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Radiation Protection

Radiological Emergency Response: Planning and Past Responses

To prepare for a radiological incident, EPA has plans and procedures that are tested and practiced in exercises on a regular basis. EPA has extensive knowledge about radiological emergency response from experience with real-life emergencies.

View EPA's Radiological Emergency Response Plan. 

View Incident Guides related to radiological emergency response.

On this page:


EPA works with federal, state, local and international agencies to develop radiological emergency response plans and procedures. EPA's Regional Radiation Programs also review emergency response plans for state, local and tribal emergency response programs.

During the planning process, emergency response organizations determine how to respond to each type of incident and the resources needed.

Elements of an Emergency Response Plan
Element Description
Applicability Type of disasters or emergencies addressed in the plan.
Planning Assumptions A list of anticipated conditions (e.g., availability of resources). Changes in these conditions could affect plan implementation.
Concept of Operations Responsibilities and authorities of organizations that may be involved in the response and the relationships among them.
Logistics Management of resources, such as people, equipment, facilities, services, etc.
Schedule of updates Procedures for keeping the emergency response plan up-to-date through review and modification.

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The RERT and other emergency response organizations test preparedness and response plans in exercises that simulate a radiological emergency. Exercises identify critical strengths and weaknesses in response capabilities. Evaluating exercises allows the EPA to address weaknesses before an actual incident occurs. Interagency exercises also allow the personnel of various agencies to become familiar with each other and learn to coordinate and operate together.

EPA participates in many different radiological emergency simulations, including:

Types of Exercises:

  • Tabletop Exercise
    • In a tabletop exercise, participants test an emergency response plan and its standard operating procedures by discussing a hypothetical emergency. Policymaking officials and key staff with emergency management responsibilities identify and resolve problems in the emergency plan.
  • Command Post Exercise
    • A command post exercise is more extensive than a tabletop exercise and simulates organizing and practicing command and control functions. Sometimes equipment is deployed on a limited scale.
  • Full Scale Exercise
    • A full scale exercise validates many facets of preparedness and involves multiple agencies, organizations, and jurisdictions. Monitoring crews go out into the field to practice radiation measurement and sample collection. Scientific teams analyze mock data sets and recommend protective actions. Decision-makers evaluate the recommendations and plan actions that would be needed to protect the public. Public information staff members practice disseminating information and public safety messages.

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Domestic Responses

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) Radioactive Release (New Mexico | February 14, 2014)

  • On February 14, 2014, a continuous air monitor detected airborne radiation underground at the Department of Energy's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. On the following day, an aboveground exhaust air monitor on the WIPP site detected very low levels of airborne americium and plutonium venting to the environment.
  • EPA deployed four air samplers at the WIPP facility to validate and verify DOE monitoring. The monitors provided extra support during DOE’s re-entry to the underground and independently verified DOE’s monitoring network.
  • EPA conducted oversight activities at the DOE WIPP facility:
    • Assessed the environmental monitoring system.
    • Completed an on-site inspection.
    • Inspected the inventory tracking system for wastes temporarily stored in Texas pending re-opening of WIPP.
    • Verified and validated laboratory data, and analyzed trends.
    • Evaluated plume modeling and dose projection.
    • Independently modeled public dose projections using the DOE data.
  • EPA found that the release was largely contained within the WIPP underground and the release did not pose a public health or environmental hazard. The public doses were all well below EPA's standards. The Agency identified a number of areas needing improvement regarding DOE's ambient environmental air sampling network, laboratory procedures and incident response protocols.
  • Learn more about the 2014 Radiological Event at the WIPP.

NASA Launch Support (Florida | 1989, 1990, 2011, 2019/2020)

  • EPA supports NASA and the state of Florida to prepare for and launch spacecraft carrying a radioactive source on board.
  • EPA supported the launch of NASA’s nuclear reactor powered spacecrafts, Galileo and Ulysses. Galileo was launched in 1989 on a six-year, 2.4 billion mile journey to survey Jupiter. Ulysses was launched in 1990 towards Jupiter, but used the giant planet’s gravity to swing into a wide orbit of the sun to survey its polar regions. NASA and the state of the Florida asked EPA to assist in the development of the contingency plans in the case of a launch accident. EPA staff members supported both launches at the launch site and were equipped to measure radiation and make recommendation in the event of a launch accident. Both spacecraft were launched without incident.
  • On November 26, 2011, NASA successfully launched the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft, including a car-sized rover called “Curiosity.” The rover is powered by a multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG) that contains about 60,000 curies of plutonium-238. Before the launch, EPA assisted NASA, the Department of Energy, the state of Florida, and other agencies in contingency planning in case of a launch accident. During the launch, EPA’s Radiological Emergency Response Team members were at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. They staffed the Radiological Control Center and the Joint Information Center before and during the launch, assisting with communications planning, which included pre-scripted message development and interagency coordination. The Curiosity successfully landed on the surface of Mars on August 5, 2012.
  • EPA participated in the Cobalt Magnet full-scale exercise in February 2019 in Florida in which many agencies responded to a simulated launch anomaly of a spacecraft carrying an MMRTG. The EPA continues to support NASA’s radiological emergency response planning for the Mars 2020 rover mission which is scheduled for a July 2020 launch. The rover will be powered by an MMRTG. Learn more about the Mars 2020 mission.

Los Alamos and Los Conchas Fires (New Mexico | 2000, 2011)

  • EPA provided air monitoring support to the Department of Energy and the State of New Mexico when fires threatened historically contaminated Los Alamos National Laboratory land in May 2000.
  • After a prescribed forest burn at the Bandolier National Monument in New Mexico went out of control, high winds spread fire onto the DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), where areas of historical radiological contamination were undergoing cleanup. EPA, DOE and the State of New Mexico requested RERT staff to conduct air sampling and analysis. The RERT deployed an environmental monitoring network comprised of 20 low-volume air samplers, support vehicles, and a mobile laboratory. RERT staff took the lead in maintaining the air sampling network and analyzing samples, which showed no evidence of a health danger from radionuclides stirred up by the fire.
  • In June and July 2011, the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history, the Los Conchas Fire, threatened to spread to portions of the Los Alamos National Laboratory where radioactive waste was located. EPA responders worked closely with the New Mexico Emergency Operations Center to determine if radioactive material from the Los Alamos National Laboratory was becoming airborne. EPA deployed members of the Radiological Emergency Response Team with the mobile command post and air samplers to support the response. Ultimately, the fire did not reach the laboratory and EPA did not find increased levels of radioactive material in the air.

Hanford Fire (Washington | June 27, 2000)

  • The Hanford Site sits on 586-square-miles of shrub-steppe desert in southeastern Washington State. Beginning in 1943 until 1987, the site was used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Weapons production processes left radioactive solid and liquid wastes. In 1989, DOE, EPA, and the Washington State Department of Ecology entered into an agreement to clean-up the Hanford Site.
  • This fire started on June 27, 2000 after an automobile accident. It spread to part of the Hanford Reservation in eastern Washington State and burned approximately half of the site’s 560 square miles.
  • EPA took air samples at 24 locations around the Hanford facility, including populated areas immediately adjacent to the facility and up to 80 miles away, and on tribal lands. The results of the analyses of these samples were compared to regional and national results from the RadNet program to determine if abnormal radiation levels existed. Based on the preliminary screening analyses from the RadNet system, no radiation levels above background were found in any samples of gamma spectrometry and gross alpha/beta count, which was similar to the initial offsite results obtained by DOE monitoring.
  • Based on more specific analyses conducted during the Hanford fire, several radioactive materials were detected at concentrations above typical background levels in the air near the Hanford site, including plutonium, strontium-90, and gross alpha and beta. Elevated levels of plutonium contamination in air were measured; however, officials from the State Health Department noted that the radioactive materials were below the threshold deemed hazardous to human health and below levels that would have triggered an emergency response based on EPA’s protective action guides. These results were also within or below the EPA National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) dose limits and limits set by the State of Washington.

Three Mile Island (Pennsylvania | March 28, 1979)

  • For ten years following the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant incident, EPA monitored the area surrounding the plant.
  • On March 28, 1979 at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Middletown, Pa., a series of mechanical, electrical and human failures led to the accidental release of a small amount of radioactive material into the environment. There was a “loss of coolant” accident, meaning that cooling water that surrounds the core and keeps it cool was lost.
  • The day of the incident, EPA stationed experts with radiation monitoring equipment around the power plant to assess the potential for radiation exposure. EPA operated a continuous radiation monitoring network in the area surrounding the plant to ensure that public health and the environment were protected. EPA transferred this activity to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1989.
  • Learn more about Three Mile Island.

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Foreign Incidents

Fukushima (Japan | March 11, 2011)

  • On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck northern Japan. The epicenter of the powerful earthquake was under the Pacific Ocean. Forty-six minutes after the earthquake, a massive tsunami struck the Fukushima power plant, causing widespread destruction and knocking out the reactors’ emergency cooling systems. The reactors overheated, damaging the nuclear fuel and producing chemical explosions that allowed radioactive elements to escape into the environment.
  • EPA’s RadNet system was operating normally on the day of the earthquake and detected nothing unusual in the first week after the Fukushima accident. EPA deployed additional portable monitors in Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho and U.S. Pacific Territories. The monitors were set up and tested before the first radionuclides from Fukushima were expected to arrive on the winds from Japan. The RadNet system went on an emergency schedule, with accelerated sampling and analysis of air, precipitation, drinking water and milk. RadNet conducted laboratory analyses to test for certain radionuclides that are created in a nuclear power plant.
  • More information and data about EPA's RadNet monitoring of the Fukushima accident can be viewed on the Fukushima: EPA's Radiological Monitoring webpage or by searching the EPA Archives. For current RadNet monitoring data, see RadNet.

Tokaimura (Japan | September 30, 1999)

  • EPA monitored the air and milk in the United States in response to a release from a nuclear material processing facility in Tokaimura, Japan.
  • On September 30, 1999, three workers at the Japan Nuclear Fuel Conversion Company by-passed controls and transferred several times the allowable limit of enriched uranium into a precipitation tank. The transfer caused an uncontrolled, self-sustained nuclear reaction. The accident released radioactive inert gases and gaseous radioiodine, but most of these substances were confined to the building.
  • EPA activated the nationwide RadNet system, monitoring radioactivity in air and pasteurized milk in the United States. No increase in radioactivity above typical background levels was measured in any of the samples analyzed, so protective actions were not needed.

Chernobyl (Ukraine | April 26, 1986)

  • On April 26, 1986, reactor four at the former Soviet Union’s Chernobyl nuclear power station, exploded and burned. The accident, which occurred during unauthorized testing, emitted large quantities of radioactive material.
  • In the days following the accident, the Soviets released little data on the severity of the accident. In response to Americans’ concern about potential health effects in the United States, the White House assigned the responsibility for leading the U.S. response to EPA. The Agency immediately took several steps:
    • Increased monitoring of radioactivity levels in the United States.
    • Established a group to provide advice on preventing contamination of the food supply and protecting public health.
    • Established an information center to gather and distribute facts and data about the accident.
    • Arranged daily press conferences to keep the public up-to-date and to give EPA an opportunity to answer the public’s concerns.
  • For more information about EPA's response to the Chernobyl accident and the role of RadNet (then ERAMS), visit Chernobyl: EPA's Radiological Monitoring .

Nuclear Testing

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