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 national 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 four 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.
REFRESH is an occasional series where we revisit previous posts. This originally ran in August 2012.