Risk Perceptions and Decommissioning


R. H. Johnson, Jr., A. L. Fellman


While most decisions regarding decommissioning and environmental restoration may seem to have a technical or financial basis, risk perceptions also play a profound role. Health physicists have long been concerned about public expectations that all radioactive contaminants need to be removed to allow safe unrestricted use of property. Such public expectations are contrary to technical views that complete removal is neither financially practical nor necessary for adequate public health protection. Federal agencies do not require complete removal but limit the dose equivalent to 0.15 mSv to 0.25 mSv (15 to 25 mrem) per year to future occupants from residual radioactive materials left on the site. In practice, however, decommissioning efforts seem to be more directed at achieving zero dose equivalent to future occupants rather than the allowable federal limits. When confronted on this matter a federal agency representative loudly protested that decommissioning efforts do not strive for zero dose equivalent. When asked what level his agency strives for he later admitted that the target is 0.03 mSv (3 mrem) per year. We suggest that both the public expectations of zero contamination and agency efforts to achieve zero dose equivalent are driven by risk perceptions. The public has perceptions of unacceptable risks related to radiation exposures and agency officials have perceptions related to failure to achieve public expectations. All of these perceptions are driven by fears and images of consequences. Technical understanding has little to do with the fears that motivate decisions for decommissioning, either for the public or government officials.


This abstract was presented at the 35th Annual Midyear Meeting, "Decommissioning and Environmental Restoration", Regulatory Issues Session, 2/17/2002 - 2/20/2002, held in Orlando, FL.

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