Hazards of Past Low-Level Radioactive Waste Ocean Dumping Have Been Overemphasized

EMD-82-9: Published: Oct 21, 1981. Publicly Released: Nov 23, 1981.

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GAO evaluated the environmental and public health consequences of past ocean dumping of low-level radioactive waste. Its report discussed federal efforts to identify the extent of past ocean dumping, ensure that it poses neither an environmental nor public health hazard, and ensure that any possible future dumping is conducted safely and in an environmentally acceptable manner.

GAO found that the federal government has no complete and accurate catalog of information on how much, what kind, and where low-level nuclear waste was dumped because detailed records were not required. An overwhelming body of scientific research and opinion shows that concerns over the potential public health and environmental consequences posed by past ocean dumping activity are unwarranted and overemphasized. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been slow in developing low-level radioactive waste ocean dumping regulations. Although its current approach is sound, improvements are needed in developing specific dumpsite monitoring requirements. The EPA program for developing ocean dumping regulations has been based primarily on monitoring prior dumpsites. The EPA program could be improved if the agency recognized the limited benefits of monitoring prior dumpsites and fully utilized the results of extensive research and international experience with the ocean disposal of low-level radioactive waste instead of relying on the results of agency-funded research projects and studies. Monitoring prior dumpsites is limited because of the lack of baseline data on the amounts of natural fallout-related radioactivity in the oceans, the small volume of low-level radioactive waste dumped at sea, and a lack of information on the specific contents and locations of the waste that has already been dumped.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA has been acting on this recommendation since 1982; however, the outcome of EPA efforts are still highly uncertain because a host of other criteria must be developed before monitoring criteria can be addressed. Resolution of the monitoring criteria is at least several years away, or longer. Until then, monitoring this recommendation appears unecessary.

    Recommendation: In addition to embracing the internationally established guidance, the Administrator of EPA should develop specific criteria for dumpsite monitoring and periodic monitoring requirements for all future dumpsites.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA should terminate the ongoing dumpsite inventory project now being done by EPA staff. This action would recognize the numerous limitations of the information contained in the federal records and avoid more elaborate searches for information which is nonessential to determining the consequences of past ocean dumping activities.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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