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The Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977 created one of the most interesting and diverse agencies in the Federal government. Activated on October 1, 1977, the twelfth cabinet-level department brought together for the first time within one agency two programmatic traditions that had long coexisted within the Federal establishment: 1) defense responsibilities that included the design, construction, and testing of nuclear weapons dating from the Manhattan Project effort to build the atomic bomb; and 2) a loosely knit amalgamation of energy-related programs scattered throughout the Federal government.

DOE’s Two Programmatic Traditions

In August 1939, on the eve of World War II, Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, informing him that recent research showed that a nuclear chain reaction might make possible the construction of “extremely powerful bombs.” In response, Roosevelt initiated a Federal research program, and, in 1942, the Army Corps of Engineers established the Manhattan Engineer District to design and produce the first atomic bomb.

The Manhattan Project that followed is the story of some of the most renowned scientists of the century combining with industry, the military, and tens of thousands of ordinary Americans working at sites across the country to translate original scientific discoveries into an entirely new kind of weapon. When the existence of this nationwide, secret project was revealed to the American people following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most were astounded to learn that such a far-flung, government-run, top-secret operation existed, with physical properties, payroll, and a labor force comparable to the automotive industry. At its peak, the project employed 130,000 workers and, by the end of the war, had spent $2.2 billion.

Following the war, Congress engaged in a contentious debate over civilian versus military control of the atom. Ultimately, the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 created the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which took over the Manhattan Project’s sprawling scientific and industrial complex.

During the early Cold War years, the AEC focused on designing and producing nuclear weapons and developing nuclear reactors for naval propulsion. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 ended exclusive government use of the atom and began the growth of the commercial nuclear power industry, giving the AEC authority to regulate the new industry.

In the 1950s, the AEC embarked on a series of projects designed to develop peaceful uses of atomic energy. From this effort emerged the International Atomic Energy Agency and other bilateral and multilateral agreements but also the nascent domestic nuclear power industry that the Eisenhower Administration hoped would be closely tied to the growth of nuclear power in Europe and other areas. Other peaceful uses programs included the distribution of radioisotopes from the X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge. These radioisotopes were used in the field of physics and chemistry, for industrial and agricultural applications, and in the biomedical field, radioisotopes were used in cancer therapy and as radioactive tracers for studying biological processes. Additionally, in 1954, in another show of nuclear power for peaceful purposes, the AEC initiated construction of the world’s first full-scale nuclear power plant at Shippingport, Pennsylvania. And by the mid-1960s, 75 nuclear power plants were on order.

Until the 1970s, the Federal government played a limited role in formulating national energy policy in an era of relatively cheap and abundant energy. The nation relied on the private sector to fulfill most of its energy needs. Historically, Americans expected private industry to establish production, distribution, marketing, and pricing policies. When free market conditions were absent, Federal regulations were established to control energy pricing.

No overall energy policy existed. Government officials generally thought in terms of particular fuels, technologies, and resources rather than “energy.”

The Energy Crisis and the Department of Energy

Two major developments fundamentally changed the role of the federal government in the energy field in the 1970s. First, the energy crisis of the 1970s hastened a series of government reorganizations as both the executive and legislative branches sought to better coordinate Federal energy policy and programs. Second, while the AEC’s activities in developing and commercializing nuclear energy had represented the Federal government’s largest and most significant energy project for decades to that point, questions about the need to separate nuclear licensing and regulation functions from the development and production of nuclear power and weapons hastened the abolition of the Atomic Energy Commission, and the establishment of the Energy Research and Development Administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in its place in 1974.

In 1977, the establishment of the Department of Energy brought most Federal energy activities under one umbrella and provided the framework for a comprehensive and balanced national energy plan. While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission maintained its regulatory duties in areas like reactor safety and radiation protection, the Department of Energy undertook responsibility for long-term, high-risk research and development of energy technology, Federal power marketing, energy conservation, the nuclear weapons program, energy regulatory programs, and a central energy data collection and analysis program.

Security and Prosperity through World-Class Science

Over the course of its history, the Department of Energy has shifted its emphasis and focus as the needs of the nation have changed. During the late 1970s, the Department emphasized energy development and regulation. In the 1980s, nuclear weapons research, development, and production took a priority. With the end of the Cold war, the Department focused on environmental clean-up of the nuclear weapons complex and nonproliferation and stewardship of the nuclear stockpile.

In the 2000s, the Department’s priority has been ensuring the nation’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental and nuclear challenges through science and technology solutions. The Department has sought to transform the nation’s energy system and secure leadership in clean energy technologies, pursue world-class science and engineering as a cornerstone of economic prosperity, and enhance nuclear security through defense, nonproliferation, and environmental efforts.

DOE History Timeline
Provides a chronology of DOE history and its predecessor agencies and includes links to reports, speeches, press releases, and other documentation.
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For additional information about the history of DOE and its predecessor agencies, please contact history@hq.doe.gov.