Twenty percent of U.S. EPA's radiation monitors were out of service last year when an earthquake caused a meltdown at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, according to a new report that confirms some of the claims of environmental watchdogs.
In the recent -- and strongly worded -- report, EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins Jr. lays out numerous problems with EPA's Radiation Network Program, or RadNet. The program monitors the level of radiation in air, precipitation, drinking water and milk through a national network of monitoring stations.
EPA has not made the program a priority, according to the report. When the agency increased radiation monitoring in the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown, it discovered that 25 of 124 monitors had been out of service for an average of 130 days. EPA's solution for needed spare parts: "cannibalizing" new monitors under construction.
Such last-minute management of the system means that the program remains "vulnerable," according to the report.
"If RadNet is not managed as a high-priority program, EPA may not have the needed data before, during, and after a critical event such as the Japan nuclear incident," IG investigators wrote. "Such data are crucial to determine levels of airborne radioactivity that may negatively affect public health and the environment."
The report also criticizes EPA for not following through with recommendations from the IG's January 2009 report that found that the full implementation of the RadNet system was behind schedule. The agency did not follow through in holding contractors accountable, according to the recent report, and thus performance issues remain. As of November, EPA was more than two years behind schedule to install new monitors.
The new report comes almost one year after Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility criticized EPA for scaling back its monitoring efforts two months after the Fukushima disaster (Greenwire, May 9). The group contended that the agency's five-decade-old monitoring system was unreliable because of out-of-service monitors that left geographical gaps in its coverage area.
An EPA spokesman said at the time that the agency has overlapping monitors to ensure no gaps existed. In a response to the IG report, Assistant Administrators Gina McCarthy and Craig Hooks wrote that seven of the 25 out-of-service monitors were scheduled for repair prior to the nuclear meltdown and that 18 were fixed using parts from monitors under construction.
McCarthy and Hooks agreed with most of the IG's findings and committed to setting standards that include the number of monitors expected to be operational, the availability of backup monitors and contractor performance reviews.
But they took issue with the IG's criticism that operators did not always change the monitors' filters twice a week, as specified by EPA's in-house guidance. Instead, EPA gave operators -- who are volunteers -- permission to wait up to eight days to change filters, while some waited much longer; one operator did not change a filter for 309 days because the monitor was broken.
EPA officials say that the twice-a-week filter change is not required; the agency has since changed its guidance to reflect that.
"EPA recognizes the expressed concern about RadNet station operability, and we have taken steps to address the issue more completely," McCarthy and Hooks wrote. "[H]owever, the RadNet system was able to provide sufficient data to determine levels of airborne radioactivity during the weeks after the Fukushima nuclear power plant incident."
To PEER executive director Jeff Ruch, the IG report confirms suspicions that the monitoring network is not sufficient to ensure the public health.
"For the IG, in that bureaucratic work, it's tough talk," he said of the report. "Here they're saying explicitly that the public may have been endangered by negligence on the part of the EPA."
In the months after the Fukushima disaster, Ruch joined Dan Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, in raising concerns about EPA's radiation monitoring program. Other groups -- including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace -- also joined Hirsch in sending a letter to EPA criticizing the agency for not making radiation protection more of a priority.
Broken monitors throughout the nation, they wrote, were "disturbing for a system that is supposedly designed to deal with emergencies."
In a recent interview, Hirsch said the IG report "confirmed criticism that we and others made that the EPA radiation monitoring network is broken and was broken throughout much of the Fukushima accident."
"It would have taken very little effort to recognize that devices were broken and get them fixed," he said. "It really wasn't so much a staffing issue as an issue of concern and focus and willingness to do this job."
But the IG report, while criticizing the lack of priority EPA assigns to the program, also points to the fact that the RadNet system was overseen by one manager.
"Because of this workload, the operations manager had to make judgments about which issues required action on any particular day," investigators wrote. "Consequently, the operations manager often deferred activities related to monitor operations, especially those with longer-term impact, instead of treating those activities as a priority."