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Radiological Environmental Frequently Asked Questions

Radiological environmental analyses can help address a variety of concerns. For example, state, tribe, or local authorities may want an independent assessment of potential contamination from nuclear-related facilities in soils, groundwater, surface water, or biota for assessing compliance with safety standards. They may also be interested in determining the source of existing contamination, which can be done through field sampling, high-resolution laboratory analyses, and computer modeling. Because communities near oil and gas development or coal-fueled power plants may also experience radiological contamination through accumulation of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM) or Technologically Enhanced NORM (TENORM), they – as well as the energy developers – may need help assessing the source and extent of the contamination so that it can be mitigated or remediated. Community leaders in areas with rail lines may want third-party assessments of the potential risks of radioactive materials transportation by rail. In each of these example cases, Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) can help determine the type of assessment needed and help develop and execute an unbiased, independent evaluation.

For scientific evaluations to be trusted and useful for informed decision making, it is important that they are free from bias, hidden agenda, or a “slant” that might predetermine an outcome. This is especially critical for topics that are controversial or that receive high scrutiny, which is clearly the case for radiological materials. As a nonprofit research and development institution, SwRI does not have stockholders that drive an agenda, and each project we undertake undergoes a conflict of interest screening. In our Center for Nuclear Waste Regulatory Analyses, we are specifically prohibited from working for the nuclear industry so that we can remain conflict-of-interest-free for trustworthy regulatory reviews. Our team does not have direct affiliation to a public institution such as a university or government-run research and development body, so we are positioned to conduct scientific analyses independent of interested party influence. The SwRI team is known to provide innovative, resourceful approach to evaluating complex and controversial projects that meet or exceed regulatory requirements and client expectations.

Environmental characterization refers to an in-depth analysis of various aspects of the environment in a particular area, such as its air, water, soil, geology, or biosphere characteristics. Site characterization activities help identify and describe a site’s existing surface and subsurface conditions. Environmental characterization can help identify contaminants and their sources and form a baseline assessment of existing or potential risks posed to human health and the environment. Through environmental characterization, agencies and organizations are better able to assess or mitigate potentially harmful contaminants and comply with government regulations. SwRI has outstanding capabilities for field, laboratory, and modeling analyses to provide detailed environmental characterization.

NEPA is a law that requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making decisions. To implement NEPA's policies, Congress prescribed a procedure, commonly referred to as "the NEPA process" or "the environmental impact assessment process." In these assessments, agencies consider the existing environment, the potential impacts that could occur based on what is proposed, alternatives to the proposed action, possible ways to mitigate impacts, and cumulative impacts (combined effects from other past, present, or reasonably foreseeable future actions). These assessments are captured in Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement documents, which provide information to decision-makers. Federal agencies are obligated to comply not only with NEPA, but also with the laws or policies of many other federal, state, or local authorities that may have jurisdiction over an action. At SwRI, our team of technical experts independently collect, review, and analyze technical information regarding how an action could potentially affect the people and areas of environmental concern around the project location. SwRI scientists and engineers develop comprehensive, high quality draft and final NEPA documents, provide important information for the administrative record, and facilitate public meetings and other interactions with stakeholders, including meetings with federal, state, tribal, and local agency representatives.

Download our Environmental Reviews flyer to for more information.

SwRI staff members are highly trained professionals with decades of experience in assessing compliance of a proposed project with federal, state, and local regulations and requirements. We have direct experience with water quality and management, air quality, and radiological materials. SwRI has conducted environmental assessments that consider the relationship of state and local regulations in many states and municipalities in the U.S. and abroad. Our interactions with state regulatory agencies position SwRI as a trusted representative and compliance partner across the country. We are well equipped to navigate the complex nature of state-level environmental reviews and various jurisdictional authorities required for a successful project outcome.