Why Does The NRC Have an Official Historian?

Historial photo of President Carter
Historical photo

As the relatively new historian for the NRC, I am interested in blogging so I can talk directly with the public about the history of nuclear power regulation. In this first post, I’ll introduce you to the agency’s history program, give a little of my background, and offer my plans for future posts.

Established in 1977, the NRC’s history program is almost as old as the agency itself. Many federal agencies employ historians for a variety of archival and public outreach tasks, but the NRC set itself apart by committing its historians primarily to research and writing accurate, scholarly histories of the agency and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission.

To meet the standards of the history profession, the Commission made it clear early on that its historians were to “be free to express scholarly opinions.” It is a commitment that has worked well. Under my predecessor, J. Samuel Walker, the history program produced numerous well-regarded articles and five books, including a widely popular account of the Three Mile Island accident.

The NRC historian also provides historical background for reports, responds to Commissioner, staff, and public inquiries, and is available for public presentations on agency history.

Although new to the position, I’m not new to history or nuclear power. After receiving my B.S. in mechanical engineering, I tested nuclear reactors on submarines for General Dynamics in Groton, Connecticut, and worked as an engineer at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station near Toledo, Ohio.

My career then took a different, but not unrelated, professional direction. I earned a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of California, Berkeley in 1995. To understand the citizens protesting outside of the power plant fence, I wrote my first book on the history of the antinuclear movement, Critical Masses: Opposition to Nuclear Power in California, 1958-1978 (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997). Before coming to the NRC, I was a history professor and wrote on the history of nuclear power and environmental issues.

I am currently researching the history of the AEC and NRC in the 1970s. In future blog posts, I’ll mark the anniversaries of key agency events, discuss material from my ongoing research, and respond to reader inquiries. Let me know if you have a topic you’d like me to address by commenting on this post.

Tom Wellock
NRC Historian