United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission - Protecting People and the Environment

OIG/97A-14 - Survey of NRC/EPA Issues Regarding Radiation Standards

December 18, 1997

MEMORANDUM TO: Chairman Jackson
FROM: Hubert T. Bell
Inspector General

As you know, for several years the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have attempted to reach agreement on radiation standards for the decommissioning of NRC-licensed facilities. In 1994, the General Accounting Office reported a lack of consistency and compatibility between NRC and EPA standards. Consequently, Congress directed the agencies to work together to bring finality to this issue by establishing consistent and uniform radiation protection standards.

NRC and EPA still differ on what constitutes an adequate level of public health and safety protection from residual radiation. Therefore, the Office of the Inspector General reviewed the efforts by NRC and EPA in attempting to resolve their differences related to the development of consistent and compatible radiation standards, and to determine the impact of these continuing differences on NRC licensees. The purpose of this letter is to advise you that we have completed our survey and to provide our conclusions based on the work performed. Given the apparent impasse between the two agencies, we plan no additional work.

Although the two agencies have taken actions to establish consistent and compatible radiation standards for NRC license termination, this goal has not been achieved, despite the issuance of NRC's July 1997 rule. The inability of NRC and EPA to agree on an acceptable level of radiation protection subjects NRC licensees to potential dual regulation, which, according to industry officials, could be cost burdensome and delay the initiation of the decommissioning process.

Under its authority contained in the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), EPA could subject NRC licensees to more stringent criteria than that contained in NRC's rule, should it decide to do so. In this regard, EPA issued an August 1997 directive to its staff advising that NRC's criteria is not sufficiently protective under CERCLA and generally should not be used to establish cleanup levels. NRC believes that the criteria contained in its rule sufficiently protects the public health and safety. NRC and EPA officials agree that a relatively small number of sites will not initially clean up to CERCLA standards. However, NRC does not believe that any of these sites will contain contamination levels that would merit clean up under CERCLA and, therefore, questions whether EPA will exercise its statutory authority. EPA indicated that each case must be evaluated individually and placed particular emphasis on the groundwater radiation levels.

Following passage of the July rule, the Commission initiated additional efforts to achieve finality in NRC license termination decisions. Principal among these efforts is a proposal to the Congress that a provision be included in the Superfund Cleanup Acceleration Act (Superfund reform bill). This proposal would effectively result in an exclusion from EPA's CERCLA authority for NRC-regulated sites whose licenses are terminated in accordance with NRC's rule. This provision is included in a bill recently introduced in the House of Representatives, but is not currently included in any Senate version of the bill. Therefore, it is uncertain whether the Superfund reform bill, if passed, will contain NRC's proposed provision. However, EPA officials stated that EPA already has clear legal authority to set radiation standards and, therefore, questioned the need for any legislative change.

At this point, it seems clear that various avenues to resolve this issue have been explored without success. We conclude that legislative action may therefore be the most effective means to resolve the impasse between NRC and EPA which will otherwise likely continue with its attendant effect on NRC licensees. Consequently, we will be providing this report to the appropriate legislative committees.

cc: Commissioner Dicus
Commissioner Diaz
Commissioner McGaffigan
C. Paperiello, NMSS
M. Knapp, RES
L. Callan, EDO
H. Thompson, EDO
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