September 16, 2012

“Too cheap to meter” – the infamous nuclear power misquote…


In the annals of the long, still-ongoing debate over nuclear power, the most infamous words are undoubtedly “too cheap to meter.”

The origin of this phrase is a speech given on September 16, 1954 by Lewis L. Strauss, a former Navy officer who was appointed Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1953 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Ever since Strauss gave that speech, many anti-nuclear activists have assumed and claimed that he literally said electricity from nuclear plants would be too cheap to meter.

Of course, nuclear power did not turn out to be “cheap” from a cost-per-kilowatt-hour perspective. At least, not compared to traditional energy sources like coal, oil and hydropower, which have been economically “cheap” but are arguably more “costly” in terms of their long term impacts on the environment (barring incidents like the Fukushima meltdown).

Anyway, putting aside that debate, it has long been clear that electricity from fission-powered nuclear plants is not and never will be “too cheap to meter.”

Thus, for decades, the phrase has been ridiculed and held up as the prime iconic example of absurd claims made by supporters of nuclear power.

Except that Strauss didn’t actually say what opponents of nuclear power think he said.

The focus of his speech to the National Association of Science Writers in New York City on September 16th, 1954 dealt with how modern scientific research, in general, would lead to better lives for future generations. And, his meter remark was about electric energy, in general, not nuclear power in particular.

As reported in the New York Times the next day, what Strauss really said was this:

“Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter...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.”

For an excellent in-depth look at the facts about Strauss’ speech and his “too cheap to meter” remark, read the page about it on the Canadian Nuclear Society website.

And, regardless of which side of the nuclear power debate you’re on, you might want to keep in mind an old saying that applies to any type of energy that is used to generate significant amounts of electricity — “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

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