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November 20, 2006

Commentary: Atoms for Peace in South Korea

Henry N. Wagner, Jr.

On October 9, the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea claimed they had successfully carried out a nuclear bomb test to become the ninth member of the exclusive club of nuclear powers. 

The dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation are obvious, but they are not the whole story of nuclear “power.”

Just two weeks after North Korea’s announcement, for instance, I was in Seoul, South Korea, to address the ninth Congress of the World Federation of Nuclear Medicine and Biology. Over 3,000 physicians, scientists and other professional from 70 different nations attended the meeting. Founded in 1973, the Federation has a mandate to extend the activities of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to the non-governmental support of nuclear medicine. In 2009, the IAEA will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its founding.

On December 8, 1953, President Eisenhower delivered his famous “Atoms for Peace” speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York. In this speech, Eisenhower laid out three goals: (1) to work with the Soviet Union to transform the military uses of atomic energy to peaceful projects; (2) to negotiate non-proliferation agreements with the Soviet Union; and (3) to involve nations throughout the world, large and small, in the peaceful use of atomic energy.

Eisenhower said, “It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of soldiers. It must be put in the hands of those who know how…to adapt it to the arts of peace…This greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon for the benefit of all mankind…. [I]f the entire body of the world’s scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas, [then] this capability would be rapidly transformed into universal, efficient and economic usage.” This idea of releasing nuclear material and knowledge to the rest of the world was of course controversial at the time, but Eisenhower supported such an “open” policy, and his proposals and new laws led to the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1959.

Half a century after the founding of the IAEA, the use of radioactive tracers in medical research and health care—called “molecular nuclear medicine”—is now a major specialty of medicine worldwide. These peaceful uses could not have been disseminated so rapidly to the rest of the world had it not been for the United States’ decision to release this knowledge and technology. Proliferation of nuclear weapons has been slowed but not stopped by subsequent actions of governments throughout the world.

Nuclear medicine has helped great numbers of people all over the world. Each year in the United States, for instance, over 20 million procedures involving these radioactive tracers are performed in medical diagnosis and treatment.

In South Korea alone, 20 nuclear power plants are supplying half of that country’s electricity needs, with four new plants in the planning stages. North Korea has no nuclear power plans and, although a handful of nuclear medicine physicians reside there, no radiopharmaceuticals are available to them.

My hope is that North Korea’s tests will only marginally encourage other countries to develop nuclear weapons. Seoul’s 10 million residents have become accustomed to having 10,000 artillery tubes pointed at them just 40 miles and 57 seconds away. We can only hope that the new Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which now involves 80 countries, will permit the continuation of their optimistic and prosperous lives.

The recent North Korean bomb test opened a new nuclear age, one in which every rogue nation or terrorist group can seek to develop weapons that could result in the end of civilization as we know it.

At every stage of human development, however, people have had to choose how to use new technologies, for either good or evil. Given the awesome power of the atom, the rational choices are obvious.

Henry N. Wagner, Jr. is professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences.