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Nuclear Industry Supports New EPA Guidance on Protective Actions

Sept. 18, 2013—The Environmental Protection Agency’s revised guidance for protective actions in the event of a radiological incident provides “a more comprehensive and enhanced framework” for decisionmaking, the nuclear energy industry said this week.

EPA has integrated its 1992 guidance for nuclear power reactor accidents with interagency guidance developed in 2008 to address a much wider range of potential incidents. The revision adds new provisions intended to help state and local officials make decisions on re-entry into areas that have been contaminated.

Federal law requires every U.S. nuclear energy facility to have a detailed emergency response plan to protect public health and safety in the event of an accident. Among other requirements, these plans incorporate EPA’s protective action guidelines developed to help state and local authorities make radiation protection decisions for the public during emergencies. EPA published the revised guidance in April for interim use and public comment. Once finalized, it will supersede the 1992 protective action guidelines.

EPA said the guidance is based on three principles:

  • preventing acute radiological health effects
  • balancing radiological protection with other factors so that protective actions “result in more benefit than harm”
  • reducing the risk of chronic radiological health effects.

“We fully support such a comprehensive and integrated approach,” said Ralph Andersen, NEI’s senior director for radiation safety and environmental protection, in a Sept. 16 letter to EPA. “Regardless of the specific circumstances that may be associated with different types of radiological emergencies, the radiation dose-based criteria used in protective action decision-making should be uniform and consistent.”

Andersen underscored the importance of EPA’s second principle—achieving balance.

“This importance was highlighted by the events in Japan following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in 2011,” he said. “Some of the decisions taken [primarily] to protect against radiation exposure were extremely disruptive and may have resulted in more social harm than good, as recognized in recent publications regarding radiological protection issues and health risks associated with the Fukushima nuclear reactor accident.”

Andersen’s letter cites a 2013 World Health Organization report, which concluded that “the health effects of radiation exposure resulting from the Fukushima Daiichi [nuclear power plant] accident inside and outside Japan are likely to be less ominous than the socioeconomic impact,” especially for residents of Fukushima prefecture. The report noted that “evacuation, relocation, material and financial loss … increased the mental health impact of the combined disaster.”

The WHO report also recommended that protective measures provide the maximum net benefit to the population. “All the risks and benefits resulting from a particular measure should therefore be considered in reaching a decision, and this includes both radiological and nonradiological risks,” the WHO said.

Andersen said the principle of balance is reflected in EPA’s guidance to some extent in the context of the late phase of an incident, as well as in guidance the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements is developing for the Department of Homeland Security.