Suffolk Closeup: No Safe Level

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By Karl Grossman

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering a move to eliminate the “Linear No-Threshold” (LNT) basis of radiation protection that the U.S. has used for decades and replace it with the “radiation hormesis” theory — which holds that low doses of radioactivity are good for people.

This could impact here in Suffolk County where a clean-up of radioactive material at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) is still underway. A decade ago BNL’s two operating nuclear reactors were closed when it was found that they were leaking radioactive tritium into the groundwater underlying the laboratory site. Pumping has been going on to prevent the tritium from moving in the underground water table to nearby communities.

“If implemented, the hormesis model would result in needless death and misery,” says Michael Mariotte, president of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS). The current requirement that exposures to the public be kept “as low as reasonably achievable” would be “tossed out the window” and “the entire government’s radiation protection rules” would be thrown “into disarray, since other agencies, like the EPA, also rely on the LNT model.”

The NRC has set a deadline of November 19 for people to comment on a change requested in three petitions. The public can send comments to the U.S. government’s “regulations” website at http://www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=NRC-2015-0057

If the NRC agrees to the switch, “This would be the most significant and alarming change to U.S. federal policy on nuclear radiation,” reports the online publication Nuclear-News.

In the wake of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. crash program during World War II to build atomic bombs and the spin-offs of that program—led by nuclear power plants, there was a belief, for a time, that there was a certain “threshold” below which radioactivity wasn’t dangerous. But as the years went by it became clear there was no threshold—that any amount of radiation could injure and kill, that there was no “safe” dose.

Low levels of radioactivity didn’t cause people to immediately sicken or die. But, it was found that after a “latency” or “incubation” period of several years, the exposure could then result in illness and death. Thus, starting in the 1950s, the “Linear No-Threshold” standard was adopted by the governments of the U.S. and other countries and international agencies.

It holds that radioactivity causes health damage—in particular cancer—directly proportional to dose, that there is no “threshold.”

The LNT standard has presented a major problem for those involved in developing nuclear technology notably at the national nuclear laboratories established for the Manhattan Project—Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Argonne national laboratories—and those later set up as the Manhattan Project was turned into the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

On one hand, Dr. Alvin Weinberg, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, declared in New Scientist magazine in 1972: “If a cure for cancer is found the problem of radiation standards disappear.” Meanwhile, other nuclear proponents began promoting a theory they named “radiation hormesis” that claimed that the LNT standard was incorrect and that a little amount of radioactivity was good for people, that it “activates the immune system.” A major proponent of the hormesis theory on Long Island has been Dr. Ludwig E. Feinendegen who held posts as a professor in his native Germany and a scientist at BNL. BNL was set up by the AEC in Suffolk in 1947 to conduct research in atomic science and develop civilian uses of nuclear technology. Dr. Feinendegen authored numerous papers advocating hormesis. In a 2005 article published in the British Journal of Radiology he wrote of “beneficial low level radiation effects.”

The three petitions to the NRC asking it scuttle the LNT standard were submitted by Dr. Mohan Doss on behalf of the organization Scientists for Accurate Radiation Information; Dr. Carol Marcus of the UCLA medical school; and Mark Miller, a health physicist at Sandia National Laboratories.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or EPA supports the LNT standard. As Dr. Jerome Puskin, chief of its Radiation Protection Division, explained in 2009, the agency bases its “protective exposure limits” on “scientific advisory bodies, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the International Commission on Radiological Protection, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Ionizing Radiation, and the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, with additional input from its own independent review.” The LNT standard, he writes, “has been repeatedly endorsed” by all of these bodies

The National Academy of Sciences through its BEIR (Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation) committee found that “the balance of evidence from epidemiologic, animal and mechanistic studies tend to favor a simple proportionate relationship at low doses between radiation dose and cancer risk.”

A change in standards could also impact on Suffolk in emissions from the closest nuclear power plants to it, Millstone across the Long Island Sound in Connecticut, 25 miles from Sag Harbor. Mr. Mariotte says a switch to the hormesis theory would encourage utilities not to “spend money to limit radiation releases.”

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