Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Nuclear Breakthrough that Wasn't (General Electric and the Selling of Nukes) GE

From the Atlantic:

In the rush to commercialize nuclear power, proponents may have hampered its long-term prospects by settling on an approach to atomic energy that may not have been the best.
nuclear power.jpg

On June 10, 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson rode through the streets of Worcester, Massachusetts, cheered by 175,000 well-wishers on his way to give a commencement speech at Holy Cross. Looking out over the football stadium's cheering masses, dressed in the traditional scholar's robe, the Texan lawyer delivered a paean to science and technology's power to transform the lot of the world's poor for the better....

...The New York Times ran a story about Johnson's speech on page one under the headline, "Johnson Reports a 'Breakthrough' in Atomic Power." They followed up with a series of stories, as did the other major newspapers. Word of a breakthrough in the cost of nuclear power was big news because everyone had been waiting for economically feasible nuclear power for a decade. After the heavy promotion of the early nuclear power days--exemplified by Walt Disney's classic nuclear cartoon, Our Friend the Atom--nuclear power had stalled out with just a few demonstration plants in operation. The coal lobby smelled blood. In March of 1964 the coal industry assailed nuclear power, saying Congress needed to remove "the sheltering umbrella of Government subsidies."

General Electric and Westinghouse, who had helped build America's military and civilian nuclear program, were getting antsy that their knowledge would go to waste. "Our people understood this was a game of massive stakes, and that if we didn't force the utility industry to put those stations on line, we'd end up with nothing," as John Gitterick, a GE vice president, later told Fortune. It was this corporate desire to capture rents on a technology that only a few companies could provide that generated the "economic breakthrough" of Johnson's speech.

As soon as the words left Johnson's mouth, scientists at national laboratories around the country knew what he was talking about, even though he was a few months late with the announcement. When a Chicago Tribune reporter called Stephen Lawrowski, associate director of Argonne National Laboratory, the scientist told him that the president must have been talking about the guaranteed price that General Electric had offered Jersey Central Light and Power for the Oyster Creek plant. That announcement had "caused a flurry" in scientific circles because the price GE was charging for the plant--$68 million for the 515-megawatt plant--made the plant economically competitive with fossil fuels.
 [Editor's note: Oyster Creek was a boiling water reactor with the same basic design and containment vessel as the Fukushima reactor in Japan.]