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Nuclear Haze

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April 15, 2011

The world’s first nuclear reactors were fast-tracked while hailed as an economic breakthrough. By the time the public knew the truth, the atomic myth was up and running. As the recent disaster in Japan reminds us, nature always has the last word.

poweringdream-578.jpgPhotograph by Argonne National Laboratory

On June 10, 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson rode through the streets of Worcester, Massachusetts, cheered by 175,000 well-wishers as he was on his way to give a commencement speech at Holy Cross. Looking out over the football stadium’s cheering masses, dressed in the traditional scholar’s robe, the Texan lawyer delivered a paean to science and technology’s power to transform the lot of the world’s poor for the better.

Spattered with bits of Christianity, he identified three “ominous obstacles to man’s effort to build a great world society—a place where every man can find a life free from hunger and disease—a life offering the chance to seek spiritual fulfillment unhampered by the degradation of bodily misery.”

While paying lip service to disease, he concentrated on two other problems for which he had the same solution: poverty and “diminishing natural resources.” The way forward against both these menaces was nuclear power. Johnson stated:

     There is no simple solution to these problems. In the past there would have been no solution

     at all. Today, the constantly unfolding conquests of science give man the power over his

     world and nature, which brings the prospect of success within the purview of hope. To

     commemorate the United Nation’s twentieth birthday, 1965 has been designated International

     Cooperation Year. I propose to dedicate this year to finding new techniques for making

     man’s knowledge serve man’s welfare. Let this be the year of science. Let it be a turning

     point in the struggle—not of man against man, but of man against nature.

There would be a technological fix for the world’s problems. There could be prosperity for all through exploiting nature more intelligently, largely through “our new capability to use the power of the atom to meet human needs.” He declared:

     It appears that the long promised day of economical nuclear power is close at hand. In the

     past several months we have achieved an economic breakthrough in the use of larger-scale

     reactors for commercial power. And as a result of this rapid progress we are years ahead of

     our planned progress. This new technology, now being applied in the United States, will be

     available to the world.

Unfortunately, the kernel on which it was built–the “economic breakthrough” of nuclear power–was more truthy than true.

Through the magic black box of science, nuclear energy would be transformed into American soft power throughout the world. Johnson concluded his thoughts on nuclear energy by stating:

     The development of the large-scale reactor offers a dramatic prospect of transforming sea

     water into water suitable for human consumption and industrial use. Large-scale nuclear

     reactors and desalting plants offer, in combination, economical electric power and useable

     water in areas of need. We are engaged in research and development to transform this

     scientists’ concept into reality.

With unlimited power and water, all the world could be a Monticello—open for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Wealth would not have to be redistributed because there would be enough for everyone to live an American lifestyle even if, as Johnson noted, that would require producing natural resources at one hundred times their production levels.

As in the original Dwight D. Eisenhower “Atoms for Peace” speech, the specter of nuclear destruction—which, like it or not, was an American invention—was redeemed by the utopian visions of a perfect power. “We now can join knowledge to faith and science to belief to realize in our time the ancient hope of a world which is a fit home for all,” Johnson concluded. “The New Testament enjoins us to ‘Go ye therefore and teach all nations.’”

Thus, nuclear power, long-supported by the American government with subsidies, was officially enshrined as the American energy technology of the future. The reactor was a cheap, clean, necessary answer to the problem of the bomb and the opportunity of the future.

Or so Johnson’s story went. It was a grand American narrative: Science! Technology! Progress! Economic growth! Unlimited everything! What’s not to love? It’s more than a bit like the one we are telling ourselves about green technology.

Unfortunately, the kernel on which it was built—the “economic breakthrough” of nuclear power—was more truthy than true.

The New York Times ran a story about Johnson’s speech on page one under the headline, “Johnson Reports a ‘Breakthrough’ in Atomic Power.” They followed up with a series of stories, as did the other major newspapers. Word of a breakthrough in the cost of nuclear power was big news because everyone had been waiting for economically feasible nuclear power for a decade. After the heavy promotion of the early nuclear power days—exemplified by Walt Disney’s classic nuclear cartoon, Our Friend the Atom—nuclear power had stalled out with just a few demonstration plants in operation. The coal lobby, however, smelled blood. In March of 1964 the coal industry assailed nuclear power, saying Congress needed to remove “the sheltering umbrella of government subsidies.”

General Electric and Westinghouse, who had helped build America’s military and civilian nuclear program, were getting antsy that their knowledge would go to waste. “Our people understood this was a game of massive stakes, and that if we didn’t force the utility to put those stations on line, we’d end up with nothing,” as John McKitterick, a GE vice president, later told Fortune.

Out of this corporate desire to capture rents on a technology that only a few companies could provide came the “economic breakthrough.” As soon as the words left Johnson’s mouth, scientists at national laboratories around the country knew what he was talking about, even though he was a few months late with the announcement.

When a Chicago Tribune reporter called Stephen Lawroski, associate director of Argonne National Laboratory, the scientist told him that the president must have been talking about the guaranteed price that General Electric had offered Jersey Central Light and Power for the Oyster Creek plant. That announcement had “caused a flurry” in scientific circles because the price GE was charging—$68 million for the 515-megawatt plant—made the plant economically competitive with fossil fuels. Yet the scientists knew from the available evidence that nuclear power was far from economically competitive in mid-1964.

However, instead of setting the Tribune reporter straight, Lawrowski simply punted, saying, “The New Jersey plant is a significant milestone in nuclear power progress because it has affected thinking not only in America but also in Europe.”

After all, could the Russians offer cheap nuclear power that turned the atom into electricity and oceans into fresh water?

The price was a doorbuster, a loss leader, an advertisement for a nuclear age that had not actually yet arrived. Business Week estimated that GE had lost $30 billion in the deal. Coal officials told the Wall Street Journal that GE had “priced the Oyster Creek plant at less than cost.” A GE executive denied that, claiming the company would “make a slight profit unless we run into some unforeseen difficulties.” British and Russian engineers also called the estimates into question—and French officials unsuccessfully tried to get details out of GE. But American news accounts, though they reported those foreign doubts, always made sure to note the bias that national competition could introduce into other countries’ expert opinion.

Newspaper reporters, with the help of sources within the nuclear industries, came up with stories to explain how prices could have fallen so far, so fast. But like a trend piece about raising chickens in Manhattan, they were little more than anecdotes strung together by plausibility and the public’s desire to believe. Although they reported doubts about the breakthrough, they were often run deep inside the paper whereas the optimistic pieces led the sections of the paper. Even the most skeptical piece, a September 1964 article by Washington Post reporter Howard Simons, noting that “not all experts accept General Electric’s figures,” only questioned the figures within 12 percent.30 In reality, nuclear power would end up costing not $104 or $1,040 per kilowatt of capacity, but more than $3,750 per kilowatt by the mid-1980s.

Perhaps Lewis Strauss, then chairman of the AEC, overstated the case when he told a crowd of science writers in 1954 that “Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter,” but his optimism was obviously widely shared within the nuclear establishment.

The country’s political leaders were more than willing to believe and promote these technical promises. It was a wonderfully convenient solution to an America battling Communist agitation across the world. After all, could the Russians offer cheap nuclear power that turned the atom into electricity and oceans into fresh water?

Excerpted from Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology, by Alexis Madrigal. Available from Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.

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Alexis Madrigal, senior editor and lead technology reporter for TheAtlantic.com, is a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. A former staff writer for Wired.com, he helped Wired Science become the largest science blog in the world. He has spoken at South by Southwest, Stanford Law School, Berkeley Journalism School, and E3. His book, Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology, will be published by Da Capo Press later this month.

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2 comments for Nuclear Haze

  1. Comment by Mohsen on April 30, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    Great Job.

  2. Comment by Martin on May 11, 2011 at 7:50 am

    As far as the reference to what happened in Japan- yes it is terrible, but not compared to the costs attached to coal as in lives lost or damaged and environmental impact.

    At this point safe energy is not effective energy, and our option is to either digress back into riding horses and sailing boats, or to continue finding new energy sources and refining the ones we have- and I doubt many people will give up thier way of life.

    I don’t think the problem is with nuclear energy which obviously has a long way to go- the problem is with the human condition, and I hope we find some scientists brilliant enough to save us from ourselves.

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