United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission - Protecting People and the Environment

A Short History of Nuclear Regulation, 1946–2009 (NUREG/BR-0175, Revision 2)

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Publication Information

Date Published: September 2010

Prepared by:
J. Samuel Walker and Thomas R. Wellock

History Staff
Office of the Secretary
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Washington, DC 20555-0001


"History," automobile maker Henry Ford once said, "is more or less…bunk." Philosopher George Santayana was more charitable in his assessment of this discipline when he declared that "those who fail to study the past are condemned to repeat it." In a sense, both Ford and Santayana were right. Much of the past has little meaning or importance for the present and deservedly remains forgotten in the dustbins of history. However, other parts of the past need to be remembered and studied in order for us to make sense from the present. Today's events are a direct outgrowth of yesterday's events, and understanding the history of any given problem is essential to approaching it knowledgeably. It is the task of the historian to gather evidence, to separate what is important from what is not, and to explain key events and decisions of the past.

This short history of nuclear regulation provides a brief overview of the most significant events in the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's past. Space limitations prevent discussion of all the important occurrences, and even the subjects that are included cannot be covered in full detail. The first chapter of this account is taken from George T. Mazuzan and J. Samuel Walker, Controlling the Atom: The Beginnings of Nuclear Regulation, 1946–1962 (University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1984). The second chapter is largely based on J. Samuel Walker, Containing the Atom: Nuclear Regulation in a Changing Environment, 1963–1971 (University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1992). The third chapter is adopted in significant part from J. Samuel Walker, Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective (University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2004). The findings and conclusions on events that occurred after 1979 should be regarded as preliminary and tentative; they are not based on extensive research in primary sources. However, we hope that this overview will help explain how the past has shaped the present and will illuminate the considerations that have influenced regulatory decisions and procedures over the years. We also hope that this outline will suggest that history should be viewed as something more valuable than mere "bunk."

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