Radiation Protection

Radiological Emergency Response: Authorities

From "dirty bombsHelpdirty bombA mix of explosives, such as dynamite, with radioactive powder or pellets. Also known as a radiological dispersal device (RDD). A dirty bomb is not a nuclear weapon." to foreign radiological releases, EPA has the ability and authority to respond to many different types of radiological incidents. When other federal, state, or local organizations lead responses to radiological emergencies, EPA supports them by:

  • Conducting environmental monitoring, sampling and data analysis.
  • Assessing the national impact of any release on public health and the environment through the Agency's RadNet System.
  • Providing technical advice on containment and cleanup of the radiological contamination.
  • Supporting clean up and recovery efforts.

Whether EPA is coordinating or supporting the response, members of EPA’s Radiological Emergency Response Team can be sent to the incident scene.

According to the National Response Framework (NRF) Nuclear/Radiological Incident Annex (NRIA) (PDF)(32 pp, 229.73 K, About PDF), EPA is the lead “coordinating agencyHelpcoordinating agencyThe federal department or agency with primary responsibility for coordinating the federal response to a large-scale emergency. for the federal environmental response to incidents that occur at facilities not licensed, owned, or operated by a federal agency or an Agreement State, or currently or formerly licensed facilities for which the owner/operator is not financially viable or is otherwise unable to respond.”

The following table, adapted from the NRIA, shows different types of radiological incidents and the federal agency in charge of leading the federal response.

Type of Incident Coordinating Agency

Nuclear Facilities:

  1. Owned or operated by the Department of Defense (DOD) or Department of Energy (DOE).1
  2. Licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) or Agreement StateHelpAgreement StateA state that has signed an agreement with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) allowing the state to regulate the use of byproduct radioactive material. See, NRC Agreement State Program: http://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/state-tribal/agreement-states.html.
  3. Not licensed, owned or operated by a federal agency or an Agreement State, or currently or formerly licensed facilities for which the owner/operator is not financially viable or is otherwise unable to respond.
  1. DOD or DOE
  2. NRC
  3. EPA

Radioactive materials being transported:

  1. Materials shipped by or for DOD or DOE.
  2. Shipment of NRC or Agreement State licensed materials.
  3. Shipment of materials in certain areas of the coastal zone that are not licensed or owned by a federal agency or Agreement State (see Department of Homeland Security (DHS)/U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) list of responsibilities for explanation of "certain areas").
  4. All others.
  1. DOD or DOE
  2. NRC
  4. EPA

Radioactive materials in space vehicles impacting the United States:

  1. Managed by National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) or DOD.
  2. Not managed by DOD or NASA and impacting certain areas of the coastal zone.
  3. All others.
  1. NASA or DOD
  3. EPA

Foreign, unknown, or unlicensed material:

  1. Incidents involving inadvertent import of radioactive materials.
  2. Incidents involving foreign or unknown sources of radioactive material in certain areas of the coastal zone.
  3. All others.
  1. DHS/CBP
  3. All others
Nuclear Weapons DOD or DOE
(based on custody at time of incident)
All deliberate attacks involving nuclear/radiological facilities or materials, including radiological dispersion devicesHelpradiological dispersion deviceA mix of explosives, such as dynamite, with radioactive powder or pellets. Also known as a dirty bomb. A radiological dispersal device is not a nuclear weapon. (RDDs) or improvised nuclear deviceHelpimprovised nuclear devicesA type of nuclear weapon that gives off four types of energy: a blast wave, intense light, heat, and radiation. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War II is an example of nuclear device. (INDs) 3 4 DHS

1 The coordinating agency is either DOD or DOE, depending on which of these agencies has custody of the material at the time of the incident.

2 The DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) coordinates the adjudication of unresolved radiation detection alarms.

3 For deliberate attacks, DHS assumes its domestic incident management responsibilities under HSPD-5, paragraph 4, and is also the coordinating agency for implementing activities in this annex with respect to deliberate attacks. See: Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 (HSPD-5)(6 pp, 132.1 K, About PDF).

4 For deliberate attacks, DOJ assumes law enforcement coordination activities under HSPD-5, paragraph 8.  

Below are the authorities under which EPA can respond to a radiological emergency.

  • Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, as amended (CERCLA)

    The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) applies to hazardous substances defined by other environmental laws. For example, since the Clean Air Act amendments list radionuclides as hazardous substances, they are covered by CERCLA.

    CERCLA authorizes two kinds of response actions:

    • Short-term removal actions, which address actual or threatened releases requiring prompt response to protect human health or the environment at any site.
    • Long-term remedial actions which address actual or threatened releases that are serious, but not immediately life threatening. (EPA conducts long-term remedial response actions only at sites on the National Priority List, commonly known as Superfund sites).

    CERCLA authorizes and directs EPA to carry out a program of training and evaluation of training needs in the procedures for the handling and removal of hazardous substances.

  • Homeland Security Presidential Directives

    Management of Domestic Incidents (HSPD-5)

    HSPD-5(6 pp, 132.1 K, About PDF) was issued by President Bush on February 28, 2003, to improve management of domestic incidents by establishing a single, comprehensive national incident management system.

    National Preparedness (HSPD-8)

    As a companion to HSPD-5, HSPD-8(6 pp, 1.33 MB, About PDF) requires DHS to establish a national, domestic, all-hazards preparedness goal and describes the way federal departments and agencies will prepare for and response to a national incident. It includes a system for assessing the Nation's overall readiness to respond to major events, including acts of terrorism.

    Stafford Act

    The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act(86 pp, 530 K, About PDF) was enacted to support state and local governments and their citizens when their resources are overwhelmed by the effects of a disaster. The law establishes the process for requesting and obtaining a Presidential disaster declaration, defines the type and scope of federal assistance available, and sets the conditions for obtaining assistance. When a Presidential disaster declaration is made under the Stafford Act, federal agencies respond in accordance with the National Response Framework.

    National Response Framework (NRF)

    The National Response Framework, or NRF, establishes a single, comprehensive approach to domestic incident management to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies. The NRF provides the structure and mechanisms for national-level policy and operational direction for domestic incident management. It is an all-hazards plan built on the template of the National Incident Management System (NIMS).

    Nuclear/Radiological Incident Annex

    The Nuclear/Radiological Incident Annex(32 pp, 229.73 K, About PDF) to the National Response Framework describes the organization and responsibilities of federal agencies during responses to incidents involving radioactive materials.

    Emergency Support Function 10 (ESF # 10) – Oil and Hazardous Materials Response Annex

    EPA and the Department of Homeland Security/U.S. Coast Guard are the primary agencies for overseeing Emergency Support Function 10 – Oil and Hazardous Materials Response Annex (14 pp, 108.54 K, About PDF) under the National Response Framework. Response under ESF #10 occurs when there has been a Presidential disaster declaration under the Stafford Act. ESF #10 provides a coordinated federal response to actual or potential oil and hazardous materials incidents. Response to oil and hazardous materials incidents is generally carried out in accordance with the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan (NCP), 40 CFR Part 300.