Atoms for Peace Program

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The Atoms for Peace program, announced by President Dwight Eisenhower at the United Nations in December 1953, constituted a new international effort to regulate the uses of nuclear energy. With its ethical and political justifications, it thus provides an important case study in the control of one specific form of science and technology.


Following the Soviet Union's rejection of the 1945 Baruch Plan for the international control of atomic energy, passage of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 established a U.S. policy to prevent the spread of nuclear technology by secrecy and denial. Even exchanges of information with U.S. allies who had cooperated in the development of the atomic bomb were prohibited.

By the end of 1953, however, it was apparent that the policy of restriction had failed. The Soviet Union had joined the United States as an atomic weapons state, and both the United States and the USSR had tested hydrogen bombs. In addition to the development of more sophisticated nuclear weapons, research also had progressed on the peaceful uses of nuclear power, especially in commercial applications. As Secretary of State John Foster Dulles noted during testimony before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, knowledge about atomic energy was growing in so much of the world that it was impossible for the United States to "effectively dam ... the flow of information." If the United States continued to try to do so, he observed, "we [would] only dam our influence and others [would] move into the field with the bargaining power that that involves" (Guhin 1976, p. 10).

The transition from a policy of secrecy and denial to active promotion of the peaceful applications of atomic energy was first clearly articulated in President Eisenhower's famous "Atoms for Peace" speech before the United Nations. There, Eisenhower acknowledged that the secret of the atom eventually would be acquired by other states, and he emphasized the need to exploit those properties in the atom that were good rather than evil. More specifically, he proposed that the governments principally involved in nuclear research and development make joint contributions from their stockpiles of fissionable materials to an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The IAEA was to be set up under the jurisdiction of the United Nations and would be responsible for the storage and protection of contributed fissionable materials. It also was to have the important task of devising methods to distribute nuclear material for peaceful purposes, especially the production of electrical power. Eisenhower hoped that the contribution of fissionable products to the IAEA would assist arms control by diverting the stockpile of nuclear material from military to peaceful purposes. The contributing powers would, in Eisenhower's words, "be dedicating some of their strength to serve the needs rather than the fears of mankind" (Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower 1953, pp. 813–822).


It was not until 1957 that Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace proposals found fruition in the establishment of the IAEA. Not only did the Soviet Union's initial opposition need to be overcome, but substantial revisions had to be made in the very restrictive U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1946. These changes, incorporated in the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, included removing most controls on the classifications of information regarding nuclear research, approving ownership of nuclear facilities and fissionable material by private industry, and authorizing the government to enter into agreements for cooperation with other nations on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program ushered in a period of relaxed control over nuclear information, which, ironically, facilitated the development of a race between the United States and the Soviet Union for peaceful nuclear energy and prestige, in tandem with the superpower arms race. One aspect of the former competition was the rush by both the United States and the Soviet Union to declassify and disseminate a large volume of technical information. By 1958 this competition resulted in the adoption of new guidelines for information declassification in the United States that made it possible for any nation to gain access to almost all basic scientific information on the research, development, and operation of plants and equipment in the field of nuclear fission.

More than fifty years after president Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" speech, it is apparent that his initiative was a double-edged sword. Predicated on the belief—or at least the hope—that peaceful nuclear energy might be as beneficial to humanity as nuclear weapons were destructive, one indeed can observe many benefits derived from nuclear activities in the realms of medicine, agriculture, and industry. In addition, Eisenhower's initiative gave rise to a number of the most important components of the contemporary nonproliferation regime, including the IAEA and its international system of safeguards. However, one cannot ignore the fact that the Atoms for Peace program also accelerated nuclear proliferation by making it easier for some states to pursue their nuclear weapons ambitions. Although it may be more obvious today than in 1953, the fundamental dilemma remains unchanged—how can a policy prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons capabilities while at the same time promoting the benefits of nuclear energy if the basic raw materials and technology for both are essentially the same?


SEE ALSO Baruch Plan;International Relations.


Guhin, Michael A. (1976). Nuclear Paradox: Security Risks of the Peaceful Atom. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute.

Lavoy, Peter R. (2003). "The Enduring Effects of Atoms for Peace." Arms Control Today 33(10): 26–30.

Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953. (1960). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Sokolski, Henry D. (2001). Best of Intentions: America's Campaign against Strategic Weapons Proliferation. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Weiss, Leonard. (2003). "Atoms for Peace." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 59(6): 34–41, 44.


Center for Global Security Research, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. (2003). "Atoms for Peace after 50 Years: The New Challenges and Opportunities" Available from