Thirty states now operate nuclear power plants, and some fifty more states have requested assistance from the IAEA in starting their own programs. Various forecasts predict a new “nuclear renaissance” driven by Asian economic development and concerns about climate change. A recent MIT study estimates that over one thousand reactors could be operational by mid-century, compared to the 366 reactors currently in service. At the same time, the nonproliferation regime faces a crisis of confidence, as Iranian ambitions and North Korean weapons have undermined the regime’s ability to prevent energy programs from becoming weapons stockpiles. Some nuclear experts warn of a nuclear tipping point that will trigger a cascade of new nuclear states.
Predictions of nuclear power growth were only this bullish and predictions for proliferation were only this dire as recently as the Carter administration. Carter’s nonproliferation policies have received scant scholarly attention since the early 1980s, owing in large part to a dearth of declassified documents. Only as recently as 2008 has the declassification process warranted a new historical look at Carter’s policy process.
My research focused on how the Carter administration’s policymakers grappled with the combined proliferation of energy and weapons technologies by focusing on two key policy reviews, first in 1977 and later in 1980. My research found that the reviews reveal a major split among policymakers about the direction of nonproliferation policy. After reviewing the documentary record, it became clear that the Carter administration’s policymakers were not only divided over what policies would be most tactically effective, but also over a set of core strategic questions about the nature of nuclear proliferation in the wake of India’s peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974.