Nuclear Power Industry, Lawmakers at Odds over EPA Response Guide

Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
See more stories about...
Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
Sept. 23, 2013, 4:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — The nuc­le­ar-power in­dustry and some Sen­ate Demo­crats are at odds over the U.S. En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency’s new nuc­le­ar-re­sponse guidelines — some law­makers are con­cerned the bench­marks are not pro­tect­ive of pub­lic health while in­dustry of­fi­cials want to re­lax the guidelines fur­ther.

The new pro­tect­ive-ac­tion guide, which the agency is­sued in April and ac­cep­ted pub­lic com­ment on through Sept. 16, is meant to ad­vise fed­er­al, state and loc­al of­fi­cials fol­low­ing a wide range of ra­di­olo­gic­al in­cid­ents, such as “dirty bomb” at­tacks, nuc­le­ar power plant melt­downs and prob­lems at U.S. weapons fa­cil­it­ies. It is con­tro­ver­sial, in part due to sug­ges­tions that long stand­ing pub­lic-health guidelines per­tain­ing to drink­ing wa­ter and long-term cleanup could be re­laxed dra­mat­ic­ally in some cir­cum­stances.

Some Sen­ate Demo­crats are con­cerned the guide may not be pro­tect­ive enough, ac­cord­ing to a con­gres­sion­al aide. While the law­makers did not file com­ments dur­ing the form­al pub­lic com­ment peri­od, they in­tend to make their con­cerns known to the agency — likely through some form of com­ment­ary on the new guide or in a let­ter to EPA Ad­min­is­trat­or Gina Mc­Carthy — said the aide, who asked not to be named due to not be­ing au­thor­ized to dis­cuss the is­sue.

The nuc­le­ar-power in­dustry, mean­while, ar­gues the doc­u­ment does not re­lax guidelines for re­spond­ing to ra­di­olo­gic­al in­cid­ents enough. Com­ments the Nuc­le­ar En­ergy In­sti­tute, which rep­res­ents the in­dustry, sub­mit­ted Sept. 16 say the agency needs to do a bet­ter job bal­an­cing ef­forts to pro­tect the pub­lic from ra­di­ation ex­pos­ure with oth­er con­sid­er­a­tions.

“This im­port­ance was high­lighted by events in Ja­pan fol­low­ing the earth­quake, tsunami and nuc­le­ar ac­ci­dent in 2011,” the in­dustry com­ments say. “Some of the de­cisions taken for a single pur­pose (in this case, with the primary in­tent to pro­tect against ra­di­ation ex­pos­ure) were ex­tremely dis­rupt­ive and may have res­ul­ted in more so­cial harm than good.”

In an ef­fort to back this claim, the in­dustry group cites two pa­pers pub­lished this year, one by mem­bers of the private In­ter­na­tion­al Com­mis­sion on Ra­di­olo­gic­al Pro­tec­tion and an­oth­er by the World Health Or­gan­iz­a­tion. Neither doc­u­ment provides any dir­ect evid­ence that scal­ing back any spe­cif­ic pro­tect­ive ac­tions would have caused a net be­ne­fit for the Ja­pan­ese pop­u­la­tion, however.

Much like the in­dustry com­ments, the pa­per by the ICRP mem­bers only dis­cusses the concept of bal­an­cing pro­tect­ive ac­tions with oth­er con­sid­er­a­tions in gen­er­al terms.

“For in­stance, evac­u­at­ing people from their homes ob­vi­ously res­ults in ser­i­ous dis­turb­ance to nor­mal life,” the ICRP mem­bers say. “Not all de­cisions were as clearly jus­ti­fied and it is un­clear wheth­er they really pro­duced more harm than good.”

The ICRP mem­bers, however, do not elab­or­ate on which spe­cif­ic ac­tions in Ja­pan were not clearly jus­ti­fied. Nor do they or of­fer any data show­ing that leav­ing evac­u­ated people in place would have im­proved their over­all well-be­ing.

Sim­il­arly, the re­port by the World Health Or­gan­iz­a­tion says “both ra­di­olo­gic­al and non-ra­di­olo­gic­al risks,” such as those re­lated to men­tal health, should be con­sidered when mak­ing de­cisions on pro­tect­ive ac­tions. Based on a pre­lim­in­ary study, the WHO re­port says “the health ef­fects of ra­di­ation ex­pos­ure res­ult­ing from the Fukushi­ma … ac­ci­dent in­side and out­side Ja­pan are likely to be less omin­ous than the so­cioeco­nom­ic im­pact.” It does not say, however, that lim­it­ing any spe­cif­ic pro­tect­ive ac­tions fol­low­ing the melt­down would have im­proved the situ­ation over­all.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists, mean­while, ar­gue it is pre­ma­ture for the or­gan­iz­a­tion to even sug­gest the health im­pacts from the Fukushi­ma melt­down will be lim­ited over the long term, giv­en that new in­form­a­tion about the amount of ra­di­ation re­leased in­to the en­vir­on­ment is con­tinu­ing to come to light.

“Look at what’s go­ing on now: They’re dump­ing huge amounts of ra­dio­activ­ity in­to the ocean — no one ex­pec­ted that in 2011,” Daniel Hirsch, a nuc­le­ar policy lec­turer at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia-Santa Cruz, told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire. “We could have large num­bers of can­cer from in­ges­tion of fish.”

Even if the pre­lim­in­ary es­tim­ates of health ef­fects prove re­li­able, they would not jus­ti­fy a re­lax­a­tion of pro­tect­ive ac­tions, ar­gued Hirsch, whose cri­ti­cism of the new EPA guide has been en­dorsed by more than 100 watch­dog groups. If any­thing, it would sug­gest that the ac­tions were suc­cess­ful and should be re­peated in sim­il­ar situ­ations, he said.

Ral­ph An­der­sen, NEI seni­or dir­ect­or for ra­di­ation safety and en­vir­on­ment­al pro­tec­tion, ac­know­ledged in a state­ment to GS that the WHO re­port does not dir­ectly state that pro­tect­ive ac­tions in Ja­pan may have been coun­ter­pro­duct­ive. In­stead, it in­fers this as a pos­sib­il­ity, he ar­gued.

“Our point is not that au­thor­it­at­ive or­gan­iz­a­tions have firmly con­cluded that ac­tions taken in Ja­pan have led to more harm than good … it is not about second-guess­ing or as­sign­ing blame,” An­der­sen said. “Rather we are not­ing that the les­sons-learned from Fukushi­ma re­in­force the need for bal­ance and flex­ib­il­ity in pro­tect­ive ac­tion de­cision-mak­ing.”

One way in­dustry says the new EPA guide should achieve this is by re­lax­ing ad­vice on when it is ne­ces­sary to re­lo­cate the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion fol­low­ing a ra­di­olo­gic­al in­cid­ent.

The new guide says such de­cisions should be based on ef­forts to pre­vent in­di­vidu­als from be­ing ex­posed to more than 2,000 mil­lirems of ra­di­ation dur­ing the first year after an in­cid­ent and no more than 500 mil­lirems per year in sub­sequent years. In­dustry calls this “con­ser­vat­ive” and re­com­mends in­stead ad­opt­ing a range of 2,000 to 10,000 mil­lirems per year, pur­su­ant to the guidelines of the In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency.

The NEI com­ments also back the new guide’s elim­in­a­tion of the agency’s pri­or re­com­mend­a­tion that pro­tect­ive ac­tions aim to cap ex­pos­ure at 5,000 mil­lirems over 50 years, along with the doc­u­ment’s sug­ges­tion that long term cleanup “must take in­to ac­count a wide vari­ety of factors” and that fol­low­ing the agency’s nor­mal cleanup rules might not be work­able.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists, along with some EPA and state of­fi­cials, have op­posed this, ar­guing the agency should stick to its nor­mal Su­per­fund rules un­der which long term cleanups are de­signed so that no more than one in 10,000 people would be ex­pec­ted to de­vel­op can­cer from ra­di­ation ex­pos­ure in the worst case scen­ario. Su­per­fund’s ideal risk is one in 1 mil­lion.

“These risk levels have been ac­cep­ted as reas­on­able for even huge, heav­ily con­tam­in­ated Su­per­fund sites [such as the Man­hat­tan pro­ject site at Han­ford, Wash­ing­ton] that are half the size of a state, and thus should not be re­laxed in the PAGs,” say the com­ments signed by more than 100 groups, in­clud­ing the Nat­ur­al Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil, Phys­i­cians for So­cial Re­spons­ib­il­ity and the Si­erra Club.

“The main reas­on for the re­duc­tion in pro­tec­tion is to save money and li­ab­il­ity for in­dus­tries and agen­cies that carry out prac­tices that could res­ult in large ra­dio­act­ive con­tam­in­a­tion, mainly the nuc­le­ar power in­dustry and the atom­ic weapons fuel chain agen­cies and their con­tract­ors,” the Sept. 16 com­ments ar­gue.

By most of­fi­cial es­tim­ates, about one in 20 people would be ex­pec­ted to de­vel­op can­cer if ex­posed to 2,000 mil­lirems of ra­di­ation per year for 30 years, while 10,000 mil­lirems per year over the same time peri­od would have a risk of roughly one in five.

When it comes to mak­ing de­cisions about con­tam­in­ated drink­ing wa­ter, the new EPA guide ref­er­ences the agency’s nor­mal rules, which are de­signed to pre­vent people from be­ing ex­posed to more than 4 mil­lirems of ra­di­ation per year. It says, however, that far less strin­gent guidelines might be worth con­sid­er­ing after a ra­di­olo­gic­al in­cid­ent however, and dir­ects the read­er to IAEA re­com­mend­a­tions that in some cases are 27,000 times less strict.

In­dustry says the agency should not use its nor­mal drink­ing-wa­ter rules, not only dur­ing the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of a ra­di­olo­gic­al in­cid­ent, but also dur­ing the in­ter­me­di­ate and late phases of re­sponse, which can last years. The NEI com­ments com­plain the nor­mal EPA drink­ing-wa­ter rules are based on the lin­ear no-threshold mod­el for can­cer risk, which as­sumes there is no safe level of ra­di­ation ex­pos­ure and that the risk of can­cer is dir­ectly pro­por­tion­al to the level of ex­pos­ure.

The agency uses the mod­el pur­su­ant to the re­com­mend­a­tions of the Na­tion­al Academies of Sci­ence, which re­jec­ted oth­er the­or­ies and based its sug­ges­tions largely on stud­ies of atom­ic-bomb sur­viv­ors in Ja­pan and some oth­er data. In­dustry ar­gues, however, that the de­vel­op­ment of drink­ing-wa­ter guidelines “may con­sider but should not rely upon” the NAS mod­el and should use “health ef­fects data from ac­tu­al ra­di­olo­gic­al con­tam­in­a­tion ex­per­i­ence of drink­ing wa­ter.”

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists op­pose stray­ing from the NAS mod­el for pro­ject­ing can­cer risk and fear the new guide could al­low the agency to do so. In Sept. 16 com­ments on the new guide, Di­ane D’Ar­rigo, of the Nuc­le­ar In­form­a­tion & Re­source Ser­vice, raises con­cerns that some EPA of­fi­cials who fa­vor re­lax­ing the agency’s nor­mal rules have also ap­peared to chal­lenge the mod­el in present­a­tions to in­ter­na­tion­al of­fi­cials. Cit­ing GSN re­port­ing on the present­a­tions, D’Ar­rigo notes one present­a­tion com­pared the mod­el to hormes­is, a mod­el pre­vi­ously re­jec­ted by EPA and NAS sci­ent­ists that sug­gests low levels of ra­di­ation ex­pos­ure is ac­tu­ally be­ne­fi­cial.

Re­ac­tion to the new EPA guide from state and loc­al gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials is mixed. Com­ments from the Wash­ing­ton Health De­part­ment’s ra­di­ation of­fice say drink­ing-wa­ter guidelines should be re­laxed for a short time fol­low­ing an in­cid­ent, but not as much as they would un­der the IAEA guidelines ref­er­enced in the doc­u­ment.

The Sept. 10 com­ments sug­gest a threshold for wa­ter con­tam­in­ated with iod­ine-131 of 2,700 pi­co­cur­ies per liter, 900 times less strict than the nor­mal EPA rule of 3 pi­co­cur­ies per liter. The Wash­ing­ton of­fice ar­gues that, had it fol­lowed the en­force­able EPA rule dur­ing the ini­tial af­ter­math of the Fukushi­ma ac­ci­dent in Ja­pan, it would have had to im­ple­ment pro­tect­ive ac­tions due to rain­wa­ter con­tam­in­ated by ra­dio­act­ive fal­lout that crossed the Pa­cific Ocean.

Dur­ing that time, rain­wa­ter in the state was con­tam­in­ated by ra­dio­act­ive iod­ine-131 at levels that ex­ceeded the leg­al lim­it “by at least 50 times,” the state of­fice ar­gues. It in­sists “no health risk ex­is­ted” at this level, ar­guing that the nor­mal EPA drink­ing wa­ter rules as­sume 70 years of ex­pos­ure.

Sim­il­arly, the Illinois Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency says it be­lieves the nor­mal EPA drink­ing wa­ter rules are too strict fol­low­ing a ra­di­olo­gic­al in­cid­ent but that the IAEA re­com­mend­a­tions are too lax. It re­com­mends guidelines aimed to pre­vent ex­pos­ure to more than 500 mil­lirems per year, not­ing that the nor­mal EPA rules are based on 4 mil­lirems per year and that the IAEA re­com­mend­a­tions are based on 10,000 mil­lirems per year.

Like in­dustry, the Illinois and Wash­ing­ton of­fices back the new guide’s de­le­tion of a re­com­mend­a­tion that pro­tect­ive ac­tions aim to cap ra­di­ation ex­pos­ure at 5,000 mil­lirems over 50 years. The Illinois agency, however, sup­ports a “risk-in­formed reg­u­lat­ory ap­proach to cleanup,” an ap­par­ent ref­er­ence to the way long term cleanups are nor­mally con­duc­ted pur­su­ant to Su­per­fund rules.

The Cali­for­nia Gov­ernor’s Of­fice of Emer­gency Ser­vices has said the usu­al Su­per­fund cleanup guidelines should be made the rule for long-term cleanup after ra­di­olo­gic­al in­cid­ents, rather than be­ing presen­ted as an op­tion. It also sup­ports the use of nor­mal EPA drink­ing-wa­ter rules.

What We're Following See More »
Paul Ryan Can’t Get Behind Trump
7 hours ago

Paul Ryan told CNN today he's "not ready" to back Donald Trump at this time. "I'm not there right now," he said. Ryan said Trump needs to unify "all wings of the Republican Party and the conservative movement" and then run a campaign that will allow Americans to "have something that they're proud to support and proud to be a part of. And we've got a ways to go from here to there."

Preet Bharara Learned at the Foot of Chuck Schumer
7 hours ago

In The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin gives Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, the longread treatment. The scourge of corrupt New York pols, bad actors on Wall Street, and New York gang members, Bharara learned at the foot of Chuck Schumer, the famously limelight-hogging senator whom he served as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee staff. No surprise then, that after President Obama appointed him, Bharara "brought a media-friendly approach to what has historically been a closed and guarded institution. In professional background, Bharara resembles his predecessors; in style, he’s very different. His personality reflects his dual life in New York’s political and legal firmament. A longtime prosecutor, he sometimes acts like a budding pol; his rhetoric leans more toward the wisecrack than toward the jeremiad. He expresses himself in the orderly paragraphs of a former high-school debater, but with deft comic timing and a gift for shtick."

Obama Commutes the Sentences of 58 Prisoners
7 hours ago

President Obama has announced another round of commutations of prison sentences. Most of the 58 individuals named are incarcerated for possessions with intent to distribute controlled substances. The prisoners will be released between later this year and 2018.

Trump Roadmapped His Candidacy in 2000
8 hours ago

The Daily Beast has unearthed a piece that Donald Trump wrote for Gear magazine in 2000, which anticipates his 2016 sales pitch quite well. "Perhaps it's time for a dealmaker who can get the leaders of Congress to the table, forge consensus, and strike compromise," he writes. Oddly, he opens by defending his reputation as a womanizer: "The hypocrites argue that a man who loves and appreciates beautiful women (and does so legally and openly) shouldn't become a national leader? Is there something wrong with appreciating beautiful women? Don't we want people in public office who show signs of life?"

Sen. Murphy: Trump Shouldn’t Get Classified Briefigs
8 hours ago