EPA Documents Raise Doubts Over Intent of New Nuclear-Response Guide

Newly obtained government documents are prompting concern among critics that Environmental Protection Agency officials are seeking to use the organization’s new guide for nuclear-incident response to relax public health standards, but the agency is denying the claim.

The Freedom of Information Act release comes as the agency has yet to finish collecting public comments on the so-called protective-action guide, which it issued in April after years of internal infighting and public controversy. The document is meant to give federal, state and local officials advice on responding to a wide range of radiological incidents, such as “dirty bomb” attacks, nuclear power plant meltdowns and industrial accidents.

The documents obtained by Global Security Newswire show EPA officials have suggested at meetings around the world that the new guide could allow for the use of long-term cleanup standards dramatically less stringent than those the agency has enforced for decades at hundreds of sites throughout the United States, critics say.

In some cases, EPA officials have not only suggested that a drastic event akin to the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan would necessitate more flexible guidelines, but also have made statements that critics say challenge the very science behind the agency’s everyday radiation rules.

“I think [EPA Administrator] Gina McCarthy has an out-of-control agency,” Daniel Hirsch, a nuclear-policy lecturer at the University of California-Santa Cruz, told GSN after reviewing the documents. “She has some people who are acting as nuclear cowboys, on behalf of EPA, undermining EPA’s policies and I think the public could get very badly hurt by it.”

One of the documents obtained by GSN is a presentation that Mike Boyd, an official in the agency's radiation office, gave about the new protective-action guide during a May meeting of the Paris, France-based Nuclear Energy Agency, a division of the intergovernmental Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The presentation suggests the approach to cleanup described in the new EPA guide “recall[s] the concept of optimization,” a controversial term the Obama administration had stripped from prior, Bush-era drafts of the document, even though “the word may be going out of style.”

The slides continue: “It is a flexible approach in which a variety of dose or risk benchmarks may be identified from various regulatory agencies, state governments, or other stakeholders.”

The EPA document goes on to list reports of the private National Council on Radiation Protection and the nongovernmental International Commission on Radiological Protection as among the potential sources for such benchmarks.

It is the recommendations of these very groups that EPA and state cleanup officials, along with environmental activists, have criticized in the past on the grounds they suggest remediation goals thousands of times less rigorous than what has ever been permitted in the United States.

Most recently, a February NCRP report funded by the U.S. Homeland Security Department suggested implementing ICRP cleanup goals under which an annual radiation dose of up to 2,000 millirems per year is permitted -- a rate at which as many as 1 in 20 people would be expected to develop cancer from long-term exposure. Normally, EPA does not permit actions that would leave more than 1 in 10,000 people at risk for cancer from 30 years of exposure, pursuant to rules its Superfund program established in the 1980s.

“It’s bait and switch,” said Hirsch, who as president of the watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap has been tapped by numerous environmental organizations throughout the country to critique the agency’s handling of the new guidance. “They took out the horrible language, left it vague enough and then you’ve got [EPA officials] acting as though the language is still there.”

A ‘fundamental shift’

As it was, watchdog groups already were raising alarms over comments that Paul Kudarauskas, an official with the EPA Consequence Management Advisory Team, made earlier this year suggesting events like Fukushima would cause a “fundamental shift” to cleanup.

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

The Chicago-based Nuclear Energy Information Service, a critic of the new EPA guide, cited GSN’s reporting of Kudarauskas’ remarks in Aug. 1 comments on the new guide. The activist group’s comments ask that the agency rescind the document and fire Kudarauskas.

In a statement to GSN, the agency maintains that the new guide “does not supersede or alter environmental laws or regulations,” however. While Boyd’s presentation in France “cited NCRP and ICRP documents as useful resources ... to an international audience from leading organizations in the field of radiation protection,” the guide itself notes that the Superfund cancer risk guidelines are “generally considered protective” in the United States, according to the EPA statement agency spokeswoman Julia Valentine provided to GSN.

Critics of the guide have argued, however, that such language does not overtly rule out the use of less-strict guidelines, and have asked that the document explicitly state the agency will stick to its regular cancer-risk rules following a radiological incident.

The EPA response to GSN acknowledges that the new guide says “the [Superfund] risk range may not be achievable in a large radiological incident.” Over the objections of activists and some local officials, the new document also eliminates a recommendation that appeared in the agency’s prior nuclear-response guide from 1992 that stated people should not be exposed to more than 5,000 millirems of radiation over 50 years. This benchmark would appear to have precluded the possibility of following the NCRP recommendation that people could be exposed to as much as 2,000 millirems per year.

Boyd’s presentation, meanwhile, says long-term cleanup conducted under the guide could only “potentially” strive to meet EPA’s traditional rules.

Detractors have long feared the guide is part of an effort to chip away at those standards, noting that industry and government officials are already arguing against the use of Superfund protocol at several sites. Those include the site of a nuclear reactor meltdown at 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.

Exposure vs. cancer risk

Now presentations EPA officials are making regarding cleanup after radiological incidents suggest some agency staffers are looking to challenge the cancer-risk science underlying nearly all of the agency’s radiation regulations by suggesting there are scientifically valid alternatives, activists say.

May 2012 presentation to Japanese officials dealing with the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster led by John Cardarelli -- an official in EPA’s emergency management office and a colleague of Kudarauskas on the EPA Consequence Management Advisory Team -- says officials should “candidly acknowledge [the] limitations of risk-analysis mechanisms.” That is a reference to mathematical models scientists use to project the correlation between cancer incidents and radiation exposure.

In accordance with the recommendations of the National Academies of Science, official EPA policy endorses what is called the “linear no-threshold” model, which -- based largely on studies of atomic-bomb survivors in Japan and some other data -- assumes there is no safe level of radiation exposure. The model presupposes that cancer risk increases proportionally with the size of the radiation dose an individual receives.

Cardarelli’s presentation, however, presents alternative theories previously rejected by NAS and EPA scientists, including one, called “hormesis,” which argues that low levels of radiation exposure are actually beneficial.

The EPA statement to GSN defends the presentation, arguing that “technical information is available to support all of the models” it cites -- including hormesis, another theory that assumes radiation is less harmful than NAS scientists have found, and a third that suggests it could be more harmful. The “scientific community is not unified on radiation health effects,” the EPA statement claims.

Hirsch slammed the EPA defense of the presentation, calling the cited alternative theories “kooky stuff from the margin of science.

“The scientific community is not united on this?” Hirsch continued. “It went to the National Academies of Science, which unanimously concluded: Yes, [the correct model] is linear no-threshold. If you pardon the expression, it is a little bit like the climate deniers saying that the science community is not united on this matter. … They’re making it sound like the National Academies of Science are just one little player in this and that EPA is just one little player.”

A separate September 2012 presentation by Cardarelli to an interagency group led by the Homeland Security Department appears to suggest that EPA regulations are the opposite of science and that complying with EPA cancer risk rules is the opposite of conducting a “practical cleanup.”

Echoing Kudarauskas, the presentation says the Fukushima disaster has necessitated “a fundamental shift in our thinking” and cites a 100 millirem per year radiation dose limit as an alternative. About 1 in 300 people would be expected to develop cancer if exposed to this level for 30 years, according to calculations performed using the NAS and EPA-approved risk figures.

Even the International Commission on Radiological Protection’s projections would put the risk at roughly 1 in 400, which is about 25 times greater than what EPA rules would normally allow under the worst circumstances.

‘Many considerations’

The agency response to GSN says, however, that there “was no intent to discredit EPA regulations” in the Cardarelli presentation. The EPA statement said the presentation referenced “the many considerations that need to be made when dealing with complex large scale incidents such as Fukushima” and that the 100 millirem per year dose limit is the target used in Japan.

This dose limit also represents the low end of the 100-2,000 millirem per year cleanup-target recommended by the February NCRP report that Boyd’s presentation to the Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency implies could be acceptable under the new EPA response guide. Jonathan Edwards, director of the EPA radiation office and Boyd’s superior, helped draft the NCRP report, as did Cardarelli.

Boyd's presentation, meanwhile, appears to misrepresent the criticism that state cleanup officials and environmental activists have levied against the new EPA guide, Hirsch says. Boyd says those opposed to the new guide advocate for “a single cleanup number” that would dictate the amount of radioactive contamination that can be left behind at all sites and that lacks “any flexibility” to accommodate for differing circumstances.

However, most state officials and environmental groups that have offered public criticism of the guide have actually called for the use of Superfund protocol. Hirsch notes the Superfund methodology does not provide a single, rigid cleanup number. Rather, it presents a series of sophisticated calculation tools that can be adjusted to accommodate for the expected use of a particular site, how much time people are likely to spend at a given location and under what conditions. It also includes a range -- rather than a single target -- for cancer incidents, with a 1 in 10,000 risk considered the worst case scenario and a 1 in 1 million risk considered the ideal.

The EPA response to GSN insists that “some state and local government partners have indeed expressed a preference for a prescribed single cleanup number.” The agency declined to identify which state and local officials made such requests, however, saying they were made “during informal conversations” and were “not recorded … official state positions.”

Activists contend officials in the agency’s radiation and emergency-management offices are looking to marginalize the Superfund program and its supporters. They argue that documents the two offices helped develop misrepresent how the cleanup program works and the types of problems it is meant to address.

Like the February NCRP report that he and Edwards helped develop, Cardarelli’s presentations portray the Superfund program as one that deals primarily with small, residential cleanups, which he contrasts with the widespread contamination facing the area surrounding Fukushima, activists say.

Hirsch argues these assertions omit the fact that the Superfund approach is used for cleaning not only small residential areas, but also massive nuclear weapons sites, such as the 586-square-mile Manhattan-project site at Hanford, Washington. In contrast, the government has said some dirty-bomb attacks and other radiological incidents that the new guide is meant to address might only affect sites spanning less than a few square miles.

Some EPA officials agree

Based on April EPA comments on the February NCRP report that GSN obtained under a separate FOIA request, it would appear some agency officials share activists’ concerns that the Superfund approach to cleanup is being misrepresented.

The comments, unlike the NCRP document and EPA presentations, were developed with input from the agency’s Superfund and drinking-water offices. They reject the NCRP authors’ use of the term “simplistic in nature” to describe the Superfund program’s approach to risk assessment and urge deletion of the language.

The EPA comments say the language in the NRCP report, to which Edwards and Cardarelli contributed, should be replaced with a detailed discussion of the numerous calculations that Superfund officials perform in order to determine remediation goals.

Likewise, in internal emails from 2011 that GSN also obtained under a FOIA request, EPA Superfund official Stuart Walker suggests to Cardarelli that information about how the program selects cleanup goals could be helpful to Japanese officials grappling with the Fukushima contamination.

Walker also recommends sharing guidance documents the Superfund program developed on specific topics about which Japanese officials were seeking information. The focus of Japanese interest, according to Cardarelli’s e-mails, included how to talk to the public about radiation risk, how to reduce the volume of radioactive waste and how to temporarily store contaminated materials.

The materials released under FOIA also show that Walker, the EPA Superfund official, developed a detailed presentation explaining how the Superfund methodology could be used specifically to clean up after major radiological events, including dirty-bomb and nuclear-weapon attacks.

Left out of the mix

None of this information appears on a website that Cardarelli, who has led EPA efforts to assist the Japanese, created as a repository for information that could be useful to those involved with the Fukushima cleanup. It is also largely absent from the new EPA guide for mopping up after such events in the United States.

A common theme among public comments the agency has so far received on the new guide is that the document lacks specific details that would tell responders exactly what they should do during and after a crisis. Instead, respondents say it provides a largely theoretical overview that is largely unhelpful. Even commenters who support relaxation of the agency’s usual standards after such an event complain that the guide is short on practical information.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection -- which in its comments suggests a 100-fold relaxation of EPA drinking-water standards after a radiological incident -- says the section of the document that deals with long term cleanup “is of modest value as a general reference.” The criticism is based on the lack of “numerical cleanup criteria or limits” and a view that the guide only “sketches the broad issues involved in cleanup.”

The July 10 comments were co-authored by Pennsylvania radiation bureau director David Allard, who -- along with Edwards and Cardarelli -- contributed to the February NRCP report advocating for relaxed cleanup guidelines.

The Pennsylvania comments also take aim at the portions of the guide that deal with the more immediate aftermath of a radiological crisis. They complain that rather than provide numerical limits on the amount of specific radioactive substances people should be exposed to, the EPA guide instead directs readers to other resources maintained by the Energy Department and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

This “will result in uncertainty and ambiguity over the best values to use, and cause confusion and delay in evaluating accident/emergency conditions,” the Pennsylvania state entity says.

The Orange County, Calif., Sheriff’s Department similarly complains the document does not provide tables of numerical limits, “only the algorithms to work them out.” It maintains that such an approach would be particularly problematic in the event that computers fail during a crisis.

“This makes the [protective action guide] manual much less useful as a one-stop document, and will be very difficult to use in an emergency,” the July 3 comments say. “This will cause significant delay in calculations and thereby create an undue risk to the health and safety of the public.”

The Orange County comments further complain that the EPA guide includes references to Energy Department calculators that “are not available from any source.”

Unlike their Pennsylvania counterparts, the Orange County officials do not support the relaxation of conventional EPA standards, however. Their comments say the agency should use its usual drinking-water rules following a radiological incident.

The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services is taking a similar position. It says leaving out numerical limits for specific contaminants “and directing the reader to myriad additional references reduces the usefulness” of the guide.

“In addition, some of the referenced reports are copyrighted materials and require a fee to access. In an emergency the ability to obtain the many referenced documents may be severely limited, causing an undue risk to the public,” the California office states.

As far as cleanup is concerned, California says the Superfund guidelines, under which no more than 1 in 10,000 people are to be put at risk for cancer, should be made the rule for long-term recovery rather than simply being presented as an option, as the guide currently does. And like its counterparts in Orange County, the governor’s office also recommends using existing EPA drinking-water rules after a radiological incident.

The drinking-water issue has been one of the most contentious aspects of the new guide since an earlier draft of the document leaked in 2007. Unlike the Bush-era version, the April guide does not include directly in its text drinking-water guidelines thousands of times weaker than standard EPA rules. Instead it suggests that similar recommendations by the International Atomic Energy Agency and other groups might be worth considering.

The Ohio Department of Public Safety supports relaxed drinking-water guidelines, arguing “the contention that alternate sources of clean water can be obtained and shipped to an area assumes the infrastructure around the affected area is intact.” Its June 24 comments say the “Fukushima accident demonstrated that areas affected by the radiological emergency could suffer severe infrastructure challenges and that outside sources of water and supplies may not be available.”

Environmentalists have rejected this argument, in the past noting that the 2007 draft of the guide suggested relaxed drinking-water guidelines could remain in place for months, or even years, after a radiological incident.

In July 15 comments, the Natural Resources Defense Council states, “Given that bottled water is widely available commercially through the country, NRDC sees no necessity in relaxing the established enforceable drinking-water standards for radionuclides under the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

The NRDC comments also oppose departing from Superfund guidelines during long-term cleanup. The organization further suggests that the new document’s radiation-dose limits for the immediate aftermath of an incident be more stringent, given that the National Academies of Science in 2005 determined that radiation is more harmful than the agency previously assumed.

The agency is accepting public comments on the new guide through Sept. 16.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on issues related to the new EPA response guide.