JFK’s “Best of the Above” speech at Hanford, WA on September 26, 1963
Almost exactly 50 years ago today, President John F. Kennedy, Jr. visited Hanford, Washington to give a speech about the importance of electrical power and the role that he expected nuclear technology would play in the future. (HT to the TriCity Herald for posting the video provided by the Department of Energy and to Martin for pointing it out to me.)
Kennedy was at Hanford to participate in the groundbreaking for a project to build a steam plant that would convert the heat being produced by the ‘N’ reactor into electrical power, making it the most powerful fission-heated generating plant at the time. Not only was it a rare occasion worth celebrating because of the President’s visit, but it was also one of the few times when security at the Hanford reservation was relaxed to allow the public to visit. As you can see in the video, there was a big crowd on a bright, sunny day. According to the TriCity Herald, there were about 37,000 people in that crowd.
Aside: The article about the ‘N’ reactor on DOE’s Hanford web site contains at least one factual mistake. “President Kennedy’s visit in 1963 took place just four months before he was assassinated in Dallas.” The date of the speech was September 26; he was shot on November 22, less than two months later. End Aside.
Transcript of President Kennedy’s speech at Hanford on September 26, 1963:
Senator Jackson, my old colleague, and Senator Magnuson, Governor Rosellini, Stewart Udall, Ted Moss, Congressman Ullman, Chet Holifield, Commissioner, ladies and gentlemen:
This is an extraordinary place to visit as a citizen and as President of the United States, because along this river men have played a significant role in the last 20 years which has changed the entire history of the world and, therefore, to come all the way from Washingon and see this river and see these reactors, and recognize their significance in the closing days of the Second World War, and also the role that the men and women who work here have played in the years since the Second World War in maintaining the strength of the United States–I am happy to be here today and express my appreciation to you.
The atomic age is a dreadful age, but we must realize that when we broke the atom apart and released its energy and changed the history of the world, it was essential that the United States in this area of national strength and national vigor should be second to none, and on this river, in these reactors, by your effort, that great objective has been maintained. No one can say what the future will bring. No one can speak with certainty about whether we shall be able to control this deadly weapon, whether we shall be able to maintain our life and our peaceful relations with other countries. I can assure you we do everything we can.
It is for that reason that I so strongly supported-recognizing as I did its limitations, but as a step, as Senator Magnuson said, on the long road to peace–that I strongly supported the test ban treaty. But no one can say now what will come of all that effort or, indeed, of the whole atomic age. It may well be that man recognizes now that war is so destructive, so annihilating, so incendiary, that it may be possible, out of that awful fact–it may be possible for us, step by step, to so adjust our relations, to so develop a rule of reason and a rule of law, that we may, out of this scientific change–it may be possible for us to find a more peaceful world. That is our intention.
But I want you to know that the effort that you have made and invested, the talents which have been at work here, I think on several occasions have contributed to the security of the United States and, in a very large sense, to the peace of the world.
I am also glad to come here today because we begin work on the largest nuclear power reactor for peaceful purposes in the world, and I take the greatest satisfaction in the United States being second to none. I think this is a good area where we should be first, and we are first. We are first. It is extraordinary how long it took. It is extraordinary what energy, human energy, was required to get this concept accepted. But as “Scoop” Jackson said, just as it took a decade to get the Grand Coulee, which of all the extraordinary national assets I have seen in the last 2 days is the most extraordinary, because it not only led to the prosperity of this valley, but led to what has been happening here for 20 years, and now leads to this new breakthrough–from that action which took a decade to accomplish and which will pay for itself many times over, and in a sense already has, we have some idea of how important it is that these fights be won. And this fight was won by the dedicated work of the members of this State working in the Senate and the Congress, and most of all, I think, by the local people, who, when the Congress failed to meet its complete responsibility, took up the slack. Therefore, this is a partnership in a very real sense between the National Government and the local community for the benefit of our country.
I come from Massachusetts, I come from the other side of the country, but it is a very small country and I take the greatest pride in what we are all doing here.
I wonder how many people who are sitting here today were born in the State of Washington? Would you hold up your hands? Excluding the children.
Now everybody who wasn’t born in this State?
That is the important point. When we develop these resources in the Northwest United States, it is just as well that the country realizes that we are not talking about one State or two States or three States; we are talking about the United States. Our people move freely from east to west and even once in a while from west to east, but in any case, the country becomes stronger.
There is an old saying that a rising tide lifts all the boats, and as the Northwest United States rises, so does the entire country, so we are glad.
So, Governor Rosellini, Owen Hurd, Glenn Lee, Don Pugnetti, and the others, I want to tell you that you have fulfilled your responsibilities as citizens, and I think this is going to be an extraordinary development. And I look forward to coming back here sometime and seeing this at work because what you are able to do here I think can be done around the world. We are going to show them the way.
There are two points on conservation that have come home to me in the last 2 days. One is the necessity for us to protect what we already have, what nature gave to us, and use it well, not to waste water or land, to set aside land and water, recreation, wilderness, and all the rest now so that it will be available to those who come in the future. That is the traditional concept of conservation, and it still has a major part in the national life of the United States. But the other part of conservation is the newer part, and that is to use science and technology to achieve significant breakthroughs as we are doing today, and in that way to conserve the resources which 10 or 20 or 30 years ago may have been wholly unknown. So we use nuclear power for peaceful purposes and power. We use new techniques to develop new kinds of coal and oil from shale, and all the rest. We use new techniques that Senator Magnuson has pioneered in oceanography, so from the bottom of the ocean and from the ocean we get all the resources which are there, and which are going to be mined and harvested. And from the sun we are going to find more and more uses for that energy whose power we are so conscious of today.
All this means that we put science to work, science to work in improving our environment and making this country a better place in which to live. I want us to stay ahead. Do you know that in the next 10 years, I hope the people of the United States realize it–we double the need for electric power every 10 years? We need the equivalent of a new Grand Coulee Dam every 60 days. In the next 20 years we are going to have to put in the electric industry $125 billion of investment, and when we do that this country will be richer, and our children will enjoy a higher standard of living.
We don’t realize that what we regarded as affluence 30 years ago is now way down below. Air conditioning, television, electricity, and all the rest have changed the life of this country, and we are going to find the same extraordinary changes in the next 20 or 30 years.
I think we must do several things:
First, we must maintain an aggressive program to use our hydro resources to the fullest. Every drop of water which goes to the ocean without being used for power or used to grow, or being made available on the widest possible basis is a waste, and I hope that we will do everything we can to make sure that nothing runs to the ocean unused and wasted.
Secondly, we can meet our electric power goals by developing new means of making our vast resources of coal more competitive in the generation of electricity. Coal is an old fuel, but we are going to find new techniques for using it, which is going to make it one of the most advanced of all human fuels.
And third, as is well known here at Hanford, we must hasten the development of low-cost atomic power. I think we should lead the world in this. By 1967, 1968, 1970, in the Northeast United States, where power rates are nearly double yours, we are going to find atomic power increasingly competitive, and by the end of this century this is going to be a tremendous source. Our experts estimate that half of all electric energy generated in the United States will come from nuclear sources.
Fourth, we must construct an efficient interconnection between electric systems, public and private, both within regions-as you have done so effectively here in the Northwest–and between regions, as has been proposed by means of a Pacific Northwest-Pacific Southwest inter-tie. Maybe we can give some of it to California.
And finally, we must not allow this technology to lead to monopolization, either by the Federal Government or large combines of private utilities. We should realize the economies of size without jeopardizing the rights of our citizens to be served by the type of electric utility they prefer, and also to encourage competition.
These are the things we must do, and many more. This great, rich country of ours has a long, unfinished agenda, but it has always had that agenda in creative times, and this is a creative time in our country and throughout the world. All of the trained and educated men and women who are making our country over, who are building a better standard of living for our people-this is a time when we wish to encourage that release of energy, human energy, which is the most extraordinary of all.
Therefore, I am proud to come here across the United States as President to express our thanks to you, to express my pride in what is being begun here today, which puts the United States, as I said, once more in the lead in a whole new area which can mean so much to people around the world. I think it is very appropriate that we come here where so much has been done to build the military strength of the United States and to find a chance to strike a blow for peace and to find a chance to strike a blow for a better life for our fellow citizens.
This is a great national asset here. I can assure you it will be maintained. And from the work we begin today, I hope the light will spread out, not merely to those who are served by electricity, but to all the world to realize that here in the United States we are moving ahead and providing security for our people and also a hope for a better life in this most beautiful country of ours.
Tragically, President Kennedy was shot and killed less than two months after delivering this visionary speech. He was succeeded by Lyndon B. Johnson, a man who also knew the importance of electrical power in the improvement of the economic condition of the vast majority of Americans. Unfortunately, LBJ had a slightly different ordering of power sources and believed that natural gas should play an increasing role in energy production. So did many of his financial supporters in his home base of support.
PS – It is also worth noting that the ‘N’ reactor operated safely and reliably as a power-generating and material-producing reactor for 24 years, until it was shut down for routine maintenance and refueling in 1987. Unfortunately, it was never restarted, perhaps because there were people within the Department of Energy and the rest of the government who thought that its design shared too many features with the RBMK reactors built by the Soviet Union.
About a year before the ‘N’ reactor shutdown, in April 1986, one of those RBMK reactors had been misused for a poorly planned and very poorly executed test. The test led to the reactor being put into a condition that the designers never expected operators to establish; the reactor suffered a steam explosion and soon became the most infamous nuclear reactor in history – Chernobyl. Despite the completion of a detailed study that showed how the specific differences in design between the RBMK and the ‘N’ reactor would have precluded any similar events, the people advocating the permanent shutdown won the debate. They were aided by a GAO report that estimated that a refurbishment costing approximately $1.2 billion would be needed in order to operate the plant past the year 2000, more than 13 years after the shutdown was ordered.
‘Best of the above’. Another keeper!
With better priorities the elapsed 50 years could have averted much of the energy vs environment tensions that now cause so much consternation. Thank you for sharing this remarkably prescient speech.
The NRC came out today and blamed everybody but itself for the closure of SONG.
I was an engineer at SONGS that was laid off when it was decided to close the plant. Luckily, I found another job in nuclear power. Apparently, most of my colleagues have also been able to land other jobs in nuclear. The down side is having to relocate away from California (as screwed up as it is). In my case, my job will be working closely on one of the AP1000’s being built.
When things settle down a bit (probably in a few weeks), I will give my thoughts on SONGS.
Hmmm, I wonder if Lee Harvey Oswald was on Big Oil’s payroll?
I don’t know about Oswald / Big Oil but JFK was adamant about restraining nuclear weapons proliferation. He was strongly considering a first strike on China’s nuclear infrastructure before they could develop a bomb (described tin the book “Spying on the Atom”). JFK was also forcefully demanding that Israel open it’s nuclear facilities to international, or at least US inspectors (described in the book “Israel and the Bomb”). The tension resulted in the Israeli Prime Minister resigning.
Both efforts were abandoned after JFK’s assassination.
Simply an excellent speech.
JFK was enough of a visionary that he set us on the course to get to the moon prior to 1970. It is nothing short of a shame that so many people have shifted toward becoming so anti-progress in the time period from the 1970’s through today.
What did Americans get out of landing a man on the moon though? Only the ability to stick a finger up at the Rooskies…
Along with many residual technological advancements. The entire Cold War in general is a big factor in the development of many technologies, such as the wonderful World Wide Web.
The Internet in general yes (as it developed from the ARPANET, which was a Department of Defense sponsored project), but not the World Wide Web, which was developed at CERN.
Technology is empowering and a great leveler. That’s why the elites have tried to reign it in.
Grammar nit: you mean “rein it in”.
Thanks for posting this Rod.
JFK was one of the few political leaders within my lifetime (born 1948) that proved able to communicate in an understandable and straightforward manner. The contrast between his words and those from more recent leaders is genuinely remarkable. What a loss.
Rod, JFK was not a “Jr.”
From Winston Churchill:
True genius resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain, hazardous, and conflicting information.
It hs been a while for the US and the western world.
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