Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Robert Stineman
March 16, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2015

Fig. 1: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in charge of regulating the nuclear energy industry. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Established in 1975 by the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was set up to protect the health and safety of the public with regards to nuclear energy, iconically represented per Fig. 1. Prior to its establishment, the Atomic Energy Commission was in charge of such matters, but was dissolved due to its unduly favor of the nuclear industry, the industry it was in charge of regulating. [1] As a result, the NRC was formed independently to oversee all matters of nuclear energy, nuclear safety, and nuclear medicine. Interestingly enough, however, this organization has since been under large amounts of criticism for the very same thing.

Political Criticism

In 1987, Congress published the first strong criticism of the NRC in its report entitled, "NRC Coziness with Industry." In it, Congress explains that the NRC "has not maintained an arms length regulatory posture with the commercial nuclear power industry." [2] To put it in other words, Congress believed that the NRC abandoned its regulatory role altogether, for reasons such as its discretion to not enforce regulations at roughly three hundred and forty nuclear power reactors across the country. Cozy does seem to be the best word to describe the way in which the NRC dealt with issues of nuclear safety, as it was with the Atomic Energy Commission as well. Only twelve years after the old organization was broken up for turning a blind eye, it seems as if its solution has also been turning a blind eye to the same issues.

Such criticism did not stop in 1987. In fact, instead of policing the domestic nuclear industry, "diplomatic cables show that it is sometimes used as a sales tool to help push American technology to foreign governments." [3] In fact, when lobbying for the purchase of nuclear equipment from abroad, U.S. embassies would often bring in the NRC for consultation. There seems to be a conflict of interest when the police for nuclear issues is being used for promotion. Additionally, the NRC was scolded in 2008 for allegedly failing to act on a report that "issued warnings about the two plants' ability to withstand larger and more frequent earthquakes or to address the identification of additional faultlines near the reactors." [4] As a result, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko was forced to stand under the spotlight and answer questions in front of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee and the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

NRC Reforms and Developments

It seems shocking that, despite the overwhelming amount of criticism, the NRC is still the governing body in nuclear regulation and safety. This may be partly due to the efforts of Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the NRC when Japan's Fukushima disaster took place in 2011. From this disaster, Jaczko looked to strengthen the security regulations for nuclear power plants. After this attack, the NRC actually stated that the United States nuclear safety regulations did not adequately weigh the risk of a single event. As a result, the NRC thus ordered its staff to move forward with seven new safety recommendations, an action that Mark Cooper, for example, described as "[proving] it is doing its job of ensuring safety." [5]

While constantly being criticized over the past twenty to thirty years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission did not start becoming more strict in its actions and procedures until seeing the effects of a major disaster, such as the one in Japan. This goes to show that actions really do speak louder than words, and after such a demonstrative occurrence, the NRC was forced to rethink its regulatory role because they realized the risk for such an occurrence in the United States was much higher than first believed. Hopefully, as a result, the regulations will continue to increase and nuclear power can be used in a safe manner across the US.

© Robert Stineman. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] J. Byrne and S. M. Hoffman, Governing the Atom: The Politics of Risk (Transaction Publishers, 1995).

[2] "NRC Coziness with Industry," U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Subcommittee on General, Oversight and Investigations, December 1987.

[3] B. Berkowitz, R. Rampton, "Exclusive: U.S. nuclear regulator a policeman or salesman?" Reuters, 18 April 11.

[4] H. Northey, "Japanese Nuclear Reactors, U.S. Safety to Take Center Stage on Capitol Hill This Week," New York Times, 28 Mar 11.

[5] M. Cooper, "The Implications of Fukushima: The US Perspective," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 67, No. 4, 8 (July 2011).