A recently released report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Inspector General's Office has revealed perilous failures in the operation of RadNet, the nationwide radiation monitoring network, in the midst of the Fukushima nuclear crisis.
The April 19 report, titled "Weaknesses in EPA’s Management of the Radiation Network System Demand Attention", was created as nuclear watchdog groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Nuclear Information Resource Service, raised urgent concerns over the program's reliability.
The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) pointed out a litany of problems that have limited the RadNet system's ability to detect harmful radiation levels, including the following:
-- At the time of the Japan earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, 25 of the 124 radiation monitors across the United States were out of service. The average time out of service for these monitors was 130 days.
-- The EPA's inability to acquire replacement parts in a timely manner led to some repair delays that lasted over six months. In one case, a radiation monitor was out of service for 428 days before a contractor was able to fix it.
-- Based on a sample study, 50% of radiation monitors had gone without a filter change for over 8 weeks, even though EPA documentation states that filters should be changed twice a week. The study also revealed that, according to the twice-weekly replacement schedule, over 40% of filter changes were missed.
-- The EPA is 29 months behind schedule for installing stationary radiation monitors in areas that are not currently covered.
-- There were no incentives or disincentives put in place for the performance of contractors who were assigned to repair radiation monitors, even though federal regulations emphasize the need for these conditions.
-- As of Oct 2011, four of five contractor performance evaluations had not been completed on time.
-- Monthly progress reports for acquisition of spare parts and repair of broken monitors were either not implemented or not enforced.
The OIG highlighted the potential health risks of delayed repairs and filter replacements in its report. “The out-of-service monitors and unchanged filters may reduce the availability and quality of critical data needed to assess radioactive threats to public health and the environment,” it said.
The report also maintained that “failure to follow RadNet quality assurance requirements may adversely affect data completeness and potentially impairs RadNet’s ability to protect human health.”
In addition, the OIG criticized the poor management of contractors. "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 Nuclear Radiological Incidents, is potentially impaired," the report stated.
“We have taken steps to address the issue more completely,” the EPA stated in its response, which is also detailed in the report. “However, the RadNet system was able to provide sufficient data to determine levels of airborne radioactivity and accurately address public health concerns during the weeks after the Fukushima nuclear power plant incident.”
Digital Journal contacted the EPA’s radiation division for further comment on this issue.
In an email reply, the EPA asserted that “in general, variation in the frequency of filter changes does not adversely affect the data quality of the continuous air monitoring readings or the gamma radiation data obtained from laboratory analysis."
The EPA was also hopeful to resume the monitor expansion program. "[The] EPA plans to begin installation of the remaining monitors in the summer of 2012," according to the email. However, officials failed to give an expected completion time for this overdue project.
EPA representatives also stated that the agency had examined RadNet monitor maintenance concerns and continues to work with its contractors to provide the highest quality of operation.
While the EPA attempts to incorporate the recommendations from the OIG, the health risks to Americans -- and the world -- could become far greater. Nuclear experts have recently warned that the Fukushima meltdown may lead to a "global catastrophe" that far surpasses the devastating Chrenobyl disaster. Unfortunately, given the current flaws in the RadNet system, it may be years before its quality can be improved to a satisfactory level.