DOE’s Termination of Low Dose Radiation Research Receives Bipartisan Pushback

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Publication date: 
16 November 2017
Number: 
151

The House Science Committee held a hearing earlier this month at which witnesses testified to the value of the Department of Energy’s recently terminated research program on low dose radiation. Despite bipartisan congressional support for the research, DOE has been reluctant to continue work in the area.

savannah-river-worker.jpg

A worker at the receiving basin for offsite fuels at the DOE Savannah River Site

A worker at the receiving basin for offsite fuels at the DOE Savannah River Site, a former nuclear materials production facility undergoing cleanup of radioactive waste. Low dose radiation research informs the occupational safety standards at workplaces with radioactive hazards.

(Image credit – DOE / National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)

The House Science Committee’s Energy Subcommittee convened a hearing on Nov. 1 to discuss the Department of Energy’s Low Dose Radiation Research program, which the department terminated last year.

The witnesses and committee members present spoke favorably of the program and its potential to contribute to revised radiation safety standards. DOE, though, did not send anyone to testify, leaving the participants to speculate about why the department appears eager to dispense with the program despite widespread scientific and political support for it.

Hearing showcases bipartisan backing for low dose research

DOE’s low dose program currently has bipartisan support in Congress. In 2014 and 2015, the House easily passed bills that would have protected the work had they been enacted. In the current Congress, the Senate’s “Energy and Natural Resources Act” and the House’s “Department of Energy Research and Innovation Act” — both bipartisan bills — also contain provisions directing DOE to conduct research in the field.

In his opening statement, Energy Subcommittee Chair Randy Weber (R-TX) affirmed his own support for continuing the research, remarking,

The U.S. should not rely on a ‘best approximation’ when it comes to our nuclear regulatory policies. DOE must re-prioritize basic research in low dose radiation so we know we are using the best available science to set these standards.

Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), filling in as the ranking Democrat at the hearing, said, “I am happy to join my majority colleagues with our questioning of [DOE’s] position.” Referring to his background as a Fermilab physicist and owner of a theater lighting company, he also remarked, “I’m a scientist and a businessman, so I understand the importance of regulatory costs and getting the answer right.”

Witnesses attest to value of DOE low dose work

John Neumann, director for science and technology issues at the Government Accountability Office, testified about a report that GAO issued in September on low dose research across federal agencies. He said that, traditionally, DOE has been recognized as a leader in the field. “However,” he went on, “its leadership role has decreased since 2012 as the department phased out funding for its main research program on low dose radiation health effects. We found that no other agency has stepped forward to fill this role.”

GAO reported that between 2012 and 2016, DOE and the National Institutes of Health were responsible for 98 percent of federal funding for low dose research. In that same period, DOE reduced its funding from about $33 million per year to $18 million, and NIH from $23 million to $12 million. GAO concluded that even now DOE remains best suited to create and lead an interagency coordinating mechanism.

Neumann reported the department had rejected that recommendation by claiming “it would be inappropriate for it to lead because other agencies have their own budget authorities and research priorities.” He also said that GAO was unconvinced by those arguments.

Weber noted that GAO had suggested in its report that the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 obliges DOE to take a leading role in radiation research. He asked, “That is, at this point, 63 years old, so I guess the political question may be, in part, do we need to revisit that act? Do we need to clarify what their role might be in this instance?” Neumann replied that the statutory language is “pretty plain.”

Gayle Woloschak, a professor of radiation oncology and radiology at Northwestern University, also testified that DOE has ceded leadership in low dose research. She said that, if supported, the field could close knowledge gaps with a significant bearing on practical decisions in, for instance, the cleanup of radioactive waste sites. She also said that diminishing funding has made low dose radiation an unattractive field for young researchers, and that the community of low dose experts is aging.

James Brink, radiologist-in-chief at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School, testified as the chair of the American College of Radiology’s board of chancellors that his community strongly supports the DOE low dose program. He also said there is a desire for an updated synthesis of knowledge on the health effects of low dose radiation and that new legislation on the subject should mandate that the government sponsor such an effort through the National Academies.

Participants probe DOE’s reluctance to continue its work

In his opening remarks, Foster lamented DOE’s decision not to send anyone to the hearing to represent the department’s views, saying, “It really is a missed opportunity. I am disappointed that we cannot have a more complete conversation or make real progress in our oversight of the department on this crucial area of research.”

Asked by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) about DOE’s reasons for shutting the program down, Neumann replied, “The best answer we could get from DOE was that they had other research priorities in bioenergy and environmental research that they wanted to fund.” He said GAO found the position “curious” in view of the value that the Biological and Environmental Research Advisory Committee (BERAC) saw in the field last year despite its ultimate recommendation to discontinue the work.

In 2015, the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) recommended that DOE “continue to sponsor a small, sustained, high quality research program” in low dose radiation. BERAC was asked to review the recommendation and ultimately affirmed DOE’s position that the research “does not align with current BER priorities.”

Foster referenced the SEAB report in noting that DOE also had concerns that additional research would not produce results that are sufficiently persuasive to alter regulatory standards. Woloschak, though, disputed that claim, pointing to research that recently resulted in more conservative dose limits for eye exposure. She said,

Nobody would have imagined that happening five years ago, it was just not possible. So I think that it’s easy for DOE to make that statement that things will never change, but the fact is data do convince people and that’s why more data are needed.

Woloschak also related her own frustrations with DOE’s intermittent support of her research and its uneven commitment to preserving tens of thousands of irreplaceable animal tissue samples archived from decades of radiobiological studies. She said she was able to move the collection to Northwestern but that it is still not fully available for research.

Weber himself recounted that DOE fired the manager of the low dose program in 2015 after her superiors accused her of lobbying for the program’s continuation at a congressional staff briefing. The department rehired her after she appealed the decision. At a hearing on the incident last year, Weber and other committee Republicans pressed DOE’s witness, BER Director Sharlene Weatherwax, on whether the department had been trying to derail Congress’ low dose legislation at the briefing in question. She denied any impropriety.

Foster suggested that if DOE had additional appropriations, it might not regard it as necessary to sacrifice the low dose program. Expressing regret for disturbing the “uniformly bipartisan” agreement on low dose research, he pointed to the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the DOE Office of Science.

Weber countered that even the appropriations question was not a strictly partisan matter, saying, “We were not exactly enamored by those cuts either, in every form.”

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