Why did Richard Nixon so strongly endorse nuclear energy in April 1973?

NixonOn April 18, 1973, President Richard Nixon gave a special message to the congress of the United States on energy policy. Unlike more recent offerings by presidents regarding energy, that document placed a huge emphasis on making regulatory and legislative changes that would enable the rapid expansion of nuclear power; the ‘N’ word appears in the document 30 times! It contains a section titled Nuclear Energy that is nearly 800 words long and begins with the following paragraph.

Although our greatest dependence for energy until now has been on fossil fuels such as coal and oil, we must not and we need not continue this heavy reliance in the future. The major alternative to fossil fuel energy for the remainder of this century is nuclear energy.

Those are some strong words coming from a man who held one of the most powerful offices in the world.

As the title of this thought piece suggests, it is worth a few minutes to attempt to understand why President Nixon, whose support for the development of nuclear energy had been tepid, chose this moment to offer one of the most expansionary plans for nuclear power that had ever been proposed.

For historical context, it is important to recall that the dramatic oil price rise associated with the Arab Oil Embargo did not begin until October of 1973, so this policy document could not have been a reaction to that major upset in the world’s energy supply landscape. It is also important to recall that President Nixon had recently begun his second term in office after winning the November 1972 election in what was described as “a landslide victory rivaling the greatest of American political history.”

However, in the interval between November 1, 1972 and April 17, 1973, the word “Watergate” had appeared in the New York Times 477 times. In the week prior to April 18, 1973, there were at least a half a dozen articles discussing Nixon’s rapidly falling approval ratings, the prospect that presidential aids might be called to testify to Congress, the desire from Republican party leaders for him to do something, anything, to get Watergate off of the front page and a brief article describing Nixon’s speech at the Annual Correspondents’ Dinner that included the fact that Woodward and Bernstein had received an award at that dinner for their investigative reporting about Watergate.

There was also a major op-ed about Congressional consternation over testimony from the Attorney General asserting Nixon’s authority to hide almost any kind of information from Congress under the ill-defined concept of executive privilege.

Though still registering overall approval ratings above 50%, Nixon had already used up most of the goodwill generated by “ending” the Vietnam War with a unilateral withdrawal. He was well on his way to becoming the only president removed from office by the threat of impeachment. Though some of the dislike was coming from his own party, he was truly hated by many on the political left.

While it is possible to believe that Nixon’s special message to Congress about energy policy was an attempt to distract the politicians and the public from their focus on Watergate, there is another interpretation that might be more easily believed by those who remember that President Nixon’s nickname among opponents was “Tricky Dicky.” He was an enormously clever man who often seemed to be playing politics as a multilevel chess game employing complex stratagems that only he could fully understand.

His administration also included several players, including James R. Schlesinger and Henry Kissinger, who have continued to influence U.S. geopolitics in ways that have greatly benefitted the multinational petroleum industry and the investment banks headquartered in New York and London that provide the financing for its enormous projects.

It is well within the realm of possibility that the Nixon Administration’s decision to strongly support a new nuclear energy plan in April 1973 was a clever ruse aimed at harpooning nuclear energy’s public image. That sabotaging effort seems to have been needed as part of a multi-stage plan to enable a dramatic shift in the world’s economic balance of wealth and power from consumers to fossil fuel energy producers.

Since the Atoms for Peace program had been announced, numerous well-informed critics had pointed out that nuclear power plants had difficulty economically competing against plants burning fossil fuels. That was true — at least until 1971 when world crude oil prices were kept close to $2.00 per barrel by tacit agreement among the Seven Sisters [Esso (Exxon), Royal Dutch Shell, British Petroleum, Chevron, Texaco, Gulf Oil, Mobil] with coal and natural gas prices in a similar competitive range.

Notice that the roster of dominant world oil companies included five companies headquartered in the U.S. and two headquartered in the U.K.

In 1971, the Tehran-Tripoli agreement opened the floodgates for oil exporting nations to begin nationalizing oil resources and begin demanding a different pricing structure for their increasingly valuable crude oil. The “nuclear option” became increasingly competitive as completed plants entered commercial operation and fossil fuel prices started climbing rapidly.

Key members of the Nixon Administration had devised a plan to retain American and British dominance of the multinational energy industry. It involved recycling an increasing flow of petrodollars into consumer products, defense systems and development construction contracts with lubricating finance provided by Wall Street investment banks.

In order for their strategy to succeed, they needed to do something to slow the growing financial logic of a shift away from fossil fuels to nuclear energy.

At the time, fuel oil still held a 15-20% share of the U.S. electricity market, with significant higher penetration in certain regional markets like Florida, the Upper Midwest and the Northeast. In France, Sweden, Taiwan and Japan, oil was a major source of fuel for electricity generation. Unlike today, when the shift from oil to nuclear in electricity is virtually complete, it had barely begun by 1973. If nuclear plant construction had continued at the pace established by early 1973, both natural gas and coal would also have been essentially pushed out of the electrical power market by 2000.

It may seem that I am arguing against myself here. If Nixon and his staff had wanted to discourage nuclear energy, why would they prepare a special message to Congress that was so strongly in favor of increasing our reliance on it?

In his classic 1928 work titled Propaganda, Edward Bernays included a chapter titled The New Propagandists that describes what was then a relatively new profession, that of the public relations counsel. Bernays described how the skilled practitioners of this trade helped to move public opinion by behind the scenes suggestions to influential trend setters, politicians, and product endorsers. A key concept was the proper selection and protection of image and the difficulty of maintaining the right image.

Consider this propaganda truism — establishing and maintaining a product image often involves the careful selection of credible, likable endorsers. If a public relations specialist wants to sabotage instead of promoting a product, he might do just the opposite. He could encourage strong endorsements from someone that is distrusted, disliked, and recognized as ignorant about a technical topic.

Because of the early decisions about protecting atomic energy knowledge from wide exposure as embodied by the Atomic Energy Acts of 1946 and 1954, nuclear energy was already considered to be shrouded in secrecy. By 1973, opponents had been raising questions about coverups and deceptive practices associated with atomic energy for a couple of decades already.

It’s not hard to imagine that skilled public relations people in the Administration clearly understood the expected effect of a tighter linkage between nuclear energy development and a president who was becoming increasingly famous as a master of coverups.

This might also help explain the surprising reversal in attitudes about nuclear energy on the Left from strong support during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations to strong opposition by the Carter Administration.

PS – Here is a copy of the Nuclear Energy section of President Nixon’s special message to Congress of April 18, 1973.


Although our greatest dependence for energy until now has been on fossil fuels such as coal and oil, we must not and we need not continue this heavy reliance in the future. The major alternative to fossil fuel energy for the remainder of this century is nuclear energy.

Our well-established nuclear technology already represents an indispensable source of energy for meeting present needs. At present there are 30 nuclear power plants in operation in the United States; of the new electrical generator capacity contracted for during 1972, 70 percent will be nuclear powered. By 1980, the amount of electricity generated by nuclear reactors will be equivalent to 1.25 billion barrels of oil, or 8 trillion cubic feet of gas. It is estimated that nuclear power will provide more than one-quarter of this country’s electrical production by 1985, and over half by the year 2000.

Most nuclear power plants now in operation utilize light water reactors. In the near future, some will use high temperature gas-cooled reactors. These techniques will be supplemented during the next decade by the fast breeder reactor, which will bring about a 30-fold increase in the efficiency with which we utilize our domestic uranium resources. At present, development of the liquid metal fast breeder reactor is our highest priority target for nuclear research and development.

Nuclear power generation has an extraordinary safety record. There has never been a nuclear-related fatality in our civilian atomic energy program. We intend to maintain that record by increasing research and development in reactor safety.

The process of determining the safety and environmental acceptability of nuclear power plants is more vigorous and more open to public participation than for any comparable industrial enterprise. Every effort must be made by the Government and industry to protect public health and safety and to provide satisfactory answers to those with honest concerns about this source of power.

At the same time, we must seek to avoid unreasonable delays in developing nuclear power. They serve only to impose unnecessary costs and aggravate our energy shortages. It is discouraging to know that nuclear facilities capable of generating 57,000 megawatts of electric power which were expected to be operational by 1972 were not completed. To replace that generating capacity we would have to use the equivalent of one-third of the natural gas the country used for generating electricity in 1972. This situation must not continue. In my first Energy Special Message in 1971, I proposed that utilities prepare and publish long-range plans for the siting of nuclear power plants and transmission lines. This legislation would provide a Federal-State framework for licensing individual plants on the basis of a full and balanced consideration of both environmental and energy needs. The Congress has not acted on that proposal. I am resubmitting that legislation this year with a number of new provisions to simplify licensing, including one to require that the Government act on all completed license applications within 18 months after they are received.

I would also emphasize that the private sector’s role in future nuclear development must continue to grow. The Atomic Energy Commission is presently taking steps to provide greater amounts of enriched uranium fuel for the Nation’s nuclear power plants. However, this expansion will not fully meet our needs in the 1980’s; the Government now looks to private industry to provide the additional capacity that will be required.

Our nuclear technology is a national asset of inestimable value. It is essential that we press forward with its development.

The increasing occurrence of unnecessary delays in the development of energy facilities must be ended if we are to meet our energy needs. To be sure, reasonable safeguards must be vigorously maintained for protection of the public and of our environment. Full public participation and questioning must also be allowed as we decide where new energy facilities are to be built. We need to streamline our governmental procedures for licensing and inspections, reduce overlapping jurisdictions and eliminate confusion generated by the government.

To achieve these ends I am taking several steps. During the coming year we will examine various possibilities to assure that all public and private interests are impartially and expeditiously weighed in all government proceedings for permits, licensing and inspections.

I am again proposing siting legislation to the Congress for electric facilities and for the first time, for deepwater ports. All of my new siting legislation includes provision for simplified licensing at both Federal and State levels. It is vital that the Congress take prompt and favorable action on these proposals.

Update: (Posted Sep 23, 2015 at 0400) The above article has been updated to make it more clear that the decision to strongly push nuclear energy in April 1973 was made by an Administration that included James R. Schlesinger and Henry Kissinger. It was not made solely by a single distracted man serving as the President.

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