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Nuclear Regulatory Commission

NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION

NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION (NRC), created by the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, licenses and regulates most commercial nuclear activities in the United States, including nuclear power reactors and the use of radioactive materials in industry, medicine, agriculture, and scientific research. The origins of the NRC trace back to the immediate aftermath of World War II, when its predecessor agency, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), was created by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 to establish and to operate the nation's military and civilian atomic energy programs. A new law, the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, eased the government monopoly on information relating to atomic energy and for the first time allowed the use of the technology for commercial purposes.

The Nuclear Power Debate

The 1954 act assigned the AEC the dual responsibilities of promoting and regulating the commercial applications of nuclear energy. This became a major issue in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the AEC stood at the center of a major national controversy over nuclear power. At that time, the nuclear industry experienced a boom in which orders for nuclear power plants rapidly increased. The expansion of the industry spawned a corresponding growth in opposition to it. Environmentalists raised a series of objections to nuclear power, which led to highly publicized controversies over thermal pollution, radiation standards, radioactive waste disposal, and reactor safety. Nuclear opponents claimed that the industry and the AEC had not done enough to ensure the safe operation of nuclear plants and that the agency's statutory mandate to encourage nuclear development made it a weak and ineffective regulator. They maintained that the technology was unsafe, unreliable, and unnecessary. Nuclear supporters took sharp issue with that position; they insisted nuclear power was safe (though not risk-free) and essential to meet the energy requirements of the United States. They argued that the benefits of the technology far outweighed its risks.

The Creation of the NRC

Both proponents and critics of nuclear power agreed that the AEC's dual responsibilities for promoting and regulating nuclear power undermined its credibility. In 1974, Congress passed the Energy Reorganization Act, which abolished the AEC and replaced it with the NRC and the Energy Research and Development Administration (which later became a part of the U.S. Department of Energy). The NRC began its existence in January 1975 as the national debate over nuclear power increased in volume and intensity, and within a short time, its policies and procedures became a source of controversy.

The NRC tried to cast off the legacy it inherited from the AEC by stressing that its first priority was safety, but critics were unconvinced. While the nuclear industry complained about the rising costs of building plants and the time the NRC required to review applications, anti-nuclear activists campaigned against the construction or licensing of nuclear power facilities. Several key issues surrounding the growth of nuclear power attracted widespread media attention and generated a great deal of debate. One was the effectiveness of the NRC's regulations on "safeguards, " which were designed to make certain that enriched uranium or plutonium that could be used to make nuclear weapons did not fall into the wrong hands. In response to fears that the expanded use of nuclear power could result in terrorist acquisition of a nuclear weapon, the NRC substantially tightened its requirements for the protection of nuclear fuel and nuclear plants from theft or attacks.

The NRC at the same time was the focal point of controversies over radiation protection standards, the export of nuclear materials to other nations, and the means for estimating the probability of a severe accident in a nuclear power plant. Reactor safety remained a subject of acrimonious dispute, which gained new prominence after a major fire at the Browns Ferry nuclear plants near Decatur, Alabama, in March 1975. In the process of looking for air leaks in an area containing trays of electrical cables that operated the plants' control rooms and safety systems, a technician started a fire. He used a lighted candle to conduct the search, and the open flame ignited the insulation around the cables. The fire raged for seven hours and largely disabled the safety equipment of one of the two affected plants. Nevertheless, the plants were safely shut down without releasing radiation to the environment.

The Three Mile Island Accident

The Browns Ferry fire did not compare in severity or in the attention it commanded with the most serious crisis in the history of nuclear power in the United States. The crisis occurred at Unit 2 of the Three Mile Island nuclear generating station near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on 28 March 1979. As a result of a series of mechanical failures and human errors, the accident, researchers later determined, uncovered the reactor's core and melted about half of it. The immediate cause of the accident was a valve that stuck open and allowed large volumes of reactor coolant to escape. The reactor operators misread the signs of a loss-of-coolant accident and for several hours failed to take action to cool the core. Although the plant's emergency core cooling systems began to work according to design, the operating crew decided to reduce the flow from them to a trickle. Even worse, a short time later the operators turned off the large reactor coolant pumps that circulated water through the core. By the time the nature of the accident was recognized and the core was flooded with coolant, the reactor had suffered irreparable damage.

The credibility of the nuclear industry and the NRC fared almost as badly. Uncertainty about the causes of the accident, confusion regarding how to deal with it, conflicting information from government and industry experts, and contradictory appraisals of the level of danger in the days following the accident often made authorities appear deceptive, inept, or both. Press accounts fed public fears and fostered a deepening perception of a technology that was out of control.

Nevertheless, in some ways the Three Mile Island accident produced reassuring information for reactor experts about the design and operation of the safety systems in a large nuclear plant. Despite the substantial degree of core melting, the pressure vessel that held the fuel rods and the containment building that surrounded the reactor, cooling systems, and other equipment were not breached. From all indications, the amount of radioactivity released into the environment as a result of the accident was small.

Those findings were overshadowed by the unsettling disclosures from Three Mile Island. The incident focused attention on possible causes of accidents that the AEC–NRC and the nuclear industry had not considered extensively. Their working assumption had been that the most likely cause of a loss-of-coolant accident would be a break in a large pipe that fed coolant to the core. But the destruction of the core at Three Mile Island resulted not from a large pipe break but from a relatively minor mechanical failure that operator errors drastically compounded. Perhaps the most distressing revelation of Three Mile Island was that an accident so severe could occur at all. Neither the AEC–NRC nor the industry had ever claimed that a major reactor accident was impossible, despite the multiple and redundant safety features built into nuclear plants. But they had regarded it as highly unlikely, to the point of being nearly incredible. The Three Mile Island accident demonstrated vividly that serious consequences could arise from unanticipated events.

The Response to Three Mile Island

The NRC responded to the Three Mile Island accident by reexamining the adequacy of its safety requirements and by imposing new regulations to correct deficiencies. It placed greater emphasis on "human factors" in plant performance by imposing stronger requirements for training, testing, and licensing of plant operators. In cooperation with industry groups, it promoted the increased use of reactor simulators and the careful assessment of control rooms and instrumentation. The NRC also devoted more attention to other problems that had received limited consideration before Three Mile Island. They included the possible effects of small failures that could produce major consequences and the prompt evaluation of malfunctions at operating nuclear plants. The agency expanded its research programs on a number of problems the accident had highlighted. And, in light of the confusion and uncertainty over evacuation of areas surrounding the Three Mile Island plant during the accident, the NRC sought to improve emergency preparedness and planning. Those and other steps it took were intended to reduce the likelihood of a major accident and, in the event that another one occurred, to enhance the ability of the NRC, the utility, and the public to cope with it.

In the immediate aftermath of Three Mile Island, the NRC suspended granting operating licenses for plants in the pipeline until it could assess the causes of the accident. The "licensing pause" ended in 1980, and in the following nine years, the NRC granted full-power operating licenses to more than forty reactors, most of which had received construction permits in the mid-1970s. The NRC had received no new applications for construction permits since 1978, and as more plants were completed and went on line, the agency shifted its focus to regulating operating plants rather than reviewing applications for new ones.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Balogh, Brian. Chain Reaction: Expert Debate and Public Participation in American Commercial Nuclear Power, 1945–1975. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Duffy, Robert J. Nuclear Politics in America: A History and Theory of Government Regulation. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.

Walker, J. Samuel. Containing the Atom: Nuclear Regulation in a Changing Environment, 1963–1971. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

———. Permissible Dose: A History of Radiation Protection in the Twentieth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Wellock, Thomas Raymond. Critical Masses: Opposition to Nuclear Power in California, 1958–1978. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.

Winkler, Allan M. Life Under a Cloud: American Anxiety About the Atom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

J. SamuelWalker

See alsoEnergy, Department of ; Energy Industry ; Energy Research and Development Administration ; Nuclear Power ; Three Mile Island .

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Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), United States

Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), United States

Established by the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is an independent agency of the federal government tasked with regulating civilian use of nuclear materials. It deals with spent nuclear reactors, radioactive waste, and nuclear and source material, including thorium and isotopes of uranium. Among the important events of the NRC's early history was its handling of the Three Mile Island nuclear incident in 1979. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, NRC officials were forced to contemplate the scenario of a similar terrorist attack upon a nuclear power plant.

Organization and Responsibilities

The NRC is directed by a five-member commission, one of whose members is designated by the president of the United States as chairman and official spokesperson. The commission formulates policies and regulations regarding the safety of nuclear reactors and materials, issues orders to licensees, and adjudicates legal matters on nuclear power that are brought to its attention.

Answering to the commission is the executive director for operations (EDO), who carries out its policies and decisions, and oversees a number of offices. In addition to bureaus designated according to area of responsibility, the NRC has four regional offices, in the Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Dallas areas. These oversee inspection, enforcement, and emergency response programs for licensees within their respective quadrants of the nation.

Among the other NRC offices, which collectively work to ensure the safe commercial use of nuclear power, are the offices of nuclear regulatory research, state and tribal programs, investigation, enforcement, and nuclear security and incident response. The last of these includes divisions for nuclear security, threat assessment, reactor

safeguards, materials safeguards, information security, and incident response.

Overseeing plants, materials, and waste. Two offices are together responsible for the actual oversight of nuclear materials and the plants that produce them. The Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards oversees nuclear waste and radioactive materials, while the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation is concerned with reactors.

Nuclear materials are divided into three types, all of which pose potential health and environmental hazards if not handled properly. Source material includes natural uranium and thorium, as well as depleted uranium. Byproduct material is nuclear material that has been made radioactive in a nuclear reactor, as well as tailings and waste produced by the extraction or concentration of uranium or thorium. A third variety of nuclear material poses an additional hazard, one of security. This category is known as special nuclear material, including uranium-233 and uranium-235, enriched uranium, and plutoniumany of which could be used in a nuclear device.

Regulated waste is also divided into three categories: low-level waste, including radioactively contaminated protective clothing, tools, and other materials; high-level waste, or used nuclear fuel; and uranium mill tailings, or the residues remaining in natural ore after uranium and thorium have been extracted. As with the handling of nuclear materials, the Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards provides strict guidelines regarding the storage and disposal of these waste products.

Reactors regulated by the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation fall into two categories: power reactors, or commercial reactors used to generate electric power, and non-power reactors, or reactors used in research, testing, and training. Among the areas of responsibility for the office are reactor decommissioning, operator licensing, and new reactor licensing.

History of the NRC

Prior to the advent of the NRC, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), established by Congress with the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, regulated nuclear energy. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which superseded its predecessor, legalized the development of commercial nuclear power for the first time in history. Among the provisions of the act was the assignment to the AEC of various functions relating to nuclear power production, including promotion of nuclear power and regulation of safety.

By the 1960s, the AEC had come under criticism for what many regarded as its failure to exercise sufficient rigor in a number of areas, including reactor safety, environmental protection, and standards for radiation protection. In 1974, Congress abolished the AEC with the Energy Reorganization Act, which in turn replaced it with the Energy Research and Development Administration (established as the Department of Energy in 1977) and the NRC.

Concerns over nuclear power. As the NRC began operations on January 19, 1975, public sentiment against nuclear power was on the rise. The dissemination to mainstream society of environmentalist and anti-industrial ideas prevalent in the 1960s was a factor, as was lack of public understanding regarding the means by which nuclear power was generated and handled. Real bases for concerns existed, particularly with the dramatic increase in the size and number of nuclear plants that occurred during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then, on March 28, 1979, an accident at the Three Mile Island plant outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania caused half the reactor's core to melt.

In 1979, the modern system of around-the-clock news reporting via cable channels still lay many years in the future, yet for a few days in the spring of 1979, America followed the Three Mile Island catastrophe through regular news reports. No one died at Three Mile Island, and thanks in part to the NRC's efforts, the federal government dealt with the situation effectively. In the aftermath of Three Mile Island, the NRC placed a much greater emphasis on training of plant operators, studying plant histories for signs of vulnerability, and guarding against the failure of equipment.

During the 1970s, the rise of international terrorism, as well as the proliferation of nations hostile to the United States, spurred NRC leadership to take measures toward the protection of nuclear materials from theft or sabotage. Yet, in the aftermath of the September 2001, terrorist attacks, many critics maintained that power plants were vulnerable, and that the NRC was not taking appropriate measures to address the problem.

Given the destruction wreaked by the planes that flew into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the September 11 attacks raised real fears concerning the vulnerability of nuclear plants. Questioned about the likelihood of damage from such an attack, an NRC spokesperson initially stated that these facilities could withstand an attack by a jet, but later admitted that "nuclear power plants were not designed to withstand such crashes."

FURTHER READING:

BOOKS:

Walker, J. Samuel, and George T. Mazuzan. Containing the Atom: Nuclear Regulation in a Changing Environment, 19631971. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

. Permissible Dose: A History of Radiation Protection in the Twentieth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

PERIODICALS:

Hirsch, Daniel. "The NRC: What, Me Worry?" Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 58, no. 1 (January/February 2002): 3844.

Swanekamp, Robert. "Nuclear Renaissance Converges on Life Extension and Upgrades." ENR 247, no. 23 (December 3, 2001): PC54.

ELECTRONIC:

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. <http://www.nrc.gov/> (April 15, 2003).

SEE ALSO

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Accident, Detection and Monitoring
DOE (United States Department of Energy)
EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
NNSA (United States National Nuclear Security Administration)
Nuclear Power Plants, Security
Nuclear Reactors

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Nuclear Regulatory Commission

NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is an independent regulatory agency that oversees the civilian use of nuclear power in the

United States. It licenses and regulates the uses of nuclear energy to protect public health and safety, and the environment. The NRC's prime responsibility is to ensure that the more than 100 commercial nuclear power plants in the United States conform to its regulations. It also regulates the use of nuclear materials in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, in sterilizing instruments, in smoke detectors, and in gauges used to detect explosives in luggage at airports.

The NRC was established under the provisions of the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 (42 U.S.C.A. §5801) and executive order No. 11,834 of January 15, 1975 (40 Fed. Reg. 2971). These actions dissolved the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and transferred the AEC's licensing and regulatory functions to the NRC. The AEC, which had both regulated and promoted nuclear power, fell out of favor because of these conflicting roles. Congress believed that the NRC, which has only a regulatory function, would better protect public health and safety, because it has no direct interest in the promotion of nuclear energy. The 1974 act also created the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) to handle the promotion of nuclear energy. This agency became part of the energy department in 1977.

NRC headquarters are located in Rockville, Maryland. There are also four regional offices. The NRC is composed of five members, all of whom are appointed by the president. One member is designated as chairman and spokesperson. Policies and decisions of the commission are carried out by the Executive Director for Operations, who also oversees the various NRC offices, including the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, the Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards, the Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, the Office of Investigations, and the Office of Enforcement.

NRC fulfills its responsibilities through a system of licensing and regulation. The Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation licenses the construction and operation of nuclear reactors and other nuclear facilities. It regulates site selection, design, construction, operation maintenance, and the decommissioning of facilities.

The Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards licenses and regulates the processing, handling, and transportation of nuclear materials. This office ensures the safe disposal of nuclear waste and is responsible for reviewing and assessing the safeguards against potential threats, thefts, and sabotage for all licensed facilities.

The Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research performs research to confirm reactor safety and to confirm the implementation of established safeguards and environmental protection policies. This office develops regulations, criteria, guides, standards, and codes that govern health, safety, the environment, and safeguards that pertain to all aspects of nuclear facilities.

Policies and procedures for investigating nuclear power licensees and contractors are developed by the NRC's Office of Investigations. The Office of Enforcement ensures that NRC requirements are enforced. The office has the power to give violation notices, enforce fines, and order license modification, suspension, or revocation.

In 1979, the credibility of the NRC, and the nuclear power industry in general, was questioned after an accident took place at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Almost half of the reactor's core melted, and radioactive steam escaped, but no major injuries were reported. NRC responded by reexamining safety requirements and imposing new regulations to correct deficiencies. It also required each nuclear plant to create a plan for evacuating the population within a ten-mile radius of the plant in the event of a reactor accident. Plant owners must work with state and local police, fire, and civil defense authorities to devise an emergency plan that is then tested and evaluated by the NRC and the federal emergency management agency.

Another issue of concern to the public and to the nuclear power industry is the problem of radioactive waste. The NRC has pressed Congress for a solution to this problem. As nuclear power plants age they accumulate spent nuclear fuel rods. On-site temporary storage at these facilities turned into long-term storage, which raised safety concerns with the NRC as early as the 1970s. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (42 U.S.C.A. §§ 10101-10226), authorized a study of possible storage sites. In 1987, Congress amended the act, directing that Yucca Mountain, Nevada, be studied as the only permanent storage site for nuclear waste. Yucca Mountain is located 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The law gave the state of Nevada veto authority over approving the site, subject to a congressional override. The NRC and the Energy Department endorsed the Yucca Mountain site as geologically sound and capable of safely storing the waste for the thousands of years it will remain radioactive. However, political controversy in Congress and Nevada stalled a decision.

The nuclear power industry lobbied the Bush administration for approval of Yucca Mountain and, in 2002, the Energy Department and President george w. bush formally endorsed the storage site plan. The state of Nevada formally vetoed the site; Congress had 90 days to overrule the decision. In July 2002, Congress overturned the decision and authorized the spending of $69 billion to prepare Yucca Mountain to receive thousands of tons of nuclear waste currently at power plant sites around the United States.

The fear of terrorism played a part in the Yucca Mountain decision, as Congress expressed alarm that a terrorist might be able to steal or obtain spent radioactive material stored at power plant sites. Following the september11th attacks in 2001, the NRC launched a review of nuclear power plants to determine if there were security risks. The commission concluded that the heavy concrete construction of nuclear facilities made it highly unlikely that a Three Mile Island episode could occur if a terrorist flew a hijacked plane into a facility. However, during heightened terrorist alert periods the national guard and local law enforcement agents now routinely patrol nuclear plants.

further readings

"History of the Civilian Radioactive Waste Management Program." Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. Available online at <www.ocrwm.doe.gov> (accessed August 11, 2003).

"Nevada Yucca Mountain Lawsuits." Yucca Mountain: Eureka County Nuclear Waste Page. Available online at <www.yuccamountain.org/court/lawsuits.htm> (accessed August 9, 2003).

Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Available online at <www.nrc.gov> (accessed August 12, 2003).

U.S. Government Manual Website. Available online at <www.gpoaccess.gov/gmanual> (accessed November 10, 2003).

cross-references

Environmental Law; Public Utilities; Solid Wastes, Hazardous Substances, and Toxic Pollutants.

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Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)

Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)


The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) primary mission is to protect public health and safety and to protect the environment from the effects of radiation from nuclear reactors, materials, and waste facilities. The NRC is empowered by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and its amendments to regulate source material (primarily uranium ore and processed uranium), special nuclear material, including material enriched in plutonium or the isotope uranium-235 above certain levels, and by-product material, and to regulate the uses of these materials. Primarily, this means it regulates nuclear power plants and civilian research reactors, the materials used to make fuel for these plants, the wastes produced, and other materials and uses of radioactive material that are derived from these sources.

The NRC is headed by a five-member commission that is appointed by the president (subject to Senate confirmation). The NRC does not regulate naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM) that do not fall into one of these categories. Such naturally occurring materials include radioactive waste from oil and gas production. The NRC also does not regulate radiation-producing machines, such as x-ray machines, or radioactive materials produced in accelerators.

see also Antinuclear Movement; Laws and Regulations; United States.

Matthew Arno

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Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), an independent U.S. government commission, created by the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 and charged with licensing and regulating civilian use of nuclear energy to protect the public and the environment. All licensing and regulatory powers of the former Atomic Energy Commission were transferred to the NRC. The NRC establishes rules for the construction and operation of nuclear reactors; regulates the use, possession, handling, and disposal of nuclear materials; imposes civil penalties for violations; and is authorized to shut down nuclear facilities until violations have been rectified. Four regional offices carry out inspections and investigate nuclear incidents. The NRC also conducts public hearings on nuclear and radiological safety and on environmental and antitrust issues relevant to nuclear energy.

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"Nuclear Regulatory Commission." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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