Environmental Standards Must be Changed for Nuclear Reactors

Concern over the possibility of radiation damage to residents living near nuclear reactors sets the stage for a lawsuit from the Minnesota state government.

Nuclear power plant

These strict regulations of the Atomic Energy Commission are currently the subject of a growing, heated debate in many states where nuclear plants are being constructed and operated.


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(1) These "strict regulations" of the Atomic Energy Commission are currently the subject of a growing, heated debate in many states where nuclear plants are being constructed and operated. According to many scientists in the specialized field of health physics, the AEC regulations on radioactive discharges from nuclear power reactors are far too tolerant for the safety of persons living in the vicinity of nuclear plants.

The Minnesota state government is currently suing to insure that the radioactive discharges from the Monticello atomic plant will be lessened by a tremendous factor from the AEC limits. A number of states have joined Minnesota in the suit.

Many long-time supporters of the AEC are now taking a second look at reactor standards. At a recent national conference on radiation safety, Harry Ashe of the Vermont Department of Health stated: "I think the current AEC standards can be lowered.... They should be lower than they are at present." Ashe's comments are typical of state health officials who have indulged in lengthy criticism of nuclear critics in the past, but who now are concerned over the AEC's safety measures.

The primary concern of health officials is the possibility of radiation damage to persons in the vicinity of the plants from allowable radiation pollution under "normal" operating conditions. Of the sixteen nuclear power plants currently operating in the United States, the degree of damage from this pollution is unknown. No comprehensive monitoring program of nuclear facilities has been carried out by the Atomic Energy Commission, though yearly records of the amounts of radioactive materials released to the environment are published.

According to the Public Health Service, the Humboldt Bay, California, atomic plant released 900,000 curies of radioactive gases into the air in 1967 and 897,000 curies in 1968. These amounts account for about two-thirds of the AEC "permissible limit". Barry Commoner, in Politics and Environment, comments: "The meaning of these numbers can be inferred from the facts that one curie represents the amount of radioactivity emitted by one gram of radium, and that before the advent of nuclear power, the total world supply of refined radium was less than ten grams."

(2) This is perhaps the probing question the industry should be asking. Say, for example, to the AEC's Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, whose chairman, Joseph Hendrie, said in November, 1969, "The Committee has been recently informed that overall reactor safety funding for FY [fiscal year] 1970 and 1971 will be considerably below the AEC estimates of need . . . .As a consequence, many safety research activities have not been initiated, have been slowed, or have been terminated. The Committee reiterates its belief in the urgent need for additional research and development in these areas. [emphasis supplied]."

AEC safety precautions are being challenged by experts in the field of nuclear engineering and also by physicians and health officials. Typical of the criticism is this passage from the latest edition of the Disaster Handbook, edited by Garb and Eng, a reference guide for the medical profession: "The possible causes of a nuclear reactor accident include errors in design or construction, human errors in handling the reactor, inadequate consideration of the effects of aging on the reactor and its components, and deliberate sabotage. Contributory causes may be the overoptimistic statements and press releases of AEC officials on the safety of their operations."

The AEC published a study of the possible consequences of serious reactor accidents in 1957. It was summarized in a December, 1969, publication issued by Maryland's "Governor's Task Force on Nuclear Power Plants." The maximum possible consequences indicate that 3,400 persons would be killed, 43,000 would be injured and the property damage and costs would be astronomical. For example, agricultural restrictions might have to be placed on a 150,000 square mile area, at a cost of $4 billion.

The existence of a newer version of this study was announced in 1965 which was supposed to indicate maximum danger possibilities for the power plants of the 1970's, plants that are several times larger than the ones examined in the 1957 AEC report. This report was buried by the AEC, and has not been released. Most observers speculate that its contents would be "unfavorable" to the growth of the nuclear industry.

(3) This may sound true and convincing, but in practice, the opposite result is frequently found. For example, the radioactive waste pollution from a commercial nuclear facility in New York is now exceeding recommended safety guidelines, but the AEC is doing nothing to stop it.

The plant, owned by Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc. (a subsidiary of the Getty Oil Company) is currently polluting several public bodies of water in New York with deadly radioactive fission products. he most recent New York State "Radioactivity Bulletin," issued by the Public Health Department, lists water radiation levels in Cattaraugus County which are almost ten times above the AEC limit.

According to Congressman Lester Wolff of New York, the AEC proposes to spend "eight times as much for its own internal bureaucracy,'' as it will on regulation of nuclear facilities this year.

(4) Although the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy does hold public hearings regularly, information presented that runs contrary to accepted AEC policy has little chance of influencing the JCAE's recommendations. The Joint Committee distributes a good deal of material on nuclear energy from its plush, penthouse headquarters in the Capitol building in Washington; most booklets are from the AEC, but certain tracts are printed by the nuclear industry's public relations center, the Atomic Industrial Forum. One AEC booklet, written by James Ramey, one of the five AEC Commissioners, describes environmental critics of atomic development as unfortunates suffering from a "hogwash syndrome." So much for the "watchdog function" of JCAE.

(5) Guidelines on radiological protection set by the Federal Radiation Council are often not followed by the AEC. Last spring, the AEC argued before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy that occupational uranium-miner exposures should be gradually lowered, so the industry would not be set back. The FRC opted for a stronger, more immediate reduction of occupational radiation exposure. Such a clear-cut bias in favor of industry over public health is not unusual. The radiation guidelines themselves are two sided, one set for occupational exposures (such as miners and workers in the nuclear industry), and the other for the general population.

Although it is true that the "nuclear power plants are probably the most carefully studied" industry, it remains to be demonstrated that they are "rigidly supervised." The numerous examples of AEC negligence in the past cannot be expected to disappear overnight.

One of this country's best ecology magazines is Environmental Action and one of the best features in EA is called Debunking Madison Avenue . . . in which a nationally-published advertisement is printed, then picked apart with a very sharp weapon (the truth).