Radium Part II: Trying to Close Pandora’s Box

Tom Wellock
NRC Historian

Until 1945, radium was the best known radioactive material. It was widely found in consumer and medical products. And, as we saw in Part I of this series, it became notorious for fatally sickening radium watch-dial painters in the 1920s. With few exceptions, oversight of public and workplace safety for radium was mostly a state responsibility, and the federal government’s role was limited to such issues as preventing false advertising and regulating mail shipments.

USRadiumGirls-Argonne1ca1922-23-150dpiAt that time, radioisotopes came from just two limited sources. They were painstakingly isolated from natural ores, as was radium, or created in small batches in particle accelerators. These accelerators fire beams of electrons, protons and other particles at elements to create radioactive isotopes. Today the products of these two processes are called NARM—short for Naturally-Occurring and Accelerator-Produced Radioactive Material.

Scientists working on fission and the Manhattan Project discovered new radioactive isotopes with interesting properties. They soon became widely available to scientists, who found many uses for these products, from medical to basic research. They were under federal control and soon eclipsed the small amounts of radium and other NARM that existed before the war. Cold-War security concerns demanded federal control of nuclear technology and this new radioactive material.

Still, the 1946 Atomic Energy Act avoided intruding on state authority over NARM. It focused the Atomic Energy Commission’s oversight on fissionable material such as uranium and thorium and reactor-produced isotopes. The AEC controlled the vast majority of radioactive material.

This division of power didn’t disturb existing state authority but made little technical sense. An isotope produced in a reactor would be identical to one found in nature or produced in an accelerator.  Moreover, state oversight was uneven.

Radium_Periodic Element TableRadium had lost its luster and fallen into disuse. Safer reactor-produced isotopes and sources with shorter half-lives mostly replaced radium for medical uses. Radium consumer products disappeared from stores by the 1970s. But products made with radium during its heyday (see Part I) retain their hazard for a long time.

So, from time to time, reports would emerge of products found in someone’s attic or office, or contamination found in a building. This prompted the Public Health Service to launch a program to collect and safely dispose of old radium sources.

Beginning in the late 1960s, state radiation control officers called for legislation to give the AEC and later the NRC the power to regulate radium and other NARM. In 1985 the NRC asked to be given authority over NARM waste disposal, but Congress took no action. The status quo remained, in part due to difficulties Congress had deciding on the federal agency best suited to regulate radium and oversee cleanup.

Little changed until the 1990s when terrorism provided a new dimension of concern. Experts worried that untracked or stolen radioactive sources, including radium, could be used in “dirty bombs.” Between 1998 and 2003, as part of the U.S. delegation to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the NRC worked with member nations on a code of conduct for radioactive sources. To limit the potential for “malicious acts,” the code appealed to each country to develop a national system of regulation for a list of radioactive sources — radium among them.

In the wake of 9/11, support for the IAEA code gained momentum. Congress included a provision in the 2005 Energy Policy Act giving NRC oversight of radium and other sources of NARM. A consensus for federal regulation emerged only when national security issues joined long-standing health concerns.

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

Thomas Wellock

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.