The Nuclear Power Deception

U.S. Nuclear Mythology from Electricity "Too Cheap to Meter"
to "Inherently Safe" Reactors

by Arjun Makhijani, Ph.D.
Scott Saleska
April, 1996

(The book, published in 1999, updates this report.)

Footnotes to on-line portions of the report
Full references
Some terms used in this report can be found in IEER's on-line glossary

The Nuclear Power Deception


In recent years there has been a debate about the potential and need for developing a second generation of commercial nuclear power plants to generate electricity. Proponents of such development cite a range of reasons for undertaking it, primary among them the growing environmental problems (most notably the threat of global climate change) associated with conventional fossil-based electric power generation and the need to reduce the dependence of the United States on imported oil.

At the same time, a related debate is taking place about U.S. proposals to build one or more reactors for military-related purposes. The stated reasons for building new reactors have varied, ranging from new plutonium and tritium production reactors in the late 1980s and early 1990s to reactors for burning excess military plutonium to a "triple play" reactor that would simultaneously burn excess plutonium, produce tritium (a radioactive gas used in nuclear warheads) and generate electricity. During the 1990s, a new element has been added to these debates -- that of using new reactors to burn Russian excess weapons plutonium.

At times the two debates have converged, but not primarily for technical reasons. When political pressures to spend more money on reactors have been stronger, technical considerations have tended to take a back seat. When fiscal concerns have the upper hand, funds for military enterprises that would subsidize civilian power projects tend to be reduced or eliminated.

Before accepting arguments that nuclear power can alleviate the build up of greenhouse gases or that joining military to civilian nuclear ventures is desirable, we need to learn what history might have to offer by the way of lessons. In particular, the idea of new reactors that would join military and civilian goals parallels the development of the first generation of power reactors in the United States. This study critically examines the history of wildly optimistic public statements that were made about nuclear power in the years and decades immediately following World War II and serves as a partial guide to dealing with critical civilian and military nuclear issues today. So far as we are aware, the technical foundation of those extravagant promises has never been carefully scrutinized until now.

In 1954, Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, proclaimed that the development of nuclear energy would herald a new age. "It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter," he declared to a science writers' convention.1 The speech gave the nuclear power industry a memorable phrase to be identified with, but also it saddled it with a promise that was essentially impossible to fulfill.

In contrast to the rosy propaganda and promises, commercial nuclear power from new nuclear plants has become the most expensive form of commonly used baseload electric power in the United States. In part, this was because utilities canceled 121 reactors in the post-1974 period; the money squandered on these canceled plants alone was about $44.4 billion in 1990 dollars,2 or about $50 billion in 1995 dollars. Even larger costs were incurred, in the form of higher electricity costs for instance, because of the very high costs of plants completed in the 1980s. Enjoying virtually every conceivable advantage at its birth -- from high public popularity to lavish government funding to virtually unanimous political support -- the commercial nuclear power industry in the United States is a moribund one, with virtually every one of its early advantages reversed.

Part I of this study contains an introduction to the technical issues and then provides an historical analysis of nuclear power in the United States. In particular, it looks closely at the early claims that nuclear electricity would be "too cheap to meter" and whether they were, at the time, actually believed by the nuclear power proponents.

Part II, drawing on the historical analysis, provides a critical appraisal of current plans for a second generation of nuclear plants partially subsidized by military materials production activities for nuclear weapons. It also reviews the persistent dangers in light of the Chernobyl accident and proliferation and environmental issues arising from the huge and growing stockpiles of weapons-usable plutonium in reactor spent fuel. This is followed by a chapter outlining an approach to creating an environmentally sound, reliable electricity system. There are also three appendixes: Appendix A on the basics of nuclear physics and fission, Appendix B on uranium, and Appendix C on plutonium. A summary and recommendations chapter is provided at the start of this report.

A note about sources: We have used original documents and sources for much of the material. Where the book covers ground that has already been covered by others, we have also used published books and materials as cited in these works. We have also used official historical accounts of the development of nuclear energy and of the history of the Atomic Energy Commission. For basic nuclear engineering information, we have used the textbooks, Introduction to Nuclear Engineering by John R. Lamarsh and Nuclear Chemical Engineering by Manson Benedict, Thomas H. Pigford, and Hans Wolfgang Levi. Unless otherwise stated, statistics on electricity costs, energy supply, and energy use are derived from the Historical Statistics of United States from Colonial Times to 1970 and from various issues of the Statistical Abstract of the United States. Units are metric, unless otherwise noted. We have referred to literature produced by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, generally abbreviated as NRC, as well as the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, also generally abbreviated as NRC. In order to avoid confusion between these acronyms, we used the acronym NRC-NAS for the latter, and the acronym NAS to refer to studies by the NAS committees.

Arjun Makhijani
Takoma Park
April 1996

Footnotes to on-line portions of the report
Full references
Some terms used in this report can be found in IEER's on-line glossary

IEER Reports Main Page
IEER Home Page
Institute for Energy and Environmental Research
Comments to Outreach Coordinator:
Takoma Park, Maryland, USA

May, 1996
(The book, published in 1999, updates this report.)