Time to stop consuming precious resources to harmonize occupational dose limits

Pressure groups and interested individuals have been striving for more than two decades to force the U. S. to reduce its occupational worker radiation protection limit from 50 mSv/year to 20 mSv/year. The primary justification for this effort is that in 1991 the International Commission on Radiation Protection (ICRP) issued publication 60 and provided their recommendation that regulators use 20 mSv/year as the occupational limit.

In 1991, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission had just released a major update to the regulations (10 CFR 20) that establish radiation limits for US licensees. It took about ten years of study and discussion after ICRP publication 60, but on April 12, 2002, the Commission issued a decision item. With a 4-1 vote, the Commission decided they would not conduct a rulemaking to change 10 CFR 20. Here is a quote from the Staff Requirements Memorandum indicating their selected course of action.

The Commission has approved items (ii) and (iv) of Option 3. As such, the staff should continue to work with and monitor the efforts of other Federal agencies to ensure a coherent approach to U.S. radiation protection standards and dosimetric models and work with EPA and ISCORS on possible revisions to the Presidential Guidance in this area. Also, the staff should continue to monitor the work of the ICRP as it develops its revision to ICRP Publication 60.
The Commission disapproved items (i) and (iii) of Option 3 related to preparation of a communications plan and development of a technical information base at this time.
(Note: The Commission’s directive is referring to SECY-01-0148 dated Aug 2, 2001).

The ICRP issued a publication 103 in 2007 that reiterated its previous recommendation to establish an occupational dose limit of 20 mSv/yr. There was no new science introduced that justified the dose limit reduction recommended in 1991.

On December 18, 2008, the staff of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission submitted SECY-08-0197, Options To Revise Radiation Protection Regulations And Guidance With Respect To The 2007 Recommendations Of The International Commission On Radiological Protection. That staff memo was answered by the Commission on April 2, 2009 with Staff Requirements Memorandum (SRM) number SRM-SECY-08-0197.

The Commission has approved the staff’s recommended Option 3 to immediately begin engagement with stakeholders and interested parties to initiate development of the technical basis for possible revision of the NRC’s radiation protection regulations, as appropriate and where scientifically justified, to achieve greater alignment with the 2007 recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) contained in ICRP Publication 103.

The Commission agrees with the staff and the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS) that the current NRC regulatory framework continues to provide adequate protection of the health and safety of workers, the public, and the environment. From a safety regulation perspective, ICRP Publication 103 proposes measures that go beyond what is needed to provide for adequate protection. This point should be emphasized when engaging stakeholders and interested parties, and thereby focus the discussion on discerning the benefits and burdens associated with revising the radiation protection regulatory framework. For example, while licensees voluntarily develop and implement internal constraints, the regulatory imposition of these constraints is an overreaching insertion of regulatory standards into the licensee’s management of its radiation protection program.

Jim Conca’s March 23, 2015 Forbes blog post titled The Nuclear Regulatory Commission Thinks America Should Be More Like Europe indicates that the NRC resource expenditures that began with the preparation of that December 2008 memorandum have continued, despite the decision from the Commission that there would be no safety benefit from reducing existing limits.

According to Conca’s article, the staff effort has reached the stage of an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR). Eliot Brenner, the Director of the NRC Public Affairs Office, posted a comment on Conca’s article that clarified the actual proposal and adde a few more details about the ANPR schedule.

The NRC Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR), published in July, 2014, is open for comment until June 22, 2015.

What Brenner did not mention is that the ANPR published in the Federal Register on July 24, 2014 originally had a comment deadline of November 24, 2014 or that before the ANPR issued in July 2014, there had been at least three other Federal Register notices soliciting public comments that were associated with the same research topic.

On December 17, 2012, the Commission issued another decision memorandum Staff Requirements – Secy-12-0064 – Recommendations For Policy And Technical Direction To Revise Radiation Protection Regulations And Guidance. That document gave some clear directions.

The Commission has disapproved the staff’s recommendation in Option 3 to develop the regulatory basis to reduce the occupational total effective dose equivalent.

The staff should develop improvements in the NRC guidance for those segments of the regulated community that would benefit from more effective implementation of ALARA (as low as is reasonably achievable) strategies and programs to comply with regulatory requirements.

Several people who have read and commented on the July 2014 ANPR believe the section proposed as “improvements” to NRC guidance to provide benefits in the form of “more effective” implementation of ALARA strategies describes onerous requirements. They would effectively by-pass the Commission’s decision and implement the ICRP’s recommended 20 mSv/year occupation dose limits despite that recorded decision. Here’s a link to a comment submitted by Dr. Carol Marcus, PhD, MD.

I contacted the NRC Office of Public Affairs to find out how much money and manpower the NRC staff has invested in its effort to follow ICRP recommendations, starting from the issuance of the April 2009 Staff Requirements Memorandum that described those recommendations as “measures that go beyond what is needed to provide adequate protection.” Here is the response I received from Scott Burnell from the Office of Public Affairs.

From time of issuance in 2009 through 2013, the staff worked on generic activities and preparation work related to the rulemaking including developing regulatory basis, holding three facilitated public workshops and writing the 2012 Commission Paper. The staff estimates this level of effort by FSME/NMSS staff was about 3 FTE and about $100,000 in contract support. Due to the work’s generic nature it was indirectly tracked over the course of several years, so we can’t match a dollar figure to the FTE.

In 2013, the office opened a dedicated activity code for the project; from 2014 / 2015 that includes 3,433.75 staff hours for a total of $949,360.25 in staff charges.

Even though Scott was unable to provide a specific conversion factor between Full Time Equivalents (FTE) and dollars for the period from 2009-2013, it would not be unreasonable to base the conversion on the information provided for 2014-2015. That works out to $277 per hour.

If NRC assumes 80% billable hours, 1 FTE-year costs 1664 x $277 = $460,000. At 3 FTE/yr + $100,000 in contractor support, the agency expended roughly $1.4 million per year for five years, then another million dollars in a year and a half (FY2015 is only half over.)

Someday I am going to develop a model that estimates the amount of industry effort expended as a function of each FTE of regulatory effort. Perhaps someone already has such a model, but I would guess that the ratio is at least 10-20 industry FTE for each NRC FTE in a rulemaking scenario.

Things move slowly in all layered organizations, especially those that include plenty of opportunities for public involvement in the decision making process. However, any good manager who has a limited quantity of resources should be willing to frequently ask his people the question, “Please tell me again, why we are doing this?”

A rulemaking process on an issue where a determination has already been made that there is no safety benefit should be a prime candidate for reevaluation. One that is still in the information gathering stage after more than 6 years of effort might be one where the most effective next step is to say ALL STOP.

Note: The computation of costs for the period from 2009-2013 near the end of the above article was modified on 3/31/2015 based on input from Robert Hargraves in the below comment thread.

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