– Inspector General Faults EPA Radiation Monitoring (Forbes, April 27, 2012):
Twenty percent of the EPA’s stationary radiation monitors were out of service last year at the time of the Fukushima nuclear accident, leading the U.S. Office of the Inspector General to conclude that the EPA’s Radnet system is “vulnerable” and managed with less urgency and priority than it deserves.
Broken monitors, parts shortages, “relaxed quality controls” and a lack of volunteer operators left 25 of the EPA’s 124 stationary monitors out of service for an average of 130 days at the beginning of the Fukushima disaster, according to the OIG. Two monitors—in Harlingen, Texas and Raleigh, North Carolina—were out of service for more than a year.
“EPA’s RadNet program will remain vulnerable until it is managed with the urgency and priority that the Agency reports it to have to its mission,” the Inspector General concludes in an audit released last week.
“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. Such data are crucial to determine levels of airborne radioactivity that may negatively affect public health and the environment.”
The Radnet system consists of 124 stationary monitors distributed throughout the United States and 40 mobile deployable monitors. When operating properly, the monitors constantly sample the air and send data to EPA headquarters, where computers monitor the data and alert officials to unusual readings. The monitors also serve as collection stations for precipitation, drinking water, and milk samples.
In accordance with the Patriot Act, EPA has identified the Radnet system as “critical infrastructure” for homeland security.
But many monitors were in critical condition when fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster began drifting across the United States and its territories last March. According to the audit:
Broken RadNet monitors and late filter changes impaired this critical infrastructure asset. 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 service contractor completed repairs for all monitors by April 8, 2011. In addition, 6 of the 12 RadNet monitors we sampled had gone over 8 weeks without a filter change, and 2 of those for over 300 days. Because EPA managed RadNet with lower than required priority, parts shortages and insufficient contract oversight contributed to extensive delays in fixing broken monitors. In addition, broken RadNet monitors and relaxed quality controls contributed to the filters not being changed timely. Out-of-service monitors and unchanged filters may reduce the quality and availability of critical data needed to assess radioactive threats to public health and the environment.
EPA officials agreed with most of the recommendations in the audit and said most will be implemented this month, but they disputed any assertion that the system underperformed or was inadequately managed:
“EPA recognizes the expressed concern about RadNet station operability, and we have taken steps to address the issue more completely,” assistant administrators Gina McCarthy and Craig Hooks say in EPA’s official response, which appears at the end of the audit. ”However, 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.”
“The EPA is particularly concerned about the statements concerning ‘relaxed quality controls’ since the EPA contends that this is inaccurate.”
Although EPA identifies Radnet monitors as critical infrastucture, it depends upon volunteers to maintain them. Agency protocol calls for filters to be changed twice weekly, a schedule that some volunteers have been unable to maintain.
“EPA cannot assign volunteers or enforce expectations upon them,” McCarthy and Hooks write in their response to the audit. “Instead, EPA seeks volunteers, without compensation for their time and effort…. EPA also provides recognition, such as letters of appreciation to their supervisors, for their service in an effort to maintain a good relationship with our volunteers.