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United States Atomic Energy Commission

From Academic Kids

Almost a year after World War II ended, Congress established the United States Atomic Energy Commission to foster and control the peace time development of atomic science and technology. President Harry S. Truman signed the Atomic Energy Act on August 1, 1946, transferring the control of atomic energy from military to civilian hands. This action reflected America's postwar optimism, with Congress declaring that atomic energy should be employed not only in the form of nuclear weapons for the nation's defense, but also to promote world peace, improve the public welfare and strengthen free competition in private enterprise. The signing was the culmination of long months of intensive debate among politicians, military planners and atomic scientists over the fate of this new energy source.

Congress gave the new civilian Commission extraordinary power and independence to carry out its mission. To provide the Commission exceptional freedom in hiring scientists and professionals, Commission employees were exempt from the Civil Service system. Because of the need for great security, all production facilities and nuclear reactors would be government-owned, while all technical information and research results would be under Commission control. The National Laboratory system was established from the facilities created under the Manhattan Project, and Argonne National Laboratory was one of the first laboratories authorized under this legislation as a contractor-operated facility dedicated to fulfilling the new Commission's mission.

Before the NRC was created, nuclear regulation was the responsibility of the AEC, which Congress first established in the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. Eight years later, Congress replaced that law with the Atomic Energy Act Amendments of 1954, which for the first time made the development of commercial nuclear power possible. The act assigned the AEC the functions of both encouraging the use of nuclear power and regulating its safety. The AEC's regulatory programs sought to ensure public health and safety from the hazards of nuclear power without imposing excessive requirements that would inhibit the growth of the industry. This was a difficult goal to achieve, especially in a new industry, and within a short time the AEC's programs stirred considerable controversy. An increasing number of critics during the 1960s charged that the AEC's regulations were insufficiently rigorous in several important areas, including radiation protection standards, nuclear reactor safety, plant siting, and environmental protection.

By 1974, the AEC's regulatory programs had come under such strong attack that Congress decided to abolish the agency. Supporters and critics of nuclear power agreed that the promotional and regulatory duties of the AEC should be assigned to different agencies. The Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 put the regulatory functions of the AEC into the new Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which began operations on January 19, 1975; and placed the promotional functions within the Energy Research and Development Administration, which was later absorbed by the United States Department of Energy.

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