Who Sets National Nuclear Energy Policy?

Who decides if the U.S. is going to use nuclear energy to meet this country’s electric needs? It’s a question we get here at the NRC not infrequently. The short answer: Congress and the President. Together they make the nation’s laws and policies directing civilian nuclear activity – for both nuclear energy and nuclear materials used in science, academia, and industry.

Federal laws, like the Atomic Energy Act, set out our national nuclear policy. For example, in the Atomic Energy Act, Congress provided that the nation will “encourage widespread participation in the development and utilization of atomic energy for peaceful purposes.” Other federal laws, like the Energy Policy Act of 2005, call for the federal government to provide support of, research into, and development of nuclear technologies and nuclear energy. The President, as the head of the executive branch, is responsible for implementing these policies.

But sometimes, things get confusing as to who does what when it comes to putting these laws into practice! Although the NRC is a federal government agency with the word “nuclear” in its name, the NRC plays no role in making nuclear policy. Instead, the NRC’s sole mission is to regulate civilian use of nuclear materials, ensuring that the public health, safety, and the environment are adequately protected.

The NRC’s absence from nuclear policymaking is no oversight, but a deliberate choice. Before there was an NRC, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was responsible for both developing and regulating nuclear activities. In 1974, Congress disbanded the AEC, and assigned all of the AEC’s responsibilities for developing and supporting nuclear activities to what is now the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). At the same time, Congress created the NRC as an independent regulatory agency, isolating it from executive branch direction and giving it just one task – regulating the safety of civilian nuclear activities.

Today, the DOE, under the direction of the President, supports federal research and development of nuclear technologies and nuclear energy in accordance with federal laws and policy goals. At the DOE, the Office of Nuclear Energy takes the lead on these programs.

Since its creation more than three decades ago, the NRC’s only mission has been to regulate the safe civilian use of nuclear material. For that reason, the most important word here in the NRC’s name is not “Nuclear,” but “Regulatory.” Because the NRC has no stake in nuclear policymaking, the NRC can focus on its task of protecting public health and safety from radioactive hazards through regulation and enforcement.

Lauren Woodall
NRC Attorney

Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

3 thoughts on “Who Sets National Nuclear Energy Policy?”

  1. I wish to confirm the observations above from “nuceng” – statements such as this are myopic:

    “Because the NRC has no stake in nuclear policymaking, the NRC can focus on its task of protecting public health and safety from radioactive hazards through regulation and enforcement.”

    This suggested dissociation between regulation and the remaining aspects of the US Nuclear Energy Enterprise is an example of Naive Realism as will be seen by looking at the present state of the Japanese National Nuclear Energy Enterprise. It is difficult to comprehend how an entire industry comes to be shutdown after decades of acceptable operation by a number of different organizations, including engineering and manufacturing operations carried out in multiple international settings.

    While much talk has been made of the supposed weakness of independence on the part of the Japanese civilian nuclear oversight the case for that weakness has merely been asserted not demonstrated as a the single most significant factor needing remedy in that country’s civilian nuclear operations.

    The cumulative socio-techno-political impact of a Global Nuclear Energy Enterprise is evidently more complex and multi-factoral at policy levels than the strict partition of promotion and regulation struck when the AEC was disbanded and NRC created.

    Certainly no one in 1977 anticipated that a long period of market non-confidence would impair the growth of the US nuclear programs and lead to a dearth of new and substantially improved designs entering service; nor the atrophy of the substantial design, construction and manufacturing infrastructure in this country.

    None, in 1977, anticipated electrical supply price deregulation, and few the growing concerns with fossil fuel by-products impacting global climate. To suggest that the conduct of regulation occurs outside the formulation of National and Global Energy Security policy-making is at odds with the facts.

    The very metaphor of “stake-holding” evidences a misconception of Congressional Intent cited by the author – in 1946 the potential for Nuclear Energy to improve the general well-being of Americans was properly recognized as coincident with a shared Duty of Care in regard to the hazards of radiation. Each institution which draws authority from the Act is a shareholder on behalf of the American people. It was not the intent of the act that only commercial firms benefit from nuclear material uses.

    Today we know, with 100 plants in operation, that there exist complex uncertainties (e.g. Severe Accident Management) and consequently overlaps of those shareholders’ responsibilities in assurance of satisfying that Duty of Care. What might have represented prudent foresight in 1977, are reflected in considerable and unexpectedly (some would say) diverse actual experience.

    The painful experience of Fukushima, following recurrence of some Chernobyl post-accident management failures, which appear to have been avoidable, should be cause to wonder how it is that the simplistic notion of Independence circa 1977 might be as pristine in execution as it was described back in that year.

  2. A similar blog listing all rules, regulation,standards,codes laws,etal for all limitations by all agencies for all limitations and all controls on all radioactivity would be most extremely helpful!

  3. With due respect to Ms. Woodall, the definitions of “policy” and “policymaking” that undergird her discussion are extremely narrow. It is true that the NRC does not play a role in deciding IF nuclear energy and nuclear materials are used, but it certainly has a key role in determining, and esbablishing policy wth regard to, HOW they are used. The AEA and other relevant legislation, such as the Energy Reorganization Act, give the NRC the power to set nuclear regulatory policy, and the agency has done just that for the past 37+ years. If the NRC decides that a proposed use of nuclear energy or nuclear materials cannot be done with reasonable assurance of adequate protection of public heath and safety and the environment, or is inimical to the common defense and security, it has the power to deny a license for such use. And by the same token, if the NRC finds that a proposed use does not pose an undue risk to public heath and safety or the common defense and security, the agency should not unreasonably impede such use, consistent with its responsbility to regulate and oversee it. It is important for the public to understand that the NRC does not promote nuclear technology, but it is also important not to understate the NRC’s role in establishing and executing regulatory policy.

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