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“Too Cheap to Meter”: A History of the Phrase

Thomas Wellock
Historian

Donald Hintz, Chairman of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said at 2003 conference that the nuclear industry had been “plagued since the early days by the unfortunate quote: ‘Too cheap to meter’.” Those four words had become a standard catchphrase for what critics claim were impossibly sunny promises of nuclear power’s potential.

Not so fast, Hintz countered. He noted that Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss, in a 1954 address to science writers, had coined the phrase to describe fusion power, not fission. Nuclear power may be a victim of mistaken identity.

Hintz was not alone in this view. Over the past four decades, antinuclear and pronuclear versions of what Strauss meant by “too cheap to meter” have appeared in articles, blogs, and books. Even Wikipedia has weighed in, on the pro-nuclear side. Reconciling the two versions isn’t easy since Strauss wasn’t explicit about what power source would electrify the utopian future he predicted.

The text in question:

“Transmutation of the elements,–unlimited power, ability to investigate the working of living cells by tracer atoms, the secret of photosynthesis about to be uncovered,–these and a host of other results all in 15 short years.  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. This is the forecast for an age of peace.”*

AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss (sixth from left) can be seen at the head table at the 1954 National Association of Science Writers Founder Day Dinner. In attendance that evening were five Nobel Prize winners, including future AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg (first on left). Also in this photo: Albert Szent-Gyorgyi (Nobel Prize winner) is third from the left; Alton Blakeslee (president of the National Association of Science Writers) is seventh from the left; Irving Langmuir (Nobel Prize winner) is sixth from the right and Edward C. Kendall (Nobel Prize winner) is fourth from the right.

AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss (sixth from left) can be seen at the head table at the 1954 National Association of Science Writers Founder Day Dinner. In attendance that evening were five Nobel Prize winners, including future AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg (first on left). Also in this photo: Albert Szent-Gyorgyi (Nobel Prize winner) is third from the left; Alton Blakeslee (president of the National Association of Science Writers) is seventh from the left; Irving Langmuir (Nobel Prize winner) is sixth from the right and Edward C. Kendall (Nobel Prize winner) is fourth from the right.

Nuclear critics believe Strauss was speaking of nuclear power and claim that, as AEC Chairman, he spoke for a budding industry too.  The most thorough defense of Strauss appeared in a 1980 article by the Atomic Industrial Forum.

Citing the opinions of Strauss’s son, former AEC staff, and a Strauss biographer, the AIF argued that Strauss’s omission of a power source in the passage was likely deliberate since he could not make explicit reference to “Project Sherwood,” the AEC’s still secret fusion power program that Strauss championed.

Moreover, the article noted, Strauss understood well that nuclear power would not pay for some years and that his utopian vision might be realized only by his “children’s, children’s, children.” Neither the industry nor the AEC, the AIF article notes, shared Strauss’s optimism.

While the AIF correctly notes the AEC Chairman’s interest in fusion, there is no evidence in Strauss’s papers at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library to indicate fusion was the hidden subject of his speech. Staff suggestions for the address reflected current issues in the AEC’s civilian reactor program—the new Atomic Energy Act, President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace, the Shippingport nuclear power plant, the agency’s efforts to declassify information, and medical uses of reactor-produced isotopes.

While it is true that Strauss could not explicitly discuss classified fusion research, the speech is barren of implicit hints of a new source of power. Strauss focused on fission–the discovery of fission, fission-product applications, and the economic feasibility of fission power.

Strauss’s optimism for fission continued several days later when reporters on a Meet the Press radio broadcast asked him about the quotation and the viability of “commercial power from atomic piles.” Strauss replied that he expected his children and grandchildren would have power “too cheap to be metered, just as we have water today that’s too cheap to be metered.” That day, he said, might be “close at hand.  I hope to live to see it.”

By contrast, when Strauss finally revealed the AEC’s fusion research program, he was not nearly as optimistic. In August 1955, he cautioned “there has been nothing in the nature of breakthroughs that would warrant anyone assuming that this [fusion power] was anything except a very long range—and I would accent the word ‘very’—prospect.”

In the years after the speech, the lay public and the power industry never questioned that Strauss’s predictions were for fission power.  The New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning science reporter, William Laurence, attended Strauss’s speech and featured the catchphrase prominently in articles and a book. He wrote of the prediction, “All signs point to the realization within the next decade of a price for nuclear fuels so low that only hydroelectric power, which alone is produced without any cost for fuel could compete with it.”

The electric power industry was not happy with their new catchphrase. Industry officials distanced themselves from Strauss’s speech, sometimes diplomatically calling Strauss too optimistic.

Others were blunt. The president of Cleveland Electric Illuminating disparaged too cheap to meter as “a myth” given the small contribution fuel costs made to a customer’s electric bill. Electrical World called “too cheap to meter” a “delusion” that would make it harder for utility companies to explain electric costs to customers.  In the meantime, the editors declared, utilities would welcome many more customers “with a meter in each and every one.”

This skepticism was echoed by more sober evaluations of nuclear power economics at the AEC and within the industry. Former AEC Commissioner James Ramey was probably correct when he said, “Nobody took Strauss’ statement very seriously.”

It is likely, then, that nuclear critics and proponents are partially correct. “Too cheap to meter” was a prediction for a fission utopia in the foreseeable future. But Strauss was speaking for himself.

“A serious governmental body ought not to indulge in predictions,” he said to the science writers. “However, as a person, I suffer from no such inhibition and will venture a few predictions before I conclude.”

He may have believed that he could step away from his Chairman’s role, indulge in speculation, and that history would note the difference.

* Lewis Strauss’s full speech is available in here.  “Too Cheap to Meter” is on page 9.

10 responses to ““Too Cheap to Meter”: A History of the Phrase

  1. william January 24, 2017 at 8:37 am

    We would have been a lot better if the nuclear industry was under a competent government umbrella much like TVA

  2. steamshovel2002 June 7, 2016 at 10:12 am

    I am disappointed with the NRC’s historian when he didn’t explain how “too cheap to meter” entered our lexicon and media. You guys with your silly rules, he is the NRC’s historian and he can only talk about NRC issues. Who and why did people and organizations use this phrase in the insuring years.

    I could make the case this phrase set the stage to begin deploying these plants on the most inexpensive model, immature designs and a rush to construct these plants. The unbelievably destructive model of decentralization and most plants as a one off design. We should have began this voyage in super standardization. Let alone, the free market investor market, that again hoisted inexpensive plants, high and volatile interest rates and immature designs upon on the nation. This set up the industry to fail before the first private plant was operating.

    We would have been a lot better if the nuclear industry was under a competent government umbrella, much like TVA. Unlimited monies spent in a responsible national ends, until the industry was much more mature. The whole industry under revolutionary transparency, criticism and public scrutiny. Then maybe after 20 or 30 years just spinning off the plants to the private sector.

    The trouble with revolutionary nuclear power from the get-go, we put the invaluable new technology under basically a 1930s industrial/utility organizational model. Remember the CEOs of utilities were basically oil and the coal boys. I meant boys too. Most of the utilities were rather isolated and separate back then. Mostly oil. Any sane oil or coal guy (mostly all the off site support companies) would see nuclear power as a threat to their way of life. They would outwardly and subtly shape the industry to be as weak as possible.

    So the nuclear plants should have developed completely separated from the main stream dinosaur utilities and develop their own employees separate too. But that would take a faith in government, we had that in those days. We would need a highly competent government. There would have to be a mechanism where the utilities would be forced to accept electricity from the nukes. Right, most of our electricity was produced from oil as the 1960s was approaching. Talk about too cheap to meter, that was the price of petroleum in those days. Right, you can’t understand anything, unless you put it in the holistic contextually of the times. That goes for events and incidences going on in the plants today. Contextually is startling missing there today.

    Right, the ruins of nuclear industry is still under the dominating thumbs of the mainstream utilities…

    I could even swallow it if the industry was put under a single private corporation, whose aims was what is best for our nations.

    And the new build also…

  3. Kevin Krause June 6, 2016 at 7:45 am

    While I am not familiar with all the supporting evidence presented here I have always thought of Strauss’ comment in the original context as sans technology. It doesn’t mention fission, it doesn’t mention fusion, nor matter-anti-matter, it doesn’t mention anything. My previous interpretation also included the use of the word “children” as more figurative than literal. So my interpretation would have included centuries as the timeframe.

    Looking at the other parts of the prediction, traveling effortlessly over the seas and under them, with minimum danger and at great speeds. I would say that not a lot has changed, Sure the airlines are faster and safer, but certainly not by orders of magnitude. Travel under the seas is still research and military.

    The comment from the follow up interview is a fascinating one. I get a water bill and I live in a state that has been in the news because of water issues. Water is not too cheap to meter and I never expect that it will be going forward. So it is possible that Strauss’ understanding of cost causation was flawed from the beginning.

    • Moderator June 6, 2016 at 10:48 am

      Thanks for your comments. One possible explanation for his comparison to water is that he was thinking of irrigation districts where users pay an annual fee and draw water unmetered. Unfortunately, he did not elaborate on this point.

      Thomas Wellock

  4. Blubbaloo June 4, 2016 at 6:01 am

    First, thank you Dr. Wellock. As someone who has had a long time interest in the history of the US nuclear fusion and fission programs and Lewis Strauss, I learned a lot that is not available (or perhaps I overlooked) from Strauss’ biography, memoirs and the histories of the US fusion program from Joan Bromberg and Amasa Bishop. I am particularly grateful for the photo and link to Strauss’s entire speech, which I had never read in its entirety before.

    Second, as the person probably most responsible for the current tone and tenor of the “pro-nuclear” Wikipedia entry I feel compelled to explain the facts that had led me to my conclusion from the previously mentioned sources. I admit I don’t have a historian’s training to parse and distill often disparate information into a comprehensive whole and certainly don’t have your access to direct source material.

    As you state in the blog post, Strauss’ son, Lewis H. Strauss, expressed the opinion that the elder Strauss was likely referring to hydrogen fusion. The younger Strauss, in fact, was a physicist and served as his father’s eyes and ears on Project Sherwood and had fed his father a constant stream of optimistic assessments up to the time Strauss gave his speech to the science writers. According to Bromberg, Lewis L. Strauss, in fact, had vowed of nuclear fusion “In my time, this shall come to pass.” Former members of Project Sherwood reported Strauss went so far as to propose a million-dollar prize to the individual or group who successfully demonstrated hydrogen fusion. He was known to visit the various labs and ask the project heads what could be done to expedite the program assuming money was no object. He was clearly enamored with the idea of hydrogen fusion. By June of 1954, just a few months before Strauss gave his speech, Lyman Spitzer (who would later have a space-based telescope named after him) completed a study for a “Model D Stellarator” that was projected to produce 5,000 MW of electricity, ten times the size of typical baseload plants of the day. Edward Teller, a friend of the elder Strauss, was enthused and pushed for additional funding to flesh out the concept further. That said, Strauss was undeniably also a strong advocate of uranium fission power and played a major role in shaping Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace initiative. As I acknowledged in the Wikipedia entry, Strauss made bold predictions about the future of uranium fission at the groundbreaking of the Shippingport reactor (for which he indicated he received criticism from colleagues). Still, the only Strauss quote I had found that was unambiguously about the economics of uranium fission only expressed confidence that innovation and experience would eventually drive down the costs and make fission “competitive” with conventional sources. I would offer that the dampened enthusiasm Strauss expressed for fusion in August of 1955, almost a year after the speech, might be explained by a calculation presented by Edward Teller at the Sherwood conference in October of 1954, a month after Strauss’ speech, in which Teller demonstrated that magnetically confined plasma in devices such as stellarators would be inherently unstable. His finding essentially crushed the hopes in the fusion community for the near-term development of a working fusion reactor. I suggest it was a big blow to Strauss as well.

    My intent isn’t to debate how Strauss’ speech should be interpreted. Despite having read his biography and memoirs, I don’t claim to know the mind of Lewis Strauss and I don’t want to come across as so foolish or arrogant as to pick a fight with a historian about history. My sense is that Strauss was a lifelong student of science generally and saw potential in atomic technology in all its forms – fusion, fission and accelerator-generated isotopes. Perhaps he didn’t have either fusion or fission specifically in mind when he gave his speech and thought both would have a place in America’s future. Instead I would encourage you to add your own contributions to the Wikipedia entry and if the result invalidates all my previous edits, so be it.

    • Moderator June 6, 2016 at 10:49 am

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply. You are right, we can’t know what Strauss was thinking when he gave this speech. So there will always be some possibility that there was a deeper meaning to what he said.

      However, even he was thinking “fusion” when giving the speech, he left the audience that night and the subsequent Meet the Press panel with the impression that he was talking about fission. I have not yet found that he ever clarified his remarks.

      Thomas Wellock

      • Blubbaloo June 7, 2016 at 9:39 am

        I have a thought on why he would deliberately give the impression he was talking about fission, although I admit it is speculative on my part. At the time of his speech, he, and the other AEC commissioners, were boiling over with excitement over the prospects for fusion but Project Sherwood was a classified project and Strauss was a cold warrior, staunch anti-communist, and a stickler for security. He would not allow the Sherwood scientists to publish their research or even share information with the British, much less the Indians, Russians and any other country with a fusion program. Strauss’ “Too Cheap To Meter” line would have been a way to release some of the optimism he felt while using fission as a smokescreen directed at the USSR to throw them off the scent. For all the enthusiasm he had for the US fusion program early on his memoirs contain scant mention of it. Perhaps he felt admitting to misleading the American public as well as the Russians about a program that ended up being an expensive disappointment would not have enhanced his legacy, so felt nothing would be gained by clarifying the record or otherwise dwelling on it. Conversely, I am searching for a reason he would thought fission would be so inexpensive and if he felt that way why he would push for a crash program in fusion in parallel?

        But, again, speculation on my part and admit I may well be rationalizing a position where reality may offer a simpler explanation.

  5. lazarus June 3, 2016 at 5:36 pm

    While too cheap to meter is obviously overly optimistic for any energy source, we now hear the same phrase in connection of “free” wind and solar while at the same time electricity cost go up.

  6. Eric Schwarz June 3, 2016 at 11:15 am

    I had read Norman Rockwell’s book “The Rickover Effect” about 10 years ago (so my memory may be a little fuzzy) but I thought that he mentioned this phrase as originating from a US Army general officer which was to refer to fission power. Not sure if it was before or after AEC Chairman Strauss’s comment but from what I could recall, this general was considered to be a ‘non-expert’ in such matters. This may have been in reference to commercialization of fission power. Do you recall this or am I mistaken?

    • Moderator June 6, 2016 at 9:29 am

      I have not located a reference to “too cheap to meter” in “The Rickover Effect.” But at nearly 400 pages, I may have overlooked the passage. If you have any additional clues, I’d appreciate it.

      I should point out that while Strauss coined the phrase for popular use, he did not invent it. Similar statements had already been made about electric power, but they were not specific references to nuclear power. For example, Charles Steinmetz, the Chief Consulting Engineer at General Electric, wrote in a 1915 article in Ladies Home Journal that electrical power would be “very cheap and it will not pay to install meters and have them read and keep the accounts in the offices of electric companies.”

      Thomas Wellock

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