WASHINGTON – The White House has endorsed a plan to relax long-held standards for cleaning up radioactive material released by a nuclear power plant disaster or act of terrorism, a group of federal officials say in a new draft report.
As expected, the recently completed draft report on radiation remediation parts ways with standard U.S. practice and suggests guidelines under which as many as one in 23 people would be expected to develop cancer from long-term radiation exposure. The claim that the White House has agreed to abandon standard protocol in some instances is new.
Pursuant to guidelines established by the EPA Superfund program during the 1980s, cleanups are usually designed so that no more than one in 10,000 people would be expected to develop cancer in a worst-case scenario involving long-term exposure to radioactive contaminants. A Homeland Security Department document published in 2008 suggested that a loosely-defined concept called “optimization” should replace the EPA guidelines for decontamination after a terrorist attack.
The NCRP report says the relaxation of cleanup standards is necessitated by events such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan. It says that disaster contaminated an area the size of Connecticut and, the report claims, demonstrated that remediation as thorough as what the U.S. government usually requires would not be possible. Instead, it suggests aiming for the lower end of the 100 to 2,000 millirem per year range when possible and says that further dose reductions should continue after reaching the lower benchmark.
At the same time, however, the report says the more stringent EPA guidelines – which have been used to clean hundreds of sites, including those affected by nuclear weapons operations and the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington — are not appropriate.
Rather than using conventional health standards for determining if an area is safe to be permanently returned to its previous use, the NCRP report advices embracing a “new normal” in the years following an incident involving radioactive materials.
According to the draft report, “one must realize that there are other important factors besides human health that should be considered in the decision-making process.” It says “public financial burdens, restoring key infrastructures, and resuming normal commercial activities, as well as balancing the roles and interests of affected stakeholders” are also important factors.