By Arjun Makhijani [1]
Journal of Land, Resources, & Environmental Law, Vol. 24 No. 1 2004
University of Utah College of Law

“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 … . This is the forecast for an age of peace.” Lewis Strauss, AEC Chairman, 19541

“It is safe to say … that atomic power is not the means by which man will for the first time emancipate himself economically, whatever that may mean; or forever throw off his mantle of toil, whatever that may mean. Loud guffaws could be heard from some of the laboratories working on this problem if anyone should in an unfortunate moment refer to the atom as the means of throwing off man’s mantle of toil. It certainly is not that! …At present, atomic power presents an exceptionally costly and inconvenient means of obtaining energy which can be extracted much more economically from conventional fuels… . The economics of atomic power are not attractive at present, nor are they likely to be for a long time in the future. This is expensive power, not cheap power as the public has been led to believe.” C. G. Suits, Director of Research, General Electric, 19512

Atomic power was born of self-deception as well as deliberate deception. There were messianic pronouncements of paradise on Earth that began at the end of World War II. Alvin Weinberg, a nuclear reactor designer and the first director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said in retrospect, in 1981, that he had “a little bit of the same spirit as the Ayatollah [Khomeini] has at the moment.”3

Such fervent and self-deceptive excitement seemed to slide seamlessly into deliberate propaganda that the government knew was false. For by 1954, when Lewis Strauss made his famous statement that nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter” in the foreseeable future, a number of government and corporate studies had concluded the contrary.4 None showed that it would be cheap, let alone “too cheap to meter.”5 The assessment of C. G. Suits of General Electric, quoted above, was distinguished from many others only in that it was more blunt.

Nor was there any reasonable prospect based on basic engineering considerations that nuclear power could be so cheap that any task, no matter how energy intensive, would have negligible energy costs. In the most optimistic scenario for nuclear power, it might be assumed that the fuel cost would be nearly zero. But that would still leave eighty-five percent of the costs of electricity for residential and small business consumers and sixty percent for the largest industrial users intact. The reason is that the bulk of the costs of electricity are related not to the fuel and the boiler (the functions served by the nuclear fuel and nuclear reactor), but by the power generating equipment, and the transmission and distribution network. Moreover, it was clear even then that (i) nuclear reactors would cost far more than coal-fired boilers, and (ii) it would be difficult to manage and dispose of nuclear waste. And of course, nuclear fuel was not free. Uranium was thought to be a scarce resource in the 1950s and fuel costs then were expected to be an important part of the costs of generating nuclear power.

Download the complete article


  1. President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland. This paper was adapted from an oral presentation given at the Eighth Annual Wallace Stegner Center Symposium titled “Nuclear West: Legacy and Future.” ↩ Return