When the IAEA was born

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How Much Nuclear Control?

The US plan, which had become known as ‘the plan of the majority’, was studied in detail throughout 1947 by experts from the Western countries under the amused gaze of the Soviet representative, who emphasized from time to time the obvious faults of the theoretical structure to which this exercise was leading, for at that time there was no chance of the Soviet Union’s joining in.

Even within the majority group, agreement was sometimes difficult to achieve. For example, many meetings were devoted to the question of whether or not uranium ore still in the ground should belong to the future international control agency. Under pressure from Belgium and Brazil, it was finally agreed that uranium and thorium producing countries should remain the owners of ore in the ground; ore would become the property of the inter-national control agency only after extraction.

At the same time, the inter-national control agency would be empowered to impose each year quotas for the extraction of ore or for the production of fissionable materials, which would belong to it together with the reactors in which they were produced and—naturally—the isotopic separation and irradiated fuel reprocessing plants.

It was decided that the international control agency should have the sole right to manufacture nuclear explosives, so that it would be in the forefront in this field also and hence in a better position to detect any prohibited activities. At no time, however, was a study made of the question of the crucial transi-tion period during which the USA would be handing over its nuclear weapons gradually to the international control agency prior to the stage of universally controlled nuclear disarmament.

It was during these meetings, in 1947, that Oppenheimer gave us his views about the future of nuclear energy. He predicted that electricity generation on an experimental basis would start within five years, that a number of nuclear power plants would be built in industrialized regions where electricity is expensive during the next 10-20 years and that large scale development would begin after 30-50 years. His predictions have proved to be remarkably accurate.

Lost Chance, New Direction

After two years’ work and over 200 meetings, the UN Atomic Energy Commission informed the Security Council, in 1948, that it had reached an impasse and discontinued its work. The first attempts to achieve international nuclear disarmament had failed and humanity’s last chance of living in a world without the atomic bomb disappeared.

In the ensuing years, from 1949, the US nuclear monopoly disappeared. From 1951 onward, the negotiations on nuclear controls were linked with those on traditional disarmament. There was no more talk about the Inter-national Atomic Development Authority, the idea of international ownership and management becoming more difficult to put into practice as the world’s uranium resources increased and further countries embarked upon large national nuclear programs. Moreover, the safeguards against all diversion of fissile materials which were to have been applied by the international control agency became far less important, for atomic bomb stockpiles were increasing steadily and a substantial fraction of them could always be concealed when controlled worldwide disarmament was being established.

So the direction of the discussions on nuclear disarmament changed and, as in the case of conventional disarmament, attention focused on the transi-tional stages and the various prohibitions covering the use, manufacture and stockpiling of nuclear weapons which would accompany the gradual estab-lishment of safeguards.

The surprising speed with which the Soviet Union was catching up in the nuclear field (and in particular its breakthrough into the thermonuclear field in 1953), the British explosion of 1952 and the French decision—of the same year—to build large plutonium producing reactors fuelled with the uranium recently discovered in France itself made it clear that the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom had reached the most advanced stages of industrial nuclear technology and that France would do the same fairly soon.

The demonstration of the relative ineffectiveness of the policy of secrecy, the risk that a system of international nuclear cooperation and commerce would be established without the Anglo-Saxon powers—excluded by their own rigorous laws—and, above all, the desire to “initiate a process of détente and disarmament” induced the USA to change its policy quite suddenly at the end of 1953.


President Eisenhower’s Proposal

In his famous speech of 8 December 1953 before the UN General Assembly, President Eisenhower, just back from the Bermuda Summit Conference between the USA, the United Kingdom and France, after describ-ing the balance of terror which was becoming the principal element in the relations between the two largest of the major powers, again proposed the establishment of an international agency for atomic energy, to which the countries most advanced in the nuclear field would contribute natural urani-um and fissionable materials drawn from their national stockpiles. The agency would be created under the auspices of the United Nations and would be responsible for the materials entrusted to it. These materials—available initially in only small amounts—would serve to promote the peaceful applications of atomic energy, especially electricity generation, and would be distributed and used in such a way as to yield the greatest benefit for all.

The new agency would have control powers limited to verification of the peaceful utilization of the materials which it would be responsible for receiving, storing and redistributing. Such a ‘bank’ would have to be absolutely secure against attack or theft; for the first time, nuclear terrorism—about which so much is talked today—was mentioned in an official document.

Such an embryo international authority for atomic energy would assume even greater importance with the increase in the contributions of the countries most interested, of which Eisenhower stated that as a prerequisite the Soviet Union must be a part.
For the first time since the Second World War, a plan for nuclear détente was not characterized by the opposing demands of the two major nuclear powers—the US demand that the Soviet Union throw itself open to international inspections and the Soviet demand for the prohibition and destruction of nuclear weapons.

Soviet-US Dialogue

At the end of 1953, the Soviet Union agreed to discuss the Eisenhower proposal directly with the USA through diplomatic channels. Initially, however, the Soviet Government was very reluctant: it insisted on prior solemn renun-ciation of the use of the hydrogen bomb and of other weapons of mass destruction and espoused the US arguments of 1946, pointing out that the production of energy for peaceful purposes could not be distinguished arbitrarily from the production of materials usable for military purposes and that a country could not engage in one without engaging in the other.

Later, at the end of 1954, the Soviet Union subordinated discussions on the future international agency for atomic energy to the conclusion of an agreement on nuclear weapons; it proposed a meeting of Soviet and US experts to consider the technical possibility of preventing the diversion to military uses of fissionable materials originally intended for non-military uses and ways of making such materials unsuitable for military uses without detracting from their non-military value. A meeting of experts from the main nuclear powers took place in Geneva in September 1955, but no solution was found.

The Soviet reluctance did not prevent the USA from preparing and sub-mitting to the Soviet Union several successive drafts of the statute of the future agency, drawn up after consultations with the main nuclear powers and the principal producers of uranium: Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom. In the summer of 1954, the US Government relaxed its internal nuclear legislation and authorized the placing of nuclear know-how and materials at the disposal of other countries provided that they were used only for peaceful purposes. It also announced its decision to go ahead with the establishment of the new agency, even without the Soviet Union.

In the autumn of 1954, the UN General Assembly urged a continuation of negotiations and decided on holding—under United Nations auspices—a large technical conference on the peaceful uses of atomic energy, designed to lift the veil of atomic secrecy to a great extent. The conference took place in August 1955 in Geneva, with success and with the full participation of the Soviet Union.

Soon after the conference, the Soviet Government announced its willingness to participate in the future agency, to transfer fissionable materi-als to it and to accept as a basis for discussion the third draft statute prepared by the US Government in March 1955. The discussion of principles thus ended, to be followed by a period of a year during which the final statute text was arrived at in the course of two conferences, held at the beginning and end of 1956 in Washington and New York, respectively.

In 1955, the UN General Assembly entrusted the USA with the organization—in Washington—of a conference of the 12 countries most interested in the creation of the new agency. The countries invited to participate were those which had been consulted over the drafts of the statute plus the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Brazil and India. The conference took place in February and March 1956.

A feature of the negotiations, which lasted four weeks, was the conciliatory attitude of the Soviet Union. The type of organization which emerged from the negotiations was to have the role of a broker rather than a banker and possess very broad control powers which would apply both to agree-ments for the transfer of materials which had been placed at the new agency’s disposal and—above all—to bilateral or multilateral agreements the parties to which wished the new agency to verify their non-military character.

With regard to the latter type of agreement it was decided, despite Soviet opposi-tion, that the associated safeguards costs should be borne by the new agency, since the safeguards would be contributing to the maintenance of world peace. The Indian delegation, while accepting safeguards on special fissionable materials (enriched uranium and plutonium), opposed safeguards on natural uranium. The only delegation to take this line, it put forward the view that safeguards on natural uranium would divide the countries of the world into two categories: on one hand, countries which did not have uranium deposits on their territory or had not been able to acquire uranium through commercial channels, which would be subject to constant controls in the industrial area—the only one they could develop; on the other hand, countries with a military nuclear programme, which could benefit from such a programme as regards industrial secrecy since they had uncontrolled materials available which could be switched to non-military uses.


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