70 Years of Atoms for Peace

70 years ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower went before the United Nations and delivered a speech unlike anything the world had ever heard. The president spoke in sweeping terms about the terrible destructive power of new atomic weapons. But he also had a message for the assembly, one with a more optimistic tone: Join us in harnessing the power of the atom for good — not evil. 

From the dawn of the atomic age, nuclear power branched into two distinct paths: nuclear energy, and nuclear weapons. A chain reaction of historical events would lead down one path to the creation and eventual detonation of the world’s first atomic weapons in 1945. Down the other path, work forged ahead on peaceful uses of nuclear power. Join us on a trip through nuclear history, from "Atoms for Peace" to today.

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SARAH HARMAN: 70 years ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower went before the United Nations and delivered a speech unlike anything the world had ever heard.

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: I know that the American people share my deep belief that if a danger exists in the world, it is a danger shared by all; and equally, that if hope exists in the mind of one nation, that hope should be shared by all.

SARAH HARMAN: This was the leader of the United States, one of two global nuclear superpowers, addressing a room full of world leaders about the looming threat of nuclear annihilation. 

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: I feel impelled to speak today in a language that in a sense is new, one which I, who have spent so much of my life in the military profession, would have preferred never to use. That new language is the language of atomic warfare.

SARAH HARMAN: The room was silent as the president spoke in sweeping terms about the terrible destructive power of new atomic weapons — and about the dire consequences of an unchecked nuclear arms race. But he also had a message for the assembly, one with a more optimistic tone: join us in harnessing the power of the atom for good — not evil.

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: The United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military build-up can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind. The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. The capability, already proved, is here, now, today. 

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SARAH HARMAN: You’re listening to Direct Current. I’m your host, Sarah Harman. And joining me for today’s trip through nuclear history is my former co-host, Matt Dozier. Matt now works for the Office of Nuclear Energy, so we’re excited to have him join for this episode. Welcome back!

MATT DOZIER: Thanks, Sarah! It’s great to be here. So those clips we heard of President Eisenhower speaking are from what’s known as the “Atoms for Peace” speech. It was delivered on December 8th, 1953, and it was a pivotal moment in the world’s attitude toward nuclear power. 

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SARAH HARMAN: We’ll hear more from the speech later in the show. But to really understand what the president was talking about, and what would follow after, we need to start at the beginning of our fascination with atomic power.

MATT DOZIER: You ready? 

SARAH HARMAN: Yep, let’s do it!

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SARAH HARMAN: From the dawn of the atomic age, nuclear power branched into two distinct paths: nuclear energy, and nuclear weapons. Both uses of nuclear fission trace their roots back to a squash court underneath the stands of the University of Chicago’s football stadium. There on December 2, 1942, under the direction of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Enrico Fermi, the experiment called Chicago Pile-1 achieved the world’s first self-sustaining, controlled nuclear chain reaction. That in turn set off a chain reaction of historical events that would lead down one path to the creation and eventual detonation of the world’s first atomic weapons in 1945. By 1949, the Soviet Union had developed its own nuclear bomb. A nuclear arms race began as both superpowers sought to gain the upper hand by stockpiling increasingly powerful weaponry.

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MATT DOZIER: Down the other path, work forged ahead on peaceful uses of nuclear power. The U.S. established the Atomic Energy Commission in 1946 to oversee that work following the end of World War II. Argonne National Laboratory was chartered that same year to study peaceful uses of atomic power. In 1951, Argonne built the world’s first nuclear power reactor — called EBR-1 — in the Idaho desert. At 1:50 p.m. central time on December 20th, EBR-1 generated the first-ever electricity from atomic fission — just enough to light up four 200-watt lightbulbs. The day after that, it powered the entire building. The era of nuclear energy had begun.

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MATT DOZIER: The U.S. Navy also began exploring nuclear reactors around this time as a solution for safely powering its ships and submarines for longer stretches both on, and under, the sea. Quick side note here: pretty much all of you will be familiar with the name J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the “father of the atomic bomb” for his key role in the Manhattan Project. But you might not have heard of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. A fierce and sometimes controversial advocate of naval nuclear propulsion, Rickover has been called the “father of the nuclear navy.” He oversaw the development of the first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, which began construction in June 1952.

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SARAH HARMAN: But later that year, a massive leap forward in the destructive power of atomic weapons raised the stakes of the intensifying Cold War between the United States and Russia even further. On November 1, 1952, the United States conducted its first full-scale test of a thermonuclear device, codenamed “Ivy Mike,” in the Enewetak Atoll of what is now the Marshall Islands. The device unleashed previously unimaginable destructive force, producing a fireball nearly four miles in diameter. This evolution of nuclear weaponry is sometimes referred to as a “hydrogen bomb” or “H-bomb.” It used nuclear fusion (in addition to fission) to unlock far greater devastation than previous fission-only designs. The full details of the test were kept under wraps from the American public for another two years. But just seven days after the election of November 1952, in a top-secret briefing at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, newly elected President Eisenhower was handed a sealed envelope containing a memo from Atomic Energy Commision chairman Gordon Dean. It held a terrible secret.

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MATT DOZIER: Here’s an excerpt from the book “Atoms for Peace and War: The Eisenhower Administration and the Atomic Energy Commission” by Richard G. Hewlett and Jack M. Holl. Quote: "The significant event to date," Dean wrote, "is that we have detonated the first full-scale thermonuclear device," which for security reasons the Commission referred to as Mike. What made Mike exceptional was the awesome power of the fusion reaction. Scientists at Enewetak estimated the blast as equivalent to more than ten million tons of TNT, or five hundred times the power of the fission weapon that devastated Hiroshima. "The island of the Atoll," Dean wrote, "which was used for the shot—Elugelab—is missing, and where it was there is now an underwater crater of some 1,500 yards in diameter." Eisenhower paused to contemplate the significance of these gruesome statistics. He was troubled about the growing power of the nuclear weapons being added to the American arsenal. He favored scientific research and understood the scientists' interests in developing more powerful and efficient weapons, but he thought there was no need "for us to build enough destructive power to destroy everything." "Complete destruction," he said somewhat enigmatically, "was the negation of peace." End quote. Nine months later, the Soviets tested their first thermonuclear device. The global nuclear arms race — which many feared was a race toward extinction — continued to accelerate.

SARAH HARMAN: The fearful knowledge contained in that top-secret briefing weighed heavily on Eisenhower. He made veiled references to it in his inaugural address in January 1953, saying:

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: Are we nearing the light—a day of freedom and of peace for all mankind? Or are the shadows of another night closing in upon us? This trial comes at a moment when man's power to achieve good or to inflict evil surpasses the brightest hopes and sharpest fears of all ages. Yet the promise of this life is imperiled by the very genius that has made it possible. Science seems ready to confer upon us, as its final gift, the power to erase human life from this planet.

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SARAH HARMAN: Over the course of that year, Eisenhower grew increasingly concerned about the specter of nuclear weapons — and increasingly convinced that the best course of action would be to explain to the public in stark terms the danger they posed. He was convinced, in part, by a “disarmament panel” of experts chaired by none other than J. Robert Oppenheimer. Here’s more from “Atoms for Peace and War.” Quote: The panel was convinced that something had to be done about the frightening acceleration of the arms race in which devastating power was accumulating on both sides at an unprecedented rate and in a way that would put the heart of both nations, not just international borders and armies, on the front lines of any future war. Even more dangerous was the fact that few people, even inside the government, understood the special character of the nuclear arms race. Because nuclear weapons were so dangerous, men hesitated to think hard about them, and the resultant high level of security reduced “the quantity and quality of responsible discussion.” End quote.

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MATT DOZIER: Oppenheimer argued that “a policy of candor toward the American people” would help ensure that Americans, and the rest of the world, understood the gravity of the nuclear threat. Oppenheimer’s enemies would eventually use his statements against the arms race as ammunition to have him stripped of his security clearance. That decision that was later reversed by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm in 2022. In any case, Eisenhower agreed with Oppenheimer’s position on informing the world about the advances in atomic weaponry. He tasked his speechwriter, Charles D. Jackson, with crafting a speech that would achieve that goal — without simultaneously sending everyone into a panic. According to the book, quote: During summer 1953, Jackson by his own admission had had little success in producing an acceptable draft of the Candor speech for the President. No matter what approach he took to the meaning of the thermonuclear weapon, Jackson found that he ended up with a gruesome story of human destruction. Unless the Administration could find some positive hope to present to the American people and the world, the horrifying consequences of nuclear warfare would simply generate fear, and, as the President remarked, the public could not be expected to reach an intelligent understanding in an atmosphere of fear. End quote. After numerous drafts, the tone of the speech gradually shifted from one of dire warning to one of hope and optimism in the face of an existential threat to humanity.

SARAH HARMAN: Against the backdrop of this new landscape of nuclear warfare, President Eisenhower stood at the rostrum before the U.N. General Assembly in New York City on December 8, 1953.

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: The atomic age has moved forward at such a pace that every citizen of the world should have some comprehension, at least in comparative terms, of the extent of this development, of the utmost significance to every one of us. Clearly, if the peoples of the world are to conduct an intelligent search for peace, they must be armed with the significant facts of today's existence.

SARAH HARMAN: He began by laying out in broad terms the terrible destructive potential of America’s nuclear arsenal.

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: On 16 July 1945, the United States set off the world's biggest atomic explosion. Since that date in 1945, the United States of America has conducted forty-two test explosions. Atomic bombs are more than twenty-five times as powerful as the weapons with which the atomic age dawned, while hydrogen weapons are in the ranges of millions of tons of TNT equivalent. Today, the United States stockpile of atomic weapons, which, of course, increases daily, exceeds by many times the total equivalent of the total of all bombs and all shells that came from every plane and every gun in every theatre of war in all the years of World War II.

SARAH HARMAN: Eisenhower continued, saying that the “dread secret and fearful engines of atomic might” no longer belonged to the U.S. alone. Britain, Canada, and, of course, the Soviet Union, all possessed nuclear weapons, and that knowledge would almost certainly be shared by other nations in time. He warned that no defenses could adequately protect any nation from nuclear devastation, and that the consequences of nuclear war would almost certainly be total mutual destruction.

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: The awful arithmetic of the atomic bomb doesn't permit of any such easy solution. Even against the most powerful defense, an aggressor in possession of the effective minimum number of atomic bombs for a surprise attack could probably place a sufficient number of his bombs on the chosen targets to cause hideous damage. Should such an atomic attack be launched against the United States, our reactions would be swift and resolute. But for me to say that the defense capabilities of the United States are such that they could inflict terrible losses upon an aggressor, for me to say that the retaliation capabilities of the United States are so great that such an aggressor's land would be laid waste, all this, while fact, is not the true expression of the purpose and the hopes of the United States. To pause there would be to confirm the hopeless finality of a belief that two atomic colossi are doomed malevolently to eye each other indefinitely across a trembling world. To stop there would be to accept helplessly the probability of civilization destroyed, the annihilation of the irreplaceable heritage of mankind handed down to us from generation to generation, and the condemnation of mankind to begin all over again the age-old struggle upward from savagery towards decency, and right, and justice. Surely no sane member of the human race could discover victory in such desolation. 

SARAH HARMAN: Eisenhower could have stuck with the established narrative of the American-Soviet rivalry — a contest of who could make more bombs, and whose weapons could strike furthest and hardest. Instead, he framed it as a struggle of humanity versus our newfound ability to destroy ourselves. 

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: So my country’s purpose is to help us to move out of the dark chamber of horrors into the light, to find a way by which the minds of men, the hopes of men, the souls of men everywhere, can move forward towards peace and happiness and well-being. In this quest, I know that we must not lack patience. I know that in a world divided, such as ours today, salvation cannot be attained by one dramatic act. I know that many steps will have to be taken over many months before the world can look at itself one day and truly realize that a new climate of mutually peaceful confidence is abroad in the world. But I know, above all else, that we must start to take these steps now.

MATT DOZIER: Those next steps included meetings between the nuclear powers of the world to seek an “acceptable solution” to the atomic arms race. 

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: We shall carry into these private or diplomatic talks a new conception. The United States would seek more than the mere reduction or elimination of atomic materials for military purposes. 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.

MATT DOZIER: Here was the crux of Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace.” He proposed creation of an “International Atomic Energy Agency” under the United Nations to pursue safe, secure, and peaceful uses of nuclear technologies. The nations of the world would contribute uranium and other nuclear material from their stockpiles to support the advancement of nuclear energy “for the benefit of all mankind.”

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. The capability, already proved, is here, now, today. Who can doubt that, if the entire body of the world's scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas, this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient and economic usage?

MATT DOZIER: Eisenhower concluded his remarks on an optimistic note. 

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: Against the dark background of the atomic bomb, the United States does not wish merely to present strength, but also the desire and the hope for peace. The coming months will be fraught with fateful decisions. In this Assembly, in the capitals and military headquarters of the world, in the hearts of men everywhere, be they governed or governors, may they be the decisions which will lead this world out of fear and into peace. To the making of these fateful decisions, the United States pledges before you, and therefore before the world, its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma - to devote its entire heart and mind to finding the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life. I again thank representatives for the great honor they have done me in inviting me to appear before them and in listening to me so courteously.

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MATT DOZIER: The president’s speech helped galvanize the creation of a civilian nuclear industry. It coincided with efforts to update the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, under which the Atomic Energy Commission had held tight control of all nuclear material and technologies in America. Most technical information about atomic energy was considered “restricted data” that was off-limits to private industry or foreign governments — even our closest allies. With the president’s call for increased exploration of civilian nuclear energy, support grew for loosening those restrictions and allowing the private sector to get in on the nuclear game. The passage of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 changed the landscape of nuclear power in America dramatically. It created new channels for the Atomic Energy Commission to share information with industry, sparked a flurry of new reactor experiments, and set the stage for a golden age of nuclear energy development.

SARAH HARMAN: On the morning of January 17, 1955, at 11 AM Eastern, Commander Eugene Wilkinson of the USS Nautilus ordered the submarine to set sail and sent the message: “Underway On Nuclear Power.” By the end of the decade, the Nautilus would make the first-ever submerged crossing of the North Pole. On July 17 of the same year, the town of Arco, Idaho (population 1,200) became the world’s first community to have all its electrical power provided by nuclear energy. That power was generated by BORAX-III, a boiling water reactor plant built by Argonne National Laboratory. Two years later, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station outside Pittsburgh entered operation, becoming the world’s first large-scale nuclear power plant dedicated exclusively to civilian use. Also in 1957, the United Nations created the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, in Vienna, Austria, to pursue the vision of “Atoms for Peace” around the world.

MATT DOZIER: In the decade that followed, nuclear energy flourished in the United States and abroad. By the early 1960s, demonstration power reactors were in operation in all leading industrial countries. 

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MATT DOZIER: Private industry seized on the light-water reactor designs demonstrated in Shippingport and BORAX-III, seeing value in the high power output and fixed generation price of nuclear plants versus coal- and oil-fired alternatives. According to the IAEA, by 1967, U.S. utilities alone had ordered more than 50 power reactors, with an aggregate capacity larger than that of all orders in the USA for coal and oil-fired plants. From 1967 to 1974, they ordered nearly 200 additional plants. Eisenhower passed away in 1969, before the peak of nuclear energy deployment, but he got to see the beginnings of his vision coming to fruition. Atomic power went from being a source of fear and anxiety to providing a path toward peace and prosperity, as countries around the world reaped the benefits of its electricity generation, nuclear medicine, and more. In the 1970s and 1980s, nuclear growth slowed as demand for electricity decreased and concern grew over issues like reactor safety and waste disposal. High-profile accidents like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island shook public confidence in nuclear as a commercial energy source. And while nuclear energy remains a key producer of electricity for many nations around the world, some plants began to close ahead of schedule for economic reasons.

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SARAH HARMAN: Today, we face a threat that’s no less dire than the arms race President Eisenhower warned of 70 years ago. In some ways, the climate crisis is even tougher to grapple with, since it’s a truly global problem with a multitude of drivers. But just as Eisenhower hoped that nuclear could be a force for good, those “atoms for peace” once again have a role to play in helping us secure humanity’s future.

MATT DOZIER: And like the president urged in his 1953 speech, we need to take action now. Transitioning to clean energy sources like nuclear is of paramount importance. Nuclear already provides nearly half of the clean power in the United States and is the second largest source of emissions-free electricity worldwide. The Department of Energy estimates we’ll need an additional 200 gigawatts of firm, clean electricity capacity to reach net-zero emissions in the United States alone by 2050. New reactor technologies will need to help fill that void — creating new jobs and opportunities in every pocket of the country. 

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SARAH HARMAN: Just days ago at COP28, the international climate conference, the United States joined 21 other countries in pledging to triple nuclear generating capacity by 2050 — a fitting tribute to the spirit of international cooperation set forth by Atoms for Peace.

SARAH HARMAN: Achieving that goal is going to take a whole lot of research, investment, and deployment of nuclear energy in a relatively short span of time. But we did it once before.

MATT DOZIER: And we can do it again.

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Sarah Harman: That’s it for another episode of Direct Current! Thank you to our guest host, Matt Dozier for lending his expertise. If you want to learn more about Atoms for Peace, check out our show notes. You can find those, and along with our other episodes, at energy.gov/podcast. Direct Current, and our episode artwork, is produced by me, Sarah Harman. This episode was written by Matt Dozier.  Music and sound editing assistance by Michael Stewart. This is a production of the U.S. Department of Energy and published from our nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. Thanks for listening!

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