US House passes low-dose radiation bill

20 January 2015

The US Department of Energy (DOE) and National Academy of Sciences have been directed to work together to assess the current status of US and international research on low-dose radiation and to formulate a long-term research agenda under a bill approved by the US House of Representatives.

The Low Dose Radiation Research Act of 2015 (HR 35) directs the two organisations to carry out a research program "to enhance the scientific understanding of and reduce uncertainties associated with the effects of exposure to low dose radiation in order to inform improved risk management methods." The study is to be completed within 18 months.

The researchers must identify current scientific challenges to understanding the long-term effects of ionizing radiation; assess the status of current low dose research in the US and elsewhere; formulate overall scientific goals for the future of US low-dose radiation research; and recommend a long-term strategic research agenda to address and overcome the identified scientific challenges. The US Secretary of Energy must then deliver a five-year research plan in response to the study's findings and recommendations.

The bill follows legislation passed in November authorizing the DOE to carry out research on the risks posed by low-dose ionizing radiation.

The US Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) welcomed the initiative, and noted that the new bill's provisions are aligned with recommendations made in a March 2013 letter by a group of renowned health physicists to White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren, which asserted that limited understanding of low-dose health risks impairs the nation's decision-making capabilities. The letter noted that setting permissible radiation dose standards too high may result in large economic and social disruptions, while setting them too low may present unacceptable health risks to populations.

"Given the pervasiveness of nuclear technologies in our modern world - for electricity generation, medical imaging and treatment, calibration of industrial equipment, and myriad other applications - it just makes sense that we better understand the health effects of low doses of radiation," said NEI senior vice president Alex Flint.

The risks from low levels of radiation are an area of widespread debate. In December 2012, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) highlighted the need for caution in extrapolating the effects of low radiation doses on large populations.

NEI's chief health physicist, Ralph Andersen, said that a structured scientific program to address some of the gaps in the knowledge about low-dose radiation would be beneficial. "Although we know that our current radiation safety procedures are protective of public health and safety, we don't fully know the societal and economic consequences of being overly conservative," he said.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News