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EPA Plan to Increase the Public's Radiation Exposure
Would 'Make the World Safe for Nuclear Accidents'
(News Analysis)

Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War
Thursday July 31, 2014 - 09:07:00 PM

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should not be in the business of increasing the public's exposure to excess radiation—be it from leaking nuclear reactors, microwave ovens, solar flares or "dirty bombs." But that's exactly what is underway in Washington, DC as the EPA is pushing a plan to increase the public's "acceptable" exposure to radioactive contamination 200-fold. 

The Public Comment period ends on August 3, 2014. 

After initially blocking plans to increase permissible levels of radiation hatched by the George W. Bush administration, the Obama White House and GAO are now backing the EPA's proposal to weaken traditional Protective Action Guides (PAGs) for nuclear power. 

Proponents for the change (see "Absurd Radiation Limits Are a Trillion Dollar Waste," James Conca, Forbes magazine) argue that existing standards—which range from 4 to 25 millirem (mrem) -- are "absurdly low" while increasing allowable exposure to 5,000 mrem is "more reasonable." 

The excuse for exposing the public to increased radiation levels? The threat of "nuclear terrorism." If a dirty bomb only exposed citizens to 25 mrem, the argument runs, why risk creating a panic? Under the proposed rule change, there would be no obligation to evacuate an urban population unless the fallout from a nuclear IED reached 5,000 mrem. 

Another argument for relaxing the safety standards: It would avoid "a trillion-dollar price tag trying to clean-up to levels even Mother Nature doesn't care about." Actually, nature does care about—and responds to—pollution incidents, especially those involving radioactive contamination. 

The proposed rule change to Protective Action Guidelines (allowing long-term exposure to 2,000 millrem radiation exposures) would increase the current standard of 1-cancer-in-10,000-adults over a 30-year period to 1 cancer in every 23 exposed adults—i.e., more than 4% of those exposed to these "more reasonable" radiation levels would contract cancers. 

As Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Executive Director Jeff Ruch has observed, "This is a public health policy only Dr. Strangelove could embrace." Ruch added that "no compelling justification is offered for increasing the cancer deaths of Americans innocently exposed…." 

Advocates of slacker regulation maintain that the current ALARA standard (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) should be abandoned because "no one has ever been affected by such low levels." 

This ignores generations of medical research findings. This ignores the children living downwind of nuclear reactors who suffer from thyroid illness. This ignores the rising levels of melanoma in the US population. (Thanks to the planet's thinning ozone shield, skin cancers have increased 300% since 1994). 

This ignores the National Academy of Sciences' warming that there are no "safe doses" of radiation. This ignores the findings of Physicians for Social Responsibility that "there is no safe level of radionuclide exposure, whether from food, water or other sources.... Exposure to radionuclides, such as iodine-131 and cesium-137, increases the incidence of cancer. For this reason, every effort must be taken to minimize the radionuclide content in food and water." 

This ignores the findings of leading US nuclear experts like Karl Morgan, John Goffman and Arthur Tamplin, who all concluded that low-level radiation can cause serious health effects. 

The EPA's proposed relaxation of protections designed to shield the public from harm from exposure to radioactive contamination of the environment would establish a frightening new standard whose goal would seem to be "to make the world safe for atomic power and nuclear accidents." 

Some of these issues were raised in my 2012 book, Nuclear Roulette: The Truth about the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth. Here is one excerpt: 

Responding to evidence of widespread contamination, the EPA announced on April 3, 2011, "We do not see radiation at harmful levels reaching the US from damaged Japanese nuclear power plants." While acknowledging that the danger was small, Robert Alvarez took issue with this argument. The nuclear industry "likens [radiation] to everyday life and it is not like everyday life," Alvarez stressed. "You shouldn’t have radioactive iodine, even in tiny quantities, finding its way into your milk supplies."[NWR1] The EPA promised to move quickly to release its tests for radioactivity in rain and snow but failed to do so. Within a week of the EPA’s reassuring advisory, independently tested milk samples in Phoenix and Los Angeles were registering iodine-131 at levels roughly equal to the EPA’s MCL. (Note: While the EPA’s MCL allows for one death per million Americans, the FDA’s more lenient "safe exposure" level permits 2,000 deaths per million.) 

As Fukushima’s hot breath blew across North America—contaminating strawberries in California9 and milk in Vermont—word began to circulate that Washington was preparing to follow Tokyo’s example by simply increasing "permissible" exposures. As it turned out, the nuclear-industry-backed plan to raise the "permissible" levels of radiation exposure started back in 2009. In the closing days of the Bush Administration, the EPA agreed to update the EPA’s 1992 Protective Action Guides (PGA) to subject the public to vastly increased radiation exposures. The Obama Administration has not closed the door on raising exposure guidelines. On May 29, 2012, the EPA's Radiation Protection website reported that revisions to the PAG Manual "are under review." 

According to investigators at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the new guidelines would "significantly increase allowable public exposure to radioactivity." The new guidelines would include a nearly 1,000-fold increase for exposure to strontium-90 and a potential 100,000-fold jump in exposure to iodine-131. "With the Japanese nuclear situation still out of control and expected to continue that way for months," PEER executive director Jeff Ruch observed, "this is the worst possible time for the EPA to roll back radiological protections for Americans." (At least nobody in Washington went as far as one cavalier Japanese politician who advised, "Smile and the radiation won’t harm you.") 

The industry benefits from radiation’s long lag time. While radiation-linked leukemia can manifest in 5 to 10 years, solid cancers do not appear until 15 to 60 years after exposure. And since radiation-induced genetic mutations tend to be recessive, many generations may pass before the damage from Chernobyl and Fukushima eventually resurfaces in the misshapen form of stillborn fetuses or deformed and disease-ridden children. As Dr. Caldicott emphasizes, there is no such thing as a "safe dose" of radiation, and all internal bodily exposures are cumulative. 

In March 2011, Friends of the Earth, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service[NWR2] filed a Freedom of Information Act request in an attempt to discover the basis for the NRC chair Gregory Jaczko’s remarkable recommendation that US citizens in Japan evacuate from locations within 50 miles of the Fukushima reactors. When the documents were finally released, nearly a year later, they further confirmed the government’s practice of "safeguarding the truth" rather than safeguarding the public. Among the documents was a 507-page transcript of NRC phone conversations revealing a multiparty discussion on March 17, 2011, about "the [radiation] [NWR3] doses they saw all the way out in California." One speaker states, "They were calculating doses, particularly for children—thyroid doses [that] . . . are showing millirem range doses, like one to 10 millirem." 

Later in the conversation, a speaker identified only as "Mr. Lewis" mentions a "dose estimate that was done for California . . . estimating what we believe to be very high doses to children." Referring to the accident in Japan, another NRC staffer notes, "The public doesn’t know what percentage of core damage [inaudible]. We did not on purpose put that in the press release, because it’s a little alarming." 


Here is the link explaining the EPAs intentions:!documentDetail;D=EPA-HQ-OAR-2013-0689-0001 


Comments on the EPA's proposed increase in permissible radiation exposures are due by August 3, 2014. To submit a comment to the EPA, click on the following link:!submitComment;D=EPA-HQ-OAR-2013-0689-0001 


[NWR1]Alvarez quote needs source citation. 

[NWR2]Please confirm that "Service," rather than "Center," is the correct name of this organization. 


[NWR3]Please confirm that radiation doses is what they were talking about.