PM Files

The Acting Chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission (Pike) to the Secretary of State


Dear Mr. Acheson: The Commission and the General Advisory Committee to the Commission have had an opportunity to examine the question raised in your letter of April 20, 1950, concerning the United Nations plan for the international control of atomic energy.

We have examined the recommendations of the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, as embodied in Department of State Publication 3646. We have also examined in particular Part IV of the United Nations report, entitled “The First Report of the Atomic Energy Commission to the Security Council.” This deals with the scientific and technical aspects of the problem of control, and makes explicit the agreed view of the technical problems which underlay the control plan.

The Commission and the General Advisory Committee agree (1) that there have been no new scientific discoveries known to us which alter the situation; (2) that there may soon be technical developments which have some bearing on control problems; and (3) that, with the passage of time, major changes in the technical situation have occurred which profoundly alter the presuppositions under which the report appears to have been made. We may briefly summarize these points.

1. No scientific discoveries are known to us which open up sources of energy release not publicly known when the reports were written. No discoveries lend support to the view that the large-scale release of atomic energy can be based on raw materials other than uranium or thorium.

2. a. One technical development now underway in this country may, if successful, have an effect on the control plan. This is the electronuclear generation of neutrons. If this turns out to be practical on a large scale, it will mean that atomic energy can be released by converting thorium to U–233 without the use of natural uranium. This would mean that controls of thorium might have to be as strict as those of uranium. This development would also make it possible to produce not only U–233 but tritium and plutonium without the operation of [Page 80] reactors. The success and cost of this development can not now be foretold; it is unlikely to be realized for a few years.

b. The development of thermonuclear weapons now underway in this country may also have a bearing on the control plan. If this development is successful, it will mean that tritium must be regarded as a “dangerous” material. No development of thermonuclear weapons appears possible which does not start with an atomic explosion using plutonium, U–235, or U–233, and which does not use tritium produced in nuclear reactors, or perhaps by electronuclear neutrons.

3. There are at least three important changes in the technical situation that have occurred since the first use of atomic weapons. One is the production of atomic weapons by the Soviet Union; the second is the great accumulation of stocks of U–235 and plutonium, at least in this country; the third is the fact that the hopes for a rapid development of atomic power have not so far been fulfilled. The first two of these clearly create serious problems with regard to bringing into operation the control provisions of the plan. The third indicates that the development of a large-scale atomic power industry is less certain and may proceed more slowly and on a smaller scale than envisaged in the control arrangements. This point may be relevant in assaying the relative importance of development and control functions of an international authority limited solely to atomic energy.

Sincerely yours,

Sumner T. Pike