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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

11 responses to “Why Does The NRC Have an Official Historian?

  1. Larry Dunlap August 17, 2015 at 12:04 pm

    I am doing some research on William M Breazeale. He is the man that the TRIGA Research Reactor at Penn State University is named after (reactor license R-2). From the research I have done at this point I have found out that he was issued the very first Reactor Operator license by the AEC (pre-NRC days) to operate the Penn State reactor. I am interested in obtaining a copy of his AEC Reactor Operator license. Where would I be able to locate this item and how would I get a copy of it?

  2. Lee Torwalt July 12, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    i was just wondering if you could help me with some information my nephew has a 1950dodge pwer wagon truck and on the side of the door it has atomic energy commission is there someway we can trace the history of the truck

    • Moderator July 14, 2014 at 9:32 am

      Thank you for your inquiry. The AEC, like many federal agencies of that time, had their own vehicles that had the name of the Commission emblazoned on the side. So it is very likely that your nephew has an old surplus vehicle. Unfortunately, the NRC would not have information on a vehicle of that age.

      Thanks for your interest.

      Thomas Wellock

  3. Joe Rebholtz April 2, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    With the increased use of mag-lev and linear motors (like in roller coaster type rides), it would be interesting to see that technology used for a mass driver to launch nuclear waste to the Sun, or at least give a big boost to that, or shuttle-type orbital insertion launches. Would save lots of fuel, and enable much smaller craft/larger payloads.

  4. Aaron Adams April 2, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    I think educating Americans on the history of the Nuclear Regulatory Committee is extremely important, so people really understand the benefits and dangers of nuclear power, especially following the nuclear power issues that have occurred in Japan following the earth quake and tsunamis. Many people are afraid, so educating them is the best way to alleviate fear.

  5. Charles Bell April 1, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    DOE/ES-003/1 History of the Atomic Energy Commission, July 1983, Alice Buck

  6. Charles Bell April 1, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    I recognize Jimmy and Rossalyn Carter wearing booties in this photo. He was president when I was in the U.S. Navy. I remember being at sea the the TMI-2 accident occurred and getting a briefing and never saw the live news on the event. I recall having a question on one of the weekly exams while I was at navy nuclear prototype in 1976-77which required an essay response to describe the sequence of events that would happen if no manual actions were taken and a certain valve in the secondary side failed leading to the Steam Generators going dry. So we knew and understood what the consequences were but we were never able to simulate it like we can now. Its a world of difference at a commercial power plant. It would be very difficult for anyone starting out in nuclear power today to appreciate what has been improved the decade after TMI-2.

    I believe the man on the left is Ken McCoy who was the plant Manager at Grand Gulf when I started work there in late 1980.

    • Tony Leshinskie April 2, 2015 at 1:46 pm

      Do you mean our left or President Carter’s left? Are you referring to the partially obscured man to the President’s right? (I thought that may have been Vic Stello, who was working for the NRC at the time, but it’s hard to tell from this photo.) The person on our far left is Harold Denton. I don’t know who the person on our right is, but his clothing and body language say “Reactor Operator being asked a question.”

  7. Greg Yuhas April 1, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    As history begins to repeat itself, i.e. “NRC is in bed with the industry”, I hope you will take the opportunity to publicize the lessons learned that created the NRC and the actions taken by the agency to ensure its independence and objectivity. Our present model is all about Profit, Pressure and Pain (PPP). The nuclear power industry is driven by profit; without it, it should not exist unless the public believes the environmental and national security value provided by nuclear energy deserves it’s support through government subsidies. It is not the role of NRC to publicize or support this position. The public can advocate for nuclear power and pressure it’s elected representatives to support or prohibit it’s use. However, it is the role of NRC to ensure that the level of risk established but the public is achieved by those it grants a license to design, construct and operate nuclear power plants. NRC through it’s inspection and enforcement process must provide sufficient pain to offset the power of profit and guarantee the level of risk, considered acceptable by the public, is maintained. This is where the NRC Historian can help. I hope in your writing you take the opportunity to describe both good and bad examples where the NRC has taken action to implement the public’s expectation of risk management.

  8. duxx March 31, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    Mr Wellock

    So glad to see a historian working to help educate the public. The current hysteria is largely due to the perceived hocus pocus regarding radiation and its effects on the public. Just toady I witnessed an “expert” on a cable news channel who did not understand the concept of a half-life (he said I-131 disappeared in about a week). I recommend that you compose an essay on what the average citizen needs to know about radiation. It should feature the pico, nano, micro, milli uses in measuring dose, explaining dose rate, dose, curies, etc. so that interested parties can see from certain headlines just how serious OR how insignificant measured values are.

  9. Rod Grebb March 31, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    The DOE has a good publication on the history of the AEC which goes into the formation of the NRC and DOE. It is DOE/ES-003/1 History of the Atomic Energy Commission, July 1983, Alice Buck.

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