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.

“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.

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