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U.S. EPA and NRC Reducing Radiation Protection Standards Parallels seen to Japanese Industry collusion with “Regulators” to Weaken Standards

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

As Nuclear Monitor readers know, the International commission on radiological Protection (IcrP) is a self-appointed, self-perpetuating, nuclear power-promoting organization that set itself up to give the world the impression they are independent experts.

In 2007, the ICRP published 103 Recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protectionwith input from the nuclear establishment around the world. Since then, nuclear governments around the world have been adopting the parts that their own nuclear industry likes best. U.S. agencies are in the midst of this activity. Although it is much of the basis for the world’s radiation standards, the report is not free to read. Only an except is available for free on the web. (1)

It was recently revealed by Associated Press that Japanese nuclear utilities fund the Japanese representative to the ICRP. (2) This is routine procedure but not publicly known. Members of the ICRP are without exception strong nuclear advocates.

In 2004, NIRS recommended two public interest members (Dr Judith Johnsrud and Dennis Nelson, both from the U.S.) be added to the ICRP, specifically the committee making recommendations on allowable environmental releases and exposure to non-human species. We were told we have to raise our own money to send them to the meetings but even after we committed to that the ICRP refused to acknowledge or consider nuclear critics.

In the U.S., the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are undertaking major radiation regulation changes, both weakening radiation protection for the public and environment. The Department of Energy (DOE) already adopted changes to its internal orders, adopting some of the provisions that the public and metal industry strongly opposed in the late 1990s.

The same EPA offices that are pushing to weaken U.S. radiation standards, the Office of Radiation and Indoor Air and the Office of Emergency Management, are advising the Japanese on cleanup and allowable contamination levels. They seem to be using a new Protective Action Guide even though that Guide has not been adopted in the U.S. and ignoring the EPA's traditional risk range and advising higher exposures. These offices were part of the team with DOE, NRC and others that advised the Department of Homeland Security to adopt Dirty Bomb cleanup guidance (3) in 2008 that that would allow people to move back into areas that dosed them with up to 10 rads/year. National Academy of Sciences BEIR VII risk numbers show that allowing habitation in a radiation field of that level would cause cancer in 1 in 3 people living there for years.

The EPA may also be pushing to increase the allowable maximum contamination levels in drinking water above those currently allowed, radionuclide by radionuclide. In a previously proposed version of the Protective Action Guidance, which was pulled back in 2009, the allowable concentrations of radionuclides were increased hundreds to hundreds of thousands of times.

The NRC staff is recommending to the five Commissioners that they selectively adopt the parts of the ICRP recommendations that the nuclear industry wants, rather than the whole thing.(4) There is no acknowledgement of the public interest and public health comments evident in their ongoing document preparation. The U.S. still allows workers to get 2 ½ times more exposure than ICRP recommends (5 rems/year vs 2 rems/year). ICRP recommends “clearance,” exemption and exclusion of some radioactive waste and materials so their doses are not even considered and they can be released from controls. NRC wants to adopt this but the public opposition is still strong so they are finding other, more secretive ways of letting the waste out of controls. Watch for more on NRC rulemaking, ignoring the most vulnerable in future Nuclear Monitors.

In 1970, when the EPA was created by Congress, one its responsibilities was protecting the public and the environment from ionizing radiation. Congress had not expressly ruled that it is legal to kill people from exposure to chemicals, radiation or other pollutants, but the EPA adopted an “acceptable risk range,” committing to keep contamination low enough to cause only 1 cancer in a million people exposed over their lifetime. If that is not possible, EPA can permit higher risks—1 in 100,000 or, at the worst, 1 in 10,000 people exposed to get cancer. This has been supported by the courts and has been the basis for Superfund cleanup levels, site decommissioning and the drinking water standards. Like all the other agencies, EPA uses risk numbers based on the “standard man” rather than protecting the most vulnerable—women, children, the fetus, those with reduced immunity or high accumulations of radiation in their bodies already and the elderly. So everyone other than the standard man or the averaged adult (average of men and women’s risk) is actually at even higher risk than 1 in 10,000. Regardless, EPA’s radiation standards for water are generally much more protective than other radiation standards in the U.S. Thus they are a target for the nuclear industry which needs ever higher allowable release levels to continue operating and to manage its waste.

During the years that George W. Bush was president, the EPA devised a plan to “update” –read gut—EPA’s Protective Action Guidance (PAG) for protection of the U.S. population from radiation. On his very last day in office the proposal was sent to the Federal Register to be published. To their credit, at that time, the-new EPA Director Lisa Jackson, under newly elected President Obama, pulled the PAGs back. Because the proposed contamination levels and subsequent risks were so high, a coalition of national organizations met with all of the EPA Deputy Administrators to ask that the Bush-era PAGs be completely withdrawn. But they appear to have lived on. Now, at the tail end of 2012, a version of these PAGs is at the Office of Management and Budget, which is the last step before apublic comment period and adoption by EPA. This is expected to be one of several radioactive 2012 holiday gifts to the U.S. public from the agencies charged with protecting us from radiation.

The following analysis comes from the presentation made to the EPA Administrators (5)

Although the specifics of the proposed Protective Action Guidance is not public as of this writing, indications are that it is very similar, possibly worse in some ways, than the one pulled back in 2009.

Keep in mind that 1 cancer in 10,000 (1x 10e-4) is the EPA’s traditional highest allowable risk. A cumulative (not annual) dose of 100 millirems or 1 milliSievert gives a risk higherthan 1 in 10,000. According to EPA’s own Blue Book, EPA 402-R-11-001, Radiogenic Cancer Risk Models & Projections for the U.S. Population, (6) 87 millirems or .87 milliSievert will cause ~1 in 10,000 over their lifetime to get cancer. [Calculation is 0.087 rem x (1.16 x 10e-3 {the NAS BEIRVII risk}) cancers per rem = 1 x 10e-4]. Again this is for standard men or averaged adults, not women, who get 50% more cancer than men from the same amount of radiation, nor for kids-- especially baby girls--who are at greatest risk. According to EPA’s own Blue Book data, exposures before age 30 produce ~1.8 times more cancers than to older people. To be within the risk range, no one should get more than a few millirems (or a few tens of microSieverts) per year exposure.

100 millirem/year for 30 years would, according to EPA’s own risk figures, result in cancer incidence about two orders of magnitude higher than the highest end of EPA’s risk range. NRC’s general limits are, in fact, 100 mrem/year. DOE’s are 100 to 500 mrem/year.

Radiation exposure to a female infant, according to EPA, will result in 4-5 times the cancer risk than the age- and gender-averaged risk used in the regulations. This doesn’t take into account that the same amount of radioactivity ingested or inhaled can result in a much higher dose in an infant because of the small body size.

So, exposure to 2000 mrem or 20mSv per year--the controversial Japanese emergency standard for kids during school hours, and the existing US level for the intermediate period after a dirty bomb or other radiation incident--would result, according to EPA’s official risk figures, in a radiation-induced cancer risk of 2.3 in 1000 which is about one in five hundred, an order of magnitude higher than EPA’s 1 in 10,000.

The 2007 EPA draft Protective Action Guide would have allowed inadequate cleanup of a radiation event by permitting options from a range of benchmark cleanup levels: 

  • 0.1  rem (100 mr or 1 mSv), 
  • 1 rem (1000mr or 10 mSv) 1 or 
  • 10 rems/year (10,000 mr or 100 mSv).

It is believed that these benchmark levels are not expressly listed in the current EPA PAG proposal but that they are implied as options to be considered if and when needed.

Over 30 years of exposure at these rates, the risks are respectively, 7 in 1000, 7 in 100 and 7 in 10 people getting cancer over their lifetimes. Obviously these are much greater risks than EPA’s 1 in a million to 1 in 10,000 range.

The ICRP-recommended process of “Optimization” would still be used, but might not be stated as such. “Optimization” is a calculation done by the licensee or waste generator to keep exposures as low as reasonably achievable, taking economic and social factors into account. Differing, greater health impacts to various members of the population do not have to be considered when “optimizing” allowable exposures. NIRS has commented to ICRP against this manipulation from its inception. DOE has embraced it in its recent internal radiation orders.

Details of the Multi-group presentation to EPA re upcoming Protective Action Guides and inadequate response to Fukushima is at

(3)  Federal Register Volume 73, Number 149 (August 1, 2008) Pages 45029-45048
(5)  (