As the nuclear power industry struggles against collapse from skyrocketing costs, bankrupting repair bills and investor flight (four operating reactors were permanently closed this year, more than in any previous 12 month period), the government seems to have capitulated to political pressure to weaken radiation exposure standards and save nuclear utilities billions. On April 15, the EPA issued new Protective Action Guides (PAGs) for dealing with large scale radiation releases — like the catastrophic triple reactor meltdowns at Fukushima, Japan that spread cesium and radio-iodine worldwide. The new PAGs are like a government bailout, saving reactor owners the gargantuan costs of comprehensive cleanup. And eerily, the new PAGs seem to presume the inevitability of radiation disasters that the industry — with its fleet of 100 rickety 40-year-old units — can’t currently afford to withstand.
According to Daniel Hirsch, President of Committee to Bridge the Gap, the latest PAGs took effect in April but can be amended — and EPA is taking comments. Hirsch says that the National Council on Radiation Protection’s plans for implementing the new PAGs “would allow the public to be exposed to extraordinarily higher levels of radiation than previously permitted” during reactor accident emergencies. The new PAGs also allow extremely high contamination of food, he says. “In essence,” Hirsch reports, the PAGs say “nuclear power accidents could be so widespread and produce such immense radiation levels that the government would abandon cleanup obligations” forcing people to absorb and live with far more cancers.
To cut costs, industry has long pushed for weakening radiation exposure rules. In 2002, Roger Clarke president of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) warned in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “Some people think that too much money is being spent to achieve low levels of residual contamination.” The ICRP recommends exposure standards to governments for nuclear industry workers and the public.
Permissible radiation doses established by polluters
There is no exposure to ionizing radiation that’s safe. Even the smallest exposures have cellular-level effects that can lead to immune dysfunction, birth defects, cancer and other diseases. The National Academy of Sciences’ 7th book-length on the biological effects of ionizing radiation, BEIR-VII, declared that any exposure, regardless of how small, may cause the induction of cancer. BEIR-VII also explicitly refuted and repudiated the pop culture “hormesus” theory, promoted by industry boosters, that a little radiation is good for us and acts like a vaccination.
Today, the nuclear industry — military, industrial and medical — is required to keep radiation exposures only “as low as reasonably achievable.” This tragicomic standard is neither a medical nor scientific concept. It’s not based on health physics or biology. It’s merely the formal admission that radiation producers cannot keep worker or public exposures to a level that is safe — that is zero.
Exposure limits have been established at the convenience of the military and industrial producers of radioactive pollution, not by medical doctors of health physicists. The late Dr. Rosalie Bertell made clear 36 years ago in Robert Del Tredici’s book At Work In the Fields of the Bomb, “The people with the highest vested interest are the ones that are making the nuclear bombs. And it turns out they have complete control over setting the permissible [radiation exposure] levels.” Since then, little has changed in the regulatory world (although scientists have found that far more damage is caused by low dose radiation than was earlier thought possible): the ICRP’s 1990 recommendations to reduce worker and public exposures by three-fifths has yet to be adopted by the United States.
We can thank industrial and political roadblocks for that, yet in spite of them the government’s permissible dose (lazy reporters often write “safe” dose) of radiation has dramatically decreased over the years — as we’ve come to better understand the toxic, carcinogenic and mutagenic properties of low-level exposures. In the 1920s the permissible dose was 75 rem (radiation equivalent man) per year for nuclear industry workers. In 1936, the limit was reduced to 50 rem per year; then 20-25 in 1948; 15 in 1954; and down to 5 rem per year in 1958. The general public is officially allowed to be exposed to one-tenth the workers’ dose, or 0.5 rem per year. The ICRP’s 1990 suggestion was to cut this to 2 and 0.2 respectively.
With cancer rates at pandemic proportions, adding higher radiation exposures to the effects of 80,000 chemicals that contaminate our air, water and food only makes our chance of avoiding the dread disease slimmer. Rather than permitting increased doses of dangerous and sometimes deadly radiation, especially following reactor disasters, the government should be acting to prevent them — like Germany, Italy and Japan — by preparing the phase-out of the country’s accident-prone nukes.
John LaForge is a co-director of Nukewatch, a nuclear watchdog and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, edits its Quarterly, and writes for PeaceVoice.