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What Was the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission?

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The Atomic Energy Commission was established by the United States Congress when it enacted the 1946 Atomic Energy Act. In the aftermath of the Second World War, this Act transferred control and oversight of atomic energy in the U.S. from the military services to the Atomic Energy Commission, a civilian agency within the federal government. Generally, the role of the commission before it was abolished was to direct the research, development and production of nuclear weapons as well as of peaceful uses for atomic energy.

Included in the functions of the commission were the military aims of producing atomic fuel materials and the testing and manufacturing of nuclear weapons. It was also responsible for developing nuclear reactors to serve both civilian and military purposes. Finally, the Atomic Energy Commission was to direct research on the use of nuclear materials in engineering as well as in the physical, medical and biological sciences.

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Administratively, a board of commissioners consisting of five members was appointed to head the new agency. Three major advisory committees were also established to provide input and direction. The Atomic Energy Commission was required to consult with the Military Liaison Committee on anything regarding the military application of atomic energy. For the first 10 years of its existence, most of the resources of the commission went to the development and production of nuclear weapons and other military uses of atomic energy. A Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy provided congressional oversight, and the General Advisory Committee, composed of leading atomic researchers, gave needed technical and scientific direction to the Atomic Energy Commission.

In 1954, the U.S. Congress added to the responsibilities of the commission by amending the original 1946 Atomic Energy Act. The amendments in 1954 permitted the commission to transfer information about nuclear technology to other countries as well as to private companies. In doing so, the Atomic Energy Commission became responsible for overseeing the expansion of business uses for nuclear energy in the U.S. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Atomic Energy Commission worked with companies in private industry to develop reactors that could produce electrical power. In addition, in 1954, the Atomic Energy Commission was given the role of regulating the safety of the nuclear power industry.

Conflicts eventually developed between the commission’s responsibilities to both develop and regulate the commercial nuclear power industry. These conflicts led the U.S. Congress to abolish the Atomic Energy Commission in 1974. Its responsibilities were then divided between the newly created Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy.

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