atomic option. In Asia, Vietnam has submitted a "pre-feasibility" study to the IAEA for its first nuclear-power plant, while Indonesia has said it expects to have one operating by 2016. Among African countries, oil-rich Nigeria is now planning to make nuclear power part of its energy mix. Namibia has asked the IAEA for help with engineering, technical and management support for an atomic program, and Ghana is now considered "likely to introduce nuclear power." ElBaradei says he even received an envoy recently from the Dominican Republic who said his country is interested in exploring the nuclear option.
What worries ElBaradei is that some governments, in his opinion, have begun to think civilian energy programs that give them the potential to build weapons may also serve as de facto military deterrents. What's needed, he suggests, is a new--or at least renewed--international consensus that will keep these programs peaceful, well inspected and safe.
One idea that can be helpful, in ElBaradei's view, would be to guarantee access to nuclear material for reactors, including the ability to draw on an internationally controlled "fuel bank." But another part of the package, to echo Eisenhower's recommendations of a half century ago, has to be to "diminish the potential power" of atomic stockpiles in the hands of existing nuclear-weapons states. The question of disarmament, often glossed over by Washington when trying to stop proliferation elsewhere, is seen as critical by many developing countries. Until the nuclear haves are willing to take such actions, it will be hard, perhaps impossible, to convince the have-nots that they should give up their "inalienable right" under the existing nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to master the full range of potentially fearsome technologies. Yet until that happens, the hope of "Atoms for Peace" will always ring hollow.