Admiral visions of a future now past

As the great sage Yogi Berra once observed, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”. (Another that is particularly appropriate to climate change pseudo-scepticism is “It’s like deja vu all over again“). Or, to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Hamlet in his description of death, it is “The undiscovered country from whose bourn, No traveller returns, puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have, Than fly to others that we know not of?

We know not of what is to come — what descisions will be made or delayed, what paths will be taken or abandoned, what pitfalls and breakthroughs will characterise humanity’s journey through the 21st century. We can know, as the quotes above aptly convey, that we will be mostly wrong in the detail of our prognostications. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be mostly right in the broad generalities. Simulations of possible climate change scenarios and strategic visions of future energy mixes, are not and cannot ever be ‘truth’, yet that doesn’t mean they are not worthy of our best efforts to imagine the real.

Back in 1954, in a speech to the National Association of Science Writers, Admiral Lewis L. Strauss, then Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, saw a vision of future society. As part of his speech, he said: “It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy electrical energy in their homes too cheap to meter.” — a phrase now repeated ad nauseum by the opponents of nuclear power as a device to dismiss the appeal of current and future innovation. Clearly, the economics of nuclear power, whilst robust and highly competitive with other zero-carbon energy sources, is far from meeting that vision. Yet in reality, how ‘wrong’ was Strauss? A few people have looked at this, and concluded that he has been badly misrepreseted (and taken out of context). For instance, it is argued by Canadian J.A.L. Robertson, in his book “Decide the Nuclear Issues For Yourself: NUclear need not be UNclear“, that:

What the critics do not tell is that Strauss was talking about nuclear fusion energy, not fission that is today’s nuclear energy. 

The phrase has reportedly been repeated by the respected nuclear pioneer Alvin Weinberg. Nevertheless, it is a stupid remark. Anyone can understand that any means of generating and distributing large amounts of electricity, renewable or non-renewable, requires large and hence expensive engineering structures. Thus even if the fuel were free, capital charges for a reactor, heat exchangers, an electric generator, a switchyard, transmission lines and a distribution system would still be appreciable. 

The Canadian situation was never confused by this myth. Here, nuclear energy was introduced in the 1950s as a result of Ontario Hydro running out of readily accessible hydroelectric sites to exploit. It was importing coal from the U.S. for its fossil-fired stations. AECL made its proposal for what later became CANDU reactors only when it could demonstrate that these offered the prospect of being competitive with coal-fired stations, both economically and for safety. There is no evidence that the Canadian nuclear industry promised “electricity too cheap to meter”.

A further, very well researched analysis on this phrase, is given in this excellent essay — I’d encourage you to read it before you throw this critique around liberally. After outlining the background to Strauss’ speech and quotes from others in the 1950s, the Canadian Nuclear Society concludes:

…the nuclear industry in many countries foresaw a promising future in the 1950s, along with many other scientific and technical fields. But the industry, confronted with the practicalities of converting fission heat into useable electricity, did not expect a Utopian world with energy “too cheap to meter”. That was simply one phrase in one man’s litany of futuristic visions.

Rod Adams also provides a perspective here. Basically, it’s a classic example of a meme.

Less well known, but remarkably insightful, was speech from the same era, delivered in 1957 by another US Admiral, Hyman G. Rickover, called “Energy Resources and Our Future”. It was recently highlighted here in Energy Bulletin. It makes for a fascinating read, and as EB have noted, is quite prescient. Looking forward from 50 years ago, Rickover foresaw many of the problems we now face, and yet remained optimistic about humanity’s ability to confront these enormous challenges in energy and resource use. If you want to understand where we have come from, and what we have not yet fully faced up to, then you must read the whole speech (it will take you perhaps 20 minutes — time well spent). Rickover’s conclusion was thus:

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