The Atomic Energy Commission

Colin McCall
May 9, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: The logo of the Atomic Energy Commission. (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

A year after World War 2 ended, the United States Congress established the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to "foster and control the peacetime development of atomic science and technology." [1] The logo of the AEC, shown in Fig. 1, reflected the importance of the atomic sciences and uses of nuclear energy to the United States of America. While the goal of the AEC was to solidify the United States defenses, to promote world peace, to improve public welfare, and to strengthen free competition in private enterprise, the AEC wasn't always in the best graces with the public. Later on in the lifetime the AEC came under flak because of the regulations they started putting on nuclear energy, energy that the public wanted. The beginning of the AEC was marked on August 1st 1946 when President Harry S. Truman brought it to life.

Military Use before Public Use

To fulfill the Unites States growing requirement of energy and the goal of creating peacetime, the facilities used for the Manhattan Project were refurbished and authorized for use. The development of two new plutonium reactors was also authorized. A gaseous diffusion plant was also used for the production of uranium 285. All of these projects were used for military purposes so far. By 1948 the AEC had tested and made new nuclear and non-nuclear weapons and components with these reactors and plants. As of now the government agency was built on harnessing the atom for military purposes and not for peaceful purposes. Because of this reason David Lilienthal, the chairman of the AEC, resigned on February 15th, 1950. The man promoted into this position was Gordon Dean and in October 1950 he employed a massive expansion of the program and constructed new plants that increased the capacity of nuclear weapons at every step of the production chain. Based on the evidence of what Gordon Dead did immediately after being promoted, we can believe that he was pro military use over public energy creation for this nuclear power.

Eventually the AEC was put in charge of organizing the national laboratories in the United States, a step towards creating energy for public use. These laboratories included The Argonne National Laboratory, The Oak Ridge National Laboratory, The Brookhaven National Laboratory, and The University of California Radiation Laboratory. [1] These laboratories were in charge of researching peaceful uses of atomic energy and creating the new technologies that the United States would use in many different fields. These include advances in the fields of biomedical, reactor physics, industrial research, metallurgy, and many other fields. Having the AEC in charge of these laboratories allowed for a combination of resources and sectors that made it possible to create and invent new technologies faster, more efficiently, and more often.

The first advance in civilian use of nuclear energy came from the AEC's Idaho Test Station where a group of engineers produced electricity from an experimental fast breeder reactor. This experiment showed that the nuclear reactors could be used as a source of power to mankind rather, or instead of, as a source for better and more frightening and destructive weapons. This paved a way for Eisenhower to create the 1953 Atoms-for-Peace plan and the 1954 Atomic Energy Act, which greatly impacted the United States nuclear program for energy production. This legislation gave more resources to use nuclear power for public use over military use, which was another big step towards using the atom for public benefit.

Nuclear Energy for All

In 1954 plans were announced to test designs on five experimental reactors within the next five years. One of which, had immediate impact, being the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR). This reactor was based on propulsion systems used in submarines and was completed and used as the Nation's first full-scale nuclear generating station in 1957. [1] All the different test reactors helped provide framework for nuclear power plants in the future, but the PWR had the least amount of technical problems of them all. The frameworks in this reactor provided the framework for many other reactors that were made in the future.

When Lyndon B. Johnson became the president of the United States one of the first things he did in office was to shutdown four plutonium piles and a 25% cutback in production of enriched uranium. [1] Another step towards nuclear power in civilian use was the reactor built for Jersey Central Power and Light Company. They were the first company to build a nuclear power plant for strictly economic reasons and were praised by President Johnson and Congress for what they did. This company and this reactor showed how important nuclear energy could be for the public and the massive amounts of use it had in other aspects than military use.

The Downfall of the Atomic Energy Commission

The power of nuclear energy was very clearly shown to be an effective way to produce energy, but the commission that started this trend ended up diminishing themselves and their reign of power over nuclear energy. After many years of using nuclear energy for military use and then finally using nuclear power for research and development of technologies that advanced energy production and use in the United States for a decade, the AEC started to mass regulate nuclear energy, moving backwards on everything they had accomplished thus far. They made licensing procedures and the time required to bring plants on line very long, which hurt the American consumer. A court decision in 1971 ruled against the AEC saying that they were not complying with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and had to change their licensing procedure. [1] A change in management in the commission happened after this in 1973, but at this point criticism of the AEC was growing and they were quickly becoming shut out and obsolete. In 1974 President Ford signed the Energy Reorganization Act and the AEC's twenty-eight-year life came to an end. The Energy Research and Development Administration took over their research and development responsibilities, and the regulatory and licensing responsibilities were taken over by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. [1] Finally to fully change the AEC's assets over in 1977 the United States Congress passed the Department of Energy Organization Act and all facilities, laboratories, and networks of the AEC were transferred over into a larger and newer organization. Finally the aspect that killed the AEC was over-regulating energy use once the public got a taste of how much nuclear energy could benefit them.


The AEC was started in order to help the public and the United States grow in strength and power in many aspects. However, for many years the AEC choose only to grow the aspect of military strength. Finally once the AEC decided to help public interests, they did so only for a little while before becoming the power hungry and intrusive entity that is so reminiscent of Big Brother in society today. For this reason the outcry of the public helped brake down and split apart the AEC for good, stopping the governmental regulation on the much-needed nuclear energy that the public wanted.

© Colin McCall. 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] A. Buck, "The Atomic Energy Commission," U.S. Department of Energy, July 1983.