Patrick Malone

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is actively considering claims that low-dose radiation protections should be lifted because exposures make you healthier, a potential boon to radiation-related industries. 

Since World War II, virtually every American business where radiation is present – hospital emergency rooms and cancer wards, uranium mines, nuclear power plants, and others – has operated under rules generally requiring that exposures be kept as low as possible. The rules are based on a widely-accepted scientific dicta that even small amounts of extra radiation can be harmful to human health.
Following those rules, though, is costly and often cumbersome, and so the requirement for low-dose radiation protections – known as the ALARA standard for “as low as reasonably achievable” – has long been annoying to a large swath of American industry. Estimates of the costs associated with these protections run into the billions of dollars.

Until the Trump era, opponents of the rules have gotten little traction in trying to upend low-dose radiation protections – such as isolation units, elaborate shielding, specialized air cleaners, and elaborate worker training — in federal regulations. But proposed relaxations have been percolating in recent months, courtesy of a little-known advocacy group called Scientists for Accurate Radiation Information, or SARI.

Members of the group, which claims its ideas have been wrongly dismissed and belittled by mainstream scientists, subscribe to a minority theory known as “hormesis.” It defies conventional wisdom by holding that damaging things that are dangerous in high doses might actually be beneficial to human health in small doses.

Despite swimming against the tide in the past, one of the group’s members has just been appointed to head a Radiation Advisory Panel at the Environmental Protection Agency, which helps set federal standards for radiation doses received by the public and by workers. And several of its recommendations to ease radiation protections are presently under active consideration by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.


The NRC’s consideration of the SARI views got started when three members of the group petitioned it in 2015 to abandon its current approach and accept that radiation in low doses is not only benign, but improves health. That was two years after SARI’s founding by industry officials trying to tamp down public concerns about the radiation that spilled from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The NRC took the petitions seriously. Its staff created a working group to study the issue, and insiders now say that work is done. According to Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesman, the five members of the commission as a result will take up the issue this spring.


The commission has had a pro-industry Republican majority since May 2018, when three Trump nominees to it were confirmed.  One was Annie Caputo, a former staff member for Republican Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.) that previously worked as a nuclear engineer for the Exelon Corp. a major utility; and the second was David A. Wright, a nuclear industry consultant and retired South Carolina public service commission member. Trump also tapped as the NRC chair Kristine Svinicki, a former Energy Department employee and nuclear engineer well-known for supporting industry as a commission member since 2008. Trump handed her a new five-year term.

This year, these three have already undone a draft rule written during the Obama administration – and hated by industry – requiring new protections at nuclear plants against floods and earthquakes like those at Fukushima. The Jan. 24 votewas a straight party-line 3-2 decision.


Mark Miller, for instance, is a retired health physicist who spent 23 years at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, one of the three principal nuclear weapons design centers. His duties there included protecting workers from radiation exposure. In March 2017, Miller sent a copy of the SARI appeal to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, “who I was not a fan of,” Miller said, “because of some of his anti-science ideas.” Miller said he thought it was an opportune moment to relax the radiation standards as part of the Trump administration’s broader deregulation push. The following month Pruitt proposed to change EPA regulations to recognize the merits of hormesis.

A second petitioner, Carol Silber Marcus, is a physician specializing in nuclear medicine and a UCLA professor of radiology who once served on the NRC’s Advisory Committee on the Medical Use of Isotopes. Marcus said during a phone interview that she also works as a consultant for lawyers defending clients against radiation overexposure claims and for radiological pharmaceutical companies.

Marcus suggested in a Nov. 6, 2016 article that appeared in the journal Dose Response – a specialty publication created by hormesis supporters as a platform to spread their point of view – that radiation protection professionals, like those who belong to SARI, should purposely defy existing regulations.


Mohan Doss, the third SARI member petitioning the NRC, is a medical physicist and professor at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Doss contends the benefits of low-level radiation are well established, but he concedes that many scientists disagree. “There’s plenty of evidence that shows cancer risk goes down after people receive exposures to low levels of radiation,” he asserted. He adds that “if radiation exposure standards were relaxed,” it would produce important savings for the nuclear power industry and for medical uses of radiation.

Like many of his colleagues in SARI, Doss says that exposure to a small amount of radiation causes a small amount of cellular damage, but asserts this triggers the body’s cells to repair themselves and enhances the immune system, and thus fuels better overall health through heightened resistance to illnesses, including cancer. He says he also rejects the idea that children and fetuses have any special vulnerability to lasting harm from low-level radiation exposures because their defenses are also enhanced with the exposures.


EPA’s proposal to roll back radiation regulation to save industry from compliance costs was the subject of a hearing last October organized by House Republicans. The hearing featured testimony from longtime hormesis supporter Edward Calabrese, a professor of toxicology at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, who has long allied himself with industries seeking to ease government regulations. A center he runs has been funded by the tobacco firm R.J. Reynolds, the chemical firm Dow-Corning, the oil firm ExxonMobil, and utility companies. He’s also the founder of the Dose Response journal that advocates for hormesis, and the sponsor of an annual conference about the theory.


SARI’s minority scientific view that the exposure to low doses of radiation can promote better health – instead of helping cause cancer – even was also approved for presentation in 2016 to personnel responsible for worker safety at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a government facility famous for creating the first U.S. nuclear explosives as well as for a series of deaths and injuries stemming from radiation-related accidents. The Center for Public Integrity revealed in 2017 that poor safety practices and inadequate staffing there forced a shutdown of America’s only facility for production of plutonium pits for nuclear arms from 2013 to 2017.


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