The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been seeking input on regulations that should be repealed, replaced or modified. The comment window opened on April 13 and closed on May 15.
In response to the request, members of Scientists for Accurate Radiation Information (SARI) prepared a document containing scientifically supported arguments for eliminating regulations that contain strict limits on exposures to low doses of radiation and small quantities of radioactive material. The document, titled Radiation Hormesis Should be the Basis for Establishing Radiation Protection Standards, was properly submitted before the comment window closed.
The document asserts that our understanding of the true health effects of low dose radiation has advanced to the point where the logical conclusion is that the EPA’s legal authority to limit radiation exposure no longer exists. Based on current peer-reviewed science, existing regulations have a negative impact on public health. In accordance with the directives given to the Agency by Congress and by Executive Orders, the radiation protection standards should be abolished because they harm us. They do not protect us from a danger; they limit access and add costs to many beneficial uses of radiation and radioactive materials.
EPA’s Statutory Radiation Responsibility
When Richard Nixon reorganized federal environmental regulators into a single agency called the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the new organization inherited radiation protection authorities and responsibilities that had been given by laws existing at the time to a variety of federal entities.
From the Atomic Energy Commission, the EPA inherited part of the following directive from Section 161(b) of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.
…to establish by rule, regulation, or order, such standards and instructions to govern the possession and use of special nuclear material, source material, and byproduct material as the Commission may deem necessary or desirable to promote the common defense and security or to protect health or to minimize danger to life or property.
The new agency also inherited The Bureau of Radiological Health from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and it inherited the standard setting role previously assigned to the Federal Radiation Council.
Assumption, Not Science
In all cases, the EPA’s role in radiation protection was described as a responsibility to establish rules aimed at protecting [public] health and minimizing danger to life or property. That responsibility included a scientific assignment to perform and support research that would allow the agency rule writers to have a solid basis for their directives.
Unfortunately, the EPA never had or sought sufficient research funding to determine the effects of radiation. Instead, it relied on conclusions drawn from scant evidence and accepted the notion that better answers would take too long or be too expensive to obtain.
The “conservative” paradigm that the regulators at EPA have used has always been that every dose of radiation, down to a single gamma ray, alpha particle or freely moving neutron carries with it the possibility of causing harm to human health.
With the [unproven] assumption that all radiation is hazardous the EPA adopted the regulatory posture of setting strict numerical limits based on keeping doses to the lowest technologically achievable level, even if a small reduction in dose added a substantial cost.
The current result of attempting to protect the public from an assumed harm is a complex set of regulations and statutory limits on exposures from a variety of pathways to various radioactive isotopes.
One example of the absurdity of some of the limits is the fact that the EPA standard for exposure to the most exposed person during the first 10,000 years of storing used fuel in an underground repository is 15 mrem (0.15 mSv) per year. That is 1/20th of the average background exposure for an American if medical exposures are ignored. Sadly, that number was the result of at least a half a dozen years of discussions with the NRC; without the slightly moderating influence of the NRC, the EPA limit would have been 10 mrem/yr.
Effect of accepting hormesis
SARI’s document includes a suggested regulatory approach that might sound radical and wildly unrealistic at first glance.
Radiation protection would become very much simplified with the use of radiation hormesis as the basis of the regulations. Since there is no harm from low radiation doses, there should be no regulations for low radiation doses. For higher doses that are carcinogenic, there should be regulations to prevent such doses from occurring.
But the authors of SARI’s document are not radicals. Each of them has devoted a considerable portion of their careers to public health and safety and feel deep personal responsibility for getting it right. Here is how they explain how their prescription is analogous to current protective models in other fields.
With medicines which are beneficial at low doses but would be dangerous at high doses, we do not specify a dose limit, but we do guide the public not to exceed some dose levels, e.g. “do not take more than 10 caplets in 24 hours”. There are no license requirements to buy such over-the-counter drugs and there is no regulator monitoring how many caplets we have taken or asking us to document our usage of the medicine.
Since there is a vast gap between the low radiation doses that are beneficial and the threshold dose for increased cancer risk, beneficial uses of radiation are unlikely to result in doses approaching the cancer threshold. Therefore, little regulation would be needed for beneficial uses of low-dose radiation. However, if some use of low-dose radiation could result in high enough doses to be of cancer-causing concern, caution should be advised and such use of low-dose radiation should be regulated to ensure its safe use.
If you have not read the full document already, please click here to open and read SARI’s well-justified suggestion for a new regulatory paradigm for radiation exposure.
There have been several articles published in the past couple of weeks that have pointed to the fact that there is a pervasive fear of nuclear that vastly exceeds the measured harm caused by nuclear energy uses in the 60 plus years of its commercial operation. However, authors of those articles have failed to consider the fact that unjustified fears can and should be be overcome.
Progress has always depended on the process of determining actual hazards so that we can address irrational fears and use new, effective tools that make us more comfortable, more prosperous, more creative, more powerful and give us greater control over our surroundings.
Disclosure: I am a member of SARI and one of the signers of the document.