EPA Seeks Comment on Controversial Nuclear Response Guide

A New York Police Department boat carrying radiation detection technology on patrol in April 2011 during city drills on dealing with potential terrorist radiation attacks. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Monday formally published a new guide that suggests public health standards could be dramatically relaxed following such an event (AP Photo/Seth Wenig).
A New York Police Department boat carrying radiation detection technology on patrol in April 2011 during city drills on dealing with potential terrorist radiation attacks. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Monday formally published a new guide that suggests public health standards could be dramatically relaxed following such an event (AP Photo/Seth Wenig).

WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday formally published a new guide suggesting that public health standards could be relaxed dramatically in the response to a nuclear attack or accident, triggering a 90-day public comment period that expires on July 15.

The document published in the Federal Register references drinking water guidelines nearly 30,000 times less stringent than the agency’s current rules. It also suggests officials cleaning up after a radiological “dirty bomb” attack or nuclear power plant accident do not have to follow EPA Superfund guidelines for environmental remediation.

A related report commissioned by the Homeland Security Department says those longstanding protocols should be replaced by measures that could allow one as many as in 20 people to develop cancer from long-term radiation exposure. Normally, the Environmental Protection Agency does not permit cancer risks greater than one in 10,000 in a worst-case scenario.

The new guide, which is labeled for “interim use” and is therefore now in effect, has already sparked a wave of criticism from watchdog groups and is attracting attention on Capitol Hill. During years of development, it has also generated concerns among some EPA and state government officials.

Diane D’Arrigo, of the nongovernmental Nuclear Information and Resource Service, said in a Monday release the new guide would “allow indecent exposures to radiation” and ignores concerns that women and children would be even more vulnerable to such exposures.

Gina McCarthy, the Obama administration’s nominee to become EPA administrator, declined to comment on the guide following her Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday. McCarthy oversaw development of the document as assistant administrator for air and radiation.

Earlier in the week, an EPA spokeswoman said the new guide would not affect the agency’s “existing cleanup regulations or current health and safety standards” despite suggestions in the document that complying with those regulations and standards might not be practical following certain nuclear incidents.

The authors of the related report drafted for the Homeland Security Department have defended their recommendations in part by arguing that the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan contaminated an area the size of Connecticut and demonstrated the impossibility of a Superfund-level cleanup of that scope.  The report suggests responders aim to limit radiation doses to between 100 and 2,000 millirems per year, which over 30 years equates to a cancer risk of between one in 23 and one in 466, using estimates from the International Commission on Radiological Protection, upon which most of the document’s recommendations are based.

Daniel Hirsch, a nuclear policy lecturer at the University of California-Santa Cruz, argues the cancer risk would likely be even worse. If one accounts for the increased susceptibility of women and children, or considers the possibility that exposure could continue for an entire 70-year lifetime, up to one in six people would be expected to develop cancer, he said.

In draft comments to be submitted on the DHS-sponsored report Monday, a coalition of watchdog groups call the document “profoundly unethical.”

The report “essentially admits that nuclear power is so dangerous that it could contaminate vast areas with extraordinarily high radiation levels, but rather than protect the people is proposing that government just let people be exposed to massive carcinogenic risks,” according to the comments signed by Physicians for Social Responsibility, Public Citizen and the Sierra Club.

That private National Commission for Radiological Protection, which oversaw drafting of the report using DHS funds, has declined to provide other comments it has received on the document.

April 15, 2013
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WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday formally published a new guide suggesting that public health standards could be relaxed dramatically in the response to a nuclear attack or accident, triggering a 90-day public comment period that expires on July 15.

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