Radioactive Waste

EPA Standards Delayed by Low Priority and Coordination Problems Gao ID: RCED-93-126 June 3, 1993

The management and the disposal of radioactive waste have long been of national concern, but without congressional or judicial mandates, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is unlikely to issue radiation protection standards in a timely fashion, which could harm the cleanup of contaminated facilities and radioactive waste disposal. Efforts to promulgate radiation protection standards have been delayed, in part, because EPA perceives radiation protection as less important than other agency activities and has, therefore, allocated limited resources to this effort. EPA has also experienced delays in developing proposed standards because of disputes with the Department of Energy (DOE), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Although EPA has tried to strengthen coordination with DOE and NRC, OMB has raised additional concerns about standards submitted for its review. OMB's concerns are largely responsible for delaying the issuance of groundwater protection standards for inactive uranium-processing sites. For more than 3 years, EPA has been unable to resolve these concerns, and the two parties still fundamentally disagree about whether contaminated groundwater not now being used should be cleaned up.

GAO found that: (1) EPA development of radiation protection standards for high-level waste, low-level waste, inactive uranium-processing sites, and residual radiation has been delayed; (2) radiation protection standards for high-level waste are near completion; (3) factors that delayed EPA radiation standards development included the low priority assigned to radiation standards development, limited EPA resources, an inability to resolve interagency conflicts over the standards' content, a lack of interagency coordination, and the failure to conduct adequate cost/benefit analyses during Office of Management and Budget (OMB) reviews; (4) EPA radiation laboratories are generally not involved in setting radiation standards because standards development is not their mission; and (5) EPA laboratories' primary activities include monitoring environmental radiation levels, testing radon detection equipment for accuracy, and responding to nuclear emergencies.


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