In October 1974, President Gerald Ford signed
the landmark Energy Reorganization Act splitting the Atomic Energy Commission into two agencies
effective January 19, 1975. The first agency took over the AEC’s weapons
and energy development programs and later became the Department of Energy. The second
agency became the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, responsible for regulating the civilian nuclear
power industry. The AEC had been a storied and powerful federal
agency, which had taken over the Manhattan Project’s weapons development programs and
given birth to peaceful applications of nuclear energy. By 1974, however, Congressman Chet Holifield,
a loyal patron of the agency, spoke for supporters and critics alike when he noted “the AEC was
falling apart” and had to go. Hi, I’m Tom Wellock, the historian for the
NRC. In this video, I’ll explore the historic roots of the AEC’s downfall, which led to
the birth of the NRC. Stated simply, the AEC was doomed by the historical
forces that created it. Those forces produced an agency with three not-very-complementary
parts. One part was a secretive weapons agency. Another part publicly promoted civilian uses
of nuclear energy, while the third part was an unbiased regulator to protect the public
from nuclear hazards. Over time, it became evident that promotion
and protection didn’t mix. The AEC began operations in 1946 when keeping atomic secrets from the
Soviet Union was a Cold-War necessity. When the Soviets exploded their own bomb in 1949,
secrecy became less important than persuading allies and the public that the new atomic
age could bring substantial benefits to civilian life, not just the terror of nuclear war.
The 1954 Atomic Energy Act gave the AEC responsibility for promoting and regulating civilian nuclear
power. In other words — the AEC was both nuclear industry salesman and safety watchdog.
It was poorly equipped to fulfill these missions in a new era demanding transparency and conflict-free
safety regulation. To minimize the conflict, the AEC set up a separate regulatory division
housed in separate offices. It proved not to be enough and after many missteps, distrust
of the agency grew. In the late 1950s, above-ground weapons tests
produced radioactive fallout thousands of miles away. The AEC attempted to reassure
the public that fallout levels were safe, but critics pointed to the discovery that
some fallout elements, such as Strontium-90, could be found in milk and lodged in children’s
teeth. After a treaty banned above-ground testing, the fear of fallout faded; the fear
of radiation didn’t. Radiation fear spread to civilian reactors.
In the early 1960s, electric utilities applied for new reactors at controversial sites near
Manhattan, Boston, and next to the San Andreas Fault. The AEC rejected some plants, but it
approved enough that critics complained about its promotional bias.
With the rise of the environmental movement in the late 1960s, the AEC touted nuclear
power’s “Mr. Clean” image compared to fossil fuels. It wasn’t that simple. Nuclear power
didn’t have belching smoke stacks, but it was not without its own problems. Nuclear
plants discharge large amounts of warm water, called thermal pollution, which was a potential
danger to aquatic life. And radioactive discharges from nuclear plants made headlines when two
AEC scientists argued that the agency’s permissible radiation dose to the public might cause an
additional 32,000 cancer deaths annually. While there were technical solutions to thermal
pollution and the AEC slashed radioactive emission limits, the agency seemed to respond
to these problems only when they made headlines. The public and the lawmakers were not pleased.
In the early 1970s, new controversies turned the AEC’s troubles into a crisis. The AEC
took a narrow view of its responsibilities under the National Environmental Policy Act,
known as NEPA. NEPA required the agency to develop Environmental Impact Statements for
nuclear plant license applications, but the agency sought to limit its direct role and
rely on other agencies for non-nuclear hazard assessments.
Antinuclear activists opposed to the construction of Calvert cliffs nuclear plant, sued the
AEC over the plants environmental impact statement. In January 1971, a federal court ruled the
AEC had to take full responsibility for impact statements. The court argued that the AEC’s
“crabbed interpretation of NEPA makes a mockery of the act.” The judicial rebuke stunned and
embarrassed the AEC. And, once again, it appeared as a reluctant regulator. New commission leadership
at that time opened a dialogue with critics such as Ralph Nader and told the nuclear industry
it was scaling back its promotional role. Dialogue did not quiet charges of AEC bias.
In 1972, the agency opened hearings to set performance standards for emergency cooling
systems at power plants. The hearings garnered unflattering press coverage as dissenting
AEC experts claimed the cooling systems might not work. The press reported that the AEC
tried to intimidate these dissenters. Many observers concluded the agency could not be
a trusted safety-conscious regulator. Congress and the White House began drafting legislation
to dissolve it. In 1973, the Yom Kippur War in the Middle
East touched off an energy crisis that helped shape the legislation to break up the AEC.
By then, many alternative energy sources competed with nuclear power as a solution to fossil
fuels. Congress proposed replacing the nuclear-only AEC with an agency that promoted diverse energy
options. To eliminate the AEC’s conflicted mandate, Congress created the NRC as a stand-alone
agency specializing in reactor safety. Even the AEC’s commissioners agreed to split the
agency. Dixie Lee Ray, the last AEC chairman, said “it is time that the responsibilities
for regulation . . . should be independent from and free from the charges of conflict
of interest.” The 1974 legislation sought to ensure NRC’s
independence with a five-member commission, bipartisan commissioner appointments, an office
of regulatory research, and a substantial research budget. The NRC staff also gained
greater independence than the AEC staff had on regulatory decisions.
The NRC began its operations as a separate agency in January 1975. After the many AEC
controversies, the nuclear industry and antinuclear activists both greeted the new agency with
hope. Trade publications reported the nuclear industry was “positively bubbling over with
enthusiasm” for an NRC that made rapid, efficient decisions. “I may be a Pollyanna on this one,”
a veteran utility lawyer said, “but I really look forward to the new commission.”
In a rare moment of agreement, antinuclear activists also had high hopes for the new
agency — believing it would be a stronger safety regulator than the AEC.
The NRC was born out of a consensus that independent regulation was essential. But how could the
NRC satisfy such divergent expectations of what its independence would mean? Many decades
later, that question still confronts the NRC. How the new agency responded to the challenges
will be the subject of future installments of “Moments in NRC History.” Stay tune, and thanks for watching.