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Low-Dose Radiation: Interagency Collaboration on Planning Research Could Improve Information on Health Effects

GAO-17-546 Published: Sep 26, 2017. Publicly Released: Oct 26, 2017.
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Fast Facts

Exposure to low doses of radiation may increase a person's risk of cancer. To help protect workers and the public against this risk, federal agencies set dose limits for power plants, issue guidance, and take other measures.

The Department of Energy and other agencies have also invested millions to better understand the health effects of low-dose radiation, but uncertainty remains. Given the reduction in funding for low-dose radiation research, agencies will need to work together to determine how to best use resources to address research priorities in the area.

We recommended that Energy lead efforts to enhance such interagency collaboration.

Federal Agencies' Obligations for Research on Health Effects of Low-Dose Radiation, Fiscal Years 2012 - 2016

Chart showing decreasing funds obligated for low-dose radiation research, FYs 2012 - 2016.

Chart showing decreasing funds obligated for low-dose radiation research, FYs 2012 - 2016.

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What GAO Found

The Department of Energy (DOE), Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Food and Drug Administration generally used the advice of scientific advisory bodies to develop and apply radiation protection requirements and guidance for workers and the public in the radiation exposure settings that GAO reviewed. These settings were: (1) the operation and decommissioning of nuclear power plants; (2) the cleanup of sites with radiological contamination; (3) the use of medical equipment that produces radiation; and (4) accidental or terrorism-related exposure to radiation. Specifically, the agencies relied on the advice of three scientific advisory bodies that supported the use of a model that assumes the risk of cancer increases with every incremental radiation exposure. Accordingly, the agencies have set regulatory dose limits and issued guidance to confine exposure to levels that reduce the risk of cancer, while recognizing that scientific uncertainties occur in estimating cancer risks from low-dose radiation. For example, NRC requires nuclear power plants to consider measures for limiting workers' exposure below NRC's regulatory dose limit, such as by using robots for maintenance work in radiation areas.

GAO identified seven federal agencies that funded research on low-dose radiation's health effects. In fiscal years 2012 to 2016, DOE, NRC, EPA, and four other federal agencies obligated about $210 million for such research (see table). Although the agencies have collaborated on individual projects on radiation's health effects, they have not established a collaborative mechanism to set research priorities. GAO's previous work has shown that federal agencies can use such mechanisms to implement interagency collaboration to develop and coordinate sound science policies. In the past, DOE took a leading role in this area because DOE provided stable funding and advocated for greater coordination on research on low-dose radiation's health effects. However, since fiscal year 2012, DOE has phased out funding for one of its main research programs in this area. This has created a void in coordination efforts among federal agencies, and no other agency has stepped forward to fill this void. Because of DOE's prior experience as a leader in this area of research and its research responsibility under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, it could play an important role in helping federal agencies establish a coordinating mechanism for low-dose radiation research.

Federal Funding for Research on Low-Dose Radiation's Health Effects

Dollars are in millions and have not been adjusted for inflation


Funding, fiscal years 2012–2016

Department of Energy


National Institutes of Health


Nuclear Regulatory Commission


National Aeronautics and Space Administration


Department of Defense


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Environmental Protection Agency




Source: GAO analysis of agency data. | GAO-17-546

According to EPA, exposure to low doses of radiation does not cause immediate health effects but may increase a person's cancer risk. Federal agencies fund research on cancer risk, but uncertainties remain about risk assessments that federal agencies use to develop radiation protection regulations and guidance.

GAO was asked to examine federal agencies' radiation protection requirements and guidance and related research. This report (1) describes how selected federal agencies have developed and applied radiation protection requirements and guidance and (2) examines the extent to which federal agencies have funded and collaborated on research on low-dose radiation's health effects for fiscal years 2012 to 2016.

GAO selected four federal agencies, based on their development of requirements or guidance for settings in which radiation exposure to workers and the public can occur. GAO reviewed agency documentation and interviewed agency officials on the development of the requirements and guidance. GAO also collected and examined federal-funding data for low-dose radiation research from seven agencies that fund this research.

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GAO recommends DOE lead development of a mechanism for interagency collaboration on research on low-dose radiation's health effects. DOE disagreed, stating that agencies set their own research priorities. GAO continues to believe that DOE is in the best position to lead such an effort, as discussed in the report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should lead the development of a mechanism for interagency collaboration to determine roles and responsibilities for addressing priorities related to research on the health effects of low-dose radiation.
Closed – Implemented
DOE did not concur with this recommendation, stating that the leadership of an organization with government-wide responsibilities would result in the most effective interagency collaboration. In 2018, DOE further stated that it believed that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy's (OSTP) National Science and Technology Council was the appropriate entity to lead interagency collaboration on the health effects of low-dose radiation. Subsequently, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, directed DOE to carry out a research program on the effects of exposure to low-dose and low dose-rate radiation and to enter into an agreement with the National Academy of Sciences to develop a long-term strategic and prioritized research agenda for the program. In April 2021, DOE stated that it had accepted a proposal from the National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM). In addition, NASEM announced that it would perform a study and provide a report with findings and recommendations on the current status and development of a long-term strategy for low-dose radiation research. The objectives of the study, which NASEM will conduct with the support of DOE, include addressing coordination between federal agencies and with international efforts.

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