White House Supports Rollback of Cleanup Standards for Nuclear Incidents

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Administration would relax long-held standards for cleaning up radioactive material released through disaster or acts of terrorism.

WASHINGTON – The White House has endorsed a plan to relax long-held standards for cleaning up radioactive material released by a nuclear power plant disaster or act of terrorism, a group of federal officials say in a new draft report.

As expected, the recently completed draft report on radiation remediation parts ways with standard U.S. practice and suggests guidelines under which as many as one in 23 people would be expected to develop cancer from long-term radiation exposure. The claim that the White House has agreed to abandon standard protocol in some instances is new.

One of the Obama administration’s first actions after taking office in January 2009 was to halt publication of a planned Environmental Protection Agency guide that contained similar rollbacks. A revised version of that document is now pending review at the White House Management and Budget Office.

The apparent shift in the administration’s position on the issue is alarming, said Daniel Hirsch, who as president of the nuclear watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap led a coalition of some 60 organizations against the stalled EPA guide.

“You begin to wonder whether the Obama administration is morphing itself in some aspects into the Bush administration,” said Hirsch, a nuclear policy lecturer at the University of California-Santa Cruz.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment, but a federal source told Global Security Newswire that the claim of its endorsement of relaxed cleanup guidelines is consistent with a deal the administration has made with various federal agencies on that issue. The source spoke on condition of anonymity due to not being authorized to discuss the matter.

A ‘New Normal’

Pursuant to guidelines established by the EPA Superfund program during the 1980s, cleanups are usually designed so that no more than one in 10,000 people would be expected to develop cancer in a worst-case scenario involving long-term exposure to radioactive contaminants. A Homeland Security Department document published in 2008 suggested that a loosely-defined concept called “optimization” should replace the EPA guidelines for decontamination after a terrorist attack.

The White House now supports this “optimization” approach, for both terrorist attacks and nuclear power plant accidents, the draft report says. Its authors are accepting comments on the document through April 4.

Homeland Security officials initially sought to define optimization by including relaxed radiation dose guidelines similar to what the new draft report is now recommending in their 2008 guide. They dropped this idea after encountering strong opposition from EPA and state government officials, along with nuclear and public health watchdog groups. Though it was apparent the Superfund approach was deemed too strict, the document ultimately included no numerical benchmarks, leaving it unclear what would be expected of those assigned to mop up after a nuclear or radiological attack.

In order to address this deficiency, the department in 2010 hired the private National Council on Radiation Protection to organize a panel consisting largely of federal officials to prepare a report that would pick up where their own document left off. Nearly complete, that document now supports essentially the same recommendation that DHS officials were unable to get approved through the conventional public policy process: that a radiation dose to the human body of between 100 and 2,000 millirems per year be the target officials should aim for when deciding on cleanup actions.

In layman’s terms, an annual dose of 2,000 millirems over a 30-year period would likely result in one in 23 people developing cancer, based on estimates from the private International Council on Radiation Protection, from which the new NCRP report draws much of its recommendations. Approximately one in 466 people would be expected to develop cancer from an annual dose of 100 millirems over the same time period – about 20 times more than what the government has typically accepted in a worst-case scenario.

The NCRP report says the relaxation of cleanup standards is necessitated by events such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan. It says that disaster contaminated an area the size of Connecticut and, the report claims, demonstrated that remediation as thorough as what the U.S. government usually requires would not be possible. Instead, it suggests aiming for the lower end of the 100 to 2,000 millirem per year range when possible and says that further dose reductions should continue after reaching the lower benchmark.

“Thus, the design of the reference levels is meant only to aid in the optimization process but must not be construed as de facto cleanup criteria by any means,” the report says. “The specific situation and values of the levels will be established upon full consultation and agreement with stakeholders.”

At the same time, however, the report says the more stringent EPA guidelines – which have been used to clean hundreds of sites, including those affected by nuclear weapons operations and the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington -- are not appropriate.

Rather than using conventional health standards for determining if an area is safe to be permanently returned to its previous use, the NCRP report advices embracing a “new normal” in the years following an incident involving radioactive materials.

According to the draft report, “one must realize that there are other important factors besides human health that should be considered in the decision-making process.” It says “public financial burdens, restoring key infrastructures, and resuming normal commercial activities, as well as balancing the roles and interests of affected stakeholders” are also important factors.

The report acknowledges that the EPA Superfund process already accounts for factors such as cost, state government approval and community acceptance when making cleanup decisions. However, it calls the health risk factors that the agency employs “overly conservative.”

The less stringent optimization approach is superior because it “is designed to address far broader and more complex issues involving remediation of a widely contaminated area, with its predominant objective to achieve a timely restoration and recovery of the affected communities from a highly perturbed state, such as in a heavily populated metropolitan area where terrorist attacks are deemed likely to occur,” the report says.

Existing regulations on disposal of radioactive waste will also not be suitable for such circumstances, the report says. The need to dispose of large quantities of waste will necessitate disposal not only at special sites designed for radioactivity, but also at landfills operating under looser regulations, including ordinary municipal dumps, according to the report. Similar rollbacks of radioactive waste disposal requirements were floated during the Bush years, but ultimately stalled amid controversy and concerns about potential groundwater contamination.

Question of Size

The draft report suggests the more relaxed guidelines would be applicable for incidents including involving nuclear power plants; the detonation of a radiological “dirty bomb” that would use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material over a relatively small area; and improvised nuclear devices, which might be capable of a level of destruction closer to that of a conventional atomic bomb.

The document acknowledges that the impact of some dirty bombs might be limited – in some cases affecting an area no larger than a single building or city block. In those situations, conventional cleanup standards could be “useful benchmarks,” it says. Authors cited a 2002 study by the Federation of American Scientists showing great variation in the size of potential dirty bomb sites but do not acknowledge that one of the larger hypothetically affected areas – covering about 386 square miles – is still nearly four times smaller than some Superfund sites, however.

Hirsch argued that the report’s approach to remediation is backward. If anything, the default assumption should be that conventional EPA health standards are always used for long-term cleanup projects, with a possible exception for extraordinary cases where using the stricter standards might be impossible, or create more harm than good, he said. Deciding in advance that the usual standards will not be applicable to most dirty bomb situations, along with all improvised nuclear device and power plant incidents, he said, would open the door to undue public health risks.

It is hypothetically possible that some nuclear incidents could be so devastating that cleanup to conventional standards would not be possible and that forbidding the public from ever returning to the affected area because of elevated radiation levels might not be practical, Hirsch conceded. However, this would be the case in only a minority of situations and does not justify relaxing standards in advance of such an event, he said.

“It’s not entirely intellectually stupid to assert that we [could] contaminate such a large area that we can’t realistically abandon it forever,” Hirsch said. “But what they do is take an argument that in a very small subset of cases has some merit and they spread it to a universe in which it doesn’t.”

S.Y. Chen, a senior engineer at the Argonne National Laboratory who served as chairman of the panel that drafted the report, declined to comment. The panel includes officials working under the Energy Department, Homeland Security Department and various state agencies, most of which had expressed support for the controversial optimization approach in the past.

Preparation vs. Expectation

The issue of cleanup guidelines is one of several the federal government is grappling with in response to incidents such as Fukushima and the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Activists have raised concerns that, at the same time federal officials are suggesting a nuclear incident would likely be so bad that it would require the relaxation of remediation standards, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has opted against certain measures meant to reduce the likelihood of such an event or limit the amount of radiation released should one occur.

In response to the disaster in Japan, the commission has required additional backup power for some U.S. nuclear power plant components and earlier this year ordered that Fukushima-style reactors improve vents intended to relieve pressure inside a reactor’s containment vessel and prevent rupture. On Tuesday, though, the commission opted to delay by four years making a final decision as to whether to require that the vents be equipped with radiation filters that would limit the amount of dangerous particles released into the environment.

Activists have also lobbied for years to require the expedited transfer of spent fuel rods to dry cask storage in the interest of limiting the chance of spent fuel pool fires, but the commission has yet to issue such a requirement. It has also refused to require that reactors be protected from airplane attacks and has been criticized by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office for not doing enough to secure radioactive materials at U.S. hospitals that could be used to make a dirty bomb.

“If [a nuclear incident] is going to be so bad that you can’t clean up to [conventional standards] but have to have a ‘new normal,’ then you need to do everything you can to prevent that from happening,” Hirsch said. “I would think if you read this [report] you would say shut down every nuclear plant in the country and lock up and dispose of all radioactive materials that could be stolen” and used to build a dirty bomb.

A major concern of not only activists, but also some EPA and state government officials, is the precedent a federal document endorsing relaxed cleanup standards for a wide range of radiological incidents could have for more routine cleanups, including that of former nuclear weapons sites and other facilities owned by the Energy Department and private companies. Industry and government officials are already arguing against the use of the Superfund approach at several sites, including the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in California and an area in central Florida where EPA officials fear some 40,000 people living on former phosphate mines may be exposed to dangerous radiation levels.

For these reasons, activists have raised concerns about the makeup of the NCRP panel that the Homeland Security Department hired to draft the new report. While the document discusses the Superfund approach extensively, no experts from the EPA cleanup office that works on the program directly were included on the panel. Instead, representatives of the agency’s radiation and emergency management offices – which have routinely argued against the Superfund approach -- were selected to participate as consultants and advisors. GSN has submitted numerous requestsunder the Freedom of Information Act inquiring about the nature of these officials’ involvement, but all have been denied by EPA and NCRP officials.

Remarks one EPA emergency management official made recently might shed some light on how some staff in that office view Superfund’s applicability to nuclear disasters, however.

Speaking at a March 12 symposium hosted by the Defense Strategies Institute, Paul Kudarauskas, of the EPA Consequence Management Advisory Team, said events like Fukushima would cause a “fundamental shift” to cleanup.

U.S. residents are used to having “cleanup to perfection,” but will have to abandon their “not in my backyard” mentality in such cases, Kudarauskas said. “People are going to have to put their big boy pants on and suck it up.”