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Radiation Emergencies
Emergency Response:

EPA Radiological Response, Role and Capabilities

Ready to Respond

We use radioactive materials for medical diagnosis and treatments, defense activities, electric power generation, and industrial processes. There are some risks, however, when using radioactive materials for these beneficial activities. Careful planning and design help minimize these risks, but even the best planning and design is not enough to prevent accidents completely. We must be prepared. The accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 made this need clear.

The accident at Three Mile Island left many Americans wondering, "Who protects the public in a nuclear emergency?" President Carter answered by charting a plan for federal agencies to work with state and local governments in responding to peacetime radiological emergencies. Approved in 1985 and revised in 1996, the Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan (FRERP) assigned roles to several federal agencies that contribute to an emergency response, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2004 the FRERP was superseded by the National Response Plan (NRP) and the Nuclear/Radiological Incident Annex (NRIA) to it. The NRP was revised in 2006. In 2008, it was superseded by the National Response Framework (NRF), which included the NRIA.

For a radiological incident, the NRF/NRIA (http://www.fema.gov/national-response-framework) assigns a Federal Coordinating Agency (Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or EPA) based on jurisdiction over the radioactive material involved. For terrorist events involving radioactive material release, the Department of Homeland Security is assigned the coordinating agency role. The coordinating agencies are those Federal agencies that own, have custody of, authorize, regulate, or are otherwise assigned responsibility for the nuclear/radioactive material, facility, or activity involved in the incident. These Federal agencies have nuclear/radiological authorities, technical expertise, and/or assets for responding to the unique characteristics of nuclear/radiological incidents that are not otherwise described in the NRF.”

EPA's three major responsibilities in the NRF/NRIA flow from the Agency's overall mission: to protect human health and the environment. EPA establishes guidelines for protecting the public from radiation exposure, such as when to evacuate or relocate citizens. EPA also monitors and assesses radioactivity in the environment from an accident to define the extent of exposure from that accident. In addition, as the Coordinating Agency, EPA coordinates the federal response to an emergency if a nuclear accident occurs in a foreign country or if a domestic emergency involves unregulated material.

EPA maintains two radiological incident response organizations. They are the National Analytical Radiation Environmental Laboratory (NAREL), located in Montgomery, Alabama, and the National Center for Radiation Field Operations (NCRFO) in Las Vegas, Nevada. In an emergency, these organizations provide field monitoring and radioanalytical services at the lab or at the scene of the accident.

Experienced staff from these facilities, EPA Headquarters and EPA's 10 Regional offices make up the Radiological Emergency Response Team (RERT). The team is on standby alert at all times and , if needed, can reach any site in the United States within 24 hours, using mobile emergency response vehicles transported by ground, by commercial aircraft or by Air Force cargo planes. As part of its training, the Team regularly participates in full-field exercises for simulated accidents.

EPA has mobile radioanalytic laboratories, communications and other support vehicles that can be deployed in various combinations, depending on the type and magnitude of response required. These support vehicles are equipped to provide command and control activities, sample preparation, sample storage, and supply and equipment dispatch. Using mobile equipment, staff provides radioanalytical services, including gamma spectroscopy, alpha/beta analyses, and liquid scintillation analyses. Local VHF and long-distance communication capabilities help them keep in touch with response personnel from other agencies.


NAREL also operates RadNet. The system consists of sampling stations positioned across the country that regularly collect air monitoring data and air particulate samples.  Some stations collect drinking water and/or precipitation samples for radioactivity analyses. The system can also track airborne radioactivity from any accidental release. If necessary, the RadNet sampling frequency can be increased to meet the needs of a radiological emergency response. Since Chernobyl, EPA has participated in the World Health Organization's efforts to develop a global environmental monitoring program.

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