Atomic Energy Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law a bill designed to promote the peacetime uses of nuclear energy, marking a significant milestone in the development of nuclear power for civilian applications.

Summary of Event

The United States Atomic Energy Act Atomic Energy Act (1946) of 1946 provided for the establishment of a civilian group, the Atomic Energy Commission Atomic Energy Commission, U.S.;corporate regulation (AEC), whose specified tasks included not only stewardship of all fissionable materials but also the exercise of broad controls over every aspect, military as well as civilian, of atomic energy development in the United States. As custodian and delegated promoter of the peaceful atom, however, the AEC was handicapped, since much information on nuclear technology was classified and therefore unavailable to private industry. Since the formation of a civilian nuclear industry was deemed highly desirable by all parties, including the president, Congress, and private industry, the revised Atomic Energy Act of 1954 was specifically designed to grant the right to private corporations to own and operate nuclear power plants. The AEC became both licenser and regulator. [kw]Atomic Energy Act (Aug. 30, 1954) [kw]Energy Act, Atomic (Aug. 30, 1954) [kw]Act, Atomic Energy (Aug. 30, 1954) Nuclear energy;regulation Atomic Energy Act (1954) Nuclear energy;regulation Atomic Energy Act (1954) [g]North America;Aug. 30, 1954: Atomic Energy Act[04590] [g]United States;Aug. 30, 1954: Atomic Energy Act[04590] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Aug. 30, 1954: Atomic Energy Act[04590] [c]Energy;Aug. 30, 1954: Atomic Energy Act[04590] [c]Science and technology;Aug. 30, 1954: Atomic Energy Act[04590] Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;nuclear technology Seaborg, Glenn Theodore Strauss, Lewis L. Fermi, Enrico

The first controlled fissioning of the nucleus of uranium 235 took place at the University of Chicago in 1942. Under the leadership of Enrico Fermi, a recent immigrant to the United States, a team of scientists succeeded in proving that a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction—which some scientists had earlier speculated might occur under certain circumstances—was indeed possible. The neutron is a constituent particle of the nuclei of most atoms. Its other components are the positively charged protons, which give the nucleus its overall positive charge.

The electrical neutrality of the neutron gives it a special power: When fired at the nucleus of a uranium atom, it can penetrate the nucleus, which then becomes unstable, fissioning into two smaller fragments and so releasing still more energy. It is critical that, at the time of fissioning, Nuclear fission one or more additional neutrons are also released in the reaction, for they in turn may cause further fissioning of neighboring nuclei, and so rapidly escalate energy production. That this could be achieved in a controlled way, rather than in a sudden and catastrophic explosion, was demonstrated in Fermi’s nuclear reactor, or pile, several years before the United States was able to explode its first nuclear weapon in 1945. The first actual generation of electricity from a reactor took place in 1953 at a national laboratory in Idaho.

The basic nature of the fissioning process, however, whether slow and controlled or suddenly explosive, is the same for weapons as for any other peaceful application—the same by-product substances of the nuclear reaction are created. These by-products are highly radioactive chemical elements, whose potential for harm to living organisms has been well documented. There was concern not only about the possibility for the accidental release of these substances, but also about the issue of the ultimate disposal of the highly radioactive residues of the spent fuels. Thus, while the promise of nuclear power for peacetime uses appeared to be a welcome gift to an increasingly energy-dependent industrial society, especially in light of the steady depletion of the world’s conventional energy supplies, the attainment of safe nuclear power carried with it problems of an entirely different order.

A speech given by President Dwight D. Eisenhower before the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) in December, 1953, called “Atoms for Peace” "Atoms for Peace" (Eisenhower)[Atoms for Peace] gave great impetus to the movement toward civilian atomic energy development. By proposing the establishment of an international commission that would supervise a stockpile of fissionable materials contributed by U.N. members, Eisenhower was taking the first step in a plan that could help relieve worldwide tensions concerning nuclear energy and its attendant problems. His speech concluded with the pledge that the United States would ensure that “the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”

While the hope offered in that speech was welcomed enthusiastically by an audience that was becoming increasingly concerned about the potential for disaster that the atom seemed to possess, it took three years before the International Atomic Energy Agency International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was founded, and its subsequent functions turned more on standards for radiation protection than on the dissemination of knowledge about power production. As a direct consequence of President Eisenhower’s faith in the potential of the atom, however, the government passed an amendment to the Atomic Energy Act of 1946.

Under the revised act, passed August 30, 1954, the federal government would license private industry to construct and operate domestic nuclear power plants. At the same time, while limiting the AEC’s direct involvement in the manufacture and distribution of nuclear power, it was hoped that the private sector would be encouraged to take it on. People believed that private industry would be more efficient in managing the development of this new and important industry. The AEC would, however, subsidize research in the field of nuclear power so that private industry would be free of the burdensome costs that further development would entail.

One key provision of the act was the requirement that public hearings be held in each case where a construction permit was sought. It was expected that the AEC would reach agreement with the potential permittee on the details of the plans, so that the public hearing would not simply provide a forum for those who believed that the dangers of nuclear power outweighed any advantages it might bring. Under the rules, however, any person or group to challenge an application on grounds of safety was to be denied access to any AEC files that might reveal concerns about safety. In 1973, the National Science Foundation characterized these procedures as a charade whose sole purpose was to advance quickly the establishment of the nuclear power industry in the United States.

In the climate of the times, there was widespread controversy about nuclear power issues. Many of the principal scientists who had been involved in the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb, including the head of the group, J. Robert Oppenheimer Oppenheimer, J. Robert , had considerable doubts about the prognosis for domestic uses. Others, such as presidential science adviser and discoverer of the fissionable element plutonium Glenn Seaborg, foresaw a future in which cheap atomic power would provide inexhaustible quantities of electricity sufficient to power the world’s needs indefinitely. The AEC chairman and investment banker, Lewis L. Strauss, was equally optimistic when he asserted that the promise of nuclear power was such that it would soon prove to be “too cheap to meter.”


The establishment by act of Congress of a plan in which the AEC would become the promoter, custodian, and administrator for the domestic nuclear power industry posed a number of challenges. The first private company to oversee a civilian project was the Westinghouse Electric Corporation Westinghouse Electric Corporation . Westinghouse collaborated with a Pittsburgh utility company in the construction of a pressurized water reactor, similar in type to the one under way for the U.S. Navy. Under the supervision of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover Rickover, Hyman G. , the Navy project entailed the construction of the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine.

At that time, conventional power sources for submarines were of two kinds: diesel engines for surface use, since they required air intake and exhaust, and batteries for underwater travel. Rickover’s plan was to construct a small, powerful nuclear reactor that would meet a submarine’s energy needs under any conditions. Working from a company-sponsored laboratory on a project that remained under his close supervision, Rickover was able to oversee an effective working relationship among the Navy, private industry, and the AEC. After solving many practical engineering problems, the project finally succeeded in launching the USS Nautilus, Nautilus (nuclear submarine) the world’s first nuclear-powered vessel. That event spurred the enthusiasm of nuclear power’s supporters, since it demonstrated the feasibility of a cooperative project of the kind envisioned by the 1954 act.

In the years immediately following the building of the Nautilus, several companies and consortia became actively engaged in the planning process for new nuclear power plants. Concerns emerged, however, about where to build them. Remote locations were unacceptable to the private utilities, who preferred to have their operations closer to the power grids that they would supply. The first generation of nuclear power reactors therefore were placed in close proximity to large urban areas. Within a span of twenty-five years, eighteen functioning plants were built in the United States, and in the next five years the total exceeded fifty. Many more were in the planning stage.

Increasing concerns about the potential for a nuclear accident that might result in the release of radioactive particles began to slow the building process. The public’s concern continued to grow, in spite of the assurances contained in an AEC-sponsored report, the Brookhaven Report Brookhaven Report (government document) , which placed the casualty rate in a “maximum credible accident” at a vanishingly low level. The report also stated, however, that potential contamination of the surrounding land might extend as far as fifteen miles from the plant site and could cover extremely large land areas, with consequent loss of life and property perhaps reaching billions of dollars in value.

These continuing fears, together with doubts expressed by groups of professionals such as the Union of Concerned Scientists Union of Concerned Scientists Nuclear energy;safety concerns , helped slow the exploitation of nuclear power. Then, in October, 1957, a reactor in Great Britain, Windscale, designed to create nuclear fuels, suffered a severe accident resulting in widespread contamination of nearly four hundred square miles of the surrounding area, necessitating the government’s seizure of all crops growing within it. One prominent scientist concluded that, following the complete failure of the reactor’s containment vessel, more fission products were released into the atmosphere than had been set free in the weapon exploded over Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.

In 1963, the Clean Air Act Clean Air Act (1963) , coupled with widening public concerns about atmospheric contaminants that had become the principal focus of the Limited Test Ban Treaty Limited Test Ban Treaty (1963) of the same year, gave rise to increased pressures to contain the growth of the nuclear power industry. In addition, the Clean Air Act required that assessments be made of the total impact of any proposed plant, including a cost-benefit analysis encompassing all aspects that might affect the local community. By the mid-1970’s, these additional constraints, together with escalating costs that resulted from consequent delays, effectively served to bring to a halt any new construction. Nuclear energy;regulation Atomic Energy Act (1954)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Balogh, Brian. Chain Reaction: Expert Debate and Public Participation in American Commercial Nuclear Power, 1945-1975. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Written by a historian, this work presents an analysis of the political factors involved in the commercialization of nuclear power in the period between 1945 and 1975. The author’s concern focuses on the rise of the political influence of scientists in the crucial decision making related to nuclear power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohen, Bernard L. The Nuclear Energy Option. New York: Plenum Press, 1990. A modern restatement—the author calls it act 2—of the case for the peacetime utilization of nuclear energy, by a well-known expert in the field of nuclear physics. The author advocates a review of the possibilities afforded by new technologies in reactor design.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, Frank P., and Kathleen Lusk Brooke, eds. Building the World: An Encyclopedia of the Great Engineering Projects in History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006. Includes an entry on the Manhattan Project and the Atomic Energy Act. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ford, Daniel. The Cult of the Atom. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982. The first thorough, independent examination of many AEC documents that tended to support the concerns of those who opposed nuclear power development. Authored by a former director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, this detailed account of the AEC papers presents a useful review of formerly confidential information.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Marilynne. Mother Country. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989. This short work presents a moving statement of what the author regards as the severe environmental hazards created by the British government’s operation of the nuclear waste reprocessing plant, Sellafield, located in England’s Lake District.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Congress. House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Compilation of Selected Energy-Related Legislation: Nuclear Energy and Radioactive Waste. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2001. A compilation of laws governing atomic energy, beginning with the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, and including all amendments through the end of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolfson, Richard. Nuclear Choices. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991. One of the most useful overviews of current nuclear technology, written by a physicist with the layperson in mind. The book’s primary emphasis is on the scientific issues, each of which is presented from the most elementary viewpoint, and their relationships to the larger questions of policy. Many excellent drawings and photographs. Each chapter concludes with a list of further readings and a very useful glossary of technical terms.

United States Develops the First Nuclear Weapon

Fermi Creates the First Controlled Nuclear Fission Chain Reaction

World’s First Nuclear Reactor Is Activated

Atomic Energy Commission Is Established

Construction Starts on Brookhaven Nuclear Reactor

World’s First Breeder Reactor Produces Electricity

First U.S. Commercial Nuclear Plant Opens

General Public Utilities Announces Plans for a Commercial Nuclear Reactor

Categories: History