Too cheap to meter

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Too cheap to meter describes a commodity so inexpensive that it is cheaper and less bureaucratic to simply provide it for a flat fee or even free and make a profit from associated services. It can also refer to services which it would cost more to itemize bills for the service than it costs to provide the service in the first place, thus it being simpler and less expensive to just provide it in a bundle along with other services.

Although sometimes attributed to Walter Marshall, a pioneer of nuclear power in the United Kingdom,[1] the phrase was coined by Lewis Strauss, then chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, who in a 1954 speech to the National Association of Science Writers said:

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.[2][3]

It is often assumed that Strauss' prediction was a reference to conventional uranium fission nuclear reactors. Indeed, only ten days prior to his "Too Cheap To Meter" speech, Strauss was present for the groundbreaking of the Shippingport Atomic Power Station where he predicted that, "industry would have electrical power from atomic furnaces in five to fifteen years." However, Strauss was possibly referring to hydrogen fusion power and Project Sherwood, which was conducting secret research on developing practical fusion power plants.[4][5][6]

Strauss gave no public hint at the time that he was referring to fusion reactors, because of the classified nature of Project Sherwood, and the press naturally took his prediction regarding cheap electricity to apply to conventional fission reactors. However, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission itself, in testimony to the U.S. Congress only months before, lowered the expectations for fission power, projecting only that the costs of reactors could be brought down to about the same as those for conventional sources.[7]

Strauss viewed hydrogen fusion as the ultimate power source. He was eager to develop the technology as quickly as possible and urged the Project Sherwood researchers to make rapid progress, even suggesting a million-dollar prize to the individual or team that succeeded first.[8] However Strauss was not optimistic about the rapid commercialisation of fusion power. In August 1955 after fusion research was made public, 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."[9]

No evidence has been found in Strauss's archived papers to indicate fusion was the secret subject of his speech.[9]

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  1. ^ "Nuclear doubts gnaw deeper", BBC News, Thursday, 15 June 2000
  2. ^ "This Day in Quotes: SEPTEMBER 16 - Too cheap to meter: the great nuclear quote debate". This day in quotes. 2009. Retrieved December 13, 2009.
  3. ^ Full text of speech pp. 9
  4. ^ Pfau, Richard (1984) No Sacrifice Too Great: The Life of Lewis L. Strauss University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, p. 187 ISBN 978-0-8139-1038-3
  5. ^ "Abundant Power from Atom Seen; It will be too cheap for our children to meter, Strauss tells science writers," New York Times, Sept. 17, 1954, p. 5.
  6. ^ David Bodansky. Nuclear Energy: Principles, Practices, and Prospects. p. 32. Retrieved 2008-01-31.
  7. ^ ATOMIC ENERGY: The Nuclear Revolution Time Magazine, February 6, 1956
  8. ^ Bromberg, Joan Lisa (1982) Fusion: Science, Politics, and the Invention of a New Energy Source MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, p. 44, ISBN 0-262-02180-3
  9. ^ a b Thomas Wellock (3 June 2016). ""Too Cheap to Meter": A History of the Phrase". Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Retrieved 15 February 2017.

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