New guidelines proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would significantly increase the amount of radiation that people can ingest in the days and years following a radiological accident — levels far higher than existing limits set by the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.

Watchdog groups, academics and even some EPA officials worry the change could severely compromise public health.

The agency’s proposal, released in early June and open for public comment until July 25, suggests a two-tiered system to advise the public when water is too dangerous for consumption after a radiological release — an event ranging from an accident at a nuclear power plant, such as the 1979 reactor meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania, to a roadside spill of Cold War-era transuranic waste from Los Alamos to a deliberate act of terrorism. The agency has capped the proposed limits at 500 millirems per year for people over 15, and no more than 100 millirems for younger children, the elderly, and pregnant or nursing women.

The new emergency guidelines are at least 25 times higher than the current guidelines, which cap public consumption of radiation at 4 millirems per year. Opponents of the proposal say it will allow radiation exposure equivalent to 250 chest X-rays each year without medical need or consent. Others, however, say the limits are conservative and far more restrictive than international standards.

The EPA says the limits won’t nullify those set under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but are only intended to help guide local communities and state and federal officials in the event of a disaster, citing the 2011 reactor meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan following a massive tsunami caused by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake. Elevated radiation levels from the Fukushima disaster reached as far as Massachusetts.

The EPA proposal has significant ramifications for New Mexico, home to two nuclear weapons research laboratories and the nation’s only permanent underground repository for radioactive waste, all of which were built near underground aquifers.

Los Alamos National Laboratory is now required to monitor chemical and radiological levels in groundwater on a monthly basis to determine any changes that could compromise public health or the environment. This monitoring system may become more important as the lab’s role in maintaining the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile increases over the coming decades. This year, the lab restarted the work of building plutonium pits, or nuclear warhead triggers. Each softball-size pit can create a blast with the same force as the “fat man” atomic bomb that was dropped on the city of Nagasaki in 1945, killing tens of thousands of civilians and leaving a legacy of cancer and other health ailments for those who survived.

The National Nuclear Security Administration aims for production of at least 10 plutonium pits per year at Los Alamos by 2024 and expects that number to expand to between 50 and 80 pits per year by 2030.

Between the late 1950s and the 1980s, the bulk of this work was done in Hanford, Wash., and Rocky Flats, Colo., where it led to significant levels of radioactive contamination in the air, water and soil. Billions of dollars have been spent on cleanup work, with the efforts still unfinished. In mid-May, 15,000 homeowners living downwind of the Rocky Flats Plant received a combined $375 million settlement, after 26 years of litigation, for their health ramifications.

New Mexico’s highways pose concerns under the new EPA proposal because truck transportation of nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad will resume if the now-shuttered underground storage facility reopens, as planned, by the year’s end. When operations restart at the waste site, which has been closed since a radiation leak in February 2014, U.S. 62-180, Interstate 25, Interstate 40 and U.S. 285 would once again be used to transport nuclear waste to WIPP from Los Alamos, as well as from out-of-state defense sites.

In the first decade of the waste plant’s opening, at least 900 trucks carrying transuranic waste traveled those roads to reach the Carlsbad facility. The New Mexico Environment Department documented 29 accidents between 2002 and 2013, though none led to a spill.

Proposals by the U.S. Energy Department show the federal government also plans to store some foreign plutonium at WIPP, after the material has been processed at a facility in South Carolina.

Other hot spots in New Mexico include the vast nuclear weapons storage facility at Kirtland Air Force Base and the Annular Core Research Reactor Facility at Sandia National Laboratories, which processes radioactive materials.

Critics of the EPA proposal worry it would allow such facilities to delay cleanup of waste and contamination, which would lead to larger amounts of contamination in drinking water in the event of a radiological accident.

“The science of radioactivity continuously demonstrates that radiation is more dangerous than we knew before,” said Daniel Hirsch, director of the Environmental and Nuclear Policy program at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Despite this, he said, “The actions they are proposing are in the opposite direction, to relax the standards.”

The proposed doses are based on maximum radiation exposure over a one-year period, in contrast to a 70-year lifetime exposure calculation for the Safe Drinking Water Act, and are based on exposure to a single radioactive element, though it’s possible that several different types of harmful substances could be present in drinking water following an incident.

The new emergency guidelines would not apply to the immediate hours and days after a disaster but to the months and years it takes to fully clean up the contamination, leaving the public to consume and bathe in highly contaminated water without violating EPA standards, Hirsch said.

“Most of this is designed so officials could tell you, ‘Don’t worry,’ ” he said. “The authorities would want to reassure people, and tell you that the levels are a fraction [of the EPA limits], but the question is, are those levels offensive? If someone told you it is the level that would be the equivalent of 250 X-rays a year, you might not be so reassured.”

For some substances, the new limits are even higher. The cap for iodine-131 — small amounts of which have been found to degrade the thyroid gland — increases from 3 picocuries per liter to 10,350 pCi/L, and for strontium-90, which has been linked to leukemia, the EPA has proposed raising the cap from 8 pCi/L to 7,400 pCi/L, according to data compiled by Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer rights nonprofit.

When new standards were proposed by the EPA under the George W. Bush administration, experts at the agency expressed concern that they were dangerously high. The levels proposed under the Obama administration are even higher.

“There is nothing to prevent those levels from being the final cleanup achieved,” Susan Stahle, general counsel for the EPA, wrote in 2009 in an internal document acquired under the Freedom of Information Act by the Food and Water Watch, referring to the lower caps in the Bush administration proposal.

“The approach in this guidance is not confined to just short-term emergencies,” Stahle said, raising concerns that the proposal could “undermine” EPA Superfund cleanup objectives, “especially federal facility ones involving the DOE.”

She said the document could easily be used as a “legal weapon” by the Department of Energy and other agencies.

EPA employee Stuart Walker wrote in a 2007 memo to agency officials, “Concentrations are hundreds, even thousands of times higher than the MCLs [maximum contamination levels].”

Standards suggested at the time for radioactive isotopes tellurium 129 and 127 “may lead to sub-chronic [acute] effects following exposures of a day or a week … that is, vomiting, fever, etc.,” he said.

“The [Protective Action Guidelines] would allow the public to drink water at concentrations 200 times greater than EPA’s guidance for emergency removals,” he said, adding that the standards were even higher for some radionuclides.

Walker notes that exposure to radiation could extend to food, and shipments of contaminated produce “could greatly expand the population” affected by a radiological incident and could damage the agriculture industry in unaffected areas “if the public becomes alarmed that radioactive food is being shipped around the country.”

Hirsh said the more lax standards could be intended to benefit the nuclear industry, which could use them to postpone or avoid cleanup requirements. Relaxing regulations speaks to the desperation of the industry, he said.

The nuclear power industry, which for years has been lauded as the future of zero-emissions energy production, has seen 19 plants decommissioned in the past decade, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

But Jerry Hiatt, a senior project manager and health physicist with the Nuclear Energy Institute, an organization that promotes nuclear energy, said the industry in no way seeks to shirk its safety obligations.

“There is no wiggle room when it comes to health and safety — we comply,” he said. “The folks around the plants are our neighbors.”

Hiatt said the EPA regulations are much more stringent than those set by the International Atomic Energy Agency and would protect the public from the greater hazards of drinking untreated or muddied water after a disaster. Bacteria and contaminants such as E. coli in untreated water would be far more toxic than the doses of radiation proposed by the EPA, he said.

“If the draft guidelines are published as is, I would see no issues with those limits,” Hiatt said. “They are lower than what the rest of the world would be going by.”

A 2013 reported compiled by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation examined the effects of the Fukushima disaster and found, a year after the event, that “to date, there have been no health effects attributed to radiation exposure observed among workers, the people with the highest radiation exposures.”

It said the dose the workforce was exposed to was between 10,000 and 679,000 millirems.

James Conca, a consultant for the Department of Energy and the EPA, writing about the U.N. report for Forbes in 2013, said it “concluded what we in nuclear science have been saying for decades — radiation doses less than about 10 rem [10,000 millirems] are no big deal.”

As of this year, at least 131 cases of thyroid cancer have been reported in people, predominantly children, present at the Fukushima disaster. The event forced tens of thousands of residents to evacuate and more than 760,000 tons of water contaminated with radiation to leak into the soil and the ocean. Multibillion-dollar decommissioning work at the facility could take several more decades to complete.

“During the Fukushima nuclear power plant incident, the [EPA] had to develop drinking water guidance for U.S. citizens who might have been exposed to contamination from the incident,” Melissa Harrison, a spokeswoman with the EPA, told The New Mexican when asked about the timing of the latest proposal.

Despite this justification for the emergency guidelines, documents show attempts also were made years earlier to ease radiation limits in food and drinking water.

The EPA says the new guidelines are “not intended for long-term or everyday use,” but they do not put limits on how long a state could choose to apply them. The proposal only says that water systems should return to compliance with the Safe Water Drinking Act “as soon as practicable.”

The agency said the proposal is nonregulatory and is intended “to protect residents from experiencing the harmful effects from radiation in drinking water following an emergency.”

Allison Scott Majure, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Environment Department, agreed that the EPA’s guidelines are considered “a point of reference for emergency response managers.”

Jennifer Talhelm, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said the senator is reviewing the proposal. So far, she said, his office hasn’t heard any criticisms of the plan. But Udall hopes the proposal will draw public input, she said.

“He certainly encourages experts and anyone with concerns to weigh in during the comment period to help the EPA write the best standards possible to protect public health,” she said.

Hirsh maintains that more lax standards and the open-ended nature of the EPA proposal are alarming.

“I know how dangerous radioactivity is,” he said, “so when I see these numbers, my eyes widen. To me, I started thinking about Nuremberg, and how ethically a government official can possibly do this.”

In the Nuremberg trials, which took place from 1945-49, teams from the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union prosecuted Nazi leaders for crimes committed by Germans during World War II. The litigation established guidelines for what constitutes a war crime and defined ethics principles for experimentation on humans.

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or

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