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After the end of World War II, Congress established the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to foster and control the peacetime development of atomic science and technology, declaring that atomic energy should be employed not only in the Nation's defense, but also to promote world peace, improve the public welfare, and strengthen free competition in private enterprise. President Harry S. Truman confirmed the civilian control of atomic energy by signing the Atomic Energy Act on August 1, 1946.
On January 1, 1947, the AEC took over from the Manhattan Engineer District (Manhattan Project) the research and production facilities built during World War II to develop the atomic bomb. Because of the need for great security, all production facilities and nuclear reactors would be government-owned, while all technical information and research results would be under Commission control. The Commission recognized the need to maintain the vitality of the national labs and to encourage the university research teams and industry groups whose research on the peaceful uses of atomic energy would provide the technology of the future.
In his Atoms-for-Peace proposal of December 8, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower had proposed that the nuclear powers contribute portions of their stockpiles of normal uranium and fissionable materials to an international atomic energy agency, which would then allocate these materials toward peaceful uses. As a result the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was formally inaugurated in Vienna, Austria on October 1, 1957.
On August 26, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson brought to an end an eighteen-year mandatory government monopoly of special nuclear materials by signing into law the "Private Ownership of Special Nuclear Materials Act', permitting private entities to assume title to special nuclear materials. By the end of 1974 two hundred and thirty-three nuclear central-station generating units, with a capacity of 232,000 megawatts, were either in operation, under construction, or on order in the United States.
Advance in medical diagnostic techniques based on the use of radioisotopes and radiation machines added to the skills of the medical profession, while immunological research provided the knowledge needed for successful transplants. Other medical breakthroughs included the treatment of Parkinson's Disease, the preservation of cells for transfusion, and the introduction of small accelerators to produce short-lived radioisotopes of immediate use in patients.
During the 1960's the Commission produced a series of radioisotope-powered and reactor-powered electrical-generating units for space applications. In addition, significant progress was made in developing cardiac pacemakers for human use and ultimately artificial hearts using radioisotopic-power sources.
The legacy of the Manhattan Project includes its impact on history, science, medicine, space exploration, electricity, and much more. The facilities built during the war have grown into National Laboratories that continue to contribute to science research, with key breakthroughs in various science fields, including physics, chemistry, biology, medicine and medical imaging, renewable energy, and improved transportation.
The Manhattan Project is the predecessor of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), and the Department of Energy (DOE), whose research results permeate many aspects of our lives. DOE continues to build and expand upon the research that was conducted under the auspices of the Manhattan Project.
- Edited excerpts from A History of the Atomic Energy Commission
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