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By F. Vermeersch (EAN Chairperson - SCK-CEN Mol, Belgium), P. Croüail (EAN Vice-Chairperson - CEPN, France) and P. Shaw (EAN Secretary - HPA, UK)

Warning - This editorial was written before the recent dramatic events in Japan. The editorial board, and EAN Members would like to send their deepest condolences to the people of Japan, particularly those who have lost loved ones as a result of the earthquake and tsunami. Of course, we also have thoughts for the nuclear workers and firefighters who are trying to prevent an even bigger catastrophe, and for evacuees and other inhabitants of the regions affected by the radiological consequences of the serious accidents that occurred at the Fukushima NPP.

For many years, ALARA has often been considered simply as a tool that aims to balance the cost of (nuclear) workers' protection against their radiological risks. This is a common simplification of the concept of optimisation, which has considerably evolved since the establishment of the concept of “reasonable practicability” or “reasonable achievability” - the so-called ALARP-ALARA principle - 70 years ago. This concept was first introduced into UK case law (Edwards v. National Coal Board in 1949) after a rockfall in a coal mine killed a worker. The original wording - which explains how ALARP/ALARA came to be interpreted - was: “risks must be averted unless there is a gross disproportion between the costs and benefits of doing so”. Consequently, until the end of the 80's there was a focus on cost-benefit analysis as a means of radiological risk management. However, it is now recognized that ALARA is far more than this.

The optimisation principle applies to all exposure situations, in all domains of human activity where there is a potential radiological risk for people (workers and/or public). In the nuclear industry, the application of ALARA over 20 years, at an organisational and practical level, has been accompanied by a significant reduction in collective doses - often by a factor of between 2 and 10, for performing the same job or operation. In non-nuclear industries (e.g. industrial radiography, and NORM industries), important steps have been made, although ALARA awareness can still be improved [see G. Frasch, S. Neumaier et al., L. Garbarino - M. Calimero]. In the medical sector, the ALARA culture is not universally embraced in European countries, although there are encouraging signs that the message is starting to be heard [S. Christofides et al. and the EAN 13th Workshop announcement].

In all these domains, the main objective for “ALARA managers” is still to continue to reduce individual doses, especially the highest ones, because iniquities, which are not acceptable, are still seen. For example, is it still reasonable that less than 1% of the contractors working in NPPs receive annual doses above 10 mSv, but that these account for 10 to 15% of the total collective dose? Is it still reasonable that, depending on the hospital, the equipment and methods used, and the medical staff involved, a patient's dose might vary by up to a factor of 20 (for the same examination and identical clinical results)?

ALARA must not anymore be seen as being confined to cost-benefit case studies made by radiation protection professionals. As an introduction to this 28th ALARA Newsletter, let us remind you of the EAN working group's definition of the ALARA culture: “the ALARA culture is a reference framework, a state of mind and an attitude allowing an individual and/or an organisation to act in a responsible way in order to manage radiation risks and giving radiation protection the priority it should have. The ALARA culture is - characterised by risk awareness, balanced judgement of risks and benefit, and the capability to develop and use required skills, competences and tools for risk assessment and management, balance of resources and economic and societal considerations, - realised through trans-disciplinary education and training tailored at each level, - supported by management commitment, guidance and supervision of competent authorities, - making use of a clear definition of responsibilities.”

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