The Atomic Energy Act

Ryan Gaertner
March 11, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: This is a picture of President Harry S. Truman signing in the initial Atomic Energy Act in 1946. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Atomic Energy Act of 1954, though it is the latest version of the law, was not the first to be passed regarding the uses of nuclear materials. In 1946, the Atomic Energy Act was first passed and was established by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). This Act is seen being signed by Harry Truman in Fig. 1. The AEC was the first organization responsible for the oversight of nuclear activities in the US, and was established after the Manhattan Engineer District of the United States Army Corps of Engineers. As part of the Manhattan Project, the US Army Corps of Engineers actually developed the Atomic Bomb in World War II which was eventually tested at a site in New Mexico and later used to bomb Japan to bring an end to the war. [1]

Revision of the Act

After the 1946 version of the act, in 1954 it was revised to allow private industries to develop and build nuclear reactors for electricity generation and use. As of 1954, the act also required civilian use of nuclear materials and nuclear facilities to be under the permit of licenses, while also giving power to the AEC and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) which succeeded the AEC so that this organization and establish and enforce safety and health standards that are directly correlated with nuclear activity and usage. Later in 1974, the Energy Reorganization Act got rid of the AEC, and in its place were put two new federal agencies to administer and regulate nuclear and atomic energy activity. They were called the Energy Research and Development Organization (ERDA) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), stated previously. But in 1977 the United States Department of Energy (US DOE) assumed all responsibilities of the ERDA. [1]

Civilian Relation with the Act of 1954

For civilians, the Act provides for not only development but also regulation of nuclear use of materials and facilities in the US. In the policy it is declared the "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." [1] Under the act it is required that civilian usage of nuclear materials and facilities be done by those with a license. The AEC and its successor are to establish that such standards govern these uses as "the Commission may deem necessary or desirable in order to protect health and safety and minimize danger to life or property." [1]

Establishment of the NRC (1974)

With the Energy Reorganization Act in 1974, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was established. In 1954 the Atomic Energy Act gave sole responsibility to the AEC for the development and production of nuclear weapons and for both the development and safety regulation of the civilian use of nuclear materials. However, in 1974 the Act split up these functions so that one agency (the US DOE) became responsible for the development and production of nuclear weapons, promotion of nuclear power, and other energy-related. The NRC was given regulatory work, not including regulation of defense nuclear facilities. The 1974 Act also gave the Commission its structure of shared responsibilities and established major offices. [1]


In a growing age of nuclear power and weaponry rising from the ashes of the first World War into World War II, the United States saw it fit to establish a series of Acts starting in 1946 that would provide safe regulations and oversight of nuclear power throughout the country. This was done by passing the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, then the revised Act in 1954, and finally the Act of 1974.

© Ryan Gaertner. 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] "Nuclear Regulatory Legislation," U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NUREG-0980, Vol. 1, No. 7, June 2005.