Gadfly Lilienthal

David Lilienthal is rightly regarded as one of the pioneers of nuclear energy, in his role as inaugural chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission pushing for the “peaceful atom,” but he left his post, after three years, embittered. He became an international merchant banker/developer and had little to do with nuclear affairs, but he consistently railed in private against what he saw as overblown nuclear energy efforts. Because his views generally were sidelined, I make little use of them in my book, but their pungency intoxicates me. Here, for example, are his March 8, 1957 journal opinions:

Propaganda, and pretty talk, can keep a promotion going for a while. But the time comes when the facts take over, the seams begin to show, the talky-talk runs out. That is about what is happening on the atomic energy front today. The orgasms of promises, pictures of a new day, power too cheap to be metered, promotional stuff by the carload, is just about played out—sooner than I had expected. The factual chickens are coming home to roost. I sense that the turning point came when word got out last week that the estimates on costs of the widely publicized “partnership” atomic power plants had all been upped by huge amounts. The same process of getting behind the hot air to the facts is going to show up on the big hooraw about the atoms-for-peace program, in all these forty-odd “bi­lateral agreements”—with Ecuador, and places like that, where a diesel plant is still a test of their technical capacity. What a fraudulent puffing up of an originally good and inspiring idea this has been. But the important thing is the reassurance it gives me that you can’t substitute promises, predictions, and propaganda for the facts indefi­nitely. I guess I’m glad I didn’t actually write and publish that debunking article about the atom that I proposed for Collier’s. That would be a negative note. All it would prove is that I have been more nearly right than some of the more sanguine people, which isn’t a very important thing to establish. The right course for me is the affirmative one: finding the places where the facts do justify beginning to move toward the goal of atomic power, in the near future, on a specific rather than a general promo­tional basis. There are two such places. The first is Puerto Rico. Another is Euratom, in Western Europe.

Lilienthal, David E. 1969. The Journals of David E. Lilienthal, Vol. 4, The Road to Change, 1955-1959. Harper & Row, New York, pp. 152-153.

Ironically, neither Puerto Rico nor Euratom proved successful from a nuclear energy perspective (although, to be fair, no one could have predicted that).

David Lilienthal book cover