The Nuclear Breakthrough That Wasn't

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In the rush to commercialize nuclear power, proponents may have hampered its long-term prospects by settling on an approach to atomic energy that may not have been the best.

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On June 10, 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson rode through the streets of Worcester, Massachusetts, cheered by 175,000 well-wishers 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.

Thumbnail image for Book jacket_darker.jpgSpattered with bits of Christianity, his speech identified "ominous obstacles to man's effort to build a great world society." 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.

"Let this be the year of science," Johnson said. "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.

Through the magic black box of science, nuclear energy would be transformed into American soft power throughout the world. With unlimited power, 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.

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 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 industry to put those stations on line, we'd end up with nothing," as John Gitterick, a GE vice president, later told Fortune. It was this corporate desire to capture rents on a technology that only a few companies could provide that generated the "economic breakthrough" of Johnson's speech.

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 Lawrowski, 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 for the plant--$68 million for the 515-megawatt plant--made the plant economically competitive with fossil fuels. [Editor's note: Oyster Creek was a boiling water reactor with the same basic design and containment vessel as the Fukushima reactor in Japan.]

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."

The price was a door-buster, a loss-leader, an advertisement for a nuclear age that had not actually yet arrived. The so-called "turnkey" plants, as they later became known, probably cost Westinghouse and General Electric over $1 billion combine, though they did not say that at the time.

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. None questioned the U.S. expert corps' own Cold War sympathies.

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. 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.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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