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Radiation Emergencies
Emergency Response:

History of Radiological Emergency Response at EPA

EPA has been involved in radiological emergency preparedness and response activities, both nationally and internationally, since the mid 1970s. Its responsibilities and capabilities have expanded along with the federal government's overall emergency response infrastructure.

The four sections that follow describe the federal actions that formed EPA's Radiological Emergency Response Program during the four decades of EPA's involvement.

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New Roles and Responsibilities

EPA's Program Begins

EPA has had radiological responsibilities since the Agency's creation in 1970. In 1975, EPA's emergency response role was expanded when the General Services Administration outlined the radiological emergency response planning responsibilities of various federal agencies, including EPA. EPA initially had three major responsibilities:

Federal Emergency Management Agency Established

Reacting to significant problems in the response of federal agencies to the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant accident, President Carter established the Federal Emergency Management Agency by Executive Order in July of 1979. FEMA assumed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's role of coordinating emergency planning and preparedness activities outside the boundaries of NRC facilities. The NRC retained that role within the boundaries of facilities for which they are responsible.

EPA's Radiological Emergency Response Activities

EPA supported the federal response to the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979 in Pennsylvania. Radiological emergency response staff measured and monitored radiation levels in the surrounding environment to make sure public health and the environment were protected. In addition, the Agency assumed the responsibility for performing long-term environmental monitoring and assessment activities in the area. EPA established a small off-site field office and continued conducting field measurements and environmental monitoring activities for nine years, until 1988, when the State of Pennsylvania assumed the role.

During the '70s, the Office of Radiation and Indoor Air's National Radiation Laboratories in Montgomery, Alabama and Las Vegas, Nevada began to improve their ability to respond to radiological emergencies, and developed mobile laboratories that could be transported to the scene of an accident.

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New Roles and Responsibilities 

FEMA issues emergency planning regulations

In September of 1980, President Carter issued an Executive Order directing FEMA to develop a "national contingency plan" that coordinated the federal agencies’ responsibilities, actions, and authorities for responding to a nuclear emergency.

In March 1982, FEMA issued new regulations that initiated mechanisms for coordinated planning among federal agencies and among federal, state, and local emergency response organizations:

Federal Radiological Monitoring and Assistance Center Developed

In the early 1980s EPA, DOE, NRC and other federal agencies developed the Federal Radiological Monitoring and Assessment Center (FRMAC) to implement the monitoring and assistance plan developed by DOE. Agencies use the FRMAC to coordinate their emergency monitoring and assessment activities.

DOE maintains the procedures and equipment for the FRMAC. They also manage the Center in the early phase of a radiological emergency. EPA assumes control of the FRMAC for the intermediate and late phases of an emergency.

Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan Published

In 1985, the Federal Radiological Emergency Coordinating Committee completed (and FEMA published) the Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan (FRERP). This plan helped federal agencies coordinate their response to peace-time radiological emergencies and has since been replaced by the National Response Framework.

In January of 1987, EPA published its own Radiological Emergency Response Plan, which described how EPA would provide support to state and local officials during radiological/nuclear emergencies.

After the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine in April of 1986, the Federal Radiological Preparedness Coordinating Committee saw the need to revise their plan for coordinating federal response activities to include responses to international accidents that may affect the United States. In addition, they included responses to smaller emergencies such as lost radiation sources or lost radioactive material. Based on its authorities and leadership during the response, EPA was designated as the Lead Federal Agency (LFA) for both international and lost source incidents.

EPA's Radiological Emergency Activities

From 1980 to 1990, EPA continued to work with states to plan for emergency response. When the Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan was published in 1985, EPA became an active member of the Federal Response Preparedness Coordination Committee and had significant input into federal planning and preparedness activities.

During this time period, EPA also participated in the first major federal radiological exercises; Full-Field Exercises 1 and 2. These exercises examined the ability of federal agencies to support a state response to simulated nuclear power plant accidents.

In 1986, EPA took the lead in assessing the impact of the Chernobyl accident in the U.S. for the federal government. As a result of this leadership, EPA was designated the Lead Federal Agency (LFA) for future international radiological accidents that could have an impact on the United States.

In addition, EPA began to use its authority under CERCLA to respond to lost and/or abandoned radiation materials that presented an imminent danger to public health and safety.

The first response of this type was conducted in New York City at the abandoned Radium Chemical Company facility in 1989. Literally thousands of curies of radium had been abandoned at the facility by the owner, who could not afford to clean it up. The facility was located in a light industrial area near several residential neighborhoods. Vandals had broken into the facility several times before the public health and safety hazards were fully understood. EPA Region 2 staff, with the support of Agency radiological emergency response personnel, removed all the hazardous and radioactive material and cleaned up the facility.

During the 1980s, EPA also helped develop guidance for protecting the public from harmful exposure to radiation from nuclear-powered satellites re-entering the earth's atmosphere and crashing. Cosmos 954, a Russian satellite containing radioactive material crashed in a remote part of Canada leaving a trail of debris and radioactive contamination along its path. Although the crash occurred in a sparsely populated area, concerns about accidents with satellites containing radioactive material prompted NASA to activate emergency response personnel and equipment during most satellite launches involving radioactive material.

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New Roles and Responsibilities

In response to the Tokyo subway train gas attack in Japan in March of 1995 and the Oklahoma City bombing in the United States, the federal government increased its efforts to combat and prepare against terrorism.

In June of 1995, President Clinton issued a Presidential Decision Directive defining the U.S. response to the use of weapons of mass destruction by terrorists. EPA's role was defined as supporting the FBI in managing the crisis and FEMA in managing the consequences. Expected EPA support included threat assessment, agent identification, hazard detection and mitigation, environmental monitoring, and long-term site restoration.

In 1998, President Clinton issued three more directives that increased EPA's emergency preparedness and response duties:

In 1999, EPA decided to revise its Radiological Emergency Response Plan to reflect the accumulated changes in the federal version of the plan and revisions to the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan and the Federal Response Plan. (The Federal Response Plan has since be replaced by the National Response Plan.) The EPA Administrator approved the revised plan in January 2000.

EPA Improves Interagency and International Radiological Response Coordination

Throughout the 1990s and to the present, EPA has worked with other EPA offices, other federal agencies, states, and international organizations to prepare for and respond to radiological accidents:

EPA's Radiological Emergency Activities

In addition to these training exercises, EPA continued to respond to a variety of radiological incidents which threatened the health and well being of the people and environment of the United States.

In 1994, the RERT contributed to the clean up of two highly contaminated sites, the Bear Lake site in Michigan and the Ramp Industries site in Colorado. Both sites were contaminated severely and required significant remediation.

In 1996, the RERT participated with other Federal agencies in preparation for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. (In addition to deploying at the Summer games, EPA conducted an exercise to test its ability to respond to a terrorist use of a Radiation Dispersal Device in the months leading up to the games.)

The RERT was also called upon to help remediate sites in 1997, when it contributed to the cleanup at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York State, and at the Royal Green Scrap Metal Recycling Facility in Pennsylvania.

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2000 to Present

New Roles and Responsibilities

September 11th and the National Response Plan

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, led to a fundamental restructuring of the emergency response structure of the United States. With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, many existing radiological response plans were rewritten to include this new department and an increased focus on interagency cooperation. This effort culminated in the development of the National Response Plan, which set out the framework for interagency cooperation for any national emergency.

EPA and the RERT are included in the NRP’s Nuclear/Radiological Incident Annex, which details how each department and agency of the federal government will respond to a variety of radiological incidents, from a nuclear power plant accident to a terrorist attack.

EPA's Radiological Emergency Activities

EPA has continued to respond to a variety of radiological incidents in the early years of this century. In 2000, fires at the Hanford Facility in Washington and the Cerro Grande fires in New Mexico threatened to disperse radioactive materials into the surrounding areas. The RERT worked with EPA’s On Scene Coordinators, DOE, and State and local governments to monitor these fires to ensure that no harmful material was released.

In 2002, the RERT provided radiation monitoring services at the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah, helping to ensure the safety of the millions of athletes, spectators and dignitaries in attendance. Also in 2002, the RERT participated in TOP-OFF 2, a large, multi-agency exercise that simultaneously simulated a radiation dispersal devise explosion in downtown Seattle, Washington, and a biological terrorism event in Chicago, IL.

In 2004, the Office of Radiation and Indoor Air conducted a large scale, multi-state exercise called Ruby Slippers. This exercise tested the RERT, the new NRP and also the transition to the Incident Command System protocol being adopted as part of HSPD-5 and the National Incident Management System.

With the heightened concerns over terrorism, the RERT provided radiation monitoring services at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in 2004 and the Presidential Inauguration in 2005.

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