Atomic Energy Acts

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Atomic Energy Acts

Ross Rosenfeld and Seth Rosenfeld

The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (The McMahon Act) established the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to safeguard and aid in regulating atomic resources, and created a five-person committee to oversee the activities of the AEC. The president, with the advice of the Senate, appoints each committee member.

The 1946 act reflected the desire of U.S. officials to maintain a nuclear weapons monopoly. The Cold War had just begun, and the emphasis at the time was on secrecy and discovery. In Congress, a joint committee on Atomic Energy was established. This joint committee no longer exists; there are now separate committees in the House and Senate for nuclear energy.

In 1946 experts did not view evolving nuclear technology as a public safety threat. It was believed that scientists could control the energy through good engineering. Standards for nuclear plants were left to a regulatory commission consisting of lawyers and administrators, not scientists. There was a general advisory committee, comprised of scientists, but the commissioners did not have to adhere to its opinions. The few procedural safeguards in the 1946 act were due to congressional fears that fissionable material produced in government plants could be diverted. Congress demanded that the commission license all fissionable materials and their transfer, though Congress retained final authority. Congress wanted the commission to protect the public by controlling the distribution of fissionable material and by licensing equipment using fissionable material after Congress had had ninety days to review the economic and safety implications of introducing the equipment.

By 1954 the political climate had changed. In 1946 U.S.-created materials were the major concern. But in August of 1953 the Soviet Union successfully tested a thermonuclear device; the United States no longer had a monopoly on atomic power, and the need for extreme secrecy became obsolete, replaced by a need for allies and atomic control.

Republicans, the majority of the joint committee, had always supported private ownership and development of nuclear facilities. They started drafting amendments to the 1946 act as early as 1950, but did not receive support from the AEC. The inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, bolstered these efforts. By 1954 the president of the United States, the AEC, and the scientific and industrial communities all believed the 1946 legislation should be amended to advance commercial development.

Despite the reservations of congressional Democrats, who maintained that only the government should run nuclear power plants, President Eisenhower signed the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. Eisenhower had introduced his "Atoms for Peace Initiative" to the United Nations in December 1953. The initiative called for international cooperation in developing peaceful applications of nuclear energy. Eisenhower believed that certain fissionable materials, readily used for non-military purposes, and technological information could be shared with friendly nations. Eisenhower also wanted the AEC to encourage U.S. industry to develop nuclear power.

While the 1946 act had stated that "the effect of ... atomic energy for civilian purposes ... cannot now be determined," the 1954 act took a different view.

Atomic Energy is capable of application for peaceful as well as military purposes. It is ... to be the policy of the United States that ... the development, use, and control of atomic energy shall be directed so as to make the maximum contribution to the general welfare subject at all times to the paramount objective of making the maximum contribution to the common defense and security; and ... the development, use, and control of atomic energy shall be directed so as to promote world peace, improve the general welfare, increase the standard of living, and strengthen free competition in private enterprise.

Private ownership of nuclear facilities was now permitted. The AEC was to develop initiatives to introduce atomic energy to the public. The 1954 act also liberalized patent rights and industrial access to technological information.

Yet public safety issues were not addressed for the most part. The act specified that nuclear plants must have adequate protection and should not be permitted to initiate any program that might pose an undue risk to the public. However, these terms were scarcely defined. The AEC was left to establish public safety regulations and charged with licensing all facilities and operators producing or using radioactive materials. For a nuclear power station, the party requesting permission from the AEC needed a construction license and an operating license, with such approval based on strict AEC guidelines.

Under the act, if a license is denied, any party with a stake in the decision may request a hearing. A judicial review provision is included to allow redress and protect applicants from abuse of power or dereliction of duty by agency officials. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this portion of the act in Florida Power & Light Co. v. Lorion (1985).

The act does not inhibit the rights of states to regulate nuclear energy matters under the Tenth Amendmentthe reserved powers provision of the Constitutionunless a state law directly contradicts the act. In Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee (1984) the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a state could award punitive damages to a victim of plutonium contamination caused by a federally licensed nuclear facility, so long as they do not conflict with the aims of the act. The act also provided for limited liability and set aside funds for victims of accidents.

Some challenged the legitimacy of some of the AEC's decisions during the 1970s, questioning the apparent conflict of interest in having the same organization that developed nuclear power protecting the public from nuclear danger. Congress confronted these issues with the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, splitting the AEC into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), later the Department of Energy. Congress believed that this change would also aid in coordinating nuclear research during a crisis situation.

These organizations cannot decide what can be classified as "atomic matter" without the written consent of the president and the Congress, respectively. When documents are to be declassified, approval must come from the Department of Defense and the president. The secretary of energy, the NRC, the Defense Department, and the State Department are all charged with keeping the atomic energy committees in the House and Senate informed.

The Department of Energy can only distribute nuclear or source material by license, and only with the concurrence of the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the NRC. No atomic exporting license can be granted without executive approval.

Any party divulging classified information in this area can be jailed for life or a fixed period, and/or be fined less than one hundred thousand dollars. If a party willfully causes interruption to a nuclear facility, that party can be fined more than ten thousand dollars and/or jailed for up to twenty years.

See also: Department of Energy Reorganization Act


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

Campbell, John L. Collapse of an Industry: Nuclear Power and the Contradictions of U.S. Policy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Rolph, Elizabeth S. Nuclear Power and the Public Safety. Washington, DC: Lexington Books, 1979.

Stever, Donald W., Jr. Seabrook and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission: The Licensing of a Nuclear Power Plant. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1980