Jimmy Carter photo

Address to the Conference on Nuclear Energy at the United Nations in New York City

May 13, 1976

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Director-General, Captain Cousteau, Ambassador Akhund, Mr. Lehman:

I have a deep personal concern with the subject of this conference today—"Nuclear Energy and World Order."

I have had training as a nuclear engineer, working in the United States Navy on our country's early nuclear submarine program. I learned how nuclear power can be used for peaceful purposes—for propelling ships, for generating electric power and for scientific and medical research. I am acutely aware of its potential—and its dangers. Once I helped in disassembling a damaged nuclear reactor core in an experimental reactor at Chalk River, Canada.

From my experience in the Navy and more recently as Governor of Georgia I have come to certain basic conclusions about the energy problem. The world has only enough oil to last about 30 to 40 years at the present rate of consumption. It has large coal reserves—with perhaps 200 years of reserves in the United States alone. The United States must shift from oil to coal, taking care about the environmental problems involved in coal production and use. Our country must also maintain strict energy conservation measures, and derive increasing amounts of energy from renewable sources such as the sun.

United States dependence on nuclear power should be kept to the minimum necessary to meet our needs. We should apply much stronger safety standards as we regulate its use. And we must be honest with our people concerning its problems and dangers.

I recognize that many other countries of the world do not have the fossil fuel reserves of the United States. With the four-fold increase in the price of oil, many countries have concluded that they have no immediate alternative except to concentrate on nuclear power.

But all of us must recognize that the widespread use of nuclear power brings many risks. Power reactors may malfunction and cause widespread radiological damage, unless stringent safety requirements are met Radioactive wastes may be a menace to future generations and civilizations, unless they are effectively isolated within the biosphere forever. And terrorists or other criminals may steal plutonium and make weapons to threaten society or its political leaders with nuclear violence, unless strict security measures are developed and implemented to prevent nuclear theft.

Beyond these dangers, there is the fearsome prospect that the spread of nuclear reactors will mean the spread of nuclear weapons to many nations. By 1990, the developing nations alone will produce enough plutonium in their reactors to build 3,000 Hiroshima-size bombs a year, and by the year 2000, worldwide plutonium production may be over 1 million pounds a year—the equivalent of 100,000 bombs a year—about half of it outside of the United States.

This prospect of a nuclear future will be particularly alarming if a large number of nations develop their own national plutonium reprocessing facilities with the capacity to extract plutonium from the spent fuel. Even if such facilities are subject to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency and even if the countries controlling them are parties to the NonProliferation Treaty, plutonium stockpiles can be converted to atomic weapons at a time of crisis, without fear of effective sanction by the international community.

The reality of this danger was highlighted by the Indian nuclear explosion of May, 1974, which provided a dramatic demonstration that the development of nuclear power gives any country possessing a reprocessing plant a nuclear weapons option. Furthermore, with the maturing of nuclear power in advanced countries, intense competition has developed in the sale of power reactors, which has also included the sale of the most highly sensitive technologies, including reprocessing plants. With the spread of such capabilities, normal events of history—revolutions, terrorist attacks, regional disputes, and dictators—all could take on a nuclear dimension.

Dr. Alvin Weinberg, former Director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and one of the most thoughtful nuclear scientists in the United States was properly moved to observe, "We nuclear people have made a Faustian bargain with society. On the one hand we offer an inexhaustible supply of energy, but the price that we demand of society for this magical energy source is both a vigilance and a longevity of our social institutions that we arc quite unaccustomed to."

Nuclear energy must be at the very top of the list of global challenges that call for new forms of international action. The precise form which that action should take is the question to be addressed by this distinguished group of scientists, businessmen, diplomats and government officials during the next four days.

I would not presume to anticipate the outcome of your expert deliberations. But I suggest that new lines of international action should be considered in three main areas:

(1) action to meet the energy needs of all countries while limiting reliance on nuclear energy;

(2) action to limit the spread of nuclear weapons; and

(3) action to make the spread of peaceful nuclear power less dangerous.

1. We need new international action to help meet the energy needs of all countries while limiting reliance on nuclear energy.

In recent years, we have had major United Nations conferences on environment, population, food, the oceans and the role of women—with habitat, water, deserts, and science and technology on the schedule for the months and years immediately ahead. These are tentative first steps to deal with global problems on a global basis.

Critics have been disappointed with the lack of immediate results. But they miss an important point: a new world agenda is emerging from this process—an agenda of priority problems on which nations must cooperate or abdicate the right to plan a future for the human condition.

The time has come to put the world energy problem on that new agenda. Let us hold a World Energy Conference under the auspices of the United Nations to help all nations cope with common energy problems—eliminating energy waste and increasing energy efficiency; reconciling energy needs with environmental quality goals; and shifting away from almost total reliance upon dwindling sources of non-renewable energy to the greatest feasible reliance on renewable sources. In other words, we must move from living off our limited energy capital to living within our energy income.

Such a conference would have to be carefully prepared. Just as the World Food Conference provided us with a world food balance sheet, this conference could give us a world energy balance sheet. Just as the World Food Conference stimulated international cooperation in agricultural research and development, so a world energy conference could stimulate research and development in the field of energy.

Existing international ventures of energy cooperation are not global in scope. The International Energy Agency in Paris includes only some developed non-Communist countries. The Energy Commission of the Conference on International Economic Cooperation does not include countries such as the Soviet Union and China, two great producers and consumers of energy. And the International Energy Institute now under study does not call for a substantial research and development effort.

A World Energy Conference should not simply be a dramatic meeting to highlight a problem which is then forgotten. Rather, it should lead to the creation of new or strengthened institutions to perform the following tasks:

• improving the collection and analysis of worldwide energy information;

• stimulating and coordinating a network of worldwide energy research centers;

• advising countries, particularly in the developing world, on the development of sound national energy policies;

• providing technical assistance to train energy planners and badly needed energy technicians;

• increasing the flow of investment capital from private and public sources into new energy development;

• accelerating research and information exchange on energy conservation.

An international energy effort would also be the occasion to examine seriously and in depth this fundamental question:

Is it really necessary to the welfare of our countries to become dependent upon a nuclear energy economy and if so, how dependent and for what purposes? Surely, there is a moral imperative that demands a worldwide effort to assure that if we travel down the nuclear road we do so with our eyes wide open.

Such a worldwide effort must also provide practical alternatives to the nuclear option. Many countries, particularly in the developing world, are being forced into a premature nuclear commitment because they do not have the knowledge and the means to explore other possibilities. The world's research and development efforts are now focused either on nuclear energy or on the development of a diminishing supply of fossil fuels.

More should be done to help the developing countries develop their oil, gas, and coal resources. But a special effort should be made in the development of small-scale technology that can use renewable sources of energy that are abundant in the developing world—solar heating and cooling, wind energy, and "bioconversion"—an indirect form of solar energy that harnesses the sunlight captured by living plants. Using local labor and materials, developing countries can be helped to produce usable fuel from human and animal wastes, otherwise wasted wood, fast growing plants, and even ocean kelp and algae.

Such measures would be a practical way to help the poorest segment of humanity whose emancipation from grinding poverty must be our continuing concern.

And all countries could reap benefits from worldwide energy cooperation. The costs to any one country would be small if they were shared among nations; the benefits to each of us from a break through to new energy sources anywhere in the world would be great. We have tried international cooperation in food research and it has paid handsome dividends in high-yielding varieties of com, wheat, rice and sorghum. We could expect similar benefits from worldwide energy cooperation.

The exact institutional formula for coping with energy effectively on a world level will require the most careful consideration. The IAEA is neither equipped nor staffed to be an adviser on energy across the board; nor would it be desirable to add additional functions that might interfere with its vitally important work on nuclear safeguards and safety.

One possibility to be considered at a World Energy Conference would be the creation of a new World Energy Agency to work side by side with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. A strengthened International Atomic Energy Agency could focus on assistance and safeguards for nuclear energy; the new agency on research and development of nonnuclear, particularly renewable, sources.

2. We need new international action to limit the spread of nuclear weapons.

In the past, public attention has been focused on the problem of controlling the escalation of the strategic nuclear arms race among the superpowers. Far less attention has been given to that of controlling the proliferation of nuclear weapons capabilities among an increasing number of nations.

And yet the danger to world peace may be as great, if not greater, if this second effort of control should fail. The more countries that possess nuclear weapons, the greater the risk that nuclear warfare might erupt in local conflicts, and the greater the danger that these could trigger a major nuclear war.

To date, the principal instrument of control has been the Non-Proliferation Treaty which entered into force in 1970. By 1976 ninety-five non-weapons states had ratified the Treaty, including the advanced industrial states of Western Europe, and prospectively of Japan. In so doing, these nations agreed not to develop nuclear weapons or explosives. In addition they agreed to accept international safeguards on all their peaceful nuclear activities, developed by themselves or with outside assistance, under agreements negotiated with the International Atomic Energy Agency—a little appreciated, but an unprecedented step forward, in the development of international law.

Important as this achievement is, it cannot be a source of complacency, particularly under present circumstances. There are still a dozen or more important countries with active nuclear power programs which have not joined the Treaty. Hopefully, some of these may decide to become members; but in the case of several of them, this is unlikely until the underlying tensions behind their decision to maintain a nuclear weapons option are resolved.

The NPT was not conceived of as a one-way street. Under the Treaty, in return for the commitments of the non-weapons states, a major undertaking of the nuclear weapons states (and other nuclear suppliers in a position to do so) was to provide special nuclear power benefits to treaty members, particularly to developing countries.

The advanced countries have not done nearly enough in providing such peaceful benefits to convince the member states that they are better off inside the Treaty than outside.

In fact, recent commercial transactions by some of the supplier countries have conferred special benefits on non-treaty members, thereby largely removing any incentive for such recipients to join the Treaty. They consider themselves better off outside. Furthermore, while individual, facilities in these non-treaty countries may be subject to international safeguards, others may not be, and India has demonstrated that such facilities may provide the capability to produce nuclear weapons.

As a further part of the two-way street, there is an obligation by the nuclear weapons states, under the Treaty, to pursue negotiations in good faith to reach agreement to control and reduce the nuclear arms race.

We Americans must be honest about the problems of proliferation of nuclear weapons. Our nuclear deterrent remains an essential element of world order in this area. Nevertheless, by enjoining sovereign nations to forego nuclear weapons, we are asking for a form of self-denial that we have not been able to accept ourselves.

I believe we have little right to ask others to deny themselves such weapons for the indefinite future unless we demonstrate meaningful progress toward the goal of control, then reduction, and ultimately, elimination of nuclear arsenals.

Unfortunately, the agreements reached to date have succeeded largely in changing the buildup in strategic arms from a "quantitative" to a "qualitative" arms race. It is time, in the SALT talks, that we complete the stage of agreeing on ceilings and get down to the centerpiece of SALT—the actual negotiation of reductions in strategic forces and measures effectively halting the race in strategic weapons technology. The world is waiting, but not necessarily for long. The longer effective arms reduction is postponed, the more likely it is that other nations will be encouraged to develop their own nuclear capability.

There is one step that can be taken at once. The United States and the Soviet Union should conclude an agreement prohibiting all nuclear explosions for a period of five years, whether they be weapons tests or so-called "peaceful" nuclear explosions, and encourage all other countries to join. At the end of the five year period the agreement can be continued if it serves the interests of the parties.

I am aware of the Soviet objections to a comprehensive treaty that does not allow peaceful nuclear explosions. I also remember, during the Kennedy Administration, when the roles were reversed. Then the United States had a similar proposal that permitted large-scale peaceful explosions. However, in order to reach an accord, we withdrew our proposal. Similarly, today, if the United States really pushed a comprehensive test ban treaty, I believe the United States and the world community could persuade the USSR to dispose of this issue and accept a comprehensive test ban.

The non-proliferation significance of the superpowers' decision to ban peaceful nuclear explosions would be very great because of its effect on countries who have resisted the Non-Proliferation Treaty's prohibition of "peaceful" nuclear explosives, even though they are indistinguishable from bombs.

A comprehensive test ban would also signal to the world the determination of the signatory states to call a halt to the further development of nuclear weaponry. It has been more than a decade since the Limited Test Ban Treaty entered into force, and well over 100 nations are now parties to that agreement.

It now appears that the United States and the Soviet Union are close to an agreement that would prohibit underground nuclear tests above 150 kilotons. This so-called threshold test ban treaty represents a wholly inadequate step beyond the limited test ban. We can and should do more. Our national verification capabilities in the last twenty years have advanced to the point where we no longer have to rely on on-site inspection to distinguish between earthquakes and even very small weapons tests.

Finally, such a treaty would not only be a demonstration on the part of the superpowers to agree to limit their own weapons development. As President Kennedy foresaw in 1963, the most important objective of a comprehensive treaty of universal application would be its inhibiting effect on the spread of nuclear weapons by prohibiting tests by every signatory state.


We need new international action to make the spread of peaceful nuclear power less dangerous.

The danger is not so much in the spread of nuclear reactors themselves, for nuclear reactor fuel is not suitable for use directly in the production of nuclear weapons. The far greater danger lies in the spread of facilities few the enrichment of uranium and the reprocessing of spent reactor fuel—because highly enriched uranium can be used to produce weapons; and because plutonium, when separated from the remainder of the spent fuel, can also be used to produce nuclear weapons. Even at the present early stage in the development of the nuclear power industry, enough materials are produced for at least a thousand bombs each year.

Under present international arrangements, peaceful nuclear facilities are sought to be safeguarded against diversion and theft of nuclear materials by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. As far as reactors are concerned, the international safeguards—which include materials accountancy, surveillance and inspection—provide some assurance that the diversion of a significant amount of fissionable material would be detected, and therefore help to deter diversion.

Of course, as the civilian nuclear power industry expands around the globe, there will be a corresponding need to expand and improve the personnel and facilities of the international safeguards system. The United States should fulfill its decade-old promise to put its peaceful nuclear facilities under international safeguards to demonstrate that we too are prepared to accept the same arrangements as the non-weapon states.

That would place substantial additional demands on the safeguards system of the IAEA, and the United States should bear its fair share of the costs of this expansion. It is a price we cannot afford not to pay.

But in the field of enrichment and reprocessing, where the primary danger lies, the present international safeguards system cannot provide adequate assurance against the possibility that national enrichment and reprocessing facilities will be misused for military purposes.

The fact is that a reprocessing plant separating the plutonium from spent fuel literally provides a country with direct access to nuclear explosive material.

It has therefore been the consistent policy of the United States over the course of several administrations, not to authorize the sale of either enrichment or reprocessing plants, even with safeguards. Recently, however, some of the other principal suppliers of nuclear equipment have begun to make such sales.

In my judgment, it is absolutely essential to halt the sale of such plants.

Considerations of commercial profit cannot be allowed to prevail over the paramount objective of limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. The heads of government of all the principal supplier nations hopefully will recognize this danger and share this view.

I am not seeking to place any restrictions on the sale of nuclear power reactors which sell for as much as $1 billion per reactor. I believe that all supplier countries are entitled to a fair share of the reactor market What we must prevent, however, is the sale of small pilot reprocessing plants which sell for only a few million dollars, have no commercial use at present, and can only spread nuclear explosives around the world.

The International Atomic Energy Agency itself, pursuant to the recommendations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference of 1975, is currently engaged in an intensive feasibility study of multinational fuel centers as one way of promoting the safe development of nuclear power by the nations of the world, with enhanced control resulting from multinational participation.

The Agency is also considering other ways to strengthen the protection of explosive material involved in the nuclear fuel cycle. This includes use of the Agency's hitherto unused authority under its charter to establish highly secure repositories for the separated plutonium from non-military facilities, following reprocessing and pending its fabrication into mixed oxide fuel elements as supplementary fuel.

Until such studies are completed, I call on all nations of the world to adopt a voluntary moratorium on the national purchase or sale of enrichment or reprocessing plants. I would hope this moratorium would apply to recently completed agreements.

I do not underestimate the political obstacles in negotiating such a moratorium, but they might be overcome if we do what should have been done many months ago—bring this matter to the attention of the highest political authorities of the supplying countries.

Acceptance of a moratorium would deprive no nation of the ability to meet its nuclear power needs through the purchase of current reactors with guarantees of a long-range supply of enriched uranium. Such assurances must be provided now by those supplier countries possessing the highly expensive facilities currently required for this purpose.

To assure the developing countries of an assured supply of enriched uranium to meet their nuclear power needs without the need for reprocessing, the United States should, in cooperation with other countries, assure an adequate supply of enriched uranium.

We should also give the most serious consideration to the establishment of centralized multinational enrichment facilities involving developing countries' investment participation, in order to provide the assured supply of enriched uranium. And, if one day their nuclear programs economically justify use of plutonium as a supplementary fuel, similar centralized multinational reprocessing services could equally provide for an assured supply of mixed oxide fuel elements.

It makes no economic sense to locate national reprocessing facilities in a number of different countries. In view of economies of scale, a single commercial reprocessing facility and a fuel fabrication plant will provide services for about fifty large power reactors. From an economic point of view, multinational facilities serving many countries are obviously desirable. And the collocation of reprocessing, fuel fabrication and fuel storage facilities would reduce the risk of weapons proliferation, theft of plutonium during transport, and environmental contamination.

There is considerable doubt within the United States about the necessity of reprocessing now for plutonium recycle. Furthermore, the licensing of plutonium for such use is currently withheld pending a full scale review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of the economic, environmental, and safeguards issues. And there is a further question to be asked: If the United States does not want the developing countries to have commercial plutonium why should we be permitted to have it under our sovereign control?

Surely this whole matter of plutonium recycle should be examined on an international basis. Since our nation has more experience than others in fuel reprocessing, we should initiate a new multinational program designed to develop experimentally the technology, economics, regulations and safeguards to be associated with plutonium recovery and recycle. The program could be developed by the U.S. in cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

If the need for plutonium reprocessing is eventually demonstrated—and if mutually satisfactory ground rules for management and operation can be worked out, the first U.S. reprocessing plant which is now nearing completion in Barnwell, South Carolina, could become the first multinational reprocessing facility under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Separated plutonium might ultimately be made available to all nations on a reliable, cheap, and non-discriminatory basis after blending with natural uranium to form a low-enriched fuel that is unsuitable for weapons making.

Since the immediate need for plutonium recycle has not yet been demonstrated, the start-up of the plant should certainly be delayed to allow time for the installation of the next generation of materials accounting and physical security equipment which is now under development.

One final observation in this area: We need to cut through the indecision and debate about the long-term storage of radioactive wastes and start doing something about it. The United States could begin by preparing all high-level radioactive wastes currently produced from our military programs for permanent disposal. Waste disposal is a matter on which sound international arrangements will clearly be necessary.

The nuclear situation is serious, but it is not yet desperate. Most nations of the world do not want nuclear weapons. They particularly do not want their neighbors to have nuclear weapons, but they understand that they cannot keep the option open for themselves without automatically encouraging their neighbors to "keep options open" or worse.

It is this widespread understanding that it is not in the interest of individual nations to "go nuclear" which we must use as the basis of our worldwide efforts to control the atom. We must have negative measures—mutual restraint on the part of the producers and suppliers of nuclear fuel and technology. But these negative measures must be joined to the larger, positive efforts of the non-nuclear weapon states to hold the line against further proliferation.

The recent initiative of the Finnish Government along these lines deserves commendation. The Finns have urged a compact among the purchasers of nuclear fuel and technology to buy only from suppliers who require proper safeguards on their exports.

This proposal would convert the alleged advantages to a supplier of breaking ranks and offering "bargains" in safeguards into a commercial disadvantage. Instead of broadening his market by lowering his standards, the supplier would narrow it. There would be fewer purchasers for his dangerous merchandise than if he maintained a common front on safeguards with other suppliers. There would be competition to offer to buyers the safest product at the best price.

Most important, the Finnish proposal would plainly put the full weight of the non-nuclear world into the effort against proliferation. It would make it evident that this struggle is not a struggle by the nuclear "haves" to keep down the nuclear "have-nots"; it would be a common effort by all mankind to control this dangerous technology, to gain time so that our political structures can catch up with sudden, enormous leaps in our technical knowledge, to turn us around and head us in the right direction—toward a world from which nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war have been effectively eliminated. That may be a distant goal—but it is the direction in which we must move.

I have talked to you today about the need for new international action in three areas—action to meet the energy needs of all countries while limiting reliance on nuclear energy, action to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, and action to make the spread of peaceful nuclear power less dangerous.

Of one thing I am certain—the hour is too late for business as usual, for politics as usual, or for diplomacy as usual. An alliance for survival is needed—transcending regions and ideologies—if we are to assure mankind a safe passage to the twenty-first century.

Every country—and the United States is no exception—is concerned with maintaining its own national security. But a mutual balance of terror is an inadequate foundation upon which to build a peaceful and stable world order. One of the greatest long-term threats to the national security of every country now lies in the disintegration of the international order. Balance of power politics must be supplemented by world order politics if the foreign policies of nations are to be relevant to modem needs.

The political leaders of all nations, whether they work within four year election cycles or five year plans, are under enormous temptations to promise short-term benefits to their people while passing on the costs to other countries, to future generations, or to our environment. The earth, the atmosphere, the oceans and unborn generations have no political franchise. But shortsighted policies today will lead to insuperable problems tomorrow.

The time has come for political leaders around the world to take a larger view of their obligations, showing a decent respect for posterity, for the needs of other peoples and for the global biosphere.

I believe the American people want this larger kind of leadership.

In the last two years, I have visited virtually every one of our fifty states. I have found our people deeply troubled by recent developments at the United Nations. But they do not want to abandon the UN—they want us to work harder to make it what it was created to be—not a cockpit for controversy but an instrument for reconciling differences and resolving common problems.

And they want UN agencies to demonstrate the same commitment to excellence, impartiality and efficiency they are demanding of their own government.

We want to cooperate—not simply debate. A joint program—whether on nuclear energy or other global problems—is infinitely preferable to sustained and destructive polemics. Our desire for global cooperation is prompted by America's confidence in itself, in our capacity to engage in effective cooperation, and upon the moral imperative that as human beings we must help one another if any of us is to survive on this planet.

The nuclear age, which brings both sword and plowshare from the same source, demands unusual self-discipline of all nations. If we approach these problems with both humility and self-discipline, we may yet reconcile our twin goals of energy sufficiency and world order.

Jimmy Carter, Address to the Conference on Nuclear Energy at the United Nations in New York City Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/347610

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