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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is the federal agency charged with the regulation of nuclear power and other uses of nuclear energy in the United States. Five commissioners lead the NRC, one of whom is the chair, appointed by the president and confirmed by the senate for fiveyear terms. Its regulatory activities address three aspects: materials, reactors, and waste.
Materials include nuclear fuel, as well as nuclear materials used in industry, medicine, and academic settings. Reactors include power reactors and experimental reactors at research and academic institutions. Waste involves the containment, transportation, and disposal of nuclear waste products-the last phase in the nuclear fuel cycle. High-level waste products are often highly radioactive, and therefore require careful handling. The NRC is at the forefront of efforts to develop a high-level nuclear waste disposal facility in Nevada.
The NRC’s history is rooted in the history of its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 established the AEC as the agency that would promote, develop, and regulate nuclear power. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 clarified the AEC’s role in promoting efforts to build and operate nuclear power plants. But the AEC was unable to gain the interest of utilities to build nuclear power plants until the enactment of the Price Anderson act in 1957; this act limited the liability of utilities in nuclear plant accidents. This overcame utility concerns that, in the case of a power plant accident, their liability would be unlimited, making insurance virtually impossible to obtain. With the passage of Price-Anderson, the first civilian nuclear power plant went on line in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, and, in 1959, the first civilian nuclear plant built without government funding began operations.
The AEC and Congress’s Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE) governed civilian nuclear power until the mid-1970s. Because of concerns about one agency promoting and regulating nuclear power, and because of concerns about centralized power in the JCAE, the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 abolished the JCAE and the AEC. It created the NRC, which began its functions on January 19, 1975. The parts of the AEC that were not incorporated into the NRC were formed into the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), which became the core of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) when it was formed in 1977. DOE also encompassed many of the military programs of the former AEC, while the NRC focused on the civilian uses of nuclear power. Congressional oversight over nuclear power was distributed among several congressional committees.
The NRC was created during a period of turmoil in the nuclear power field. In 1975, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Browns Ferry, Alabama, nuclear plant experienced an accident that led to continued calls to subject nuclear power to scrutiny. In this accident, candles were used for illumination during an inspection of cables; the cables ignited, leading to a fire that cut off the control room from the reactor.
This incident was described on TV’s 60 Minutes, and motivated interest groups, led by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), argued that government estimates of the safety of nuclear power plants had been inaccurate. As a result, and because of methodological problems with the original assessment, by 1979 the NRC had fully repudiated the AEC’s primary document that described the risk and probability of a major nuclear accident, the Rassmussen or WASH-1400 report. Also in 1979, the NRC confronted the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the most serious civilian nuclear power accident in the United States.
Since Three Mile Island, there has been no major nuclear power plant accident in the United States, due to experience with operating reactors, more aggressive regulation by NRC, and reminders, such as the Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine in 1986, of the hazards of nuclear power and the need for continued regulation.
Today, the NRC’s major challenge is in finding a suitable site to secure highly radioactive waste from nuclear power plants and other facilities. The need has become acute as some power plants begin to run out of space for storing spent fuel, and as concerns have grown over maintaining security over any radioactive materials at power plants. Reactor licensing renewals are also important tasks, and sometimes engender considerable debate as local community members voice concerns over plant safety and security.
- Frank R. Baumgartner and Bryan Jones, Agendas and Instability in American Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1993);
- David Dinsmore Comey, “The Browns Ferry Incident,” in Lee Stephenson and George Zachar, eds., Accidents Will Happen: The Case Against Nuclear Power (Harper & Row, 1979);
- Congressional Quarterly, “Nuclear Insurance Program,” Congressional Quarterly Almanac (v.31, 1975);
- Stephen Hilgartner, Richard C. Bell, and Rory O’Connor, Nukespeak: The Selling of Nuclear Technology in America (Penguin, 1983);
- James R. Temples, “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Politics of Regulatory Reform: Since Three Mile Island,” Public Administration Review (v.42/4, 1982);
- Samuel Walker and U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “A Short History of Nuclear Regulation, 1946-1999” (U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 2000).