A look at “Controlling the Atom”

Book cover of Controlling the Atom

This book, Controlling the Atom, appeared in 1984 and describes the creation of the first nuclear reactor regulations. The subtitle may sound boring, but I think there are some portions of the book that industry engineers will find interesting.

Book details:

Controlling the Atom: The Beginnings of Nuclear Regulation 1946-1962, by George T. Mazuzan & J. Samuel Walker. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

The book’s dust jacket promises to tell us “much about the principles, problems, considerations, and controversies that shaped the early history of nuclear regulation,” and that it does. The subtitle reveals that the book narrows its scope from the aftermath of World War 2 to the eve of President Kennedy’s assassination. The authors accomplished this task in 509 pages, including 75 pages of end notes.

SUMMARY of controlling the atom

Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 to transfer control over the Manhattan Project’s programs and facilities to the new Atomic Energy Commission, a civilian agency with a military advisory component. The Act also created a separate Congressional “watch dog” entity called the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, a powerful body which has no modern equivalent.

From 1946 to 1954, the AEC’s chief purpose was to make bombs.

The authors structured the book in a topical, and thus not strictly chronological, order. Despite that, the book begins with a summary of the cultural and political climate immediately following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Having been inundated by images of the destructive use of the bomb, the U.S. cultural impression of atomic energy tended towards one of amusement or uncertainty, with only a slight inclination towards fear. Those feelings were balanced by optimistic hopes for the application of atomic energy to a variety of life’s problems.

Those hopes still haven’t materialized as they were originally envisioned, though. We haven’t begun driving nuclear cars yet.

Anyway, after Congress amended the Atomic Energy Act in 1954 to foster participation by private enterprise, awareness of the need to define appropriate exposure limits for radiation workers was heightened. The second chapter unfolds the development of radiation exposure limits. Chapter 11 returns to this topic in the context of uranium mining conditions and with a cautionary tale about a radiation hazard factory mishap. [327] Fallout created by hydrogen bomb tests also stimulated the public’s interest in radiation, though not necessarily the nuclear reactor regulations. [247]

Chapter 3 narrates the history of the development of the reactor regulation process. Dense with meticulous detail, it provides a creation narrative of the regulatory division inside the AEC after 1954. The succeeding chapters address indemnity insurance to protect plant operators from the full consequences of a nuclear disaster (the Price-Anderson Act) and deal with a licensing controversy stoked by the labor unions against the Power Reactor Development Company (PRDC). As a result of that event, AEC licensing activities fell under closer Congressional scrutiny.


Woven throughout the accounts of Congressional debate in the 1950s are the battles between those who favored an industry operated by private enterprise and those who favored government control. The Democrats positioned the Gore-Hollified bill, for example, as a necessary companion to the Price-Anderson Act. In response, conservative Republicans like AEC chairman Lewis Strauss recognized it for what it was: a poison dart aimed at the free market. Strauss shut the bill down. [103, 118-121]

The final chapter explains that, by 1962, the enthusiasm for atomic energy in the “struggle to impress the world and outstrip the Soviet Union in scientific achievement” had waned, shifting instead to the space race. [415-416] Under Kennedy, the AEC’s budget fell. So, on November 20, 1962 (a year before Kennedy’s death) the AEC released a report to the President intended to stimulate greater Executive Branch support for the industry. [413] The argument for continued atomic energy support shifted away from international prestige to “the future energy requirements of the United States and the world.” [416] It wasn’t persuading enough to re-ignite the initial levels of enthusiasm (or budget) in the Executive branch previously exuded by the Eisenhower administration.


The book presents four important legislative milestones in the development of the AEC’s regulatory process:

1. The passage of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which made possible the sharing of atomic energy research and knowledge with private industry.

2. The Price-Anderson indemnity amendment in September of 1957. Political expediency demanded immediate acceleration of the power industry’s development, and this government insurance plan was intended to overcome one of the major complaints by private companies who were otherwise willing to proceed ahead. Private industry constantly warned of a halt in progress if the bill did not pass. [208] Senator Chet Holifield felt the industry had put Congress over a barrel on the matter. [95] Interestingly, the nuclear insurance companies also got a nice subsidy from the deal: a 10-year, zero-interest loan in the form of excess premiums that they could put towards income-generating investments. [202]

3. The September, 1957 amendment which authorized the states to assume certain regulatory responsibilities. This came about after the states became concerned over a loss of their authority and jurisdiction to the federal government with the passage of the 1954 Act. Some insisted that they retained the authority to regulate atomic energy affairs in their own states, much to the chagrin of Congress and industry. [Chapter 10]

4. The August, 1962 amendment which created the Atomic Safety and Licensing Boards. It was meant to improve public confidence in the AEC’s licensing process and alleviate on-going concerns over the “built-in” conflict between promotion and regulation.


The authors show that it was not the cultural climate that supplied the political thrust for developing atomic energy for peaceful uses, but foreign policy objectives. It was not cultural awareness, or even long-range energy shortage projections, that moved Congress to take action to develop a commercial nuclear power industry. The true motive was an issue thought to be much more important: “The most prominent [consideration] centered on the implications of fostering the growth of atomic power for America’s international prestige and leadership.” [23]

The British and the Soviets had already advanced beyond the US in the development of power reactors. Congress and the President wanted to demonstrate the superiority of the free-market American system over the competing socialist economies. And yet, to do this they had to (ironically) compromise free market principles with government interference. Private industry wasn’t ready, so government stimulus was applied through the AEC’s promotional functions. The AEC was eager to stimulate private industry with “inducements,” revealed by the fact that it ran three rounds of its reactor demonstration program in two years. [77-82]

Near the end, the book broaches the topic of waste disposal. The content remains relevant since a permanent solution has yet to be found half a century later. Through 1958, radioactive waste problems were not a major AEC concern. [353] The AEC confidently and routinely disposed of low-level radioactive wastes through various means: land burial at its facilities and ocean dumping. [346] The major concern was how to handle high-level wastes. Public opposition to ocean dumping of low-level waste was aroused in the summer of 1959. From that point on, waste disposal became a serious PR issue.

Finally, though the AEC wasn’t formerly split off into the NRC until 1974, Congress began talking about the idea no later than 1956. The PRDC controversy prompted early Congressional debate over splitting the AEC into “two separate units, one for promotion and the other for regulatory and licensing functions.” [144, 193, 373] This is a recurring discussion that popped up with each subsequent controversy.


Engineers working in the nuclear power industry today might find certain chapters particularly stimulating.

Though not called by name, in Chapter 3 we learn how the concept of “design basis events” comes about. Because it was such a risky technology, one of the early tasks was to brainstorm the worst accidents that could possibly happen when operating a power reactor and devise ways to prevent and mitigate them. Edward Teller, the world-class physicist, came up with this process. [61] Initial reactor design and safety, therefore, were based almost entirely on theoretical possibilities instead of real-world experience. [62]

Chapter 8 is also a gem. We learn about the origination of engineered safety features (ESF). We discover the gradual change from a philosophy of reactor isolation to one of reactor containment. Containment is a safety philosophy that combines a containment building with ESF. [219] This gradual substitution of isolation with engineered safety features was a push driven by industry (Allis-Chalmers, Westinghouse, etc.) over complaints of the extra transmission costs that would come with locating plants too far from population centers. Finally, we see the origin of the 50.59 rule in Chapter 13. [386, end note 31]

For the true history buff, there is an historical curiosity buried in Chapter 13. It’s an anecdote about “a government body [the AEC] recommending its own demise.” [401, 389, 399-403]


The authors are critical when warranted, but in general they are favorable towards the AEC. When there seems to be a difference in opinion between the public, who is thought to typically be misinformed (or uninformed), and the AEC, they portray the AEC’s position as more reasonable. They do this on the basis that the AEC’s opinion is scientifically informed, and the public is usually lacking the in-depth knowledge required to fully grasp certain issues. They are careful to show, however, that the AEC was not contemptuous of public opinion, but rather took steps to accommodate it. [357, 362]

The authors should have divided the final chapter into two separate chapters. They could have separated the last several pages into a concluding summary. You can turn to page 418 and, for the remaining nine pages, get a good overview of the major events and milestones that populated the history of AEC regulation from 1954 to 1963.

The first thing you should do, actually, after reading the preface, is to read those nine pages before starting the first chapter.

Surprisingly for a topic of this nature (highly academic and thoroughly researched), while a bit dry, the book is readable. The authors, no doubt familiar with the usual industry jargon after reviewing so many volumes of regulatory material, avoid using it — to our benefit. Some standard complaints remain applicable, though. The chapters do not use sub-headings, which would help to break up long sections and enhance readability. Also, there are no summaries at the end of each chapter. That would help you review the information-packed material you just finished reading.

Finally, in their preface, the authors explain that their purpose is to provide historical background for the regulatory development process. They believe “understanding the history of any given problem is essential to approaching it knowledgeably.” [vii] Future decisions ought to be made with an understanding of what led to the present situation. I think, in general, they’ve succeeded. For example, the authors trace the development of reactor site criteria. They evolved from desires to substitute engineered safeguards for geographical isolation to ward off the high costs of power transmission. So, why couldn’t new regulations allow new plants to go the other way: build cheaper plants with fewer engineered safety features farther from population centers? [422] Maybe the economics of the situation changes over time. If the regulators were willing to consider the possibility before, why should it be off the table now?


The book isn’t for everyone. However, it does contain interesting and detailed accounts of the development of the regulations that govern the nuclear power industry. If you’re interested in the engineering and licensing material most relevant to the day-to-day, then read Chapters 3 and 8. If you’re interested in waste disposal, go to Chapter 12 for background on a contemporary topic. Rad workers or radiation protection personnel can see how modern exposure limits evolved in Chapters 2 and 11.

Most everyone can benefit from reading the summary contained in the final pages of Chapter 14.

To buy a cheap, used copy of the book on Amazon, click here: CONTROLLING THE ATOM.

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What do you think?