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Part II: Ensuring Safety in the First Temple of the Atom

Thomas Wellock
NRC Historian

https://www.lib.ncsu.edu/specialcollections/digital/text/engineAs noted in Part I of this story on the NC State research reactor, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was very anxious to promote the world’s first civilian reactor. But its enthusiasm was tempered by the challenge of placing a reactor safely on a busy college campus and developing an approval process for non-AEC reactors.

The AEC turned to its Reactor Safeguard Committee, the forerunner of today’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards. The Committee was formed in 1947 to evaluate the safety of new reactors proposed by AEC laboratories and contractors.  “The committee was about as popular—and also necessary—as a traffic cop,” recalled Safeguard Committee Chairman Edward Teller.

The Committee’s most significant contribution was establishing a conservative approach to safety given the engineering uncertainty of that era. “We could not follow the usual method of trial and error,” Teller said. “The trials had to be on paper because the actual errors could be catastrophic.” The Committee developed a “simple procedure” of challenging a reactor designer to write a “hazard summary report” that imagined the worst “plausible mishap”—soon known as a “maximum credible accident”—and demonstrate the reactor design could prevent or mitigate it.

Five NC Stte physics professors designed the reactor. Here, in the reactor control room (left to right front row) are Clifford K. Beck and Arthur C. Menius, Jr. Standing is Newton Underwood, three unidentified students, Arthur Waltner and Raymond L. Murray.

Five NC State physics professors designed the reactor. Here, in the reactor control room, (left to right front row) are Clifford K. Beck and Arthur C. Menius, Jr. Standing is Newton Underwood, three unidentified students, Arthur Waltner and Raymond L. Murray.

The Committee focused on several hazards, including a surge in the chain reaction called a reactor “runaway,” a catastrophic release of radioactive material from fire, sabotage, or an earthquake, and hazards from routine operation that might result from leaks or inadvertent exposures. The Committee asked NC State to address these concerns in a “hazards summary report.”

To meet the Committee’s desire for inherent safety, NC State proposed a “water boiler” reactor, which was believed to have “student-proof” safety margin given its strongly “negative coefficient” of reactivity that limited greatly the possibility of a runaway. NC State also developed interlocks and an extremely dense concrete shielding to discouraged sabotage.

In order for NC State to commit the funds to such a long-term project, it needed an early approval. This created a dilemma since the college did not yet have a detailed, complete design.  The AEC used a two-step conditional approval that was similar to its later construction permit/operating license process. In step one, construction did not begin until NC State addressed the most important design safety issues. When it did, the AEC agreed by contract to supply enriched fuel. The fuel was not delivered, however, until NC State resolved all outstanding safety questions and a final inspection took place. With that, the first civilian reactor in history went critical in September 1953.

The AEC approach to safety at NC State foreshadowed many later regulatory practices. As important as the 1954 Atomic Energy Act is to current regulatory practice, it is interesting to see that many of the critical elements have even deeper roots back toward the beginning of the atomic era.


Part I — The First Temple of the Atom: The AEC and the North Carolina State Research Reactor

Thomas Wellock
NRC Historian


In January 1955, Newsweek reported, “It is the envy of thousands of scientists and hundreds of college presidents. It has made Raleigh, North Carolina’s capital, an atomic mecca, attracting such disparate types as President Celal Beyar of Turkey, a band of junketing North Carolina peanut growers, some German school teachers, as well as a procession of industrialists from all over the world.”

https://www.lib.ncsu.edu/specialcollections/digital/text/engineAll had come to see the world’s first research reactor open for public view at North Carolina State College (NC State).

Proposed by NC State in 1950, the reactor was an audacious idea when the most basic information about the fission process was a Cold-War secret. Industry and universities were unwilling to pursue civilian applications of nuclear energy that required expensive security clearances.

Where others saw obstacles, Clifford Beck spied an opportunity. A physicist at NC State, Beck proposed to the Atomic Energy Commission the nation’s first nuclear engineering program built around a declassified reactor.

His timing was perfect. The announcement in September 1949 that the Soviet Union had exploded an atomic bomb tipped the debate within the AEC toward those who favored declassifying atomic secrets. Former AEC Chairman David Lilienthal called on the AEC to “free the atom” for U.S. industrial use.

AEC officials were elated with Beck’s proposal since it provided them with a concrete reason to declassify reactor information. They assured him they were “practically unanimous” that it would be approved. In late 1950, the AEC made public for the first time information on fission research and small research reactors, including the NC State reactor.

Taking advantage of its status as the world’s only public reactor, NC State included a viewing auditorium with thick water-shielded windows so the public could see nuclear energy was, as Beck claimed, “just another type of tool, not something mysterious and super-secret.” In the first year of operation, the reactor had more than 6,000 visitors who came to see a reactor that was “guarded by nothing more than a physics student with a guest book.” One intrigued journalist dubbed it “The First Temple of the Atom.”

NC State Observation Room

NC State Observation Room

Ending secrecy cleared only the first hurdle for NC State. The AEC had to confront difficult safety and security questions.

In 1950, the 1946 Atomic Energy Act strictly limited uses of fissionable material. How could the agency provide bomb-grade fuel to a civilian reactor? How could it prevent sabotage of an unguarded reactor? How could the AEC ensure safe operation on a densely populated college campus? And who in the AEC should approve the reactor?  In answering these questions, the agency foreshadowed many of the later practices it followed in licensing nuclear power reactors. We will turn to that story on Wednesday.

“Continued Storage” – What It Means and What it Doesn’t

David McIntyre
Public Affairs Officer

UPDATE: The NRC’s final rule on the continued storage of spent nuclear fuel was published in the Federal Register on September 19, 2014, becoming effective October 20.The final Generic Environmental Impact Statement for Continued Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel is available on the NRC website.

There has been some confusion in media reports about the purpose of the NRC’s new rule on continued storage of spent nuclear fuel. The rule, approved by the Commission August 26, will be published soon in the Federal Register and take effect 30 days later.

The continued storage rule specifically deals with the period of time after the reactor has ceased operating. The rule adopts the NRC staff’s assessments of the environmental effects of storing spent nuclear fuel at a reactor site for various periods of time following the reactor’s licensed life for operation. It adopts the conclusions of the agency’s Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) on the Continued Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel, also approved August 26 by the Commission.

drystoragegraphic)For each new reactor, license renewal application, and storage facility specific license or renewal, the NRC performs a thorough safety review of reactor operations and spent nuclear fuel management at the site. Separately, the National Environmental Policy Act requires the NRC to perform an environmental analysis of each licensing action, which considers impacts on the surrounding environment.

The continued storage rule, when implemented, will allow the NRC to process license applications and renewals for nuclear reactors and spent fuel storage facilities without assessing the portion attributed to the environmental impacts of continued storage. This is because such impacts have now been generically assessed by the NRC in the GEIS.

The GEIS analyzed three scenarios:

  • A geologic repository for disposing of spent fuel becomes available 60 years following the licensed life of a reactor (short-term storage);
  • A repository becomes available 100 years beyond the short-term scenario, or 160 years after the licensed life of a reactor (long-term storage); and
  • A repository never is available (indefinite storage).

In evaluating the third scenario, the GEIS assumed that licensee control and regulatory oversight, or “institutional controls,” will remain in place to ensure the safety and security of the waste as long as needed.

The short-term and long-term scenarios reflect current U.S. policy that spent nuclear fuel will be disposed of in a deep geologic repository. The indefinite storage scenario is included because the Appeals Court that struck down the earlier version of the rule directed the NRC to consider the possibility a repository may never be built.

The rule is not a safety decision or licensing action for any site; it does not authorize the initial or continued operation of any nuclear power plant, and it does not authorize storage of spent fuel. The NRC licenses spent fuel storage through other means: Spent fuel pools are covered by a plant’s operating license, and dry cask storage is permitted either through a general license or a separate license, with licenses or certificates for casks issued for up to 40 years.

Media headlines proclaiming that nuclear waste will be stored in place indefinitely under this rule, or that safety controls on spent fuel storage will be weakened, do not accurately reflect the rule’s purpose or effect. Ultimate responsibility for the disposition of spent fuel lies with Congress and the Department of Energy. DOE’s most recently stated goal is to have a repository available by 2048. The NRC is committed to ensuring that spent fuel remains safe and secure, wherever it is stored or disposed.

The NRC Information Digest Knowledge Hunt

Ivonne Couret
Public Affairs Officer

2013_2014_InformationDigestCoverToday marks the debut of the 26th edition of the NRC Information Digest — an award winning publication that provides a summary of information about us and the industries we regulate. The Digest is used by a wide array of people, including the public, industry stakeholders, government agencies and the media. It strives to provide a handy primer of the agency’s regulatory responsibilities and licensing activities.

The Digest includes some of the quick facts and short answers to commonly asked questions about the NRC. Here are some of the questions for which you can find answers in the Digest.

  1. What is the statutory authority that created the independent NRC from a portion of the former Atomic Energy Commission and what day did this agency begin its operation? Hint – NRC: An Independent Regulatory Agency section, page 4
  2. What is the renewal date for our international agreement with the United Kingdom? Hint – U.S. and Worldwide Nuclear Energy section, page 23
  1. How many current operating nuclear reactors are there and in what section can you find a listing of the operating nuclear reactors and their general licensing information? Hint – Nuclear Reactors section, page 33
  1. What is the total number of material licenses in NRC Jurisdiction? Hint – Nuclear Materials section, page 65
  1. What are the names of the nuclear reactors currently undergoing decommissioning in DECON status? Hint – Radioactive Waste section, page 95

We’re always interested in what you have to say about the Info Digest as we continue to work to make it better and more useful. Let us know with your comments below or send us an email at opa.resource@nrc.gov.



  1. The Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 created the NRC from a portion of the former Atomic Energy Commission. The new agency was to independently oversee—but not promote—the commercial nuclear industry. The agency began operations on January 18, 1975.
  2. 2018
  3. 100 reactors and Appendix A begins on 116
  4. 2,857
  5. LaCrosse, Zion 1 & 2 and Humboldt Bay 3

The Final Fee Rule is, Finally, Final

Arlette Howard
Senior Program Analyst
Office of the Chief Financial Officer

It happens near the end of every summer – the NRC’s final fee rule is implemented. This year’s effective date is August 29, 2014. What does that mean? The final rule establishes the fee policy for fiscal year (in this case FY 2014, which ends Sept. 30th). It’s prepared in response to public comments on the proposed rule and final fee amounts in compliance with the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990, as amended.

budgetinfographicFor FY 2014, the NRC’s budget is approximately $1 billion. Based on this amount, the NRC will recover about $916.7 million by collecting fees. About 36 percent of the fees are attributed to licensee-specific services (such as services done by NRC staff for a particular licensee) and 64 percent from annual fees collected from all licensees.

The law requires the NRC to recover about 90 percent of our budget through fees, which means the agency is only funded about 10 percent from taxpayer money.

There are two types of fees the NRC charges. One is an hourly rate and flat application fees, and the other is an annual fee. Both types of fees recover the costs of regulating the use of radioactive materials. Hourly fees recover the costs of providing specific services to individual licensees (or potential licensees) such as reviewing applications and performing inspections. Annual fees recover all costs associated with regulatory activities, such as rulemaking and research, which benefit all licensees.

The final rule includes several changes from FY 2013. First, we are changing the current hourly rate from $272 to $279. Secondly, we are revising the flat license application fees (found in our federal guidelines 10 CFR Parts 170.21 and 170.31) to reflect the new hourly rate.

And, finally, we are revising the annual fees to recover the costs of providing regulatory services that benefit all classes of licensees. The annual fees increase for operating reactors, research and test reactors, most fuel facilities, material users, and uranium recovery facilities. Annual fees decrease for spent fuel storage facilities (at operating, decommissioning and decommissioned reactor sites) and Department of Energy transportation activities.

For more details on the final rule, please visit www.regulations.gov and use Docket ID NRC-2013-0276. For FY 2014 budget information, go here.


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