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United States
Atomic Energy Commission
US Atomic Energy Commission logo.jpg
Seal of the United States
Atomic Energy Commission
Independent agency overview
Formed 1946
Dissolved 1975
Superseding agency
  • Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) and
    Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)
Headquarters Washington, D.C. (1947-1957)
Germantown, Maryland (1958-1975)[1]
Independent agency executive
  • Chairman

President Harry S. Truman signs the Atomic Energy Act of 1946.

David E. Lilienthal, who chaired the AEC from its creation until 1950.

Gordon Dean, who chaired the AEC from 1950 to 1953.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower with AEC chair Lewis Strauss in 1954.

AEC chair John A. McCone presents the Enrico Fermi Award to Glenn T. Seaborg in 1959. Seaborg succeeded McCone as AEC chair in 1961.

AEC chair Glenn T. Seaborg with President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

AEC chair James R. Schlesinger with President Richard M. Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon at the AEC's Hanford Site in 1971.

Dixy Lee Ray, last person to chair the AEC, with Robert G. Sachs, director of the Argonne National Laboratory.

The United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was an agency of the United States government established after World War II by Congress to foster and control the peace time development of atomic science and technology.[2] President Harry S. Truman signed the McMahon/Atomic Energy Act on August 1, 1946, transferring the control of atomic energy from military to civilian hands, effective from January 1, 1947. Public Law 585, 79th Congress.

An increasing number of critics during the 1960s charged that the AEC's regulations were insufficiently rigorous in several important areas, including radiation protection standards, nuclear reactor safety, plant siting, and environmental protection. By 1974, the AEC's regulatory programs had come under such strong attack that Congress decided to abolish the agency. The agency was abolished by the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, which assigned its functions to two new agencies: the Energy Research and Development Administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.[3] On August 4, 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed into law The Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977, which created the Department of Energy. The new agency assumed the responsibilities of the Federal Energy Administration, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Federal Power Commission, and programs of various other agencies.


In creating the AEC, Congress declared that atomic energy should be employed not only in the form of nuclear weapons for the nation's defense, but also to promote world peace, improve the public welfare and strengthen free competition in private enterprise. At the same time, the McMahon Act which created the AEC also gave it unprecedented powers of regulation over the entire field of nuclear science and technology. It furthermore explicitly prevented technology transfer between the United States and other countries, and required FBI investigations for all scientists or industrial contractors who wished to have access to any AEC controlled nuclear information. The signing was the culmination of long months of intensive debate among politicians, military planners and atomic scientists over the fate of this new energy source and the means by which it would be regulated. President Truman appointed David Lilienthal as the first Chairman of the AEC.[4] Congress gave the new civilian Commission extraordinary power and considerable independence to carry out its mission. To provide the Commission exceptional freedom in hiring scientists and professionals, Commission employees were exempt from the Civil Service system. Because of the need for great security, all production facilities and nuclear reactors would be government-owned, while all technical information and research results would be under Commission control. The National Laboratory system was established from the facilities created under the Manhattan Project. Argonne National Laboratory was one of the first laboratories authorized under this legislation as a contractor-operated facility dedicated to fulfilling the new Commission's mission.[citation needed]

The AEC was furthermore in charge of developing the United States' nuclear arsenal, taking over these responsibilities from the wartime Manhattan Project. Over the course of its first decade, the AEC oversaw the operation of Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, devoted primarily to weapons development, and, in 1952, the establishment of a second weapons laboratory in California (the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory). It also implemented the "crash" program to develop the hydrogen bomb, and played key roles in the prosecution of the Rosenbergs for espionage. It began a program of regular nuclear testing both in the Pacific Proving Grounds and at the continental Nevada Test Site. While it also supported much basic research, the vast majority of its early budget was devoted to atomic weapons development and production.[citation needed]

Within the AEC, high-level scientific and technical advice was provided by the General Advisory Committee, originally headed by J. Robert Oppenheimer. In its early years, the GAC provided a number of controversial decisions, notably its decision against building the hydrogen bomb in 1949. The AEC's connections with the armed services was facilitated by a Military Liaison Committee. Congressional oversight over the AEC was exercised by the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, which had considerable power in influencing AEC decisions and policy.[citation needed]

The AEC's far-reaching powers and control over subject matter which had far-reaching social, public health, and military implications made it an extremely controversial organization. One of the drafters of the McMahon Act, James R. Newman, famously concluded that the bill made "the field of atomic energy [an] island of socialism in the midst of a free-enterprise economy".[citation needed]

Before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was created, nuclear regulation was the responsibility of the AEC, which Congress first established in the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. Eight years later, Congress replaced that law with the Atomic Energy Act Amendments of 1954, which for the first time made the development of commercial nuclear power possible, and resolved a number of other outstanding problems in implementing the first Atomic Energy Act. The act assigned the AEC the functions of both encouraging the use of nuclear power and regulating its safety. The AEC's regulatory programs sought to ensure public health and safety from the hazards of nuclear power without imposing excessive requirements that would inhibit the growth of the industry.[citation needed] This was a difficult goal to achieve, especially in a new industry, and within a short time the AEC's programs stirred considerable controversy. Stephanie Cooke has written that:

"the AEC had become an oligarchy controlling all facets of the military and civilian sides of nuclear energy, promoting them and at the same time attempting to regulate them, and it had fallen down on the regulatory side ... a growing legion of critics saw too many inbuilt conflicts of interest".[5]

An increasing number of critics during the 1960s charged that the AEC's regulations were insufficiently rigorous in several important areas, including radiation protection standards, nuclear reactor safety, plant siting, and environmental protection.[citation needed]

The AEC had a history of involvement in experiments involving radioactive iodine. In a 1949 operation called the "Green Run," the AEC released iodine-131 and xenon-133 to the atmosphere which contaminated a 500,000-acre (2,000 km2) area containing three small towns near the Hanford site in Washington.[6] In 1953, the AEC ran several studies on the health effects of radioactive iodine in newborns and pregnant women at the University of Iowa. Also in 1953, the AEC sponsored a study to discover if radioactive iodine affected premature babies differently from full-term babies. In the experiment, researchers from Harper Hospital in Detroit orally administered iodine-131 to 65 premature and full-term infants who weighed from 2.1 to 5.5 pounds (0.95 to 2.49 kg).[7] In another AEC study, researchers at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine fed iodine-131 to 28 healthy infants through a gastric tube to test the concentration of iodine in the infants' thyroid glands.[7]

Into the 1970s, the United States Atomic Energy Commission and the Manhattan Project conducted other human radiation experiments. Radiation was known to be dangerous and the experiments were designed to ascertain the detailed effect of radiation on human health.[8] In Nashville, pregnant women were given radioactive mixtures. In Cincinnati, some 200 patients were irradiated over a period of 15 years. In Chicago, 102 people received injections of strontium and cesium solutions. In Massachusetts, 74 schoolboys were fed oatmeal that contained radioactive substances. In all these cases, the subjects did not know what was going on and did not give informed consent. The government covered up most of these radiation mishaps until 1993, when President Bill Clinton ordered a change of policy. The resulting investigation was undertaken by the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, and it uncovered much of the material included in The Plutonium Files.[8]

In 1973, the AEC predicted that, by the turn of the century, one thousand reactors would be producing electricity for homes and businesses across the United States. But after 1973, reactor orders declined sharply as electricity demand fell and construction costs rose. Many orders and partially completed plants were cancelled.[9]

By 1974, the AEC's regulatory programs had come under such strong attack that Congress decided to abolish the agency. Supporters and critics of nuclear power agreed that the promotional and regulatory duties of the AEC should be assigned to different agencies. The Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 put the regulatory functions of the AEC into the new NRC, which began operations on January 19, 1975 and placed the promotional functions within the Energy Research and Development Administration, which was later incorporated into the United States Department of Energy.[citation needed]

AEC Chair

Term Name President(s) served
1946–1950 David E. Lilienthal Harry S. Truman
1950–1953 Gordon Dean Harry S. Truman
1953–1958 Lewis Strauss Dwight D. Eisenhower
1958–1960 John A. McCone Dwight D. Eisenhower
1961–1971 Glenn T. Seaborg John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon
1971–1973 James R. Schlesinger Richard Nixon
1973–1974 Dixy Lee Ray Richard Nixon


The AEC issued a large number of technical reports through their technical information service and other channels. These had many numbering schemes, often associated with the lab from which the report was issued. AEC report numbers included AEC-AECU (unclassified), AEC-AECD (declassified), AEC-BNL (Brookhaven National Lab), AEC-HASL (Health and Safety Laboratory), AEC-HW (Hanford Works), AEC-IDO (Idaho Operations Office), AEC-LA (Los Alamos), AEC-MDCC (Manhattan District), AEC-TID, and others. Today, these reports can be found in library collections that received government documents, through the National Technical Information Service (NTIS), and through public domain digitization projects such as HathiTrust.[10]

See also


  1. "U.S. Department of Energy: Germantown Site History". United States Department of Energy. Retrieved March 13, 2012. 
  2. Niehoff, Richard. 1948. "Organization and Administration of the United States Atomic Energy Commission." Public Administration Review Vol. 8, No.2, pp. 91-102.
  3. "Atomic Energy Commission". Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Retrieved 2009-11-16. 
  4. Niehoff, Richard. 1948. "Organization and Administration of the United States Atomic Energy Commission." Public Administration Review Vol. 8, No.2, pp. 91-92.
  5. Stephanie Cooke (2009). In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age, Black Inc., p. 252.
  6. Goliszek, Andrew (2003). In The Name of Science. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 130–131. ISBN 978-0-312-30356-3. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Goliszek, Andrew (2003). In The Name of Science. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 132–134. ISBN 978-0-312-30356-3. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 R.C. Longworth. Injected! Book review:The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Nov/Dec 1999, 55(6): 58-61.
  9. Stephanie Cooke (2009). In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age, Black Inc., p. 283.
  10. Hathitrust search for "Atomic Energy Commission". Accessed May 23, 2013.

Further reading

  • Buck, Alice L. A History of the Atomic Energy Commission. U.S. Department of Energy, DOE/ES-0003. July 1983. PDF file
  • Richard G. Hewlett; Oscar E. Anderson. The New World, 1939-1946. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962.
  • Richard G. Hewlett; Francis Duncan. Atomic Shield, 1947-1952. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1969.
  • Richard G. Hewlett; Jack M. Holl. Atoms for Peace and War, 1953-1961: Eisenhower and the Atomic Energy Commission. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

External links

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