Nuclear Health and Safety:

Consensus on Acceptable Radiation Risk to the Public Is Lacking

RCED-94-190: Published: Sep 19, 1994. Publicly Released: Oct 26, 1994.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the consistency and compatibility of federal radiation standards, focusing on: (1) the various limits on public exposure to radiation; (2) the various protective strategies associated with the standards; and (3) whether the standards as a whole provide a coherent, complete federal framework for public radiation protection.

GAO found that: (1) the differences in federal agencies' limits on public exposure to radiation reflect a lack of consensus on what constitutes an acceptable radiation risk to the public; (2) the differing risk assessments and standards have resulted from different regulatory applications and technical methodologies; (3) because of the lack of consensus on calculation methods and radiation protection strategies, regulators cannot clearly assess the overall health impacts and cost-effectiveness of their radiation standards; (4) ineffective policy coordination has resulted in the lack of a uniform federal framework for protecting the public from radiation exposure, which in turn has led to the various radiation limits and protective strategies; (5) interagency disagreements over draft radiation regulations have delayed the completion of the regulations; (6) the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has drafted Presidential guidance on radiation protection to replace guidance from 1960 and has been working with other agencies on specific issues; and (7) EPA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) are working to harmonize their respective calculation methodologies and protective strategies to avoid dual regulation.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA and NRC have formed the Interagency Steering Committee on Radiation Standards, which is to expedite the resolution and coordination of regulatory issues associated with radiation standards. The Committee, the membership of which includes representatives from DOD, DOE, OSHA, and DOT, has the objectives of facilitating a consensus on acceptable levels of radiation risk to the public and workers, promoting consistent risk assessment and risk management approaches in setting implementation standards for occupational and public protection from ionizing radiation, promoting completeness and coherence of federal standards for radiation protection, and identifying interagency issues and coordinating their resolution.

    Recommendation: To better unify federal radiation protection policy, the Administrator, EPA, in cooperation with the Chairman, NRC, should take the lead in sustaining and broadening the ongoing EPA-NRC harmonization effort to include the effective participation of other agencies and the Committee on Interagency Radiation Research and Policy Coordination in pursuing interagency consensus on preferred radiation dose and risk calculation methods and radiation protection strategies, as well as an overall consensus on how much radiation risk to the public is acceptable.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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