REFRESH — Who Sets National Nuclear Energy Policy?


refresh leafWho 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.


Author: Moderator

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

8 thoughts on “REFRESH — Who Sets National Nuclear Energy Policy?”

  1. Congress and the President will need to prove that nuclear is above all extremely cost effective in order to develop new nuclear programs. Given that today’s budgets are strongly in deficit then it would not make sense to push through an energy program that cost too much. Whatever you think about nuclear, economic reasons must be near the top of the list when deciding what form of energy is best for the country.

  2. Actually what is being said here is true for most regulatory bodies. I work for the Michigan Public Service Commission and much of what I do is regulating the electrical and gas utilities. We get people commenting to us about how we need to tell the utilities to do this or that. Less nuclear, more solar, no smart meters, etc. All we do really is make sure the utilities are following statute and allowing them to recover the appropriate costs in rates. Policy is set at the State and Federal level, by governors, legislatures, and the President.

  3. The Nuclear Industry is going to have to prove to the American public that not only can it be 100% safe but that it can be cost effective, and that is where the nuclear industry is most vulnerable, since now even Wall Street is now shying away from funding Nuclear.  So we are left with a Powerful Industry with strong ties to the Military/Government Complex that is pushing Nuclear upon us, much like Japan is doing to its people who want N☢ part of using Nuclear!


    Kind of hard to believe projections of too cheap to meter nuclear based on todays evidence.

    Kind of hard to believe based on any evidence.

    In fact, according to Citigroup,

    “On nuclear, Citi says cost overruns at the Vogtle plant under construction in Georgia — now slated to cost $15 billion, way above expectations — mean that nuclear is pricing itself out of the market. Citi puts nuclear’s LCOE at 11 cents/kWh, which it said is relatively expensive, versus combined cycle gas plants and solar and wind.”

    This article about the Hinkley C is relevant to new US reactors:

    Five reasons not to build Hinkley | Bloomberg New Energy Finance

    Parts of the above previously posted:

  4. “So, all those administrative arms of the federal government are only responsive to the wants and/or needs of the citizens of the United States…”

    I doubt many people is the USA would think your statement is true?

  5. The ones responsible for the public safety are doing a piss poor job or they can be over ridden when it cost to much.

  6. Mike Mulligan: “Is the agency truly and positively independent?” No.
    All agencies, administrations, authorities, commissions, etc.. of the federal government are assigned specific duties and responsibilities by Congress. So, all those administrative arms of the federal government are only responsive to the wants and/or needs of the citizens of the United States, or at least those who choose to vote in national elections.

  7. If then the Congress and the President were captured by the rich special interest…would the NRC stand up for the nation’s greater interest? Would you stand up for nuclear safety and the interest of the public…would the NRC independently make a painful stand for what is right? Would you stand up for the greater interest of the nuclear industry and the planet? Or just mindlessly follow your running orders?

    Is the agency truly and positively independent?

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