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Office of Environmental Management Deputy Assistant Secretary Ken Picha holds an Atomic Energy Commission sign he found in the Forrestal Building. | Photo courtesy of Ken Picha

Office of Environmental Management Deputy Assistant Secretary Ken Picha holds an Atomic Energy Commission sign he found in the Forrestal Building. | Photo courtesy of Ken Picha

You can find history everywhere in the Energy Department, and Ken Picha found a heavy piece of it.

Picha, a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Environmental Management, discovered a sign for the Atomic Energy Commission — a predecessor to the Department — after an early morning workout at the Forrestal Building gym. He was walking around trying to cool down when he walked past the locker room to the cafeteria service corridor and made the discovery. So he rolled the estimated 50-pound sign up to his fifth-floor office.

This year is our 35th anniversary, but the AEC holds historic and personal significance to Picha for other reasons. His father worked for the Energy Research and Development Administration, another Energy Department forerunner.

Both the AEC and ERDA helped shape the present-day Department. Following World War II, Congress formed AEC to enable the peacetime development of atomic science and technology. President Harry S. Truman signed the Atomic Energy Act, transferring control of atomic energy from military to civilian hands.

Congress empowered the commission to carry out its mission. All production facilities and nuclear reactors would be government-owned, while all technical information and research results to be under the commission’s control. Under the commission’s oversight, the National Laboratory System was established, and Argonne National Laboratory was one of the first labs authorized under this legislation as a contractor-operated facility dedicated to fulfilling the commission’s mission.

By 1947, the commission took over the atomic energy complex from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Manhattan District, and a Chicago office was set up as one of AEC’s first field offices. Through the early 1970s, the Chicago Operations Office supported research, development and demonstration programs leading to the commercial development of nuclear power, naval nuclear propulsion and other nuclear technology applications. The commission also conducted studies on the health and safety hazards of radioactive materials.

In 1975, following the “Energy Crisis,” AEC was replaced by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which was charged with regulating the civilian uses of atomic energy (mainly commercial nuclear power plants), and the ERDA, whose duties included the control of the nuclear weapons complex.

ERDA focused the federal government’s energy research development activities into one unified agency. The Chicago Operations Office became part of the new ERDA, incorporating AEC’s research and development functions. The office’s responsibilities grew with new energy demonstration projects such as solar energy. 

In 1977, ERDA’s duties were transferred to the newly created Energy Department, which provided the framework for a comprehensive and balanced national energy plan by coordinating and administering the energy functions of the federal government.

Today, the Department contributes to the future of the nation by ensuring our energy security, maintaining the safety and reliability of our nuclear stockpile, cleaning up the environment from the legacy of the Cold War, and developing innovations in science and technology.

Meanwhile, Picha is still thinking about what he will do with the AEC sign, and he would like it to be in a place where more people can see it. By far, he says, it is the coolest thing he has ever found at the Department.