Nuclear Power Industry, Lawmakers at Odds over EPA Response Guide

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.

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