Delegation of Power to Agencies

At about 4:00 a.m. on March 28, 1979, a failure in the main feedwater pumps of Unit 2 of the Three Mile Island nuclear power station in Pennsylvania precipitated the most notorious accident involving nuclear power in the United States. The failure of the feedwater pumps prevented steam generators from removing excess heat, resulting in a pressure increase in the nuclear portion of the plant. A relief valve opened to release the excess pressure, but failed to close when the pressure normalized, permitting coolant to stream through the valve and allow the nuclear reactor to overheat. This then combined with failures in instruments, which provided incorrect information to operators of the plant. The result was that the operators responded with actions that exacerbated the condition by reducing coolant flow even further. The result was a severe nuclear-core meltdown as the nuclear fuel reached temperatures that ruptured its protective cladding.

Newspaper headlines screamed "race with nuclear disaster,"1 and "nuke leak goes out of control,"2 while newspaper photo captions of the area wondered "Three Mile Island ... Beauty or Holocaust?"3 Much of the reaction was overly sensationalist, but the accident had a profound effect on the regulation of nuclear power generation in the United States in the decades that followed. This effect was exacerbated by the accident at Chernobyl in the USSR on April 26, 1986, when a violent explosion at Unit 4 of that nuclear power station destroyed its reactor. That accident produced a plume of radioactive dust that settled over much of Europe and Asia and whose effects were detected in the Americas. To this day, researchers continue to uncover biological and environmental anomalies attributed to radioactive fallout from that accident.

There have been no accidents involving nanotechnology that have had as vivid an impact on public perceptions as these nuclear accidents have had. The public demand for regulation of nanotechnology has accordingly not been nearly as fervent as the demands that were made for regulation of nuclear industries. But prompted by concerns about potential biological impacts on human beings and about environmental impacts, there have still been calls from many quarters for limits to be circumscribed on the use of nanotechnology in a more systematic way. This part of the book is not intended to discuss what those limits should be; such policy considerations are more effectively analyzed in the companion books in the Perspectives in Nanotechnology series about the environment by Jo Anne Statkin and about ethical considerations by Deb Bennett-Woods. Instead, this part focuses on the legal mechanisms by which regulations are implemented and on those regulations that are already in force to limit the use of nanotechnology.

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