Abstract

In January 1972, the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) opened rulemaking hearings to establish minimum performance criteria for the emergency core cooling system (ECCS), a critical cooling system in nuclear power plants that prevents reactor fuel damage. The contentious ECCS hearings proved so damaging to the AEC’s credibility that the agency was broken up to create the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an independent regulator of power plant safety. Scholars have explained the demise of the AEC as an example of a subgovernment or “iron triangle” brought down by external political forces of Congressional calculation and antinuclear opposition. But technical factors were very important to the AEC’s fate. The ECCS hearings were an internal engineer dispute over approaches to reactor safety, and revelations of safety concerns by the agency’s own experts undermined its reputation. The ECCS controversy suggests that an internal crisis of expert knowledge can bring down seemingly invulnerable subgovernments.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1097-3729
Print ISSN
0040-165X
Pages
pp. 846-884
Launched on MUSE
2012-11-20
Open Access
No
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