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Diplomacy and Conflict • The Arms Race

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was the predecessor of today's Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). It was created in the wake of the U.S. atomic bombing of Japan, the effects of which demonstrated that nuclear energy needed not only to be developed, but controlled. The AEC legally had absolute control over both the development and use of atomic energy.

The AEC was founded in 1946 through the Atomic Energy Act, but did not officially take control of the atomic energy program until January 1, 1947. It succeeded the Manhattan Engineer District of the Army Corps of Engineers, which was better known as the Manhattan Project. The commission took over the role the district was assigned during World War II—to develop the atomic bomb for both peaceful and wartime purposes.

After the Soviet Union's first test detonation of an atomic weapon in 1949, the AEC began to concentrate more and more on defense uses of nuclear energy. This continued throughout the years of the Eisenhower presidency in the 1950s, although the AEC's public image was colored by the agency's "Atoms for Peace" campaign. This consisted of encouraging industrial partnerships to develop peaceful uses of nuclear energy. In addition, the commission spearheaded the establishment of the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency. Under President John F. Kennedy, the commission initiated a plan to reconcentrate the nation's resources on the most promising of the AEC's work so far. There was also a limited test ban treaty imposed on nuclear power in 1963. The commission's last chairperson, James R. Schlesinger, reorganized the AEC and turned its attention to developing hardware, the fast-breeder reactor, and using nuclear materials as an economic resource.

Overseen by five commissioners appointed by the president to five-year staggered terms, the AEC's staff was led by a general manager, who was the group's chief executive officer. The commission created a decentralized organization and mimicked the army's traditional use of private research and industrial contractors for its jobs, although they worked in government facilities. The government owned all production facilities and reactors, and none of the AEC's discoveries ever had to go through the national patent system.

Abolished in 1974, the AEC yielded its functions to the Energy Research and Development Administration and the NRC.

Further Reading

Allardice, Corbin, The Atomic Energy Commission, 1974; Buck, Alice L., A History of the Atomic Energy Commission, 1982.

MLA Citation

"Atomic Energy Commission." American History, ABC-CLIO, 2020, americanhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/253384. Accessed 18 Feb. 2020.

Entry ID: 2174297

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