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All About Radioactivie and Nuclear Emergencies

Radioactive and Nuclear Emergencies

Learn all about radioactive materials, radiation, nuclear waste, sources of radiation the relationship to human health and cancer here!


Although accidents at nuclear power plants are rare, past emergencies have contributed to public perceptions that nuclear power is unsafe. One such emergency was the release of radioactive material from the nuclear reactor core at Three Mile Island (TMI) in 1979.

Since the TMI accident, the NRC has strengthened regulations governing plant design, training, and operations. In addition, all domestic nuclear power plants now must have emergency plans that protect the public from radiation exposure. EPA determines the exposure level at which actions to protect the public in the event of a release or potential release of radioactive material into the environment are recommended. Several federal agencies respond to radiological emergencies, including EPA, NRC, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the DOE, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Agriculture. In addition, state and local governments have primary responsibility for protecting the public and environment in the case of a radiological emergency.

Even if a release has not occurred, a nuclear power plant may temporarily shut down to prevent a release from occurring. If a release does occur, regulations require the facility to notify proper authorities.


Any activity that uses radioactive materials generates radioactive waste. Mining, nuclear power, defense, nuclear medicine, and scientific research all produce radioactive waste that must be disposed of properly. Some activities produce low-level waste, which includes rags, equipment, and protective clothing contaminated with radioactive material. Others generate more highly radioactive waste, such as used fuel from reactors or waste from the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

Radioactive waste can remain radioactive for anywhere from days to hundreds or even thousands of years. If this waste is not properly isolated from the public and the environment, it may contaminate air, soil, and water supplies.


Several federal agencies and some states control the risks of radioactive waste by establishing appropriate disposal regulations and applying these to disposal facilities to effectively isolate the waste. EPA has already established environmental standards for the cleanup and disposal of radioactive mining wastes. EPA is also responsible for setting generally applicable environmental standards for disposal of other radioactive wastes, which will be implemented by NRC and DOE.

Federal agencies regulate storage of high-level waste, which is currently placed in underground tanks or stored in pools of water. DOE is evaluating potential disposal sites for radioactive wastes at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, and Carlsbad, New Mexico. These sites would be located thousands of feet underground and be subject to EPA performance requirements issued to prevent waste from escaping. In October 1992, Congress passed the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) Land Withdrawal Act. This Act gives EPA the responsibility to oversee DOE in the testing and operation of WIPP. EPA is also charged with ensuring that WIPP complies with all federal environmental laws and regulations.

In addition to theses disposal options, the federal government is investigating new technologies and disposal methods to treat or dispose of these wastes safely.


Natural sources of radioactivity are all around us, and man-made radioactive materials are a vital part of medicine and industry. Exposure to some radiation, natural or man-made, is inevitable. In living with radiation, we must understand the risks and benefits. It is also important to remember that many federal and state programs exist to protect the public from avoidable exposures to radiation.