The “permissible” levels of radiation in soil and drinking water after nuclear accidents will be raised under guidelines recently approved by the White House. Nuclear accidents include spills or releases of radioactive material, power plant malfunctions, and detonation of dirty bombs.
The new “protective action guides,” or PAGs, were issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. They would apply to disasters requiring evacuations, sheltering, and the setting of standards for food and water in and around a contaminated area.
The new PAGs allow for less stringent cleanup following nuclear accidents than ever before. They were proposed under the Bush administration, but blocked from implementation by the Obama administration until after last November’s election.
The PAGs relating to water don’t designate specific acceptable levels of radioactivity, but give state officials a stronger option than before to set aside the formerly established limit. Example: the new PAGs refer users to International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines suggesting that for a very brief time in the immediate aftermath of a radioactive disaster, it might be acceptable for people to drink water with 81,000 picocuries of radioactive iodine per liter. The EPA’s normal standard is only 3 picocuries per liter.
In the case of soil, the PAGs refer officials who would have to make decisions about relocating people to guidelines put out by the Department of Homeland Security based on the “optimization” concept developed during the George W. Bush era, a framework that would allow the public to be exposed to 2,000 millirems long-term.
That change would send the estimated number of cancer deaths expected from soil exposure soaring from the EPA’s standard of 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 23, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group of scientists from a large cross-section of government agencies.
EPA spokespeople point out that the PAGs don’t repeal the standards laid out in laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act. They’re only guidelines for first responders.
But those guidelines influence what would happen in an emergency such as the spread of radioactivity from a breached nuclear power plant containment, and the PAGs don’t make clear how long they might be in effect. Unclear, too, is what remediation, if any, would be possible if someone applied them incorrectly—allowing people to drink water with higher levels of radioactivity for an unspecified length of time, for example, rather than ordering clean water to be brought in ASAP.
The EPA acknowledges that the new PAGs are being issued in order to deal with questions like those Japanese authorities are facing following the Fukushima disaster. But apart from the implication that a similar disaster might occur at an American reactor—a particularly ominous implication given the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s refusal to order American nuclear plant operators to fit reactors designed like the ones at Fukushima with radiation filters (see “A ‘Fukushima Lesson Unlearned,’” April 2, 2013)—the PAGs include no explicit rationale in support of the changes.
As Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, commented in a press release, “No compelling justification is offered for increasing the cancer deaths of Americans innocently exposed to corporate miscalculations several hundred-fold.”•