Lilienthal sours on nuclear

One of the most remarkable historical records of the Twentieth Century is the seven published journals (so entertaining, insightful, and elegantly written!) of David Lilienthal, often described as an architect (among many) of Roosevelt’s New Deal. He was the first chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, from late 1946, and although he only served in that post for just over three years, was enthusiastic and productive in promoting nuclear power. But one of the reasons he left AEC was toxic attacks from the Republicans and that (among other factors) soured him, over the next few years, on the very notion of rapidly forming a nuclear reactor industry.

On January 20, 1956 (i.e. three years out from his AEC chairmanship), he records in the fourth volume of his journals “a visit from Professor Francesco Giordani. He is head of atomic energy development in Italy; more than that, he has had a hand in the South of Italy ideas for years. A man with a magnificent head, warm voice, an impressive gray beard, the kind that seems to be parted and flows outward. Conversation with such a man … is a joy.” Giordani complains about pressure from the big reactor manufacturers, Westinghouse and General Electric. I find the following two sentences (and I’m making no judgment here at all) fascinating and fun to read: “Probably Uncle Sam will be asked to foot the bill. This led us into a discussion of one of my favorite subjects: fake ‘private’ enterprise, i.e., those who make a big public noise about the glories of the system of risk-taking, but who, more and more, get the taxpayer to take the risks while they take the profits when they come.”

Chancing upon honest, energized material like this is part of the historian’s bounty.