Will nuclear power ever be too cheap to meter? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 26, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, April 26, 2012

Will nuclear power ever be too cheap to meter?

Is there an easy method to identify whether the author of an article on nuclear power is antinuclear or not? Look for the well known catch phrase "too cheap to meter" in the article. If you find it, the writer is most likely anti-nuclear!
According to Wikipedia, " 'too cheap to meter' describes a concept in which a commodity is so inexpensive that it is more cost-effective and less bureaucratic to simply provide it for a flat fee, or even free, and make a profit from associated services."
Did any prominent pro-nuclear advocate ever promise that nuclear power will one day be too cheap to meter? If he did, the idea is too good not to be referred to! Since it is an impossible objective, anti-nuclear critics can convincingly argue that nuclear power has failed to deliver on its promise. This taunt is very effective in demoralising the pro-nukes.
Who gave this unattainable promise on nuclear power? Or was it an attribution made totally out of context?
Nuclear energy began with very high hopes. Walter Marshall, one of its pioneers in the United Kingdom, told Britons it would provide energy "too cheap to meter." It was going to usher in an era of abundant, clean power, and an end to the filth and smoke of coal-fired power plants, Alex Kirby, BBC environment correspondent, wrongly attributed the phrase to Walter Marshall, former Chairman, Central Electricity Generating Board, (BBC News, June 15, 2000).
There is convincing evidence that Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, while addressing the National Association of Science Writers, made the relevant statement on September 16, 1954
He stated thus: "Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter," he declared. "It is not too much to expect that our children 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" (The New York Times, September 17, 1954).
A Google search, with "Walter Marshall" and "too cheap to meter" as keywords, gave 681 references. When the search was repeated, with "Lewis Strauss" in place of "Walter Marshall," I got 81,100 references. These numbers change slightly, but their order is the same. Surely Strauss is the winner! The quote can be attributed to him
Ramachandra Guha, a well known Indian historian, cast his net far and wide when he wrote: "Back in the 1950s, when nuclear energy was all the rage and scientists the world over were claiming that it would soon be 'too cheap to meter'…." (Anthropologists among the Marxists and other Essays). In this instance, he was less than accurate!
"It has been repeatedly inflicted on the public, because it's cute, catchy and empty of substance," Morgan Brown, Atomic Energy Canada Limited, wrote about the catch phrase in RADSAFE news group. He compiled a number of quotes from the time period before and after Strauss' speech; none indicated anything but a rational technical approach to the economics of nuclear power. Morgan's review provided abundant evidence that few people in the industry at the end of 1950s really believed that nuclear power would be very cheap.
Strauss did not refer to nuclear energy in his speech. Some argued that he was talking about energy from fusion rather than fission. Strauss knew about Project Sherwood, the USA's secret programme on controlled nuclear fusion.
Chris Anderson of WIRED BLOG network did his own research on the origin of the "too cheap to meter" phrase. He also thought that Strauss was talking about "fusion" because Strauss knew that fission would probably be more expensive than coal.
Anderson clarified that "too cheap to meter" didn't mean free -- it just meant too cheap to monitor closely. He noted that some buildings built around that time, including the World Trade Center, were designed without light switches in each office; the building managers could just turn whole floors on and off , like a Christmas tree.
Is there anything too cheap to meter? "Today, we have three technologies -- processing power, digital storage capacity and bandwidth -- that touch nearly as much of the economy as electricity, and they really are becoming too cheap to meter," Anderson added.
Nicholas Carr of roughtype.com says that Amazon's S3 storage waived monthly charges for backing-up the hard drive of a software engineer; the bill was for $ 0.01. The credit card company refused to process the bill!
Google searches with the names of well known antinuclear critics, Praful Bidwai, M.V.Ramana, Rosalie Bertell, Arnie Gundersen and Arjun Makhijani, with the phrase "too cheap to meter" for each, registered 804, 2,240, 1,410, 3,630 and 44,700 references respectively. It indicates how prolifically they benefited from using this catch phrase in their articles!
Anti nuclear activists mostly use "too cheap to meter" out of context. Nuclear power is unlikely to become too cheap to meter.

The writer is a former Secretary, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, India.
E-mail: ksparth@yahoo.co.uk

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