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Audit Confirms EPA Radiation Monitors Broken During Fukushima Crisis

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

A reporter in February receives help in putting on protective gear ahead of entering reactor structures at the shuttered Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. A new report critiques the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's capacity to monitor radiation levels in the United States linked to the Japanese facility crippled by an earthquake and tsunami last year (AP Photo/Kimimasa Mayama). A reporter in February receives help in putting on protective gear ahead of entering reactor structures at the shuttered Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. A new report critiques the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's capacity to monitor radiation levels in the United States linked to the Japanese facility crippled by an earthquake and tsunami last year (AP Photo/Kimimasa Mayama).

WASHINGTON – An internal audit has confirmed observers’ concerns that many of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s radiation monitors were out of service at the height of the 2011 Fukushima power plant meltdown in Japan, a finding one critic said raises “serious questions” about the federal government’s ability to respond to nuclear emergencies and to alert the public of their consequences (see GSN, Dec. 21, 2011).

The April 19 report by the EPA Inspector General’s Office also casts further doubt on the agency’s already controversial claims that radiation from Fukushima did not pose any public health threat on U.S. soil, said Daniel Hirsch, a nuclear policy lecturer at the University of California (Santa Cruz) and president of Committee to Bridge the Gap.

The agency on Monday said it stands by its radiation detection work in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.

The report details problems with the agency’s “RadNet” monitoring system. The web of detectors is intended “to monitor environmental radioactivity in the United States to provide high-quality data for assessing public exposure and environmental impacts resulting from nuclear emergencies, and to provide baseline data during routine conditions,” the report notes.

RadNet consists of 124 stations scattered throughout U.S. territories and 40 deployable air monitors that can be sent to take readings anywhere, according to the IG report. Monitoring stations collect air, precipitation, drinking water and milk samples for analysis of radioactivity, although the audit focused on the stationary air monitors.

Computers at the EPA National Air and Radiation Environmental Laboratory in Montgomery, Ala., continuously review real-time air monitor data from the stations. In addition, volunteer operators are expected to change the particulate air filters at the stations twice per week and send them to Montgomery for a more detailed analysis that can detect radiation the real-time computer monitoring cannot.

Agency contractors, meanwhile, are responsible for maintaining the monitors and repairing them when they are broken. However, according to the report, EPA has not managed those contracts as high priorities, despite having identified the monitors as “critical infrastructure” under the 2001 Patriot Act. As a result, there have been numerous delays in repairing broken monitors.

In addition, the agency has in many instances allowed filters to go unchanged for longer than the twice-per week that its policy dictates, the audit says.

At the time of the Fukushima crisis, “this critical infrastructure asset” was impaired because many monitors were broken, while others had not undergone filter changes in so long that they could not be used to accurately detect real-time radiation levels, the IG report says.

“On March 11, 2011, at the time of the Japan nuclear incident, 25 of the 124 installed RadNet monitors, or 20 percent, were out of service for an average of 130 days,” the report says. “In addition, six of the 12 RadNet monitors we sampled (50 percent) had gone over eight weeks without a filter change, and two of those for over 300 days,” the report adds, noting that EPA policy calls on operators to change the filters twice per week.

Currently, “EPA remains behind schedule for installing” radiation monitors and has not resolved contracting issues identified as causing similar problems with the system in a 2009 audit, the report says. “Until EPA improves contractor oversight, the agency’s ability to use RadNet data to protect human health and the environment, and meet requirements established in the National Response Framework for Radiological Incidents, is potentially impaired.”

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, asked EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to address the monitoring issue during a hearing on April 12, 2011.

The session occurred one month after the earthquake and tsunami that inflicted heavy damage on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Massive radiation releases from the facility forced Japanese authorities to evacuate 80,000 nearby residents. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended that U.S. citizens in Japan evacuate from a 50-mile radius surrounding the plant.

Jackson testified that her agency had “received many positive comments from the public” and that it would “continue to provide [RadNet] monitoring results to the public in a very open and transparent manner.” She also said the agency did “not expect radiation from the damaged Japanese reactors to reach the United States at harmful levels.”

Advocacy groups – including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Physicians for Social Responsibility and Committee to Bridge the Gap – raised concerns about broken and out of service monitors in an August 2011 letter to the agency and during an October 2011 presentation to top EPA officials in Washington.

The organizations also highlighted issues not addressed in the IG audit, including a lack of air monitors along the California coast line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. They also complained that EPA data suggested some testing – such as for strontium-90 in milk – could be delayed for long periods of time, in some instances as long as a year.

In addition, the groups charged that repeated EPA statements that Fukushima fallout on U.S. soil was far below “any level of concern” were misleading given that agency data showed it had detected radiation levels in U.S. milk and rainwater well above its own regulatory limits for drinking water.

For example, in Hilo, Hawaii, EPA had detected radioactive iodine in milk at concentrations of 18 picocuries per liter, which is about six times greater than the agency’s maximum contaminant level of 3 picocuries per liter for the contaminant in drinking water. In Little Rock, Ark., the agency detected radioactive iodine in milk at concentrations of 8.9 picocuries per liter – about three times the regulatory level.

At the time, the agency defended its statements that the iodine levels were not a threat by noting that they were below emergency guidelines established by the U.S. Food and Drug administration. Documents the agency released under the Freedom of Information Act showed that some EPA officials, though, had questioned whether the FDA guidelines were appropriate given how dramatically less strict they were than the agency’s own enforceable regulations.

The inspector general’s confirmation of the monitoring problems, “raises serious questions about bland assurances at the height of the Fukushima disaster that no radiation was reaching the U.S.,” the Committee to Bridge the Gap's Hirsch said. “It also raises serious questions about whether EPA will be prepared if a nuclear incident occurs in the United States.”

Based on the findings in the inspector general’s report, Hirsch asked whether the agency “views its job as providing reassurance or providing factual information.”

In a statement to Global Security Newswire, EPA spokeswoman Molly Hooven said that while the agency “recognizes the expressed concern about RadNet station operability” it maintains that the system “was able to provide sufficient data to determine levels of airborne radioactivity during the weeks after the Fukushima nuclear power plant incident.”

The agency also stands by prior statements that radiation from Fukushima detected on U.S. soil was at “such extremely low levels, the risk of health effects are so small that it cannot be distinguished from exposure to natural background radiation, which is around us all of the time,” according to Hooven.

Issue experts criticized such comments last year. In an April 1, 2011 statement, Robert Alvarez, former senior policy adviser to the Energy secretary during the Clinton administration, said such comparisons were misleading and that no “matter how small the dose might be, it is out of context to compare an exposure to a specific radioisotope that is released by a major nuclear accident with radiation exposures in everyday life.”

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