Amid growing public concern that the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is not effectively addressing the potential risks of nanotechnology, Environmental Defense pointed to a precedent and potential model to resolve the conflict between NNI’s dual charges to both promote and oversee the technology. The model is drawn from our nation’s past experience in managing another controversial and potentially risky technology: nuclear power. Environmental Defense discussed the model in a supplement to its October 31 testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Science and Technology Committee.
Like the NNI, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), first established in 1946, was tasked with both encouraging the development and use of nuclear power and regulating its safety. Concerns about this dual charge led Congress to abolish the AEC in 1975, and to assign its risk research and oversight functions to a new entity, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Research and development efforts have continued under the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
“Congress’ decision to clearly separate the promotional and oversight functions was deemed necessary to reverse the loss of public trust in the Federal Government’s ability to manage both roles,” said Environmental Defense Senior Scientist Dr. Richard A. Denison. “While we make no representation as to the NRC’s performance, we believe this prior experience may offer important lessons for managing the Federal role in nanotechnology.”
Unlike the nuclear energy case, Denison emphasized that Environmental Defense is not calling for the creation of a whole new agency charged with regulating nanotechnology. Instead, an entity under the NNI – either newly formed or significantly elevated in status – needs to be given independent budgetary and management authority, responsibility, accountability, and sufficient resources to develop and direct the overall Federal nanomaterial risk research strategy.
“This entity should be directed by senior officials with environmental health training and experience,” said Denison. “And there should be a clear separation in decision-making and management from the parts of the NNI whose mission is to help develop and advance nanotechnology.”
As one illustration of the need for a clear separation in roles, Denison included in his supplemental testimony statements made by senior officials at last month’s hearing that seek to minimize evidence indicating nanomaterials may pose risks and suggest that nanotechnology’s risk are being overblown. “These officials’ characterizations of the available nanotoxicology literature are at odds with those of scientists within NNI agencies and independent experts,” Denison noted. “They appear to reflect both the dearth of health and environmental expertise within the management of NNI, and a view that concerns about risks should be downplayed lest they impede nanotechnology’s development. In contrast, we and most other stakeholders believe that the best way to ensure the enormous promise of nanotechnology is realized is to put in place a robust process to identify and address its potential risks.”
Denison pointed to a review just published in Nanotoxicology that found that the “vast majority” of nearly 430 journal papers reporting on toxicity testing of various nanoparticles identified adverse effects in laboratory animals or cell lines. (Hansen, Steffen Foss, Larsen, Britt H., Olsen, Stig I. and Baun, Anders, “Categorization framework to aid hazard identification of nanomaterials,” Nanotoxicology, published online November 13, 2007.)
Environmental Defense noted another lesson that could be gleaned from the nuclear energy example: A robust safety research program can be conducted in a manner that takes full advantage of “cross-fertilization” from research done to advance technology development, while putting in place measures to ensure that conflicts of interest are avoided. NRC conducts cooperative research with DOE and other Federal agencies, the nuclear power industry, U.S. universities, and international partners. In doing so, NRC has developed specific procedures to avoid conflicts that could arise, for example, from its use of DOE laboratories or contractors who have also worked on or are competing for DOE contracts.
“In considering changes that are needed in the management of NNI, we believe Congress should seriously consider the precedent of the NRC and lessons it may provide,” Denison added. “Doing so may help to provide a means to ensure that nanotechnology’s risks get the attention they need, even as the Federal investment in nanotechnology development proceeds.”
Environmental Defense’s testimony is at www.environmentaldefense.org/NNIrecs.