Atomic Energy Commission

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The use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945) created the atomic age. A legacy of World War II, nuclear energy was seen both as a threat that might destroy the world and as a new source of energy to advance civilization. Throughout the Cold War (1946–1991) the fear of nuclear holocaust—fed by the arms race with the Soviet Union—and the promise of harnessing atomic power for peaceful uses helped to shape American culture and society. In an attempt to control the destructive side of nuclear power while utilizing its potential for civilian applications, Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act (AEA) of 1946.

The Manhattan Project, which created the atomic bombs used in World War II, had been under military command. The AEA was created in the early stages of the Cold War and the U.S. government's first priority was maintaining control over atomic technology in order to exploit it for military purposes. In keeping with the American tradition of civilian control over the military, the act created the civilian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which was put in charge of administrating and regulating atomic power.

In 1949, after the Soviet Union detonated an atomic bomb, a debate started regarding the development of a more powerful nuclear weapon: a hydrogen bomb. The AEC consulted its scientific advisory board. The chairman of the board was J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the American atomic bomb, a strong believer in negotiated arms control and an outspoken critic of the military's atomic strategy. He argued that the country's emphasis should be on developing peaceful uses for nuclear power; and largely because of his influence, the advisory board unanimously recommended that the United States not pursue the hydrogen bomb. The board's decision created powerful enemies for Oppenheimer not only in the military, but also in political and scientific circles.

The scientific advisory board's decision was made in a domestic political environment defined by Senator Joe McCarthy and the Red Scare. Proponents of the hydrogen bomb took advantage of the politically charged climate and in 1953 stripped Oppenheimer of his security clearance and removed him from the board, in large part because of his contacts with the American communist movement. The advisory board then reversed its recommendation and supported the development of the hydrogen bomb.

The atomic era created soaring expectations for the ability of nuclear power to provide an abundance of inexpensive energy with little or no risk to the environment. To further this goal, the AEA was amended in 1954 to allow the development of commercial nuclear power. The AEC was assigned the task of regulating public health and safety while promoting the industrial development of nuclear power. In the 1950s, the tension of these often contradictory policy goals created controversy.

One issue, which undermined the AEC's credibility, was the commission's claim that fallout from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons posed no significant health hazards to the public. Scientific analysis demonstrated a considerable danger of radioactive fallout from these tests. Another controversy arose over the agency's approach to the handling of radioactive waste; the increasing stockpile of such waste made safe disposal an urgent issue. The AEC, after insufficient geological and hydrological investigation, announced that the permanent repository for nuclear waste would be an abandoned salt mine near Lyons, Kansas. AEC officials downplayed initial concerns about the suitability of the site raised by scientists, environmentalists and state geologists. A bitter dispute, with AEC officials on one side and members of Congress as well as Kansas state officials on the other, raged until 1972 when, to the embarrassment of the AEC, the objections raised by critics of the location

proved to be well founded. Disposal of radioactive waste in an environmentally sound manner that does not adversely affect public health is still an ongoing problem.

Throughout the 1960s, many people charged that the AEC's regulations were insufficiently rigorous. Especially worrisome for AEC detractors were standards relating to radiation protection, nuclear reactor safety, plant location and environmental protection. Due to the increasing level of criticism, Congress decided to abolish the agency in the early 1970s. Both supporters and critics agreed that the commission's promotion and regulatory duties caused frequent conflicts of interest and should be assigned to different agencies. This led to the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, which dissolved the AEC and created the Energy Research and Development Administration—made part of the Department of Energy (DOE) in 1977—and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Much of the impetus for reorganization came from the burgeoning anti-nuclear movement. Anti-nuclear protesters worried about the safety and long-term health and environmental risks associated with the growing nuclear power industry. Their concerns were validated in March 1979, when Three Mile Island, a nuclear power plant on the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, experienced a partial reactor meltdown, releasing radioactive water and gases into the environment.

The DOE's policy in regard to nuclear power has been modified as the needs of the nation have changed. In the 1970s, the emphasis was on civilian energy development. Nuclear weapons research was the focus throughout the 1980s, and by the end of the Cold War, priorities shifted toward environmental clean up of the nuclear weapons complexes. Overall, the great potential of nuclear power created at the dawn of the atomic age has yet to be realized.


Allardice, Corbin, and Trapnell, Edward R. The Atomic Energy Commission. New York: Praeger, 1974.

Hewlett, Richard G., and Anderson, Oscar E. A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962.

Hewlett, Richard G., and Anderson, Oscar E., Jr. Atomic Shield, 1947/192. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Hewlett, Richard G., and Holl, Jack M. Atoms for Peace and War, 193–1961. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Craig T. Cobane

See also:Containment and Détente; H-Bomb, Decision to Build; Hiroshima Guilt; Nuclear Freeze Movement; Peace Movements, 1946–Present .