Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"Atoms for Peace" - 1953 Sales Pitch

In the 1950's as we were trying to find an acceptable way to transition from "bombs" to "business" within the nuclear energy community, President Eisenhower made his historic "Atoms for Peace" speech in 1954 to the United Nations.  And so it began...

As the words were tumbling off the tongue of the President work was already underway to bring America its first commercial nuclear power plant and with it a slogan still uttered today: 'Electricity too cheap to meter'.

And so with the swipe of a pen on paper the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 was created along with the AEC's ability to license private companies to use nuclear materials and build and operate power plants.

In July of 1955 a one-hour demonstration had the 1,350 person community of Arco, Idaho becoming the first U.S. town to be powered by nuclear energy. The power was supplied from the National Reactor Testing Station's Borax-III reactor. The AEC tested five types of experimental reactors. The Borax-III was an early prototype of a boiling water reactor (BWR), a type of reactor which still produces electricity for utilities today. (Source: Radiochemistry Society, Nuclear Age Timeline - The 1950's)

By 1957 the first U.S. large-scale nuclear power plant begins operation in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, followed two years later with the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction at the Dresden-1 Nuclear Power Station in Illinois. Dresden-1 was also the first U.S. nuclear power plant built entirely without government funding. A rarity in today's world where billions of dollars of government subsidies and loan guarantees go to large multinational nuclear energy companies.

While the Atoms for Peace rhetoric was shifting away from bomb building, an ever cautious eye was kept on appropriate military uses of nuclear power. The Navy was first with its development of a nuclear-powered fleet; submarines and surface ships. The Air Force made an attempt to build its own nuclear fleet of long-range bombers, but the planes never got off the ground.

In 1947 the AEC inherited from the Manhattan District two children of the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory, the Oak Ridge and Argonne facilities. The AEC decided to designate these facilities as national laboratories rather than atomic energy laboratories. Perhaps the first move to create a more pristine image for atomic research that the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is known for.

The nation's first and only nuclear-powered civilian ship, Savannah, with the help of ORNL scientists made sure the vessel's reactor shielding was shipshape. The laboratory's first particle accelerators, its first computers developed to make the complex radiation and shielding calculations, were just two of many developments to come out of ORNL.

And you know you've done a thorough and complete job of selling safe nuclear power when a toy company like AC Gilbert can offer up to your child his very own Atomic Energy Lab.

Yes, in 1951 for a mere $50 ($460 in today's dollar) your child can have a sample of Uranium-238, a Geiger counter, cloud chamber, Spinthariscope and a couple of other items used for educational experiments with radiation. To be fair to AC Gilbert they were not the only company offering up atomic energy sets but they were certainly the most elaborate and complete.

So I have to admit with sixty plus years of selling the public that nuclear power is safe, cheap and abundant and with a mere handful of nasty accidents in its history - it is going to take something more than child's play to convince an unwilling public that this is an industry that needs to be phased out sooner than later.

We need to be reminded of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. We need to be reminded that the 104 nuclear reactors in the United States are aging - there will be more frequent cracks in critical tubing, leaking and rusting connections. We need to be reminded that spent fuel is stacking up waiting, and I hope patiently, to be carted away to a safe and permanent disposal facility. We need to be reminded that 'cheap' isn't really cheap at all - nuclear power plants could not afford to be built at all without assistance of taxpayer dollars.

Taxpayers scream and holler about dollars being spent on a healthcare plan for Americans but barely a whisper about dollars spent of nuclear facilities.  Why is that?  You tell me.


  1. Hoohoo worked at AC Gilbert in New Haven in the 1950s! We had one of these kits for years, one of the rare things that was actually tossed out at one point. In a landfill today? They also made chemistry sets, model railroads, dolls and 007 paraphernalia among other things.

  2. Oh, Casey, I would trade Mitt Romney to have that kit today! You guys never threw anything away. Rats!