Who's in Charge?

Initially, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), was formed in 1946, to oversee military control of atomic technology. Its mission was redefined in 1954 with an impossible conflict:

  • continuing development of weapons and nuclear powered naval vessels;
  • encouraging rapid construction of commercial nuclear reactors (to maintain U.S. dominance in nuclear technology, over British and Russian reactor programs at that time);
  • regulating the new industry and protecting public health.

Secrecy, speed, and safety rarely mix. Agencies charged with public protection soon came under the control of Cold War interests, to conceal rather than publicize the health risks. Dr. Bertell says, "Health effects of radiation could be classified for national security to prevent rebellion."*

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission 

As programs expanded rapidly over the next 20 years, public anger toward the AEC grew over rising health problems, shoddy safety and construction oversight, and coverups of scientific findings. In 1975, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) replaced the AEC as the licensing and regulating agency for commercial reactors.

The Department of Energy

In 1977, the Department of Energy (DOE) was created to oversee nuclear energy development and marketing, as well as nuclear weapons. Within a few years, weapons were the main priority. From the beginning, ‘national security’ concerns allowed the DOE to regulate and police themselves and their many sub-contractors, a policy unheard of in any other industry, and one that we will pay for with our health and tax dollars for future generations to come.

With the scaling back of the Cold War mentality and the growing perception of unimaginable levels of contamination at nuclear sites world-wide, the modern day DOE's Office of Environmental Management (EM) is responsible for the most extensive and expensive environmental cleanup program in the 

According to Robert Alvarez, former senior policy advisor to Dept. of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson:
  "Major elements of Energy’s complex are closing down, leaving a huge unfunded and dangerous mess. After more than half a century of making nuclear weapons, Energy possesses one of the world’s largest inventories of dangerous nuclear materials and it has created several of the most contaminated areas in the Western Hemisphere….
 "The high priority assigned to nuclear weapons over the decades, combined with secrecy and experimental latitude involving ultra-hazardous technologies, encouraged a cost-be-damned attitude that remains deeply imbedded in today’s Energy Department.
 "At the same time, inadequate investments were made to upgrade facilities, infrastructure, waste management, and environmental protection. The failure to invest early in preventative measures has in recent years created a very large environmental liability—estimated by the Office of Environmental Management at $265 billion.
 "Tens of tons of Plutonium 239 and highly enriched uranium remain in unsafe or questionable storage containers around the country. Unresolved problems abound—unstable nuclear solutions, residues, metals, and powders in deteriorating containers and tanks; nuclear weapons parts in ill-suited containers; a wide variety of fire and explosion risks; degraded equipment and safety systems; and deteriorating storage facilities—some dating back to World War II. Skilled personnel who can safely fix these problems are disappearing." *

nation, and, to date, in the world. DOE EM decisions regarding cleanup activities have the potential to affect the health of the public, the environment, and future resource use by the public for generations to come at sites all over the United States. And like any agency or business, there is a constant struggle between acheiving optimal results and working with finite and limited budgets. It is very important for the public to step up and get involved in the DOE decision making process, and numerous opportunities exist to do so.

Conversely, technology developed for ‘maintaining’ aging nuclear weapons also serves to aid new development, and the DOE laboratories are used for all top secret science, from suitcase bombs to human cloning. This too, requires vigilant public oversight.

The DOE, has, in addition to over 100,000 employees:
  • real estate holdings of more than 2.4 million acres;

  • more than 20,700 specialized facilities and buildings, including 1,600 laboratories, 89 nuclear reactors, 208 particle accelerators and 665 production and manufacturing facilities;

  • about 700,000 metric tons of dangerous nuclear materials, including about ½ of all mined uranium in the world;

  • a budget of $17.4 billion in fiscal 2000, 2/3rds of which     goes to maintain nuclear weapons and attempt to deal with the "Balloon Mortgage of the Nuclear Age": health, environmental, and safety legacies of over 50 years of barely regulated bomb production. In 2001, the cleanup budget has been cut substantially.

Alvarez confirms that DOE policy prevents any real oversight or accountability, both internally and of retained private contractors. Cover-ups are rewarded and whistleblowers demoted, fired or prosecuted. Congressional mandates to issue sweeping nuclear safety regulations by October 1999 have not yet born fruit.


*Bertell, R., Notarized statement about Three Mile Island Coverup, 7/10/1998.

**Alvarez R., "Energy In Decay", Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, May/June 2000, Vol. 56, No. 3, pp 24-35.