Tuesday, September 7, 2010

James T. Ramey:

Remembering A Nuclear Pioneer

Nearly a week ago, the news carried an obituary for one of the early commissioners of the Atomic Energy Commission, James T. Ramey. I have been surprised not to have seen more tributes to his contributions than I have so far. Perhaps I can partially make up for that now.

Jim Ramey (second from the right in the photograph above) served on the AEC for more than a decade, from 1962 to 1973, during a period when nuclear power enjoyed great popularity and there were many plans for new plants. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to know Ramey personally, as I was just beginning my career as he ended his term on the AEC, and was not yet hobnobbing with the giants of the industry. Therefore, I can't offer any personal anecdotes or reminiscences in this posting.

Nevertheless, he was one of the people I kept hearing about and hoping I would meet someday. I never did have that opportunity, but when I saw the news of his death, I had an opportunity to learn more about him. In addition to the reports in the obituaries, his passing spurred me to do a little of my own research on him, and what I've learned from all the sources combined is impressive.

I won't repeat the stories about his background covered in the link to this posting, which are impressive in their own right. However, I think the best tribute I've seen is contained in one of J. Samuel Walker's comprehensive books on the history of nuclear regulation in the United States. In particular, his book, Containing the Atom: Nuclear Regulation in a Changing Environment, 1963-1971, describes Jim Ramey as follows:

"Ramey's experience with atomic programs, along with his knowledge, energy, and commitment, made him an active and influential participant in a broad range of AEC activities. From the time he joined the Commission, he took greater sustained interest in regulatory affairs than any other commissioner. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when opposition to nuclear power was becoming increasingly visible, he did more than any of his colleagues to reach out to nuclear critics in an effort to address their concerns and find common ground. His attentiveness to regulatory issues did not mean that he had curbed his enthusiasm for rapid nuclear development; one industry official described him in 1966 as 'industry's best friend on the Commission.' Rather, it suggested that he recognized more clearly than his fellow commissioners the intimate and inseparable relationship between safety questions and industry growth. He realized that a major nuclear accident would be a severe setback to nuclear progress, but he also worried that excessive regulation or public apprehension would have a similar effect. He guarded against actions that would impose what he viewed as unnecessary burdens on the industry or raise public fears."

Having served as a senior staff member at the NRC many years later, including for 5 years as an assistant to Commissioner Kenneth C. Rogers, I can only say that Jim Ramey had great foresight. The same issues that he understood and tackled, apparently before others did, are issues that continue to be important today.


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