During a recent conversation with a successful career employee of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the topic of radiation protection limits came up. He reminded me that the NRC’s role in radiation protection is limited to enforcing the standards that are set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In light of President-elect Trump’s statements about finding and eliminating regulations that harm more than they help or protect, it is worth noting that the EPA is the responsible agency for 40 CFR 190, which limits maximum exposure to the general public from nuclear reactor operations to 0.25 mSv/yr. It is also the agency responsible for 40 CFR 191, which limits human exposures to radiation from used nuclear fuel, high level waste and transuranic wastes to a committed effective dose (CED) of 0.15 mSv/yr for a period of 10,000 years.
If you want to get into a contentious, multi-day discussion, ask five radiation protection experts to describe the methodology used to compute a committed effective dose from used fuel repository over time.
To put those radiation protection limits into perspective, the average American who is not occupationally exposed to radiation will receive a total of 6 mSv/year from a variety of sources including cosmic radiation (sunshine), radiation from rocks and soil and medically-related exposures.
Within the $8 billion/year 15,000 employee EPA, radiation protection limits are controlled by a marginally-resourced office of 59 people buried deep within the EPA.
The EPA branch responsible for radiation protection standards is the Radiation Protection Division (RPD) of the Office of Radiation and Indoor Air (ORIA) within the Office of Air and Radiation (OAR).
Its science and technology budget is roughly $2 million/year; that number has been essentially constant since 2011, the oldest budget still readily accessible.
Aside: In the period from 1962-1969, the budget for one of several radiation health effect research programs sponsored by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was $3-$3.5 million per year in then-year dollars. That provides some perspective on the lack of interest in knowledge accumulation to support EPA standard setting. End Aside.
The radiation science budget item description that has been cut and pasted from previous justification submissions since 2013 provides rather grandiose claims of expertise for an office given such a small annual appropriation.
The agency’s radiation science is recognized nationally and internationally; it is the foundation that the EPA, other federal agencies and states use to develop radiation risk management policy, guidance, and rulemakings. The agency works closely with other national and international radiation protection organizations, such as the National Academy of Sciences, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the International Commission on Radiation Protection and the Organization of Economic and Cooperative Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency to advance scientific understanding of radiation risk.
The version of 40 CFR 190 that remains in effect was issued in Jan 1977. It will be forty years old in a month. These rules are ripe for fundamental change based on the improvements in biological science during the period since they were imposed. The version of 40 CFR 191 that is still in effect was issued December 20, 1993. It doesn’t use any improved science compared to the 1977 issuance of 190; it is devoted more to explaining and justifying the selection of “committed effective dose” and a 10,000 year modeling requirement.
In 2014, the EPA issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) to review and potentially revise 40 CFR 190. That effort, however, hasn’t progressed beyond the comment collection and summary stage. It seems to be in a state of bureaucratic suspension.
Billions of dollars are spent every year to enforce and comply with the exposure limits issued by the EPA’s Division of Radiation Protection. There should be bipartisan support for making the comparatively small investment needed to use modern science to update the standards. Exposure limits should seek to protect public health and safety based on fundamental understanding of biological effects.
Standards setters should not rely on decades-old assumptions that result in limits that even a casual observer should recognize as absurdly low in comparison to other sources of routine radiation exposure.
The remainder of this post is a history lesson. I provide that warning for people who don’t ascribe to the idea that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it or to be locked into bad policies for the wrong reason.
Major chapter in radiation protection story driven by Nixon agenda
As documented in Glenn Seaborg’s The Atomic Energy Commission Under Nixon: Adjusting to Troubled Times, Richard Nixon seems to have entered office with an apparent personal mission to dismantle the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and its congressional power base, the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE). Contemporary news articles support Seaborg’s view. Here is the lede of a Jun 12, 1970 New York Times article titled Nixon Aides Weigh Reshaping AEC for a Wider Role.
he Nixon Administration is seriously considering a plan to break up the Atomic Energy Commission and remake it into an agency dealing with all forms of energy.
Administration sources said the proposal would shift the commission’s military programs to the Department of Defense and many of its research activities to the National Science Foundation.
The A.E.C. would then be broadened into an over‐all energy agency. One problem it would deal with is the electric power shortage, which threatens much of the East with power brownouts this summer.
Seaborg was a dedicated journal keeper; his books about his service with the AEC are based on his daily journal entries that often included copies of relevant documents (reports, correspondence, meeting minutes, newspaper articles, memos, etc.)
He summarized his final years at the AEC in the foreword of Seaborg’s book about his Nixon years.
It is the story of a once proud and privileged government agency that is declining in reputation and influence, how one establishes goals when choices are limited by an impoverishment of means, of the maneuvers that are employed to sustain what seems to be worthwhile endeavors, and of how one sorts out policy and politics, chooses between adherence to principle and compromise and in the end must sometimes fight rearguard actions for survival.
All in all, it is far from being a triumphant story. The Nixon years were difficult ones for the AEC. In part, this may have been due to the special foibles of this president and his administration. More significantly, however, our difficulties can be attributed to the spirit of the times, particularly the opposition to the Vietnam War and a rising environmental consciousness.
(p. ix, x)
Furor over radiation standards
A section in Seaborg’s book on the Nixon years is titled The Furor Over Radiation Standards
John Gofman and Arthur Tamplin were two well-credentialed employees of the AEC’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Gofman, for example, had earned his PhD in nuclear inorganic chemistry as a grad student under Glenn Seaborg, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and winner of the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the isolation of plutonium.
According to Seaborg, Gofman was “as bright a graduate student as I have ever had.” He was the co-discoverer of the fissile isotope U-233; the work resulting in that isolation had been the topic of a “very brilliant doctoral dissertation. Seaborg expressed regret that Gofman had chosen to go to medical school after completing his PhD instead of joining the Manhattan Project. (Seaborg, The Nixon Years p. 123)
In 1969 Gofman and Tamplin began loudly touting calculation results predicting that exposing the American public to radiation doses at the then allowed rate of 0.17 RAD/year (170 mrem/yr or 1.7 mSv/yr) would produce 32,000 excess deaths per year from leukemia and solid cancers.
Gofman and Tamplin’s calculations were based on the belief that there was no safe dose of radiation. Despite a lack of evidence of harm from doses that were 10-50 times higher than the AEC’s limits, the two scientific colleagues devised coefficients using data from much higher dose levels and produced calculated effects that assumed that the relationship between dose and cancer risk remained constant down to the last gamma ray. Their work was a return to the straight line, no safe dose model promulgated by the 1956 BEAR 1 (Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation) committee.
Gofman and Tamplin did not publish their work in academic journals. Instead, they presented it to the public, politicians and the press. They made a number of appearances at public meetings in Vermont, Minnesota and California and testified in front of Congress at the invitation of Senator Edmund Muskie during the second half of 1969.
In the summer and autumn of 1970, articles about the two [Gofman and Tamplin] appeared in McCalls, Esquire, Atlantic Monthly, Newsweek, National Geographic, Reader’s Digest, Life, Barrons, and the National Journal. During the same time period, there were feature articles in several newspapers, including the Philadelphia Enquirer (a series of seven articles), the Christian Science Monitor (a three part series), the New York Times, and the Washington Post (the last two with several articles each). In addition, all three television networks did special programs, one on ABC giving the subject of ‘Nuclear Energy and the Environment.’ Ever present in these media presentations was the allegation of about 32,000 extra cancer deaths per year, a statistic that by its very repetition began to achieve a semblance of reality.
(Seaborg, The Nixon Years pg 131-132)
It seems likely that the two scientists were supported by a public relations firm or, at a minimum, a skilled publicist. The AEC inadvertently contributed to the attention Gofman and Tamplin were able to attract by actively defending itself and taking action that could easily be construed as retaliation against the attacks from within.
Aside: Turning critics into martyrs is never a good way to win a technical argument. End Aside.
Using hindsight, it’s apparent that the AEC made another major error in its effort to defend its authority to set limits. Its response to the 32,000 number was to claim it was too high because no one was exposed to doses anywhere close to the 1.7 mSv/year limit. Instead of reassuring anyone, that argument merely encouraged people to suggest lowering the legal limits since power plants were obviously capable of meeting much stricter limits.
That line of defense also begged the question, if 32,000 deaths/year isn’t accurate, what is the real number? In such a situation, there is no good answer. Now, with modern science it is possible to answer the question by saying that no one in a population whose annual exposure limit is 1.7 mSv will have an increased risk of cancer. That same statement can accurately be made for exposures up to 100 mSv/yr and perhaps even higher.
Minnesota imposes limits much lower than AEC’s limits on the Monticello plant
The Monticello plant site is about 40 miles north of the twin cites of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Expressing their concerns about drinking water contamination, the state of Minnesota insisted on the right to establish radioactive material release limits that were much stricter than those established by the AEC.
State authorities had been influenced by furor that Gofman and Tamplin had helped to initiate.
In Aug 1969, Northern States Power, the license applicant for the Monticello plant sued the state of Minnesota, challenging its legal standing to impose limits on radioactive material discharges. Minnesota was eventually joined by about 20 other states as intervenors or friends of the court.
Seaborg tried to interest the Nixon Administration’s Justice Department in joining the case on the side of the utility to defend the AEC’s preemptive responsibility to regulate radiation. According to the way the AEC and the JCAE interpreted the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, Congress had expressed its intent to elevate radiation regulation to the federal government. Seaborg was told that it had always been part of the Republican ideology to defend states rights. Assistant Attorney General William Ruckelshaus had been instructed by the White House to keep the Justice Department out of the case. [Seaborg, The Nixon Years p. 106)
How did the EPA get the authority to establish radiation protection standards?
When President Nixon issued Reorganization Plan No. 3 in the summer of 1970, he consolidated the radiation protection activities of the following existing agencies: Federal Radiation Council, Department of Health Education and Welfare Bureau of Radiological Health (HEW-BRH), Atomic Energy Commission Division of Radiation Protection Standards.
Radiation Protection at the EPA describes the functions from those organizations that were assigned to the EPA. All of the duties of the Federal Radiation Council were transferred to the EPA and the FRC was abolished. There was a less complete transfer of functions from the other organizations.
EPA was generally provided research, monitoring, standard setting, and enforcement authorities for each category of pollutant. However, the transfer of radiation protection responsibilities to EPA was more limited than that of other pollutants, in that the authority for enforcement of radiation standards was retained by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). EPA would later gain enforcement authority for the regulation of some radioactive materials under certain environmental statutes.
According to a New York Times article published on June 12, 1970, only 20 people were reassigned from the AEC to the EPA. Some experts in the field apparently found new work within the AEC instead of transferring to a new agency.
Why did Nixon take authority for radiation protection standards away from AEC?
It’s invariably risky and controversial to attempt to answer questions about why politicians take certain actions. That doesn’t mean that the research isn’t worth the effort or that the developed explanation isn’t worth sharing.
The controversy over radioactive material release standards delayed the commercial operation of the Monticello plant by more than a year. The publicity about that struggle, combined with the media attention attracted by Gofman and Tamplin and the campaigns waged against radioactive releases from tests conducted as part of the Ploughshares program resulted in an upwelling of expressed public distrust in the AEC. (Note: Ploughshares was the program name for the effort to use nuclear explosives for civil engineering and hydrocarbon fracking.)
Nixon’s action to move radiation effects research and standards setting to the EPA was portrayed as a way to defuse public concerns about the AEC being the standard setter, the enforcer and the promoter of the use of radioactive materials in commerce and defense applications. It was also the first step in his effort to dismantle the AEC.
The next installment in this series will describe how the EPA seized its new authority and decided to drastically lower the allowed public exposure limits and the limits on radioactive effluent releases.
Note: Nixon was a big supporter of the frequently criticized Ploughshares program, which was run out of the Lawrence Livermore laboratory located in his home state of California. Less than two weeks after Nixon’s inauguration, Seaborg briefed him on the program. Nixon asked Seaborg to brief the press and provided detailed guidance for what he wanted Seaborg to say.
The president expressed a great interest–and he asked me particularly to tell you this–in the peaceful uses of atomic energy. He particularly identified the peaceful uses of atomic explosions as an area in which he had a special interest.
Though his support can be explained in several ways, it is conceivable that the underlying motive on the part of some members of Nixon’s close circle was a desire to maintain the link in the public’s mind between nuclear power and nuclear weapons by labeling explosive detonations as “peaceful uses.”
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