This article was originally published in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
People living near the site of a radiological attack could face greater cancer risks then what the government would normally allow if officials follow the anticipated recommendations of an upcoming report commissioned by the U.S. Homeland Security Department.
The report will likely suggest that a radiation dose to the human body of between 100 and 2,000 millirems per year is the target officials should keep in mind when deciding how to clean up after a “dirty bomb” or nuclear terror attack, according to S.Y. Chen, a senior environmental engineer at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.
Roughly 1 in 23 people would be expected to develop cancer from receiving a 2,000 millirem dose of radiation annually for 30 years, based on estimates from the International Commission on Radiological Protection, a private, nongovernmental organization whose work Chen cites as the basis for the recommendations. Approximately 1 in 466 people would be expected to develop cancer from an annual dose of 100 millirems over the same time period, according to calculations Global Security Newswire conducted using ICRP projections.
“It is just ethically indefensible,” Daniel Hirsch, a nuclear policy lecturer at the University of California-Santa Cruz, told GSN. “Anyone proposing such a thing should go to jail.”
Normally, remediation of toxic U.S. properties is designed so 1 out of 10,000 people exposed to a site for 30 years would be expected to develop cancer in a worst-case scenario. One in 1 million people would be expected to develop cancer in the best possible situation.
Chen, chairman of the panel writing the new report, said he and his colleagues do not believe these guidelines – established in the 1980s by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program – must be followed after a terrorist attack.
The experience of the Japanese in the wake of last year’s earthquake- and tsunami-induced nuclear power plant meltdowns proves the need to consider economic factors in carrying out a massive cleanup, Chen told GSN in a recent interview. He argued the Superfund program was developed to deal with contamination that is more limited in scope and is not applicable to terrorist situations.
“Bring Superfund to Japan and see how it’s going to work. It will fail miserably,” Chen said. In the event of a dirty bomb or nuclear attack, “it won’t just be a Superfund-like community where several acres are contaminated,” he said. “Everywhere everybody will get disrupted big time. You have to worry about your jobs, you worry about business, you worry about your livelihood on a daily basis. So all of the sudden it’s no longer a contamination issue, it’s a bigger society issue that everyone has to cope with.”
Many Superfund sites are actually larger than what federal officials and other experts typically describe when they discuss how much land they would expect a dirty bomb to contaminate, however. Such a weapon would use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material over a relatively small area.
While an existing DHS guide that the forthcoming report is meant to supplement describes the probable affected area as ranging between “a single building or city block” to “conceivably several square miles,” Superfund sites often cover hundreds of square miles.
A major concern among watchdog groups is that the DHS guide, combined with the forthcoming report, will establish a precedent that will relax remediation standards not only for areas contaminated by dirty bombs, but also for the more routine cleanup of nuclear weapons facilities owned by the Energy Department and other sites with radioactive contamination.
In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency drafted a similar guide that would have abandoned the Superfund approach to cleanup after a wide range of radiological incidents, including accidents at nuclear power plants and industrial facilities that use radioactive material. The Obama administration delayed action on the Bush-era draft; a revised version is now pending review at the White House Management and Budget Office.
Documents the agency released under the Freedom of Information Act show some EPA staff and state government officials objected to the proposed abandonment of Superfund guidelines.
Carl Spreng, a project manager at the Colorado Public Health and the Environment Department, told GSN the dose range Chen suggests as an alternative is “way outside” what state officials “would consider safe and have argued for many years.”
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