132. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant for Science and Technology (Hornig) to President Johnson1

Next Tuesday2 I shall begin discussions with the Russians to explore the possibility of cooperation in the development of means for the large scale desalting of water.

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I am anxious, before these talks begin, to discuss the desalting problem with you in order a) to reflect your attitude in the talks and b) to apprise you of problems in our domestic program and to propose that we commit ourselves firmly to an orderly program aimed at large scale desalting.

The present situation, in a nut shell, is this:

The interagency study carried out under the leadership of my office concluded that using very large, dual-purpose, nuclear heat sources, fresh water could be produced from sea water at selected sites at a cost which makes it competitive for municipal and industrial (but not general irrigation) purposes.3 It was estimated that such plants could be in operation by 1975–1980.
The plant envisaged would produce about 500 million gallons per day. The largest distillation plant we have yet built produces somewhat more than one million gallons per day. Therefore, a large research and development effort on distillation technology is needed before success can be achieved.
The plants envisaged would require nuclear reactors some 3 times bigger than we have yet built. Reactor technology is therefore relatively more advanced than distillation technology.
At the present time the Office of Saline Water in Interior has a research and development budget of about $10 million per year and is moving methodically forward but has no systematic development plans aimed at large scale desalting plants.

The situation about which I am concerned is that on the basis of the favorable prognosis by our report we have offered to share our technology internationally, and in particular have committed ourselves to cooperation with Israel. We are about to enter discussions with the Soviet Union. Yet, we have no clear internal commitment to proceed down the road toward large scale desalting plants.

I urge, therefore, that in general terms we do commit ourselves to such a development and that the AEC and Department of the Interior be instructed to prepare an imaginative plan to do so. I shall be glad to play whatever role you desire.

Don Hornig 4
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 359, Office of Science and Technology,OST Administrative History, Volume II—Documentary Supplement, Box 5, E—Water Resources. No classification marking.
  2. July 10.
  3. In March 1964 a special task group under the leadership of an OST consultant, Dr. Roger Revelle, Dean of Research at the University of California, completed an extensive desalination study. The group concluded that if better methods of distillation could be developed, the heat produced by large nuclear reactors could be used to cost-effectively desalt sea water by the late 1970s, but that it would be cost-prohibitive for agricultural use. (An Assessment of Large Nuclear Powered Sea Water Distillation Plants; a Report of an Interagency Task Group, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, March 1964)
  4. Printed from a copy that indicates Hornig signed the original.