Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Atomic Energy Commission, United States

Government agency established in 1946 to supervise the development and control of nuclear energy in the United States. The Atomic Energy Commission (USAEC) was formally created by the 1946 Atomic Energy Act during a time in which a debate was raging over whether the commission should be run by civilian or military authorities. As it turned out, the USAEC became a five-person body, appointed by the president, that worked in tandem with a separate military board, which dealt strictly with atomic energy as it related to military purposes.

During 1946–1952, a civilian advisory board to the USAEC was chaired by Robert Oppenheimer, lead scientist on the Manhattan Project and an opponent of the hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer's opposition to the development of more powerful nuclear weapons led to his suspension as a consultant to the commission in 1953. In 1954, amid a storm of controversy, Oppenheimer was refused a renewal of his government security clearance after fellow atomic scientist Edward Teller testified against him at USAEC hearings.

The USAEC's purview was largely that of nuclear weapons design, deployment, and control. However, the commission also supervised the extraction and development of fissionable materials, the development of nuclear reactors, and the use of nuclear energy in such applications as medicine and the hard sciences, such as chemistry, biology, and certain engineering fields. Following the controversy that swirled around the USAEC in the early 1950s, the agency performed diligently—and quietly—as it oversaw myriad projects involving nuclear energy.

The USAEC was organized out of existence in 1974 when it was absorbed into the Energy Research and Development Administration. Since then, further bureaucratic changes resulted in the original USAEC's work being handled by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy.

Paul G. Pierpaoli Jr.


Further Reading
Neuse, Steven M. David Lilienthal: The Journey of an American Liberal. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996.; Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.; Teller, Edward, and Judith Shoolery. Memoirs: A Twentieth Century Journey in Science and Politics. New York: Perseus, 2001.
 

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