Public would be endangered by new radiation guidelines proposed by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

How much radiation is OK in an emergency? By Rebecca Moss The New Mexican, 19 June 16 

New guidelines proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would significantly increase the amount of radiation that people can ingest in the days and years following a radiological accident — levels far higher than existing limits set by the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.

Watchdog groups, academics and even some EPA officials worry the change could severely compromise public health. The agency’s proposal, released in early June and open for public comment until July 25, suggests a two-tiered system to advise the public when water is too dangerous for consumption after a radiological release — an event ranging from an accident at a nuclear power plant, such as the 1979 reactor meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania, to a roadside spill of Cold War-era transuranic waste from Los Alamos to a deliberate act of terrorism. The agency has capped the proposed limits at 500 millirems per year for people over 15, and no more than 100 millirems for younger children, the elderly, and pregnant or nursing women.

The new emergency guidelines are at least 25 times higher than the current guidelines, which cap public consumption of radiation at 4 millirems per year. Opponents of the proposal say it will allow radiation exposure equivalent to 250 chest X-rays each year without medical need or consent……

The EPA proposal has significant ramifications for New Mexico, home to two nuclear weapons research laboratories and the nation’s only permanent underground repository for radioactive waste, all of which were built near underground aquifers.

New Mexico’s highways pose concerns under the new EPA proposal because truck transportation of nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad will resume if the now-shuttered underground storage facility reopens, as planned, by the year’s end. When operations restart at the waste site, which has been closed since a radiation leak in February 2014, U.S. 62-180, Interstate 25, Interstate 40 and U.S. 285 would once again be used to transport nuclear waste to WIPP from Los Alamos, as well as from out-of-state defense sites.

In the first decade of the waste plant’s opening, at least 900 trucks carrying transuranic waste traveled those roads to reach the Carlsbad facility. The New Mexico Environment Department documented 29 accidents between 2002 and 2013, though none led to a spill.

Proposals by the U.S. Energy Department show the federal government also plans to store some foreign plutonium at WIPP, after the material has been processed at a facility in South Carolina.

Other hot spots in New Mexico include the vast nuclear weapons storage facility at Kirtland Air Force Base and the Annular Core Research Reactor Facility at Sandia National Laboratories, which processes radioactive materials.

Critics of the EPA proposal worry it would allow such facilities to delay cleanup of waste and contamination, which would lead to larger amounts of contamination in drinking water in the event of a radiological accident.

The science of radioactivity continuously demonstrates that radiation is more dangerous than we knew before,” said Daniel Hirsch, director of the Environmental and Nuclear Policy program at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Despite this, he said, “The actions they are proposing are in the opposite direction, to relax the standards.”

The proposed doses are based on maximum radiation exposure over a one-year period, in contrast to a 70-year lifetime exposure calculation for the Safe Drinking Water Act, and are based on exposure to a single radioactive element, though it’s possible that several different types of harmful substances could be present in drinking water following an incident.

The new emergency guidelines would not apply to the immediate hours and days after a disaster but to the months and years it takes to fully clean up the contamination, leaving the public to consume and bathe in highly contaminated water without violating EPA standards, Hirsch said.

“Most of this is designed so officials could tell you, ‘Don’t worry,’ ” he said. “The authorities would want to reassure people, and tell you that the levels are a fraction [of the EPA limits], but the question is, are those levels offensive? If someone told you it is the level that would be the equivalent of 250 X-rays a year, you might not be so reassured.”

For some substances, the new limits are even higher. The cap for iodine-131 — small amounts of which have been found to degrade the thyroid gland — increases from 3 picocuries per liter to 10,350 pCi/L, and for strontium-90, which has been linked to leukemia, the EPA has proposed raising the cap from 8 pCi/L to 7,400 pCi/L, according to data compiled by Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer rights nonprofit.

When new standards were proposed by the EPA under the George W. Bush administration, experts at the agency expressed concern that they were dangerously high. The levels proposed under the Obama administration are even higher…..

EPA employee Stuart Walker wrote in a 2007 memo to agency officials, “Concentrations are hundreds, even thousands of times higher than the MCLs [maximum contamination levels].”

Standards suggested at the time for radioactive isotopes tellurium 129 and 127 “may lead to sub-chronic [acute] effects following exposures of a day or a week … that is, vomiting, fever, etc.,” he said.

“The [Protective Action Guidelines] would allow the public to drink water at concentrations 200 times greater than EPA’s guidance for emergency removals,” he said, adding that the standards were even higher for some radionuclides.

Walker notes that exposure to radiation could extend to food, and shipments of contaminated produce “could greatly expand the population” affected by a radiological incident and could damage the agriculture industry in unaffected areas “if the public becomes alarmed that radioactive food is being shipped around the country.”

Hirsh said the more lax standards could be intended to benefit the nuclear industry, which could use them to postpone or avoid cleanup requirements. Relaxing regulations speaks to the desperation of the industry, he said…….

Hirsh maintains that more lax standards and the open-ended nature of the EPA proposal are alarming.

“I know how dangerous radioactivity is,” he said, “so when I see these numbers, my eyes widen. To me, I started thinking about Nuremberg, and how ethically a government official can possibly do this.”

In the Nuremberg trials, which took place from 1945-49, teams from the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union prosecuted Nazi leaders for crimes committed by Germans during World War II. The litigation established guidelines for what constitutes a war crime and defined ethics principles for experimentation on humans.

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