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Regulation of ionizing radiation − Prevention is the only real protection

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Author: Mary Olson − Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS)



A US federal agency has announced that it is considering an update to a regulation that has been on the books since 1977 intended to "protect" the public from radioactivity released by industries involved in the production of electricity from atomic fission. When one prods any institutional regulation of ionizing radiation, one can see that the function of the document is as much to allow the irradiation of the populace and the contamination of the biosphere, while limiting the liability of the corporations that would otherwise be "responsible" for harm, than it is to limit that exposure. If it is a limit, it is a "bag limit" for the nuclear industry; a license to kill, but, at least in theory only so many.

It is not at all clear why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is raising the specter of a revival of nuclear energy and reprocessing in the US, as well as "new" nuclear technologies as the basis for its possible revision of the nation's Environmental Radiation Protection Standards for Nuclear Power Operations, known in "the lingo" as 40CFR190.

As Nuclear Monitor readers know, the air has gone out of a nuclear power revival in the USA, and the so-called "new" technologies are previously failed things like high-temperature breeders and reprocessing that are anything but new. This opens the question: if this possible nuclear future is the basis for changing the applicable national radiation standards, is the change intended to protect the public from these industrial activities? Or is a revision of standards required to enable further nuclear development?

The Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) has posted a backgrounder on previous radiation standard updates that were advertised as "updated" but in fact allowed larger amounts of radioactivity in air, water and generally in our environment. See:

The EPA "advance notice of rulemaking," background documents, and opportunity for you to comment on this advance notice by June 4, 2014 are posted at

EPA particularly wants public comments on these six issues:

* Should EPA express its limits for the purpose of this regulation in terms of radiation risk (x cancers per 1000 people exposed) or radiation dose (x millirem or millisieverts)?

* Should, and how should, EPA update the radiation dosimetry methodology incorporated in the standard?

* Should EPA retain radionuclide release limits in an updated rule and, if so, what should the Agency use as the basis for any release limits?

* How should a revised rule protect water resources? The existing rule assumes that air is the primary exposure pathway with no consideration of ground water that could be a current or future source of drinking water. In the US, EPA's existing drinking water standards are generally more protective than most other radiation regulations, and this regulation could be weakened by an "update" rather than providing greater protection.

* How, if at all, should a revised rule address storage of highly radioactive "spent" or irradiated nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste?

* What new technologies and practices have developed (or might develop) since 40CFR190 was issued, and how should any revised rule address these advances and changes?

The EPA regulation was published in 1977 but the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is supposed to enforce it. The NRC standards are quite different from EPA's limits and in most cases allow higher radioactive releases. NRC assumes that the EPA's more protective levels are being met if its own are being met. Neither can be directly measured or applied to any given individual and NIRS continues to seek any documentation that the regulations are actually enforced.

'Key principles'

With candor EPA reveals in its notice that "protection" of the population is only part of the mandate it has for this regulation. The second "key principle" is "careful consideration" of the cost and effectiveness of measures available to reduce or eliminate radioactive releases. EPA states that it "found it necessary to balance the health risks associated with any level of exposure against the costs of achieving that level'' (39 FR 16906, May 10, 1974). EPA affirms that this dichotomy, and commitment to keeping the nuclear industry viable will continue with what it terms "cost-effective health risk minimization." In other words, the nuclear industry is allowed to kill some number of us, and it need not go to great expense to reduce that number.

The community of independent experts and concerned public tracking these issues in the USA do not have much hope for improving or strengthening the regulation; indeed it seems these days to be a pitched battle to preserve the existing terrible status quo. There are some who see a shift to a risk-based approach as the best hope for preserving the current level of protection, and perhaps shaming EPA into a more stringent level of protection by calling on it to drop the "privilege" that radioactivity as a regulated carcinogen has "enjoyed" up to now. Current NRC limits result in what NRC says is a risk of 3.5 fatal cancers per 1000 people exposed over a lifetime of 70 years. NRC is likely assuming the 1000 people exposed are all "Standard Men" or perhaps with a small adjustment factor (insufficient to reflect the actual general population). A simplified number reflecting the current NRC regulatory limit of 100 millirems (1 millisievert) per year is 1 cancer death in every 286 exposed over a 70 year lifetime.

Overall EPA states that it has a goal from industrial contamination of one in a million people exposed getting cancer (only about one-half of cancers are fatal) and will "relax" this goal to as many as to 1 in 10,000 if the 1 in a million cannot be achieved. Obviously current risk levels from allowable radiation exposure lie far outside either 1 in 10,000 or 1 in a million. This has lead to the characterization of radioactivity as a "privileged pollutant".

Nonetheless, the only direct measurement that can be made (and therefore enforced or litigated) are concentrations of radioactivity in air, water, soil and flesh. EPA has developed documents that associate contamination levels and risk. Emission or release levels are a much more complex gambit. It would be nice for people to have direct information. A point of light for the future is the SAFECAST effort to create a fleet of radiation detectors that have the same equipment, calibration and interface to a mapping program so that we can finally see radioactivity in our environment and share that information in a coherent way. See:

Independent experts

Independent experts also see maintaining limits on doses to specific organs is, overall, key to maintaining the level of protection we have now, and are calling for "no backsliding," that is no increasing allowable contaminations. If the method of calculating dose is changed from organ dose limits (limiting the radionuclides that concentrate in organs, as is the basis for ICRP-2) to the "effective dose" or "effective dose equivalent" method (ICRP 26, 60 and 103), the allowable concentrations of two-thirds of the regulated radionuclides in air and water go up, thus allowing more exposure to those radionuclides. For the other one-third some go down and some stay the same. EPA has resisted raising the allowable concentrations in its Safe Drinking Water regulations, and to be honest about a claim of protection, it is important that standards remain as protective, or become more stringent, not less. A relaxation that allows a total body calculation (total effective dose equivalent or TEDE) would be less protective.

In "the weeds" of radiation regulation is still a deeper battle: in order to protect our viability as a species, it is vital that we protect the most vulnerable phases of our lifecycle (juvenile females in the data sets available today are at much greater risk of harm from radiation). It is also vital that we protect the great Tree of Life upon which our own survival depends. EPA does not see these issues as cost-effective; more work must be done for an integrated view that includes the true costs of illness in addition to the costs of the radioactive industry.

Despite claims of "updating" or "more sophisticated modeling", EPA is not even considering the now-well-known non-cancer health effects. EPA claims cancer is the primary concern, but never gets around to mentioning or considering any others. EPA needs go beyond the International Commission on Radiological Protection "updates" to incorporate and explore further factoring in other radiation health damage. One way to do this would be to apply a Hazard Index (HI) as is done with other hazardous and toxic materials.

EPA should apply the precautionary principle and in considering new nuclear fuel chain facilities, require no backsliding on the current standards which should be strengthened, not relaxed.


Nuclear Information and Resource Service:

US Environmental Protection Agency webpage on Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on 40cfr190 (US radiation standards that apply to the commercial nuclear fuel chain):

Federal Register notice:

Official Comment site:!documentDetail;D=EPA_FRDOC_0001-15207

Radiation and Gender:

From WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor #786, 16 May 2014

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