Saturday, June 11, 2016

Too Cheap to Meter--Take 3

The Beat Goes On

I was delighted to find a message in my mailbox a few days ago from Thomas Wellock, the NRC historian, pointing me to his NRC blog on the frequently cited "Too Cheap to Meter" speech that has haunted the US nuclear industry for more than 60 years.  I was pleased because this was a subject of longstanding interest to me, and I had previously written on the topic.  In fact, my blog had elicited so many thoughtful comments that I did a followup to reflect and respond to some of the comments.  I was grateful both that he had remembered my interest, and that he had done some more definitive research into the issue than I had previously seen.   

For those who may not recall, the phrase was uttered by Lewis L. Strauss, then Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, in a September 16, 1954 speech to the National Association of Science Writers in New York.  For years, that phrase has been interpreted by many as a promise that fission power would make electricity free, a promise that, by implication, the nuclear industry has failed to meet.  Others have countered that he might have been talking about fusion, rather than fission.

Tom's blog addresses the various comments and records he has unearthed that help us delve into what Strauss might have been thinking about.  He recounts the evidence I had cited that Strauss was aware of a still-secret fusion program.  However, he also finds several bits of evidence that I had not seen before that suggest that Strauss was very bullish, and outspokenly so, on fission power at the time. 

But I was most pleased that Tom provided a link to the entire original speech.  Previously, I had seen only the famous excerpt in which he talked about electricity being too cheap to meter.  While the speech doesn't answer the question definitively, of course, it does shed a little more light on his statements, at least for me.

In the first place, the speech does talk extensively about recently declassified work on fission.  For this reason alone, it is not unreasonable for someone to conclude that everything in the speech relates to fission.  He does not mention fusion (which, of course, he would not do if it was still classified).

But the most telling thing to me is that, early in the speech, he alludes to knowing what his audience would like to hear, and he says, "This, of course, involves forecasts, and the Commission as a serious governmental body ought not to indulge in predictions.  However, as a person, I suffer from no such inhibition and will venture a few predictions before I conclude."

If this statement does nothing else, it makes it very clear that Strauss thought he was speaking for himself, and not for the Government.  This may sound quaint to us, in this day and age, when even the most casual remark by a government official can be blown out of proportion--and government officials have, consequently, become exceptionally careful about their public statements.

I couple this with the actual language of the paragraph in which he uses the phrase "too cheap to meter," and I think about how many of his other predictions have come to pass: 

Transmutation of the elements, unlimited power, ability to investigate the working of living cells by tracer atoms, the secret of photosynthesis about to be uncovered--these and a host of other results all in 15 short years.  It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter; will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history; will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.  This is the forecast for an age of peace.

Yes, we enjoy more power today than in 1954.  Yes, we have faster airplanes and a longer average lifespan.  But even though most of the developed world no longer faces famine, there is still widespread famine in the developing world; travel under the seas has not become widespread; and there are many diseases that we have not yet conquered.

So, in the end, we are still left to guess what Strauss really had on his mind 62 years ago.  Certainly, he thought he was speaking for himself, and he made it clear that his views did not represent the position of the AEC.  Clearly, he was thinking much more broadly than just fission or fusion reactors, as some of these visions don't involve electric power at all.  And very obviously, none of the visions he outlined have been fully achieved.

But after 62 years, it seems to me it is time to recognize that a prediction is not a promise, that a personal viewpoint is not a government commitment or a yardstick by which to measure an industry, and that the time is long overdue for us to refresh our visions for the future based on what we know today and not try to make judgments based on the predictions of one individual made long ago.



1 comment:

  1. My interpretation is that Adm. Strauss was referring to technological advancement in general, which of course encompasses fission energy, but a lot of other things as well. You will note his salient line covers a lot of ground, including energy production, transportation, medical advances, and eradication of famine. As far as the electricity phrase goes, I see no where words to imply that electricity would be free. I think he was alluding to a case wherein the commodity would be available in bulk and thus be marketed at a flat rate, similar to what we have today with cable and satellite TV and internet (my cable box has no meter). It would not be free, but simply offered at a fixed price for the service.