EPA Nuclear Event Guidance Draws Heat From Industry, Lawmakers

Guidelines for dirty bombs and other incidents are too stringent or too lenient, depending on who is asked.

The nuclear-power industry and some Senate Democrats are at odds over the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new nuclear-response guidelines, with some lawmakers concerned the benchmarks don't protect public health while industry officials want to relax the guidance 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 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 GSN 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 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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