Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), United States
Established by the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is an independent agency of the federal government tasked with regulating civilian use of nuclear materials. It deals with spent nuclear reactors, radioactive waste, and nuclear and source material, including thorium and isotopes of uranium. Among the important events of the NRC's early history was its handling of the Three Mile Island nuclear incident in 1979. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, NRC officials were forced to contemplate the scenario of a similar terrorist attack upon a nuclear power plant.
Organization and Responsibilities
The NRC is directed by a five-member commission, one of whose members is designated by the president of the United States as chairman and official spokesperson. The commission formulates policies and regulations regarding the safety of nuclear reactors and materials, issues orders to licensees, and adjudicates legal matters on nuclear power that are brought to its attention.
Answering to the commission is the executive director for operations (EDO), who carries out its policies and decisions, and oversees a number of offices. In addition to bureaus designated according to area of responsibility, the NRC has four regional offices, in the Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Dallas areas. These oversee inspection, enforcement, and emergency response programs for licensees within their respective quadrants of the nation.
Among the other NRC offices, which collectively work to ensure the safe commercial use of nuclear power, are the offices of nuclear regulatory research, state and tribal programs, investigation, enforcement, and nuclear security and incident response. The last of these includes divisions for nuclear security, threat assessment, reactor
safeguards, materials safeguards, information security, and incident response.
Overseeing plants, materials, and waste. Two offices are together responsible for the actual oversight of nuclear materials and the plants that produce them. The Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards oversees nuclear waste and radioactive materials, while the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation is concerned with reactors.
Nuclear materials are divided into three types, all of which pose potential health and environmental hazards if not handled properly. Source material includes natural uranium and thorium, as well as depleted uranium. Byproduct material is nuclear material that has been made radioactive in a nuclear reactor, as well as tailings and waste produced by the extraction or concentration of uranium or thorium. A third variety of nuclear material poses an additional hazard, one of security. This category is known as special nuclear material, including uranium-233 and uranium-235, enriched uranium, and plutonium—any of which could be used in a nuclear device.
Regulated waste is also divided into three categories: low-level waste, including radioactively contaminated protective clothing, tools, and other materials; high-level waste, or used nuclear fuel; and uranium mill tailings, or the residues remaining in natural ore after uranium and thorium have been extracted. As with the handling of nuclear materials, the Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards provides strict guidelines regarding the storage and disposal of these waste products.
Reactors regulated by the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation fall into two categories: power reactors, or commercial reactors used to generate electric power, and non-power reactors, or reactors used in research, testing, and training. Among the areas of responsibility for the office are reactor decommissioning, operator licensing, and new reactor licensing.
History of the NRC
Prior to the advent of the NRC, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), established by Congress with the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, regulated nuclear energy. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which superseded its predecessor, legalized the development of commercial nuclear power for the first time in history. Among the provisions of the act was the assignment to the AEC of various functions relating to nuclear power production, including promotion of nuclear power and regulation of safety.
By the 1960s, the AEC had come under criticism for what many regarded as its failure to exercise sufficient rigor in a number of areas, including reactor safety, environmental protection, and standards for radiation protection. In 1974, Congress abolished the AEC with the Energy Reorganization Act, which in turn replaced it with the Energy Research and Development Administration (established as the Department of Energy in 1977) and the NRC.
Concerns over nuclear power. As the NRC began operations on January 19, 1975, public sentiment against nuclear power was on the rise. The dissemination to mainstream society of environmentalist and anti-industrial ideas prevalent in the 1960s was a factor, as was lack of public understanding regarding the means by which nuclear power was generated and handled. Real bases for concerns existed, particularly with the dramatic increase in the size and number of nuclear plants that occurred during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then, on March 28, 1979, an accident at the Three Mile Island plant outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania caused half the reactor's core to melt.
In 1979, the modern system of around-the-clock news reporting via cable channels still lay many years in the future, yet for a few days in the spring of 1979, America followed the Three Mile Island catastrophe through regular news reports. No one died at Three Mile Island, and thanks in part to the NRC's efforts, the federal government dealt with the situation effectively. In the aftermath of Three Mile Island, the NRC placed a much greater emphasis on training of plant operators, studying plant histories for signs of vulnerability, and guarding against the failure of equipment.
During the 1970s, the rise of international terrorism, as well as the proliferation of nations hostile to the United States, spurred NRC leadership to take measures toward the protection of nuclear materials from theft or sabotage. Yet, in the aftermath of the September 2001, terrorist attacks, many critics maintained that power plants were vulnerable, and that the NRC was not taking appropriate measures to address the problem.
Given the destruction wreaked by the planes that flew into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the September 11 attacks raised real fears concerning the vulnerability of nuclear plants. Questioned about the likelihood of damage from such an attack, an NRC spokesperson initially stated that these facilities could withstand an attack by a jet, but later admitted that "nuclear power plants were not designed to withstand such crashes."
█ FURTHER READING:
Walker, J. Samuel, and George T. Mazuzan. Containing the Atom: Nuclear Regulation in a Changing Environment, 1963–1971. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
——. Permissible Dose: A History of Radiation Protection in the Twentieth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Hirsch, Daniel. "The NRC: What, Me Worry?" Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 58, no. 1 (January/February 2002): 38–44.
Swanekamp, Robert. "Nuclear Renaissance Converges on Life Extension and Upgrades." ENR 247, no. 23 (December 3, 2001): PC54.
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. < http://www.nrc.gov/ > (April 15, 2003).
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Accident, Detection and Monitoring
DOE (United States Department of Energy)
EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
NNSA (United States National Nuclear Security Administration)
Nuclear Power Plants, Security