The NRC’s appalling flip-flop on nuke plants, kids, and radiation


Like most federal regulatory agencies, especially in fields such as energy and the environment, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, tends to be a toothless tiger. It’s quick to side with the interests of large corporations and against those of the public that it is supposed to serve. But even by the NRC’s historically weak standards, the agency is moving down a very disturbing path these days — killing a scientific study that could have sounded the death knell for nuclear power in America while entertaining crackpot theories that would weaken public protections on radiation exposure to the point of becoming meaningless.

Here’s the background. In the decade after the Three Mile Island debacle, the NRC was pressed to look at whether there was a link between living near a nuclear plant and illness caused by long-term exposure to radiation. The much-criticized 1990 end product — known to environmentalists as the “don’t worry, be happy” report — claimed there was no such link. But in this century, both French and German researchers looked again at this issue, and their findings were alarming. They found, for example, that children living close to nuclear plants were twice as likely to get leukemia, especially in the 2-4 age group. As a result the NRC started to look anew at the issue — for a while, anyway:

After spending five years and $1.5 million planning a nationwide probe into whether living near a nuclear power plant such as San Onofre is truly hazardous to your health, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission pulled the plug this week, saying the study would take too long and would be too expensive.

An American study from 1990 – derided by critics as the “don’t worry, be happy” report – concluded that there is no health risk associated with living near a nuclear plant, and answers the question well enough, the NRC said.

More recent studies in Europe, using far more sophisticated techniques, have found that kids living within 3 miles of nuclear power plants had twice the risk of developing acute leukemia as those living farther away. The NRC-ordered study was to probe similar data here, and the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station was to be one of the initial areas examined.

“I’m disappointed and disbelieving,” San Clemente Councilwoman Lori Donchak said. “Our people within a 30-mile radius of (San Onofre) would’ve benefited directly from learnings about any cancer risks – for ourselves and our kids.”

This is a horrible move, but the story gets worse. It turns out that at the same time, the NRC is considering petitions from the nuclear medicine industry that would dramatically increase the amount of radiation that an average American citizen can be exposed to. How dramatically? The proposals would allow a person’s annual limit for radiation exposure to increase some 50 TIMES — to the same amount that’s now allowed for someone who works in a nuclear plant.

The proposals would endorse a bizarre and not-particularly-highly-regarded theory called hormesis – that some substances that are generally bad for you can actually be good for you in small doses. In the case, several doctors liked to the practice of atomic medicine — treating patients with radiation exposure — are urging the NRC to radically alter its exposure guidelines and limits. But any change would also be a boon to the nuclear power industry:

Nuclear medicine interests share some of the existential angst experienced by their atomic energy sector colleagues. So it is not surprising that Carol Marcus Ph.D., M.D. is a professor of Nuclear Medicine at U.C.L.A is one of the petitioners to the NRC to demand that it relax radiation illness standards.  Nuclear medicine is where expansion of the development and application of new radiology treatments and specialized equipment represent a huge corporate industrial growth opportunity.

Ms. Marcus and her colleagues have a special interest in countering many medical evaluations and admonitions that are routinely raised by doctors and hospitals around the world about the over-use of radiation for diagnosis and treatment.

Adoption of the hormesis theory of benign radiation would really help the nuclear medicine industry as much as it will help the atomic reactor power industry.  In fact, Dr. Marcus’ petition to the NRC seems to equate the fact that radiation can be useful in diagnosis and treatment of cancer with evidence that low-dose radiation is indeed beneficial, in spite of years of data proving that is not true, including the lengthy German study.

To that, one must counter that the benefits brought to cancer treatment by radiation have a very specific tissue-destroying capacity rather than any positive health function.  There is no scientifically corroborated benefit for even an extremely low-dose of radiation. Rather than providing any actual proof for her hypothesis, the balance of Dr. Marcus’ petition seems to be filled with complaints detailing how existing radiation protection guidelines hamstring her profession.

This is crazy on so many different levels. For one thing, as an attorney whose main specialty has been radiation exposure in the oil industry, and who has consulted with many of the most brilliant experts in the radiation field, I can assure you there is no safe level of exposure to radiation. None. If anything, the NRC should be making radiation exposure levels stricter, not more lax.

The other remarkable thing is that the NRC would consider these giant steps backward in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident in Japan in 2011, which rendered such a large region uninhabitable and has been linked to increasing rates of illness and at least one worker death so far. This is hardly the time to pull back for regulating the nuclear industry. The good news here is that the NRC hasn’t yet made a decision on these petitions from the nuclear medicine experts — it’s imperative that people let the NRC know that we can’t go backward, especially on the basis of an idea with no scientific merit.

Read more about the NRC cancelling its nuclear safety study from the Orange County Register:

To learn more about the petitions before the NRC that would allow higher levels of citizen radiation exposed, please check out:

Learn the story about how I fought Big Oil on its radioactive pollution in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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