Lewis Strauss was no fan of useful atomic energy

Every once in a while, I feel the need to share some of the historical research I’m conducting. This serves multiple purposes; it provides me with an easily searchable log of interesting tidbits and it enables me to continue working on my mission of sharing as much information as I can find about atomic energy development.

For many years, I have been under the assumption that Lewis Strauss (pronounced Straws), one of the original members of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Chairman of the AEC for most of the Eisenhower Administration (June 1953 – June 1958) was a fan and promoter of the Atoms for Peace program. It was Strauss that was responsible for the famous “too cheap to meter” phrase.

However, I’ve begun to change my view of the man and his opinions about the beneficial use of atomic energy. There is little or no doubt that he was a huge promoter and supporter of the Cold War development of a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons, pushed for the development of the hydrogen bomb, and was an enthusiastic developer of an increased industrial infrastructure aimed at producing weapons. He held a deep distrust and active dislike of the Soviet Union, which seems to have been largely due to its state-enforced atheism. (Strauss was a devout man who served as president of the Congregation Emanu-El, a Reform synagogue in New York, from 1938 to 1948.)

However, I came across some information that indicates that he was not such a big fan of using nuclear energy to produce electricity or other useful energy products. Here are some quotes from Hewlett and Holt’s Atoms for Peace and War, The Eisenhower Administration and the Atomic Energy Commission, A History of the Atomic Energy Commission, Volume III (pg 62-66).

“Suppose,” the President suggested, “the United States and the Soviets were each to turn over to the United Nations, for peaceful uses, X kilograms of fissionable material.” (p. 62)

Much higher on his agenda was the President’s suggestion that the United States and the Soviet Union might divert equal amounts of fissionable material to peaceful purposes. At first Strauss did not see any practical advantage in Eisenhower’s suggestion. What good would it do to contribute fissionable materials to peaceful uses if the United States and the Soviet Union both retained large amounts in the form of weapons? (p. 65)

Building on Eisenhower’s idea, Strauss proposed that all uranium and thorium mines be shut down for ten years. All plutonium production reactors would cease operation except for one facility in each country for producing radioactive isotopes for research. Each nuclear nation would deliver a fixed amount of fissionable material each month to a “World Atomic Power Administration.” To provide maximum protection for the material, Strauss proposed that it either be stored as a highly diluted solution in underground tanks at some isolated location, such as Ascension Island, or be dispersed to a large number of scattered sites. Strauss acknowledged that the plan would not immediately reduce the threat of biological, nuclear, or conventional warfare, but it did offer “a means of impounding gradually the devastation of atomic warfare and, by its simplicity and plausibility, it would be likely to attract the adherence of the small neutrals and the enthusiastic support of plain people. (pp. 65-66)

Notice that Strauss considered that the role of an Atomic Power Administration was to prevent the use of fissionable materials, not to use fissionable materials to produce energy to make life better for underpowered people.

Fortunately, President Eisenhower had different ideas about the possible benefits of turning potential bomb material into Atoms for Peace.

In nine weeks, the President had moved far beyond Strauss’s proposal for an international pool of fissionable material. Instead of isolating the material in underground tanks, Eisenhower was now proposing to use it to develop power for peaceful purposes. “Who can doubt,” the President asked, “if the entire body of the world’s scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material…, that this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient, and economic usage.” Nuclear power itself was to save the world from nuclear devastation.

Balancing the nuclear threat with nuclear power was an idea that Eisenhower seems to have vaguely in mind in his very first comments to Snapp in Augusta more than a year before. The idea’s simplicity and directness were appealing. It electrified the United Nations General Assembly and the world as few political statements had done since Bernard Baruch’s address in June 1946. But in the very simplicity of the idea lay its limitations. Could atomic energy, which had heightened world tensions and distrust, now become a unifying force for peace? And was nuclear power as imminent as the President seemed to think? These were questions the Atomic Energy Commission would have to answer. (IBID p. 72)

This information provides me with more context for a comment I once received about Lewis Strauss’s thoughts on the future of nuclear energy as documented in the following:

“It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy 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.”
Lewis L. Strauss
Speech to the National Association of Science Writers, New York City September 16th, 1954.

The April 26, 2010 note came from Luke Strauss. Here is what he wrote:

As the great-grandson of the speaker in question, I’d like to thank you for your fair treatment of the quote – oft misused. However, that particular talking point was in reference to fusion energy, not fission – he was talking about the potential development of a power source that didn’t (and still doesn’t) exist, although hopefully LLNL’s NIF and “eater” will change that soon enough.

Luke and I traded some emails about fusion, with me expressing my habitual skepticism about the utility of fusion energy research. He is actively pursuing the fusion dream; I happily remain a fission fan.

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