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 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers established the Manhattan Engineer District to design and produce the first atomic bomb. Following the war, Congress engaged in a contentious debate over civilian versus military control of the atom. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 settled the debate by creating the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which took over the Manhattan Project’s sprawling scientific and industrial complex.
During the early Cold War years, 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.
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 U.S. Department of Energy
What brought these two traditions together in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) were two factors. First, AEC activities in developing and commercializing nuclear energy represented the federal government’s largest and most significant energy project into the early 1970s. Second, the energy crisis of the mid-1970s hastened a series of government reorganizations as both the executive and legislative branches sought to better coordinate federal energy policy and programs.
The establishment of DOE brought most federal energy activities under one umbrella and provided the framework for a comprehensive and balanced national energy plan. DOE 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 its 40-year history, DOE has shifted its emphasis and focus as the needs of the nation have changed. During the late 1970s, DOE emphasized energy development and regulation. In the 1980s, nuclear weapons research, development, and production took a priority. With the end of the Cold war, DOE focused on environmental clean up of the nuclear weapons complex, as well as the nonproliferation and stewardship of the nuclear stockpile.
In the 2000s, DOE focused on ensuring the nation’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental, and nuclear challenges through science and technology solutions. DOE 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.