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This section describes the origins of EPA's responsibilities during radiological emergencies and provides an overview of how the Agency prepares for and responds to these incidents.
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History and Authorities
EPA has had radiological responsibilities since the Agency's creation in 1970. In 1975, these responsibilities were expanded when the General Services Administration first outlined the various federal agencies' responsibilities for radiological emergency response planning.
Since then, EPA's radiological emergency response role and responsibilities have expanded. A more detailed account of EPA's emergency response program appears on the History page.
Some of EPA's responsibilities and authority comes directly from laws passed by Congress. Others come from Executive Orders issued by the President. The radiological emergency response roles assigned to the Agency under various plans are based on EPA's existing authorities. Authorities: Defining EPA's Emergency Response Roles contains a more detailed discussion of the sources of EPA's emergency response responsibilities.
Members of EPA's Radiological Emergency Response Team (RERT), laboratories, and other specialists in EPA's Headquarters and ten regional offices continually conduct planning and training activities:
- developing plans for responding to radiological accidents or emergencies
- training and guiding planning activities for states and local emergency response organizations who are likely to be first on the scene
- testing response plans in exercises that also improve coordination and communication among emergency response organizations.
How We Prepare and How We Respond
Two major tools used by EPA's Radiological Emergency Response Team (RERT) to prepare for radiation incidents are developing emergency response plans and testing them through emergency response exercises. How We Prepare provides more detailed information about how EPA prepares for radiological emergencies.
EPA's role during a radiation emergency is detailed in emergency response plans and depends on the location and nature of the incident. For example, federal agencies that own or operate nuclear facilities respond to emergencies at their facilities. During such incidents, EPA's role may be limited to off-site monitoring. During other incidents, such as accidents on foreign soil that may affect the U.S., EPA's role will be to coordinate all responding Agencies.
Sometimes emergencies involve both hazardous chemicals and radioactive materials. EPA's emergency response organizations that focus on hazardous chemical releases coordinate carefully with RERT because of frequently overlapping roles assigned by environmental laws. How We Respond provides more detailed information about the way EPA responds to radiological emergencies and descriptions of past responses.
What types of radiation emergencies can occur?
Radiation emergencies include lost radiation sources, nuclear power plant accidents, transportation accidents, terrorist acts, and accidents involving satellites containing radioactive materials.
Lost (Orphan) Radiation Sources and Devices
Sources, often called "sealed sources," are usually small metal containers in which a small amount of a radioactive material is sealed. They are frequently used in such devices as industrial gauges (e.g., moisture and density gauges) or medical equipment. When they fall out of regulatory control, sealed sources are referred to as "orphan sources."
If gauges or other devices containing radioactive sources are disposed of improperly the (now) orphan sources may end up in the possession of someone who is neither trained nor licensed to handle them. If a device containing a radioactive source is sent for recycling as scrap metal, the orphan source itself may end up being included with the scrap. Orphan sources are one of the most frequently reported radioactive contaminants in shipments received by scrap metal facilities.
If a steel mill melts a source, it contaminates the entire batch of metal, the processing equipment, and the facility. More importantly, it can result in the exposure of workers to radiation.
There have also been incidents in which unsuspecting people find orphan radioactive sources, and not knowing what they are, keep them or even open them and suffer serious exposures. The potential consequences of such an event is illustrated by an incident in Goiânia in which a source from an abandoned clinic was stolen and resulted in the exposure of many and the deaths of several individuals. (See: Goiânia accident )
EPA cooperates with the Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors to retrieve unwanted and orphan sources. The Agency is also working to identify alternative technologies that can reduce the use of radioactive sources.
Nuclear Power Plant Accidents
A meltdown or explosion at a nuclear facility could release a large amount of radioactive material. People at the facility would probably be contaminated with radioactive material and possibly be injured if there was an explosion. Those people who received a large dose might develop acute radiation syndrome . People in the surrounding area could be exposed or contaminated. EPA responded to nuclear power plant accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
Because strict packaging requirements are used in the shipment of radioactive materials, accidental spills or releases of these substances seldom occur. (An example of radioactive material packaging and testing can be seen in the U.S. Department of Energy's Transuranic Waste Transportation Fact Sheet (PDF) (4 pp, 1.53MB About PDF) However, first responders do train for these accidents.
The explosion of a radiation dispersion device (RDD or "dirty bomb") could cause serious physical injury from the blast itself, but it is unlikely that it would contain enough radiation to harm a large number of people. The chief danger would be from lower levels of exposure that could cause cancer later in life.
The detonation of an improvised nuclear device could result in significant property damage. People would be killed or injured from the blast and might be contaminated by radioactive material. Many people could have symptoms of acute radiation syndrome. After a nuclear explosion, radioactive fallout would extend over a large region far from the point of impact, potentially increasing people’s risk of developing cancer over time.
Accidents Involving Satellites Containing Radioactive Material
Some satellites use radioactive materials as a power source during long space flights. During the launch or re-entry of satellites there is the potential for an accident that would disperse radioactive materials. The amount of radioactive materials on board is small and sealed in metal containers.