Prior to 1975 the Atomic Energy Commission was in charge of matters regarding radionuclides. The AEC was dissolved, because it was perceived as unduly favoring the industry it was charged with regulating. The NRC was formed as an independent commission to oversee nuclear energy matters, oversight of nuclear medicine, and nuclear safety and security.
The U.S. AEC became the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) in 1975, responsible for development and oversight of nuclear weapons. Research and promotion of civil uses of radioactive materials, such as for nuclear non-destructive testing, nuclear medicine, and nuclear power, was split into the Office of Nuclear Energy, Science & Technology within ERDA by the same act. In 1977, ERDA became the United States Department of Energy (DOE). In 2000, the National Nuclear Security Administration was created as a subcomponent of DOE, responsible for nuclear weapons.
Twelve years into NRC operations, a 1987 Congressional report entitled "NRC Coziness with Industry" concluded, that the NRC "has not maintained an arms length regulatory posture with the commercial nuclear power industry ... [and] has, in some critical areas, abdicated its role as a regulator altogether". To cite three examples:
A 1986 Congressional report found that NRC staff had provided valuable technical assistance to the utility seeking an operating license for the controversial Seabrook plant. In the late 1980s, the NRC 'created a policy' of non-enforcement by asserting its discretion not to enforce license conditions; between September 1989 and 1994, the 'NRC has either waived or chosen not to enforce regulations at nuclear power reactors over 340 times'. Finally, critics charge that the NRC has ceded important aspects of regulatory authority to the industry's own Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), an organization formed by utilities in response to the Three Mile Island Accident.
The origins and development of NRC regulatory processes and policies are explained in five volumes of history published by the University of California Press. These are:
- Controlling the Atom: The Beginnings of Nuclear Regulation 1946–1962 (1984).
- Containing the Atom: Nuclear Regulation in a Changing Environment, 1963–1971 (1992).
- Permissible Dose: A History of Radiation Protection in the Twentieth Century (2000)
- Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective (2004)
- The Road to Yucca Mountain: The Development of Radioactive Waste Policy in the United States (2009).
The NRC has produced a booklet, A Short History of Nuclear Regulation 1946–2009, which outlines key issues in NRC history. Thomas Wellock, a former academic, is the NRC historian. Before joining the NRC, Wellock wrote Critical Masses: Opposition to Nuclear Power in California, 1958–1978.