OPINION: Radiation Limits, Off Limits?

Work has been halted on two rulemaking projects that would have reduced the amount of radiation the government permits workers and the public to be exposed to without their consent. The improved limits would have been in line with internationally accepted standards, Bloomberg BNA reports. A Nuclear Regulatory Commission announcement says stopping the process of setting stricter radiation exposure limits was “due to the high costs of implementing such changes.”

The purpose of the NRC is to protect public and nuclear worker health and safety, but this time it’s just saving money for the nuclear industry.

The cancellation of two unfinished and long-overdue precautionary improvements, noted in the Dec. 27 Federal Register, came as a shock to nuclear industry watchdogs who have campaigned for increased radiation protection since 1990. That year, the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) recommended that radiation industry worker exposures be reduced by three-fifths, from 50 milliSieverts per year to 20 milliSieverts per year. (A milliSieverts is a measure of the body’s absorption of radiation.) The recommendation has never been adopted by the United States. Based in Ottawa, Ontario, ICRP sets standards used worldwide as the basis for radiological protection, working to reduce cancer and other diseases caused by radiation exposure.

Ed Lyman, with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Bloomberg BNA the termination of these projects “makes the US look out of step with the rest of the world. It makes it look like we’re basing our regulations on obsolete information.” Jerry Hiatt, with the industry lobbying group Nuclear Energy Institute, was relieved by the NRC move telling Bloomberg that existing rules were adequate, and that it’s unnecessary to reduce currently permitted exposures.

The rulemaking project was begun by the NRC staff in 2008 and was intended to update the country’s radiation protection standards in accordance with ICRP’s international standards, primarily with respect to radiation dose. The NRC staff had previously recommended that the commission reduce the total radiation worker exposure from 50 milliSieverts-per-year to 20 milliSieverts-per-year — in line with the ICRP’s 1990 global recommendation.

The NRC rejected its own staff’s recommendation.

The NRC’s decision not to align permitted radiation exposures with those of the ICRP is the equivalent of “throwing out one of the most significant changes to get the US in step with the rest of the world,” Lyman said. The commission formally approved the stop-work orders in April, but it only notified the public on December 27.

The NRC also decided to stop work on a second rulemaking which would have brought the US in line with international rules regarding daily releases of radioactive waste water from nuclear reactors. By way of explanation, the NRC said, its current standard “continues to provide adequate protection of the health and safety of workers, the public and the environment.”

Over the last 70 years, permitted radiation exposure limits for workers and the public have dramatically decreased as science has come to better understand the toxic and cancer-causing properties of low doses.

In its 2012 pamphlet, Radiation Exposure and Cancer, the NRC acknowledges that, “[A]ny increase in dose, no matter how small, results in an incremental increase in risk.” Likewise, the National Academy of Sciences, in its latest book-length report on the biological effects of ionizing radiation BEIR-VII, says: “[L]ow-dose radiation acts predominantly as a tumor-initiating agent,” and that “[T]he smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans.” And the US Environmental Protection Agency agrees, “[A]ny exposure to radiation can be harmful or can increase the risk of cancer… In other words, it is assumed that no radiation exposure is completely risk free.”

But today, when the international standard dose limit is less than half what our own government allows, it’s the radiation industry shareholders who are being protected by the NRC — not public health and safety.

John LaForge

John LaForge works for Nukewatch, a nuclear watchdog group in Wisconsin, edits its Quarterly newsletter, and is syndicated through PeaceVoice.