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.

| November/December 1971

  • 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.

  • Nuclear power plant

(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]."


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