Radiation Exposure Limits Weakened in Departing Bush Move

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Jeff Ruch (202) 265-7337

Radiation Exposure Limits Weakened in Departing Bush Move

Huge Hikes in Allowable Radioactivity in Drinking Water, Air and Soil

WASHINGTON - Late last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
moved to dramatically relax public protections against radioactive releases,
according to the Committee to Bridge the Gap (CBG) and Public Employees
for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The new standards permit public
exposure to radiation levels vastly higher than EPA had previously deemed
unacceptably dangerous.

Outgoing Acting EPA Administrator Marcus Peacock signed off on the new Protective
Action Guide on Thursday (January 15th) but the late signing prevented the
document from being printed in the Federal Register before Inauguration Day.
CBG and PEER are calling on the incoming Obama administration to withdraw it
from the Federal Register before it is published within the next few days.

The radiation "PAGs" are supposed to be protocols for protecting
the public from radiological incidents ranging from nuclear power-plant accidents
to transportation spills to "dirty" bombs to contamination events
at metal recycling facilities. In October, the Bush administration shrugged
off objections filed by more than 60 public health and environmental groups
to the emerging draft rewrite of the 1992 PAGs.

The groups objected to numerous aspects of the plan, such as -

  • Drinking Water. EPA has radically increased permissible public exposure
    to radiation in drinking water, including a nearly 1000-fold increase in
    permissible concentrations of strontium-90, 3000 to 100,000-fold for iodine-131,
    and a nearly 25,000 increase for nickel-63. In the most extreme case, the
    new standard would permit radionuclide concentrations seven million times
    more lax than permitted under the Safe Drinking Water Act;
  • Lax Cleanups. Rather than specifying long-term cleanup levels that
    were health protective, officials could instead choose from a range of "benchmarks" including
    doses so immensely high that the government's own official risk estimates
    indicate one in four people exposed would get cancer from the radiation exposure,
    on top of their normal risk of cancer. The PAGs also permit cleanup public
    health considerations to be overridden by economic considerations; and
  • Higher Exposures to More Sources. EPA relaxed exposure limits for all
    phases of responding to a radioactive release. For example, concentration
    limits for nearly twice as many radionuclides have their permissible concentrations
    relaxed as those that are strengthened for the early phase response, and
    those that are relaxed are on average weakened by more than double the rate
    of the smaller number that are enhanced. This despite the fact that the National
    Academy of Sciences' estimates of cancer risk from radiation have markedly
    increased since the 1992 PAGs.

"In their last days in office, the departing Bush Administration shovels
out the door astronomical increases in permitted public exposures to radioactivity," said
Daniel Hirsch, the Committee to Bridge the Gap President. "Have they
no shame?"

In an unusual move, approximately two-thirds of the text of the new standards
are not even being published for review and public comment and presumably have
already gone into effect. The remaining third would be subject to public comment
but may be relied upon in the meantime.

The relaxation of radiation protection being embraced by EPA has been sought
by the nuclear industry and its allies in the Department of Energy and Nuclear
Regulatory Commission. The genesis of this action arose in Department of Homeland
Security "dirty bomb" policies designed to provide broad flexibility
in the aftermath of an attack. EPA has now expanded the relaxed dirty bomb
standards to include virtually every type of radioactive release.

"This is yet another lovely parting gift from the Bush administration," stated
PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "The Obama administration can pull
this back in the next few days before it gets published and we strongly urge
them to do so."

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Read the new pre- publication EPA Protective Action Guide

View the letter of opposition from 60 public health groups

See
the Committee to Bridge the Gap study detailing the effects of EPA's
action

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Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.

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