Environmental Standards Must be Changed for Nuclear Reactors

article image
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/BERNARD 63
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.

(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).