The development of nuclear energy policy deserves special mention because it has been guided by the federal government since the initial discovery of nuclear power. The government has subsidized much of the research and development of nuclear technology, has controlled the allocation and distribution of nuclear fuel, and has established various programs for the storage of radioactive waste. In short, nuclear energy is unique because the entire fuel cycle is regulated by the federal government. This section describes the various nuclear energy policies that have been enacted.
Nuclear power was first developed for military purposes. The detonation of atomic bombs in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 demonstrated the power of nuclear weapons to the world. The two bombs killed over 340,000 people either from the direct blast of the bomb or from radiation exposure (Fehner and Holl 1994, 11). The devastation not only changed the nature of international relations, it also demonstrated the necessity for government control of nuclear power. In order to promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to ensure that international control over nuclear energy was maintained, the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission (UNAEC) was created in 1946.
With domestic nuclear policy, the United States sought to maintain control over its atomic energy monopoly. In 1946, President Truman signed the Atomic Energy Act. This bill created two government agencies, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE). The AEC was given ownership of all nuclear materials and reactors in the United States. It acted as a regulatory agency for radioactive materials, granting licenses to facilities generating, using, and researching nuclear energy. The JCAE was established as a congressional information and watchdog agency to oversee the nuclear activities of the AEC.
In 1954, the United States sought to enhance development of the nuclear power industry. The 1954 Atomic Energy Act promoted private nuclear development by granting subsidies for research and development of nuclear reactors. It stipulated that private companies could own nuclear reactors while the federal government retained ownership over nuclear fuels. The goal was to motivate a greater private interest in nuclear energy and to ensure the public that nuclear energy would provide the United States with cheap, abundant sources of electricity for many generations.
Despite these efforts, support for nuclear plant construction remained low. Nuclear energy was still very expensive to develop, and the prevailing idea in industry was that nuclear power would cost more to produce than could be gained from profit. Additionally, the potential damage that would result from a nuclear accident substantially increased the liability for private operators of nuclear power plants. In an effort to address the liability issue, Congress in 1957 passed the Price-Anderson Act limiting the liability of individual companies. The Price-Anderson Amendments in 1988 raised the liability limits from $5 million per facility per incident to $63 million per facility per incident. Furthermore, plant operators (or licensees) were not required to pay out more than $10 million in any one year in case of liability under the act (Smith 2004, 149). Although liability issues were addressed by the Price-Anderson Act, nuclear power only became a viable option when electricity shortages and environmental concerns shifted interest away from the coal-fired power plants. Consequently, the 1960s saw a dramatic growth in the nuclear power industry.
The 1970s were a difficult decade for the development of nuclear power. The Ford administration significantly changed the structure of federal energy agencies with the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974. This legislation dissolved the Atomic Energy Commission and created the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) in its place. The ERDA took over the research and development of all energy forms, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) assumed the AEC's regulatory function over the nuclear industry. The 1974 act proved to be difficult for the nuclear power industry, and demand for reactors dropped after 1975 (Melosi 1985, 308). The organizational changes of the 1977 Energy Reorganization Act also undermined nuclear promotional campaigns and placed the NRC under the administration of the newly established Department of Energy (DOE). A final devastating blow to the nuclear power industry occurred with the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident in 1979. After the accident, all existing orders for reactors were canceled, and as of 2006, none have been placed since in the United States.
In the 1980s, safety and waste issues dominated the nuclear energy agenda. The Nuclear Safety Research, Development, and Demonstration Act was passed in 1980 largely as a response to the TMI accident. This legislation sought to improve the safety of existing nuclear power plants. It mandated that standards be established for the construction of nuclear facilities and ensured that safety rules be implemented in the United States' nuclear power plants. Conflict over nuclear waste storage also became a heated issue in the 1980s as regulators sought agreement on site feasibility for long-term storage. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1982 mandated that geologic disposal was the solution for nuclear waste storage, and federal agencies were charged with the task of finding suitable locations for nuclear waste repositories, one in the East and one in the West (Long and Ewing 2004). In 1987, this ruling was revised to only one central storage location, as it proved impossible to locate an appropriate site in the East. Nuclear-storage issues are discussed later in the chapter.
Despite the setback of the 1970s, the pursuit of nuclear power was not eliminated. Concerns over increasing reliance on foreign energy sources and global climate change have caused President George W. Bush to rekindle efforts to develop nuclear resources. The Bush administration promoted nuclear energy as a means of addressing the problem of climate change. Abandoning the Kyoto Protocol was one particularly glaring consequence of the administration's approach to energy use. Stating it would be devastating to the economy, the administration asserted that it was not fair that developing nations like India and China would not have to meet the same requirements as the United States. The nuclear option was offered as an alternative approach for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It remains to be seen whether the energy issues associated with nuclear power will be resolved.
Was this article helpful?