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WILLIAM TUCKER: Finally, Some Sense from the EPA

By William Tucker

Any time you find the anti-nuclear community up in arms about something you know it’s good news.  That seems to be the outtake from the EPA’s recent report on how to respond to nuclear disasters.

The immediate response, of course, has always been for everyone to head for the hills.  That’s what happened at Fukushima, where over 100,000 people have been forced to abandon homes their families had often occupied for centuries in order to avoid radiation levels are lower than the background levels in many parts of the world.

The EPA might be the place where you would expect to find this “no-safe-dose, don’t-let-that-stuff-anywhere-near-us” reaction in full force.  Yet instead the bureaucrats have acted fairly sensibly.  In a draft document issued last month in response to a request from Homeland Security, the staff of the Radiation Protection Division has made a decent effort at weighing the risks of small amounts of exposure against the huge disruptions that come with a mass migrations, emptying hospital wards, and forcing people out of their homes. 

“We are not in any way relaxing advice about cleanup standards or allowable doses,” said Jonathan D. Edwards, the director of the Radiation Protection Division of the EPA told The New York Times.  But the report does update a standard originally set in 1991 on how much radiation people can be exposed to over time.  (1991 was the period when the nuclear industry was being forced to spend billions of dollars to lower the property-line exposure from reactors from around 10 millirems to 5 millirems annually.)  “That is because after Fukushima, Mr. Edwards said, it became clear that the initial radiation level could be reduced significantly by cleanup,” continues the Times. “’We are assuming it won’t just lay fallow for 50 years,’”

All this, of course, has sent the anti-nuclear zealots ballistic.  “The critics say that the EPA is attempting to defy long-established legal standards for radioactive contamination,” reports the Washington Post, editorial page, which was somewhat more wary of the report.  “The document, they say, would allow Americans to drink water contaminated thousands of times past the legal limit. It would allow residents to remain in a disaster zone even when there’s lots of dangerous material in the air. And, they claim, the EPA’s suggestions would allow resettlement of areas that are unfit under the rules that govern toxic Superfund sites.”

But the Times even took the trouble to balance its story with a comment from our own dear Rod Adams of Atomic Insights.  “A former engineering officer on a nuclear submarine who favors nuclear energy, [Adams] cited studies that argued that areas around Fukushima should be reoccupied, and wrote on his blog that while the new proposed limits are virtually unchanged, ‘the limits could be relaxed by a factor of 50 and still keep the public safe.’”  Times are changing.

The possibility that the exaggerated fear surrounding nuclear radiation is finally reaching new ears is underscored by another recent report out of Japan.  You may recall the panic that erupted late last year when the story emerged that 41 percent of 57,000 children tested in the vicinity of Fukushima had tested positive for “early signs of possible thyroid cancer.”  Well that study has now been clarified.  Mainichi, the Japanese newspaper that has been the most virulent about spreading alarm over the accident, now reports:

Thyroid conditions among juvenile population in three prefectures across Japan — Aomori, Yamanashi and Nagasaki — are not much different from those of their counterparts in Fukushima Prefecture hit by the March 2011 nuclear crisis, a recent survey by the Environment Ministry showed Friday.

The ministry conducted the study from last November to March this year on a total of 4,365 people aged 3 to 18 in the cities of Hirosaki in Aomori, Kofu in Yamanashi and Nagasaki, and concluded that the percentages of detecting small lumps and other anomalies in the surveyed population were "almost equal to or slightly lower in Fukushima." 

It turns out the new test being employed is so sophisticated that it is finding mild abnormalities never detected before.  Of course this didn’t prevent the Japan Daily Press raising the specter of “another Chernobyl” because three cases of childhood thyroid cancer have now been found in the Fukushima province over the last two years – as if thyroid cancer never existed before nuclear energy. 

At Chernobyl, 7000 children were diagnosed with thyroid cancer over a region of thousands of square miles in the Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia and about a dozen died.  This month, however, a follow-up study published in The Endocrine Society's Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism noted that 64 percent of those patients are now in complete remission and another 30 percent nearly complete.  Although thousands of residents of the region now share the experience of “Chernobyl thyroid,” the outcome has not been a complete total health disaster.  And as Christoph Reiners, the German MD author of the study, tells Science Daily:   

“Although people fear a similar thyroid cancer 'epidemic' will affect Japan, the quick actions taken to evacuate or shelter residents and ban potentially contaminated foods following the Fukushima accident greatly reduced the risks of children developing radiation-induced thyroid cancer.  In addition, Chernobyl has taught us how important it is to have at-risk children and adolescents screened for thyroid cancer to catch any cases in their early stages. Because public health authorities are aware of the risks, screening programs for children from the Fukushima area already have been initiated." 

Slowly but surely, we are learning to live with nuclear power.

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