I’ve had a burning question for many months – “Why was DOE’s Low Dose Radiation Research program defunded?” For a variety of reasons, I was unable to set aside the time required to find the documentation I needed to be able to intelligently pose that question to Atomic Insights readers, a population that includes several people who have decision making authority inside the Department of Energy.
Here is what I found in digging through historical budget documents for the Department of Energy Office of Science.
In 2009 budget documents, the term “low dose” occurs 21 times. There is a description of the role of the Chief Scientist of the Low Dose Radiation Research program. Here is a quote from page 192.
“At the crossroads of the physical and biological sciences is the promise of remarkable technology for tomorrow’s medicine. Developments in imaging technology, including radiochemistry, have the potential to revolutionize all of medical imaging with increases in resolution and sensitivity, ease of use, and patient comfort. Furthermore, understanding the biological effects of low doses of radiation will lead to the development of science-based health risk policy to better protect
workers and citizens.”
Here’s a quote from page 196 under heading of FY2007 accomplishments:
Evidence for Non-Linear Dose Responses: New research from the Low Dose Radiation Program has demonstrated that following exposures to low doses of radiation there are unique dose-dependent changes in gene and protein expression which differ from those seen after high dose exposures. Low dose activation of such mechanisms supports the existence of non-linear dose-response relationships for low-LET (linear energy transfer) radiation. Identification of these genes is providing a scientific basis for defining metabolic pathways activated by radiation and determining mechanisms of action. The magnitude of the response for these phenomena has been shown to be dependent on the genetic background of the cells, tissues and organisms in which they are being measured.
The Low Dose Radiation Research has its own budget line with the following profile:
FY2007 – $17.4
FY2008 – $17.6
FY2009 – $20.6
Here is the description of the program:
The goal of the Low Dose Radiation Research activity is to support research that will help determine health risks from exposures to low levels of ionizing radiation; information critical to adequately and appropriately protecting individuals, and to making more effective use of our national resources. Information developed in this program will provide a better scientific basis for making decisions with regard to remediating contaminated DOE sites and for determining acceptable levels of human health protection, both for cleanup workers and the public, in the most cost-effective manner. Some research in this program is jointly funded with NASA’s Office of Biological and Physical Research.
It remains a substantial challenge to resolve the scientific uncertainty surrounding the current use of the linear no-threshold (LNT) model for developing radiation protection standards at low doses of radiation.
In FY 2009, the program is emphasizing the use of genome-based technologies to learn how cells communicate with each other in tissues in response to radiation, what causes cells and tissue to undergo different biological responses to radiation at different times, and what causes some individuals to be more sensitive to radiation than others. Comparative genomics will afford new opportunities for identification of specific genetic markers within affected cell populations.
University scientists, competing for funds in response to requests for applications, conduct a substantial fraction of the research in this activity.
In FY2010 budget documents, the term “low dose” appears just 8 times. The Low Dose Radiation Research program has disappeared as an individual item. The tasks are included within the Radiobiology funding line, which has the following profile:
FY2008 – $24.9 M
FY2009 – $28.0 M
FY2010 – $26.0 M
Here is the description of the Radiobiology program for FY2010:
The Radiobiology activity supports research that will help determine health risks from exposures to low levels of ionizing radiation, information critical to adequately and appropriately protect radiation workers and the general public. Research investigations include a number of critical biological phenomena induced by low dose exposure including adaptive responses, bystander effects, genomic nstability, and genetic susceptibility. This activity includes support for development of systems genetic strategies, including the role of epigenetics in integrated gene function and response of biological systems to environmental conditions.
This activity will provide a scientific basis for informed decisions regarding remediation of contaminated DOE sites and for determining acceptable levels of human health protection, both for cleanup workers and the public in the most cost-effective manner.
In FY 2010, funds will support the development of models that integrate responses to low dose radiation at the tissue or whole organism level with available epidemiological data to contribute to developing safe and appropriate radiation protection standards and the development of systems genetic strategies for integrated gene function and response to the environment. Funds are decreased to reflect the full transfer of mouse stocks at the Laboratory of Comparative and Functional Genomics (the Mouse House) to the University of North Carolina. Research on the low dose radiation response in individual cell types is decreased in FY 2010.
In FY2011 budget documents, “low dose” appears 11 times. Tasks remain included in the Radiobiology budget line. There is an explanatory statement on page 172, “The FY 2009 funding of $20,667,000 and $5,937,000 was in Molecular and Cellular Biology and Health Effects, respectively, within the Biological Research subprogram.”
On page 175, there is an important statement: “Research on DNA damage from low dose radiation exposure is completed in FY 2011 and requires no FY 2011 funding.” The line associated with that statement indicates the removal of $2 million in funding.
In 2012 budget documents “low dose” appears just two times, once in a description of capabilities of PNNL. On page 188, there is an important statement: “Funding is reduced for studies on bystander effects and adaptive immune function, and completed for research on genome instability and DNA damage in single cells in response to low dose radiation exposure.” The line associated with that statement indicates the removal of $11.6 million in funding.
In 2013 budget documents “low dose” appears just two times. There is a statement on page 143: “Funding is completed in FY 2012 for studies of DNA damage and repair in response to low dose radiation of specific gene targets in single cell culture models and for studies informing the exposure risks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Research will be completed for the development of a limited number of systems genetic reference mouse populations. Priority research begins to address integration of mechanism-based models that incorporate both radiobiology and epidemiology.” The radiobiology funding line shows the following numbers
FY2011 – $23.5 M
FY2012 – $15.5 M
FY2013 – $10.6 M
If the research is complete, I’d like to read the final reports that summarize the findings. If the research is not complete enough to have resulted in final reports, I would like to know who made the decisions to remove the funds and why they made those decisions. The total number of dollars is decimal dust in the DOE budget; but the answers that the research could provide could be worth many billions of dollars in avoided excess clean up costs, avoided excess regulatory costs, and avoided excess stress from unscientific worries about the hazards of low doses of radiation.
In FY2014 budget documents, the Radiobiology budget line has been combined into a line now titled Radiological Sciences. That combined budget line is reduced by another $15.6 M over FY2012. Here is the new description of the program:
Radionuclide imaging research for real-time visualization of dynamic biological processes in energy and environmentally-relevant contexts continues, while concluding training activities in nuclear medicine research. Further decreases in radiobiology reflect a shift towards bioenergy and environmental research within the Biological Systems Science portfolio. Ongoing efforts in radiobiology emphasize a systems biology approach to understanding the subtle effects of low dose radiation on cell processes and epidemiological studies to evaluate statistically significant effects of low dose radiation exposure in large populations.
Here is my translation of that bureaucratic history – as detailed research on the actual health effects started to demonstrate that the current artifice of regulations based on the linear, no threshold dose assumption (LNT) could not be supported by measurements and observations, subtle and skilled pressure was brought to bear. The program was slowly, but steadily, defunded and tasks were distributed into less focused programs that are heavily influenced by epidemiologists.
The funding profile has purposely eliminated an opportunity to learn how cells and multicellular organisms actually function and respond to the influences of radiation and to develop rational regulations based on that knowledge. Instead, we are left with large, very long term studies of human populations that have been accidentally exposed to somewhat higher than normal background radiation. That research will provide no answers and will ensure that current regulations cannot be challenged.
It’s not a happy way to start a day.
(Added on January 7, 2014) Discovered while reading Radium in Humans.
From before WWI through September 30, 1993 the US national laboratory system conducted a long running program to extract useful information about the health effects of internal emitters using the population of people who had been exposed to radium as a result of the radium dial industry, radium water consumption, or radium injections. The work indicate a threshold dose at approximately 1000 cGy (10 Gy) of internal alpha emitters required to cause human malignancies. Before all planned work products and summary reports could be completed, the program was defunded at the direction of the Secretary of Energy (James Watkins). Here are the final paragraphs of the document.
In September 1992 a letter from Dr. Terry Thomas, Director of Health Communication and Coordination, ESH, was sent to Robert Thomas, directing that the project be terminated on September 30, 1993, and that no copying of medical records or radiographs take place. In December 1992 a meeting was called by Mr. William LeFurgy, now manager of the Internal Emitter Program in the Office of Epidemiology and Health Surveillance, to direct that all medical records be digitally copied and that the radiographs be copied next if time and funds permitted. In March 1993 this order was rescinded by letter from Goldsmith to Dr. Christopher Reilly, Director of Argonne’s ER Division.
As this volume goes to press, the Argonne program has been terminated, but no decision has been made about the disposition of the individual case records.
There is something wrong when political appointees order the destruction of science records.