Nuclear Regulation:

Action Needed to Control Radioactive Contamination at Sewage Treatment Plants

RCED-94-133: Published: May 18, 1994. Publicly Released: Jun 21, 1994.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) efforts to regulate and reduce radioactive contamination of sewage sludge, focusing on: (1) the status of cleanup efforts at the Southerly Sewage Treatment Plant; (2) the amount of radioactive sewage contamination at sewage treatment facilities nationwide; and (3) NRC efforts to monitor radioactive sewage discharges and treatment plant workers' radiation exposure.

GAO found that: (1) NRC and Southerly plant officials do not believe that the plant poses any health or safety risks to treatment plant workers or the general public; (2) the total cleanup costs for the Southerly plant could exceed $3 billion if NRC and Ohio do not approve on-site disposal of contaminated soil; (3) some treatment plants' sludge and ash disposal methods could expose plant workers and the general public to elevated levels of radiation; (4) NRC and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have not conducted required testing and inspections to determine the extent of radioactive contamination at sewage treatment facilities; (5) treatment plants will face significant future cleanup costs if radioactive sludge and ash disposal methods and monitoring are not improved; (6) although NRC has revised its regulation to reduce the concentration of radiation that licensees can discharge to treatment plants, it needs to further study why radioactive materials concentrate during the waste treatment process and the impact of new regulations on concentration levels; (7) NRC and EPA have not issued sufficient guidelines so that waste treatment operators can regulate and reduce radioactive discharges; (8) the health risks of exposure to contaminated sludge, ash, and related by-products are not known because NRC and EPA do not know how much radiation is contained in these products and how these products might affect people; and (9) both NRC and EPA are required to resolve contamination problems at treatment plants.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To determine what actions may be needed to better control the spread of radioactivity contaminated sludge, ash, and related by-products from sewage treatment plants that receive radioactive materials from NRC licensees, the Chairman, NRC, should determine the extent to which radioactive contamination of sewage sludge, ash, and related by-products is occurring.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On June 20, 1995, NRC's staff informed the commission of its plans for a proposed rulemaking to address issues related to disposal of radioactive material into sanitary sewers and the potential for reconcentration of that material once released. According to the staff, about 6.5 percent of NRC's 6,700 licensees, or 437 licensees, discharged radioactive material to sanitary sewers. Data collected by the staff from license applications indicated that 29 percent, or 1,973 licensees, planned for potential discharge of radioactive material to sanitary sewers. Since there is no significant difference in the distribution of types of licensees and practices between NRC and agreement-state licensees, NRC concluded that the same percentages would apply to agreement-state licensees as well.

    Recommendation: To determine what actions may be needed to better control the spread of radioactivity contaminated sludge, ash, and related by-products from sewage treatment plants that receive radioactive materials from NRC licensees, the Chairman, NRC, should directly notify the treatment plants that receive discharges from NRC and the agreement states' licensees of the potential for radioactive contamination because of radioactive materials' concentrating and of the possibility that they may need to test or monitor their sludge for radioactive content.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO recommended that NRC directly notify the treatment plants that receive discharges from NRC and agreement states' licensees of the potential for radioactive contamination. NRC plans, instead, to notify state officials of the potential for contamination of sewer treatment plants and let the state officials decide whether to disseminate the information further.

    Recommendation: To determine what actions may be needed to better control the spread of radioactivity contaminated sludge, ash, and related by-products from sewage treatment plants that receive radioactive materials from NRC licensees, the Chairman, NRC, should establish acceptable limits for radioactivity in sludge, ash, and related by-products that should not be exceeded in order to ensure the health and safety of treatment workers and the public.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: NRC is working with EPA and other interested parties to develop a national approach for ensuring the protection of treatment workers and the public. In 1994, NRC solicited public comment on alternatives for improving control over discharges of radioactive materials to sanitary sewers. In May 1997, EPA and NRC issued a draft "Guidance on Radioactive Materials in Sewage Sludge and Ash at Publicly Owned Treatment Works." This draft guidance was revised in June 2002, and another revision is planned for late 2003. NRC and EPA also conducted a national survey of sewage treatment plants to assess the extent of radioactive contamination in sludge, ash, and byproducts. In this regard, EPA and NRC completed a pilot survey and published the results in May 1999, and began a full survey in June 1999. Sampling of the sludge/ash was conducted in 1999 and 2000, for 316 of the 420 facilities that returned the surveys. Final laboratory results were received in October 2000, and an analysis of the data was completed in July 2002. The final survey report was issued in November 2003 after further analysis of the lab results. NRC and EPA also completed development of a model to evaluate the sewage sludge exposure pathway in November 2003. Final decisions on actions needed are awaiting completion of the comment period on the dose modeling report and recommendations document, which is expected to occur in late 2004. We are closing this recommendation because over 10 years has passed since the recommendation was made.

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