By Alejandro Davila Fragoso
New and higher radioactivity limits for drinking water tainted in the case of a nuclear emergency were put forward by the Environmental Protection Agency this week, a move that environmental organizations are calling “egregious.”
“The upshot really is that the [nuclear] industry really wants to be able to release more radioactivity and not be responsible for it,” Diane D’Arrigo, a project director at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, told ThinkProgress. “This is really a big loss.”
On Monday, the EPA proposed new guidelines for radiological emergencies — like a nuclear meltdown or a dirty bomb, a weapon that combines conventional explosives such as dynamite with radioactive material. During a radiological emergency, radioactive material could be released into the rivers, lakes, and streams used by public water suppliers. EPA is proposing non-regulatory guidance that authorities can use “to protect residents from experiencing the harmful effects from radiation in drinking water following an emergency.” Guidelines influence radioactive limits that trigger safety measures like local water use restrictions or deploying alternative water supplies. The EPA calls these guidelines the Protective Action Guide, or PAG.
According to Bloomberg BNA, rural water utilities welcomed the new PAG as it allows local decision makers to identify the best solutions. “When faced with contamination in the drinking water supply, local officials have to make immediate and difficult public welfare decisions,” Mike Keegan, an analyst for the National Rural Water Association, told Bloomberg BNA. “Their options may be limited by lack of alternative sources of drinking water or no possible way to immediately treat the drinking water.”
These guidelines have raised tension for years. The Bush administration unsuccessfully tried to update limits as the incoming Obama administration pushed back. And even before that, the nuclear industry has sued the EPA on related issues over the years. Now, environmentalists question the move, saying the PAG would allow people to drink water hundreds to thousands of times more radioactive than what is now legal. “These levels are even higher than those proposed by the Bush Administration, really unprecedented and shocking,” said D’Arrigo.
The proposed PAG says water use should be restricted when it has a radionuclide concentration of at least a 500 millirem projected dose in the first year. However, a more stringent 100 millirem should be the limit for children or women pregnant or nursing. A rem is a dose of radiation while the millirem describes a thousandth of a dose.
Radiation doses in rems are calculated based on various assumptions. The Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA’s standards for drinking water quality limits, calls for a four millirems per year limit. A chest X-ray gives about two millirems. Changing the definition of dose describes radionuclides limits differently, environmentalists said, so the allowable concentration would be thousands, tens of thousands, and even millions of times higher than set under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
According to environmentalists, the new PAG would allow iodine-131 limits to be 3,450 times higher than now permitted, while for strontium-90 there would be a 925 increase. Iodine may cause thyroid gland disturbance. And animal studies showed that eating or drinking very large amounts of stable strontium can be lethal, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
PAGs apply not just to emergencies such as a “dirty bomb,” and Fukushima-type nuclear power meltdowns but also to any radiological release, like a spill, for which a protective action may be considered — even a radiopharmaceutical transport spill. The proposed drinking water PAG would apply not to the immediate phase after an emergency, but rather after the contamination has been controlled.
The public has 45 days from Friday to comment on the PAG-Protective Action Guides.