Nixon’s Nuclear Energy Vision
President Nixon called for expanded research and application of nuclear energy with the goal to help America achieve energy independence
Foreign Crisis and Pressure
On October 6, 1973, Israel and her Arab neighbors Egypt and Syria went to war for the second time in six years. The United States helped out Israel in the Yom Kippur War, as it became known, and the Nixon Administration’s policy of Shuttle Diplomacy, administered by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, is sometimes credited with having helped avert a global crisis that could have spiraled into world war. Conrad Black has noted that one of Nixon’s greatest thematic strengths was “to lead from strength at a moment of apparent weakness,” and in the 1973 Arab-Israeli crisis, that is exactly what the President did, to great effect. But there were costs.
By October 1973, the member nations of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting States cut off oil shipments to the United States in protest of its support of Israel, initiating the Arab Oil Embargo and leading to one of the most devastating economic flashpoints the United States had faced since the crash of 1929. Oil grew scarce, and with prices rising, President Nixon asked that the public consider a slew of emergency measures to keep the economy chugging along. The speed limit on highways was reduced; there was oil rationing; and the President recommended an expansion of domestic American production of oil resources.
But President Nixon, one of the administrators of President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace initiative, called into the public’s eye another path forward- the expanded use of nuclear energy to help America achieve energy independence.
How the Country Managed
In various addresses during the crisis of 1973, President Nixon called for expanded research and application of nuclear energy- specifically, the expanded use of breeder reactors and research into prospects for future fusion reactors. He called for the opening of an Energy Research and Development Administration that would, true to its name, fund research efforts and deployments of various forms of energy, especially new generations of nuclear plants.
The need was urgent- as the President knew, and said on June 29th, 1973,
“It is clear that the answer to our long-term needs lies in developing new forms of energy.”
On November 7th, 1973, President Nixon tied the quest for energy independence- including the advancement and proliferation of nuclear energy technology- to America’s historic 20th century mission of technological and human progress, exemplified in the decades before by the Manhattan Project and the Apollo Project.
“Let us unite in committing the resources of this Nation to a major new endeavor, an endeavor that in this Bicentennial Era we can appropriately call “Project Independence.”
Let us set as our national goal, in the spirit of Apollo, with the determination of the Manhattan Project, that by the end of this decade we will have developed the potential to meet our own energy needs without depending on any foreign energy sources.
Let us pledge that by 1980, under Project Independence, we shall be able to meet America’s energy needs from America’s own energy resources….”
Elsewhere, President Nixon called for the construction of 1,000 new nuclear plants in the United States by the year 1980, complete with federal funding of new initiatives, public-private partnerships with major energy industries, and regulatory reforms and exemptions to expedite the process of construction. Unfortunately, due to a failure to marshal significant public support for the nuclear side of the energy plan and the untimely occurrence of Watergate, the nuclear plans went largely unfulfilled after 1974.
Many parts of the Nixon energy legacy remain with us today- conservation measures, expanded research funding across the board, and increased domestic production of all forms of energy. But the nuclear dreams of Nixon’s 1973 speeches and public statements have gone unrealized, partly due to the toning-down of the energy crisis in the early 1980s, partly due to the shifting of public favor towards renewables like wind and solar, and partly due to lobbying on the part of established energy industries against the creation of a massive new competitor market. Ultimately, the country has yet to fulfill true energy independence.
Why It Matters Now
In the second decade of the 21st Century, it is far less likely that the United States will ever face an energy shortage ever again. Rapid innovation in drilling technology has opened up vast new oil and gas reserves, and increased energy efficiency- partly pioneered by President Nixon himself- has raised standards and reduced waste.
While we shouldn’t project current trends indefinitely into the future, the rate of technological advancement and new geological discoveries should give us hope. But a country shouldn’t get too careless, and Nixon was very much a devotee of President Theodore Roosevelt’s “preparedness” philosophy. In the modern age, that applies to energy resources as much as to any military, governance efficiency, and economic productivity concerns.
There are three primary reasons why President Nixon supported the further development of nuclear energy in the America of the 1970s.
First, to diversify America’s energy portfolio and market, so that in the event of crisis in one sector, there would be backup in another.
Second, to promote American energy independence, reliability, and resiliency in the event of a future Arab Oil Embargo-like event.
Third, to promote environmental protection in an age when air quality was rising up as a major issue in the newly-conscious environmental movement.
All of these rationales are applicable, in different ways, to the America of 2016 just as they were to the America of 1973.
First, portfolio diversity. An economy too reliant on any one sector is chained to the ups and downs of that sector, and a sector too reliant on any one industry is chained to the ups and downs of that industry. The more central the sector is to the economy as a whole- and energy is among the most important sectors in today’s economy, right up there with finance and healthcare- the more important it is to have general stability buttressed by industrial diversity. Oil makes up 36% of America’s energy use, followed by natural gas at 29%. Nuclear makes up 8.5% of the pie, but given its inherent stability and reliability it would be a good candidate for expanding, especially given that cheap, reliable energy is one of the prerequisites of broad-based economic growth.
Second, energy self-sufficiency. For reasons listed earlier, it’s highly unlikely that the United States will ever again face an oil shortage or an energy emergency based on scarcity. But you never know, and for the sake of national preparedness it would be healthy to put together a renewed nuclear energy grid that could survive oil shocks and earthquakes equally. A modern economy capable of sustaining a mass middle class and world-rate industry needs cheap, reliable energy available at all times, and a modernized nuclear grid could very well contribute to that preparedness.
Finally, environmental concerns. As many from the Breakthrough Institute to the Brookings Institution have argued, nuclear energy has been and can be a good way again to achieve energy abundance in a zero-carbon way. Whether that means fighting climate change, for those on the left, or providing the economy with cheap energy, for those on the right, nuclear energy is a chance both to modernize the American energy system and help address great ecological challenges that have hitherto been answered chiefly by clunky regulatory means.
This vision of scientific progress and environmental protection was integral to Nixon’s vision for America- a vision which included establishing the Environmental Protection Agency (with a limited mandate) and signing into law the Clean Air Act, as well as declaring a war on cancer and overseeing the Apollo mission. Nixon was one of the 20th century’s great political advocates of scientific progress, and pushing American society forward into a technology-infused future was part of his lasting legacy.