America Goes Nuclear
In 1953, Lewis L. Strauss (1896-1974), a retired rear admiral in the U. S. Navy, was named head of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). It was an optimistic time, with the world experiencing peace, stability, and rising prosperity, and there was hope and expectation that the secretive technology that had been developed during the atomic bomb project would be put to good and practical use. In 1954, the U. S. Congress passed amendments to the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, freeing information and technology held by the military and making it possible to develop commercial nuclear power operations. By this amendment, the AEC was assigned the dual role of encouraging the use of nuclear power in the civilian sector and monitoring and regulating its use to ensure public safety.
The nuclear power industry did not exist in 1954, and the results of the past 15 years of intense research were mostly locked under military secrecy. Safety regulations and measures were made up as the situation demanded. Two men had already been killed in criticality accidents at the Los Alamos Laboratory, in which masses of fissile plutonium had been carelessly assembled by hand, resulting in lethal flashes of extreme radiation. A reactor core had melted at Chalk River, Canada, because of poor controls and procedures, and then the Experimental Breeder Reactor experienced a meltdown in Idaho. The double assignment of the AEC of pushing forward a new, unknown technology as quickly as possible while
imposing strict but nonexistent safety standards would pose an interesting set of problems. The technology to be developed was both ultimately powerful and inherently dangerous. Simply stated, operators of industrial equipment will make errors. If nuclear power was to be part of the commercial power industry, then an elementary operator error could lead to equipment damage and injuries, but it could not lead to a melting of the capital equipment and the evacuation of an entire city. The next 25 years would involve much learning.
Strauss stepped vigorously into the role of AEC chairman, and on September 16, 1954, he gave an important speech at a meeting of the National Association of Science Writers. Speaking of the coming age of nuclear power, he said the following:
It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical power 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 of an age of peace.
His prediction of “electrical power too cheap to meter” would haunt the nuclear power industry for decades to come. It was true that using uranium fission electrical power could be made at a rate so inexpensive that a power meter on each house would be a superfluous waste of money. The volume of uranium that would be fissioned for every person in the United States per year for electrical power needs was miniscule, compared with the stockpiles amassed and the potential uranium ore in the ground. However, this prediction assumed that fuel would be used in its cheapest form, and that power plants would be built in the least expensive way possible, just as power plants had been built since the beginning of electrical power usage. The United States and the world would come to learn that nuclear fission was a new way to generate power in more ways than one. The least expensive option would apply no longer.
In this chapter, the maturing process in the nuclear industry and in the world’s perception of nuclear power are examined in chronological order, as new power plants were built and tested on the ascending node, and as major accidents occurred on the descending node. Commercial nuclear power is shown making its debut and its rise in industrial popularity and then its decline as the bottom line of profitability becomes evident. In the final topic of this chapter, the needs of a maturing world economy with respect to nuclear power are examined, as atmospheric chemistry and limited burnable resources become important considerations for power generation. A sidebar details an important federal requirement for nuclear power plant construction, the Final Safety Analysis Report.