Fallout Potential: The West's Atoms for Peace Failure in Israel

Baker Tilney
March 16, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2015


Fig. 1: A 1968 U.S. satellite picture of the Negev Nuclear Research Center at Digoma. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In his December 1953 "Atoms for Peace" speech at the nited Nations (UN), President Dwight Eisenhower laid out his vision of a world that could peacefully exploit the benefits of nuclear power while reducing the danger of nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation. His speech laid out the mission statement for a new international organization called the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The IAEA has two primary objectives, the first being effective protection of nuclear material and the more important, in Eisenhower's mind, being the development of "methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind." [1] Eisenhower particularly talked about the potential for nuclear energy to provide electricity in areas of the world without power.

The Atoms for Peace manifesto was followed by the UN and the IAEA has pursued its two seemingly contrary missions ever since. The abuse of the doctrine by several states is a powerful warning about the dangerous relationship between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Israel is the best case study of the unintended consequences of Western powers' attempts to spread nuclear power to developing countries. Israel's ability to convert its nuclear power capability into nuclear weapons, despite worldwide treaties and policies intended to prevent this, shows the problems of the Atoms for Peace doctrine - and perhaps that it is fatally flawed. [2]

Israel: France's Provision of the Bomb

Israeli's nuclear program was born the aftermath of the failed seizure the Suez Canal by Israeli, French, and British forces in 1956. Embarrassed by its failure to adequately support the Israeli invasion of the Sinai, and responding to both Israeli concerns about the Soviet nuclear threat and its own need for a research partnership, France's government agreed to help extend its covert aid in building a nuclear power plant in Israel into support for an Israeli nuclear deterrent. [3] It sent engineers and technicians to help construct the nuclear reactor at Dimona, in the Negev Desert.

Although nervous about Israel's intent with nuclear capability, the U.S. government provided Israel with "heavy water," a form of water used in many nuclear reactors as a neutron moderator, through the Atoms for Peace program. Israel allowed American inspectors to walk through the Dimona plant - which it maintained was solely meant for peaceful purposes - once a year. However, the rarity of the inspections and Israel's successful hiding of the lower, weaponizing areas of the plant meant that its true intentions remained hidden. [3]

Over time, it became apparent that Israel had fully developed nuclear capability and built several nuclear weapons in the context of the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War as defensive mechanisms against its Arab enemies. France halted its cooperation with Israel's program after the Six-Day War in 1967 and left it to develop alone. Increasing American strategic support for Israel meant that it began to actively turn a blind eye to Israel's nuclear research: the context of the Cold War and the seeming impossibility of preventing more development ended serious opposition. The U.S. began to provide Israel with nuclear-capable airplanes as well as conventional weapons, and Israel's nuclear strike ability remains one of the worst-kept secrets in international diplomacy. [4]

Critical Perspective

Observers and critics are at loggerheads about the issue of Israel's nuclear weapons. Israel publicly says that it "'will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East,'" implying that it will not test or use weapons until another nation does so. [5] Israeli-American historian Avner Cohen says Israeli requires nuclear weapons because "It must be in a position to threathen another Hiroshima to prevent another Holocaust." [6] Neither the country nor its American ally, complicit for nearly the last 50 years in building Israel's weaponized capabilities and protecting it from international pressure applied to other countries building nuclear weapons, will openly admit that Israel does possess these weapons.

For critics, "American permissiveness toward the acquisition of nuclear weapons by its friends acts against its own best interests and should be stopped." [7] It contradicts the nonproliferation mission that the U.S. has always publicly supported, and gives incentives for other countries in the region to develop their own weapons of mass destruction - chemical and nuclear - to bring themselves to Israel's level. [7]

Iraq and Syria have in recent decades deployed chemical weapons against their regimes' enemies, and Iraq, Syria, and most recently Iran have all been suspected or proved of pursuing nuclear weapons in addition to permitted nuclear power. It is impossible to know if these countries would have taken these strides in the absence of an Israeli nuclear weapons program, but America's failure to protest against or hamper Israel's progress makes it more difficult to take a principled stand against Iran and other powers who claim they seek only civilian nuclear power promoted by Atoms for Peace. Combined with the true difficulty of effective IAEA monitoring to enforce an end to development at the energy level, American policy of Atoms for Peace has made true nonproliferation seem an impossible goal.

In the absence of true worldwide cooperation on nuclear matters, an unlikely prospect, perhaps all that the great powers can change is to ensure better relations between existing and emerging nuclear-armed states in the hopes that none will ever elect to launch nuclear war. Nuclear weapons did the United States a service in helping it win World War II militarily and in exhausting the Soviet Union's finances through arms race. However, its policy of selectively limiting the spread of 6-year-old technology may not be sustainable in 2015. Either a more active support for widespread nuclear power or a more reactive, forceful opposition to non- proliferation is required; the middle ground taken since the 1960s is failing to spread the benefits of nuclear power without spreading its dangers.

© Baker Tilney. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] D. D. Eisenhower, "Address Before the General Assembly of the United Nations on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy," in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953 (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1960), pp. 817-821.

[2] A. Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (Columbia U. Press, 1998).

[3] W. Farr, "The Third Temple's Holy of Holies: Israel's Nuclear Weapons," U.S. Air Force Counterproliferation Center, Counterproliferation Paper No. 2, September 1999.

[4] T. Kutsch, "Nuclear Weapons Are Israel's 'worst-kept Secret,' Says Israeli Historian," Al Jazeera, 18 Oct 13.

[5] D. Birch, Douglas and J, Smith, Israel's Worst-Kept Secret," The Atlantic, 16 Sep 14.

[6] A. Cohen and M. Miller, "Nuclear Shadows in the Middle East: Prospects for Arms Control in the Wake of the Gulf Crisis," DACS, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, December 1990.

[7] G. C. Smith and H. Cobban, "A Blind Eye to Nuclear Proliferation," Foreign Affairs 68, No.3, 53 (Summer 1989).