United States Atomic Energy Commission

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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
Headquarters Washington, D.C. (1947–1957)
Germantown, Maryland (1958–1975)[1]
David E. Lilienthal, who chaired the AEC from its creation until 1950
Gordon Dean, who chaired the AEC from 1950 to 1953
Dr. Joseph G. Hamilton was the primary researcher for the human plutonium experiments done at U.C. San Francisco from 1944 to 1947.[2] Hamilton wrote a memo in 1950 discouraging further human experiments because the AEC would be left open "to considerable criticism," since the experiments as proposed had "a little of the Buchenwald touch."[3]
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 peacetime development of atomic science and technology.[4]:91–102 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. This shift gave the first members of the AEC complete control of the plants, laboratories, equipment, and personnel assembled during the war to produce the atomic bomb.[5]

During its initial establishment and subsequent operationalization, the AEC played a key role in the institutional development of Ecosystem ecology. Specifically, it provided crucial financial resources, allowing for ecological research to take place.[6] Perhaps even more importantly, it enabled ecologists with a wide range of groundbreaking techniques for the completion of their research. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the AEC also approved funding for numerous bio-environmental projects in the Arctic and near-Arctic. These projects were designed to examine the effects of nuclear energy upon the environment and were a part of the Commission’s attempt at creating peaceful applications of atomic energy.[7]:22–25

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.[8] 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.[9] 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] : 91–92 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 Commission's first order of business was to inspect the scattered empire of plants and laboratories to be inherited from the Army.[5][page 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. As a result, Senator Brien McMahon influenced the decision not to reappoint J. Robert Oppenheimer to the GAC in 1952 after his six-year statutory term expired. David Lilienthal, then AEC Chair, agreed with Oppenheimer and opposed "a 'crash' program to build the hydrogen bomb ahead of any other nation." The White House asked Lilienthal to leave the Atomic Commission. He did so on February 15, 1950. Lilienthal was one of the original members of the commission who granted Oppenheimer clearance in 1947. With Oppenheimer and Lilienthal removed, Truman announced the United States' decision to build the hydrogen bomb; and major supporter of hydrogen weapons Admiral Lewis. W. Strauss was later appointed by Eisenhower as AEC Chair.[10]

Regulations & Experiments

The AEC was connected with the armed services by a 'Military Liaison Committee'. The Joint Committee on Atomic Energy exercised congressional oversight over the AEC and had considerable power in influencing AEC decisions and policy.[citation needed]

The AEC's far-reaching powers and control over a 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 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".[11]:252

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.[12](pp130–131) 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).[12]:132–134 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.[12]:132–134

Public Opinion & Abolishment of the AEC

During the 1960s and early 1970s, the Atomic Energy Commission came under fire from opposition concerned with more fundamental ecological problems such as the pollution of air and water.[13]:113 Under the Nixon Administration, environmental consciousness grew exponentially and the first Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970.[13]:113 Along with rising environmental awareness came a growing suspicion of the AEC and public hostility for their projects increased. In the public eye, there was a strong association between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and even though the AEC had made a push in the late 1960s, to portray their efforts as being geared toward peaceful uses of atomic energy, criticism of the agency grew.The AEC was chiefly held responsible for the alleged health problems of people living near atmospheric test sites from the early 1960s, and there was a strong association of nuclear energy with the radioactive fallout from these tests.[13]:115 Around the same time, the AEC was also struggling with opposition to nuclear power plant siting as well as nuclear testing and experimentation. An organized push was finally made to curb the power held by the Commission, and in 1970 the AEC was forced to prepare an Environmental impact statement (EIS) for a nuclear test in northwestern Colorado as part of the initial preparation for Project Rio Blanco.[14]: 244

Into the mid 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.[15] 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.[15]

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.[11]:283

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 transferred the regulatory functions of the AEC to the new NRC, which began operations on January 19, 1975 and placed the promotional functions within the Energy Research and Development Administration. The latter 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

Atomic Energy Commission Commissioners[9]

Sumner T. Pike : October 31, 1946 – December 15, 1951
David E. Lilienthal, Chairman : November 1, 1946 – February 15, 1950
Robert F. Bacher : November 1, 1946 – May 10, 1949
William W. Waymack : November 5, 1946 – December 21, 1948
Lewis L. Strauss : November 12, 1946 – April 15, 1950 ; Chairman : July 2, 1953 – June 30, 1958
Gordon Dean : May 24, 1949 – June 30, 1953 ; Chairman : July 11, 1950 – June 30, 1953
Henry DeWolf Smyth : May 30, 1949 – September 30, 1954
Thomas E. Murray : May 9, 1950 – June 30, 1957
Thomas Keith Glennan : October 2, 1950 – November 1, 1952
Eugene M. Zuckert : February 25, 1952 – June 30, 1954
Joseph Campbell : July 27, 1953 – November 30, 1954
Willard F. Libby : October 5, 1954 – June 30, 1959
John von Neumann : March 15, 1955 – February 8, 1957
Harold S. Vance : October 31, 1955 – August 31, 1959
John S. Graham : September 12, 1957 – June 30, 1962
John Forrest Floberg : October 1, 1957 – June 23, 1960
John A. McCone, Chairman : July 14, 1958 – January 20, 1961
John H. Williams : August 13, 1959 – June 30, 1960
Robert E. Wilson : March 22, 1960 – January 31, 1964
Loren K. Olson : June 23, 1960 – June 30, 1962
Glenn T. Seaborg, Chairman : March 1, 1961 – August 16, 1971
Leland J. Haworth : April 17, 1961 – June 30, 1963
John G. Palfrey : August 31, 1962 – June 30, 1966
James T. Ramey : August 31, 1962 – June 30, 1973
Gerald F. Tape : July 15, 1963 – April 30, 1969
Mary I. Bunting : June 29, 1964– June 30, 1965
Wilfred E. Johnson : August 1, 1966 – June 30, 1972
Samuel M. Nabrit : August 1, 1966 – August 1, 1967
Francesco Costagliola : October 1, 1968 – June 30, 1969
Theos J. Thompson : June 12, 1969 – November 25, 1970
Clarence E. Larson : September 2, 1969 – June 30, 1974
James R. Schlesinger, Chairman : August 17, 1971 – January 26, 1973
William O. Doub : August 17, 1971 – August 17, 1974
Dixy Lee Ray : August 8, 1972 ; Chairman : February 6, 1973 – January 18, 1975
William E. Kriegsman : June 12, 1973 – January 18, 1975
William A. Anders : August 6, 1973 – January 18, 1975

Relationship with science


For many years, the AEC provided the most conspicuous example of the benefit of atomic age technologies to biology and medicine.[16]:649–684 Shortly after the Atomic Energy Commission was established, its Division of Biology and Medicine began supporting diverse programs of research in the life sciences, mainly the fields of genetics, physiology, and ecology.[6] Specifically concerning the AEC's relationship with the field of ecology, one of the first approved funding grants went to Eugene Odum in 1951.[6] This grant sought to observe and document the effects of radiation emission on the environment from a recently built nuclear facility on the Savannah River in South Carolina. Odum, a professor at the University of Georgia, initially submitted a proposal requesting annual funding of $267,000, but the AEC rejected the proposal and instead offered to fund a $10,000 project to observe local animal populations and the effects of secondary succession on abandoned farmland around the nuclear plant.[6]

In later years,[when?] the AEC began providing increased research opportunities to scientists by approving funding for ecological studies at various nuclear testing sites, most notably at Eniwetok, which was part of the Marshall Islands. Through their support of nuclear testing, the AEC gave ecologists a unique opportunity to study the effects of radiation on whole populations and entire ecological systems in the field.[6] Prior to 1954, no one had investigated a complete ecosystem with the intent to measure its overall metabolism, but the AEC provided the means as well as the funding to do so. Ecological development was further spurred by environmental concerns about radioactive waste from nuclear energy and postwar atomic weapons production. In the 1950s, such concerns led the AEC to build a large ecology research group at their Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which was instrumental in the development of radioecology. A wide variety of research efforts in biology and medicine took place under the umbrella of the AEC at national laboratories and at some universities with agency sponsorship and funding.[16]:649–684 As a result of increased funding as well as the increased opportunities given to scientists and the field of ecology in general, a plethora of new techniques were developed which led to rapid growth and expansion of the field as a whole. One of these techniques afforded to ecologists involved the use of radiation, namely in ecological dating and to study the effects of stresses on the environment.[6]

In 1969, the AEC's relationship with science and the environment was brought to the forefront of a growing public controversy that had been building since 1965. In search for an ideal location for a large-yield nuclear test, the AEC settled upon the island of Amchitka, part of the Aleutian Islands National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.[14]:246 The main public concern was about their location choice, as there was a large colony of endangered sea otters in close proximity. To help diffuse the issue, the AEC sought a formal agreement with the Department of the Interior and the state of Alaska to help transplant the colony of sea otters to other former habitats along the West Coast.[14]:247

Arctic Ecology

The AEC played a role in expanding the field of arctic ecology. From 1959 to 1962, the Commission’s interest in this type of research peaked. For the first time, extensive effort was placed by a national agency on funding bio-environmental research in the Arctic. Research took place at Cape Thompson on the northwest coast of Alaska, and was tied to an excavation proposal named Project Chariot.[7]:22 The excavation project was to involve a series of underground nuclear detonations that would create an artificial harbor, consisting of a channel and circular terminal basin, which would fill with water. This would have allowed for enhanced ecological research of the area in conjunction with any nuclear testing that might occur, as it essentially would have created a controlled environment where levels and patterns of radioactive fallout resulting from weapons testing could be measured.[7]:23 The proposal never went through, but it evidenced the AEC’s interest in Arctic research and development.

The simplicity of biotic compositions and ecological processes in the arctic regions of the globe made ideal locations in which to pursue ecological research, especially since at the time there was minimal human modification of the landscape.[7]:25 All investigations conducted by the AEC produced new data from the Arctic, but few or none of them were supported solely on that basis.[7]:25 While the development of ecology and other sciences was not always the primary objective of the AEC, support was often given to research in these fields indirectly as an extension of their efforts for peaceful applications of nuclear energy.[citation needed]


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.[17]

See also


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  3. "The Media & Me: [The Radiation Story No One Would Touch]", Geoffrey Sea, Columbia Journalism Review, March/April 1994.
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  10. FBI memo, Mr. Tolson to L.B. Nichols, "Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, 8 Jun. 1954, FBI FOIA, http://vault.fbi.gov/rosenberg-case/robert-j.-oppenheimer/robert-j-oppenheimer-part-03-of.
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  15. 15.0 15.1 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.
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  17. Hathitrust search for "Atomic Energy Commission". Accessed May 23, 2013.

Further reading

  • 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