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.” 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.

Author: Moderator

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

6 thoughts on “Part I — The First Temple of the Atom: The AEC and the North Carolina State Research Reactor”

  1. Speaking of religious endorsements of nuclear power and the “First Temple” concept – this directly refers to “Solomon’s Temple,” a Jewish Temple. Reference –

    Is the NRC endorsing the Jewish religion? Or maybe the NRC is endorsing Christian Protestantism as a religion since they hold NRC meetings regarding the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant at the Soddy Daisy City Hall and on the wall at Soddy Daisy, Tn. City Hall above and to the right of the NRC hand out table is a display of the Protestant 10 Commandments.

    Since the NRC’s title of this article in part states “The First Temple” the question comes to mind: Is the NRC endorsing a religion in nuclear power as it relates to Jews or Christians exclusively in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Maybe it is North Carolina State that is endorsing a religious preference. Whichever, the endorsement of any religion as it relates to nuclear power is contrary to rational thought and the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

    Then again, we would not be having this discussion if Stewardship Principles of religious teachings were practiced; the destructiveness of atomic power is contrary to any peaceful religious practice except devil worship. Maybe that is what the First Temple represents – death and demise of humanity. Is that the meaning of your temple, NRC?

    You and N.C. State may want to reconsider your endorsement of the Atom’s “First Temple.” The beginnings of nuclear power was and is directly related to nuclear weaponry. “Trinity” – “I have become death, the destroyer of worlds,” quote by Robert Oppenheimer.

    Like the “Atom’s For Peace” (AFP) program, this article, and the AFP program are propaganda to support the trillion dollar nuclear industry.

  2. Nuclear regulators talking about a religious experience concerning atomic energy does not instill faith in the regulator. Why not just discuss the subject without the imposition of delusional thinking.

    The delusional thinking is also reflected when the NRC traveled to Fukushima. Not once did our regulatory authorities say what actually occurred in their video report, the meltdown and subsequent contamination of Japan, the Pacific Ocean, and the disaster still continues to this day.

    From a Human Reliability standpoint, the NRC has a serious problem which leads to distrust as a result of expressed delusional thinking.

    It has been noted that this type of thinking, “temple of the atom delusion,” has been witnessed at various universities providing instructions on nuclear physics., it is dangerous way to approach nuclear energy. For the regulator to pander such nonsense reflects negatively on the NRC.

  3. Why do you all attack the article? History is also very useful information. And it`s now we can discuss the ways of making the atomic energy more accessible and more protected, reusable and stable. But that time it was very hard to predict the aftermath of AEC operation. It was like a deal with paranormal phenomena, something like religion. That`s why article named such way I think.

  4. This is NRC at work? Give me a break. I don’t need an NRC historian. Who pays for this? Licensees?

  5. First Temple of the Atom? Give me a break, nuclear reactors are not temples, they are engineered machines which require extensive maintenance and operations by qualified scientists, operators, engineers and regulators.

    The relegation of nuclear power to a religious like status is propaganda and reflects delusional thinking. Not where the public needs their regulator to go, or for that matter nuclear physics students.

  6. And so began the Install Nuclear on Campus Program that provided money to Colleges so that they could also join the Nuclear Campus Club.

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