Why did Richard Nixon so strongly endorse nuclear energy in April 1973? 1

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20 Comments

  1. It’s an interesting hypothesis, to be sure, but I don’t know how much weight I can put on it.

    An interesting datum is the official US Government report on fast breeder reactors from the same period, which I encountered at a used-bookstore one day but didn’t buy (so I can’t cite it properly). The executive summary more or less said “because oil will remain at 1972 prices forever, & because fusion will be here within 10 years, therefore FBRs are not economically attractive”. This was so absurd to me that I nearly threw the volume across the room.

  2. An Occam’s razor answer would be because he believed in it. Why do you say his previous support had been tepid? Some documentation? I wouldn’t say a lack of constant prior endorsement meant tepid. The administration may have thought all was well with nuke development, no need to harp on a non-problem.
    He was a key member of the Eisenhower administration; was he known to not support Atoms for Peace? I’m guessing he supported it.
    If there was a “tricky” policy weasel in that administration it was Henry K, and he could certainly foresee the potential for oil exporters to damage the oil based economy. But that would push a pro nuke agenda.
    That speech is an extremely well written snap shot of the state of things at that time, and what needed to change, as well as a status on new development. It’s hard for me to believe it was a reverse psychology ploy based on it will be rejected because “they don’t like me.” Now if a bunch of pro nuke folks were also on his “enemies” list, I might reconsider.

    1. I agree with mjd that President Nixon may have genuinely believed in nuclear power.

      With the Watergate scandal brewing, perhaps Nixon felt there was nothing to lose, and so decided to push what he thought was best for the nation’s energy security.

  3. It doesn’t seem reasonable to me that Nixon would leverage falling status to meet an alternate goal. It seems He, and anyone would focus on rescuing their status rather than leveraging it for an alternate purpose.

  4. 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.

    I thought his nickname was “Tricky Dick.”

    He had a fondness for football analogies, so he probably would have described his politics as a kind of football game. However, his real talent was for poker, not chess or football. We used the winnings from playing poker while he was in the US Navy during WWII to fund his first campaign for Congress.

  5. Nixon’s support for nuclear power was real,
    although not always for the best of motives.
    Kirk Sorensen had unearthed portions of the Watergate tapes
    where Nixon is explaining to a CA congressman in his unique ellipsistic syntax
    that he is going to throw full support behind the fast breeder program
    and wants to spend most of the money in California
    to employ defense workers that were losing their jobs after Viet Nam.
    Nixon correctly feared that California would switch from a red state
    to a blue state and this was his effort to avoid this. Nixon instructs
    the Congressman not to make this public.

    1. @Jack Devanney

      As you pointed out, Nixon was interested in using certain nuclear projects to gain political points. That does not translate into real support for enabling nuclear energy to flourish and continue the natural progression of taking market share from fossil fuel.

      Nixon came into office with a plan to reorganize the AEC and to limit the political power of the JCAE. He installed James R. Schlesinger as an AEC commissioner and then made him chairman of the Commission. He pushed forward the executive agency reorganization that resulted in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the drifting Energy Resources and Development Agency. His Administration pushed forward a bill that became law to provide the first major federal investment in alternative energy ($20 billion!), but it was specifically limited to “non-nuclear” fossil fuel alternatives, ostensibly because nuclear energy had already received “more than its share” of encouragement.

  6. Rod, read chapter 10 of Glenn Seaborg’s book about his service at AEC Chairman under Nixon. He explains how Nixon’s support of the breeder was a trade for Chet Holifield’s political support of a massive government reorganization that Nixon wanted to push through. He also explains how Holifield essentially offered to leave politics if Nixon would go forward with the fast breeder.

  7. This article flies in the face off numerous documents, tapes, and transcripts that show Richard Nixon was strong supporter of nuclear power, particularly the breeder reactor, from the early days of his administration. See, for instance, his energy speech of June 4, 1971 (noted in an earlier comment). The facts are that on the way to this announcement, he devoted almost a whole cabinet meeting to the breeder reactor and after his speech berated his staff that it did not place even more emphasis on nuclear power. Also, he groused to staff in 1971 (on tape) that Seaborg wasn’t pushing hard enough on fusion.

    1. @Jay Hakes

      Nixon was only in favor of breeder reactor contracts for his California supporters. He was not interested in actually completing and operating the device to produce reliable electricity and prove the viability of used fuel recycling. Suggesting that the AEC push harder on fusion is another plug for his California supporters like General Atomics, which has been getting fusion research contracts since the late 1960s with not a single kilowatt hour to show for it.

  8. Nixon and the Shah of Iran had a thing going on.

    Some pieces of the puzzle may be in the book, The Oil Kings by Andrew Cooper [2012]. Nixon (actually, Kissinger by proxy) was making a major play in the Middle East where Iran would become ‘the’ pivotal US ally, the position Saudi Arabia holds today. There were contingency plans where Iran (actually, the US by proxy) would invade Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to help ‘stabilize’ the vassal-like state in which our oil companies most desired them to remain. In the case of Iran it would be a more equal partnership.

    This involved not just militarizing Iran but a lot of technology transfer. The Shah did intend for his space age feudal system to modernize on his own terms, quickly, and he was playing us too. When he announced in 1974 a plan to construct 23 reactors by the year 2000 he said, “Petroleum is a noble material, much too valuable to burn … We envision producing, as soon as possible, 23,000 megawatts of electricity using nuclear plants.” Such a simple and insightful statement. I believe the Shah’s push for a nuclear grid was essentially a statement of infrastructure building and manifest destiny, nuclear power being just one country-building ‘railroad’ of the Atomic Age.

    And not some transparent direct grab for nuclear weapons, as would be insinuated today. Modern journalists are such pussies. When they write about Iran now it’s like, but we have always been at war with Eastasia. They cannot seem to place themselves in the very different context of those years. When we thought Kissinger was our ally. That was a joke, I think.

    I touch on the Shah as poster-boy for nuclear in this mini essay on the origins of nuke fear.

    1. @HocustLocus

      I like your essay. It provides an interesting perspective that might be improved if you added a few pieces of information.

      One of Ehrlich’s biggest supporters for ZPG was John D. Rockefeller III.

      The Arab Oil embargo in 1973 wasn’t a complete shock to the oil companies. The same tactic was attempted during the 1967 war when Israel captured a substantial piece of territory from neighboring nations after launching successful preemptive attacks.

      The attempted embargo failed at that time for two reasons – the US had not yet reached the accurately predicted Hubbert’s peak of 1970 so we were able to ramp up domestic production. The Shah of Iran, one of our good friends at the time, took the opportunity to both help the US and to capture a larger share of the oil market.

      I believe Iranian production nearly doubled over the course of a single year in response to the attempted embargo by what was at the time called OAPEC – Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries. When Iran and Venezuela joined, the A was removed from the acronym.

      Between 1967 and 1973, there was a huge shift among petroleum rich nations to nationalize their natural resources. That came to a head in 1971 with the Tehran-Tripoli agreement. The oil company executives and government schemers like Kissinger had two years to figure out how to turn a huge — planned — price increase into a benefit for them and their friends. (See: A Century of War, Chapter 9 “Running the World Economy in Reverse: Who Made the 1970s Oil Shocks?”)

      Note: I modified my original comment to correct the historical reference to the 1967 Middle East War based on commenter feedback and a review of additional sources. Mea culpa for the misinformation.

      1. As I mentioned in my first comment above, if there was any “schemer” in the Nixon Administration it was Henry K. And we are still paying the price for a lot of it. I doubt for a minute it actually caught the US government by surprise. K would have said “We’ll survive it, who will it hurt the most, so lets encourage it.”

      2. “The same tactic was attempted during the 1967 war when Israel captured a substantial piece of territory from the aggressor nations.”

        Are you confused with the 1973 Arab-Israeli War? In 1967, it was Israel that initiated hostilities resulting in the capture of the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights in Syria and East Jerusalem.

        With a little effort left over for the USS Liberty.

          1. I have found Rod to be very even-handed on middle eastern affairs. I think he made an honest mistake.

            I believe that Rod is familiar with F. William Engdahl’s “A Century of War”. In that book, Engdahl provides an excerpt from the 1973 Bilderberg meeting held in early 1973 which alluded to a potential Arab oil embargo. It was not a surprise.

            1. @FermiAged

              Thank you for the correction. I have modified my original comment and included a note apologizing for the original error.

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