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Atomic Energy Commission

The United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was an agency of the United States government established after World War II by Congress to foster and control the peace time development of atomic science and technology. President Harry S. Truman signed the McMahon/Atomic Energy Act on August 1, 1946, transferring the control of atomic energy from military to civilian hands, effective from January 1, 1947. The agency was abolished by the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, which assigned its functions to two new agencies: the Energy Research and Development Administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.


The formation of the AEC 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. President Truman appointed David Lilienthal as the first Chairman of the AEC.

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. Argonne National Laboratorymarker 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 Nuclear Regulatory Commission (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. Stephanie Cooke has written that:
"the AEC had become an oligarchy controlling all facets of the military and civilian sides of nuclear energy, promoting them and at the same time attempting to regulate them, and it had fallen down on the regulatory side ... a growing legion of critics saw too many inbuilt conflicts of interest".
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.

In 1973, the AEC predicted that, by the turn of the century, one thousand reactors would be producing electricity for homes and businesses across the USA. But after 1973, reactor orders declined sharply as electricity demand fell and construction costs rose. Many orders and partially completed plants were cancelled.

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 NRC, which began operations on January 19, 1975; and placed the promotional functions within the Energy Research and Development Administration, which was later incorporated into the United States Department of Energy.

AEC Chairperson

Term Name President served
1946–1950 David E. Lilienthal Harry S. Truman
1950–1953 Gordon Dean Harry S. Truman
1953–1958 Lewis Strauss Dwight D. Eisenhower
1958–1960 John A. McCone Dwight D. Eisenhower
1961–1971 Glenn T. Seaborg John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon
1971–1973 James R. Schlesinger Richard Nixon
1973–1974 Dixy Lee Ray Richard Nixon

See also


Further reading

  • Buck, Alice L. A History of the Atomic Energy Commission. U.S. Department of Energy, DOE/ES-0003. July 1983. PDF file
  • Richard G. Hewlett; Oscar E. Anderson. The New World, 1939-1946. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962.
  • Richard G. Hewlett; Francis Duncan. Atomic Shield, 1947-1952. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1969.
  • Richard G. Hewlett; Jack M. Holl. Atoms for Peace and War, 1953-1961: Eisenhower and the Atomic Energy Commission. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

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