The Creation of the NRC

US NRC logo

It always helps to know a little history, especially when it’s relevant to your career field. The NRC went into operation in the 1970’s, but its legacy began several decades earlier . . . .

Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act in 1946 following the close of World War 2. After the world witnessed the destructive power of the atomic bomb, they say, there arose a growing interest in peaceful applications of atomic energy. This first legislative act, however, was more concerned with weapons development and keeping the United States’ nuclear secrets out of the hands of its Cold War rivals than it was satiating consumer desires for cheaper energy.[1]

By 1954, political attitudes had shifted, so Congress amended the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 to give commercial power companies access to the government’s stash of nuclear energy research. Its intent was to make possible private ownership of commercial nuclear power reactors. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 basically had two objectives: to promote commercial nuclear power development and to regulate the industry’s operation in order to safeguard the health and safety of the public.

By the 1970’s, there arose a growing concern that the Atomic Energy Commission, the bureaucracy set up by the President to implement the Atomic Energy Act, couldn’t reasonably do both tasks equally well since the two mandates seemed to be at philosophical cross purposes with one another.


To stimulate the adoption of expensive nuclear technology by private industry, the federal government had to use incentives to lower prices to below those currently prevailing in the free market. In other words, it meant using tax dollars and special legal treatment to subsidize the costs required to launch entrepreneurial ventures in the nuclear power sector.

Writing regulations (laws) that require plants to include certain minimum safety features adds greater cost to nuclear power plant development. The free market might not require the same safety features. It may consider those adopted by government rulemakers to be excessive. On the other hand, if the free market didn’t want nuclear power plants at all, it would set the price too high for nuclear plants to be economically viable.

The two goals of economic stimulus and ensuring minimum levels of safety are fundamentally at odds with one another. If one interest or the other were to become dominant within the bureaucracy, the one would flourish while the other would wither. This would work against the commission’s stated goals, or its “dual mandate” as we so often hear these days in association with Federal Reserve policy.[2] The balance of power would probably work to the detriment of the safety regulations, many people thought.

So, Congress decided to split up these responsibilities across two different bureaucracies. It did so by passing the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974. This dissolved the Atomic Energy Commission and transferred the duties of promoting commercial development of nuclear power to the Energy Research and Development Organization, which was later consolidated into the Department of Energy in 1977. The act transferred the responsibilities of writing the safety regulations to the newly-formed Nuclear Regulatory Commission — the NRC.


[1] George T. Mazuzan and J. Samuel Walker, Controlling the Atom: The Beginnings of Nuclear Regulation 1946-1962 (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 2-4, 425.

[2] In reality, there are four purposes given to the Federal Reserve by law. They are to continuously expand the money supply, promote maximum employment, ensure stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates. The two that are focused on in recent times are promoting maximum employment and maintaining stable prices. See Federal Reserve Act, Section 2A, Monetary Policy Objectives.

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