The Acheson-Lilienthal Report


The Elimination of International Rivalry

It is clear that uranium and thorium are materials of great strategic importance to nations seeking to establish for themselves a powerful position in the field of atomic energy. The fact that rich sources of such materials occur in a relatively few places in the world, as compared, for example, with oil, creates a competitive situation which might easily produce intolerable tensions in international relations. We believe that so long as nations or their subjects engage in competition in the fields of atomic energy the hazards of atomic warfare are very great indeed. We assume the General Assembly of the United Nations, in setting up an Atomic Energy Commission, had this disturbing fact much in mind.

What is true in respect to the dangers from national competition for uranium is similarly true concerning other phases of the development of atomic energy. Take the case of a controlled reactor, a power pile, producing plutonium. Assume an international agreement barring use of the plutonium in a bomb, but permitting use of the pile for heat or power. No system of inspection, we have concluded, could afford any reasonable security against the diversion of such materials to the purposes of war. If nations may engage in this dangerous field, and only national good faith and international policing stand in the way, the very existence of the prohibition against the use of such piles to produce fissionable material suitable for bombs would tend to stimulate and encourage surreptitious evasions. This danger in the situation is attributable to the fact that this potentially hazardous activity is carried on by nations or their citizens.

It has become clear to us that if the element of rivalry between nations were removed by assignment of the intrinsically dangerous phases of the development of atomic energy to an international organization responsible to all peoples, a reliable prospect would be afforded for a system of security. For it is the element of rivalry and the impossibility of policing the resulting competition through inspection alone that make inspection unworkable as a sole means of control. With that factor of international rivalry removed, the problem becomes both hopeful and manageable.

To restate the conclusion: It is essential that a workable system of safeguards remove from individual nations or their citizens the legal right to engage in certain well defined activities in respect to atomic energy which we believe will be generally agreed to be intrinsically dangerous because they are or could be made steps in the production of atomic bombs. We schematically describe what we regard as intrinsically dangerous steps later in Chapter V. Those activities thus classified as dangerous we conclude are far less dangerous when carried on not by competing nations but by an international organization whose obligation it is to act for all nations. They can, in our opinion, be rendered sufficiently less dangerous to provide an adequate measure of security.

We can illustrate the force of these conclusions in a few simple cases. (a) Take the case of uranium ores. If any nation may engage in prospecting for and mining uranium ore, subject to inspection as to the proper, i. e., peaceful use thereof, inspection is a most difficult thing. But if the only legal ownership and development of uranium ore is in the hands of an international agency manned by and representing all nations, the problem of detection of evasions is, by a single stroke, reduced tremendously. Indeed, we are persuaded that it is reduced to quite manageable proportions in the light of existing knowledge about uranium ore deposits through the world. For then it would be true that not the purpose of those who mine or possess uranium ore but the mere fact of their mining or possessing it becomes illegal, and national violation is an unambiguous danger signal of warlike purposes. The very opening of a mine by anyone other than the international agency is a "red light" without more ; it is not necessary to wait for evidence that the product of that mine is going to be misused.

(b) Take another illustration involving the building and operation of a plutonium pile. The product of that operation is a material that can be used for atomic weapons. The product is also useful for power piles. If all such piles are designed and operated exclusively by an international agency, then the building or operation of such a pile or any move in that direction by any one else is illegal without respect to the use he says he plans to make of it, and constitutes a plain and simple danger signal calling for action of a preventative character by an international agency. 1 Nor could there be a clearer sign of danger calling for immediate international action or countermeasures than interference with the operation of an international plant. We conclude that the international development and operation of potentially and intrinsically dangerous activities in connection with atomic energy would bring the task of security within manageable proportions because of the elimination of the hazards of rivalry between nations. But there is a further advantage to vesting exclusively in an international agency these activities so hazardous to world security. That advantage grows out of the nature of the development of atomic energy itself.

This is a growing and changing field. New advances in technology may be confidently expected. It therefore becomes absolutely essential that any international agency seeking to safeguard the security of the world against warlike uses of atomic energy should be in the very forefront of technical competence in this field. If the international agency is simply a police activity for only negative and repressive functions, inevitably and within a very short period of time the enforcement agency will not know enough to be able to recognize new elements of danger, new possibilities of evasion, or the beginnings of a course of development having dangerous and warlike ends in view. There is a striking example of this. The art of atomic weapons is in its infancy and we are quite ignorant of the possibilities in this field. Such ignorance, such uncertainty of such catastrophic weapons, is itself a source of danger, and its continuation, through the prohibition of further study and development, would in our opinion not only be hard to effect, but would itself be dangerous. Yet the development of atomic weapons can hardly be left to national rivalry.

A further example: The present separation plants for U 235 at Oak Ridge are huge and bulky in the extreme, and use enormous amounts of power. Quite probably this will always be true. But it is not a law of nature. Those in whose hands lies the prevention of atomic warfare must be the first to know and to exploit technical advances in this field.

We have, therefore, concluded that here was an additional reason and a very practical one why a responsibility for the development of atomic energy should be vested in the same international agency that has also responsibility for developing and enforcing safeguards against atomic warfare. For unless the international agency was engaged in development activities itself (as, for example, in the design and operation of power piles or in the surveying and exploration of new sources of raw materials) its personnel would not have the power of knowledge or the sensitivity to new developments that would make it a competent and useful protection to the people of the world.

We have therefore reached these two conclusions: (a) that only if the dangerous aspects of atomic energy are taken out of national hands and placed in international hands is there any reasonable prospect of devising safeguards against the use of atomic energy for bombs, and (b) only if the international agency was engaged in development and operation could it possibly discharge adequately its functions as a safeguarder of the world's future. Such a development function also seems essential in terms of attracting to the international agency the kind of scientists and technicians that this problem requires, recognizing that a mere policing, inspecting or suppressing function would neither attract nor hold them.