EPA offers a bit of comfort on cancer risk
New standards for future generations allow for fewer probable cases
Thu, Oct 2, 2008 (2 a.m.)
- Absolutely no risk.
- It’s worth minimal risk in order to promote nuclear energy.
- I’m sure the government wouldn’t let any real risk happen.
- I’ll be dead in 100 years anyway, so I don’t care.
What is often lost in the debate over Yucca Mountain is that what we’re really talking about is cancer.
How much cancer risk should future Nevadans be exposed to if federal government’s nuclear waste repository is built in the desert 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas?
The answer came this week: 1 in 125.
One in every 125 future residents living near Yucca Mountain’s deadly nuclear waste can expect to be at risk of getting cancer.
One in every 250 can expect to die.
The odds are better for people who would live in the area only a short time.
The new standards, interpreted by watchdog groups, were released by the Bush administration’s Environmental Protection Agency in a surprise move, more than four years after a federal district court tossed out the old ones as not protective enough of Nevadans’ health.
Many observers expected the new cancer risk standards would not be released until after the presidential election so as not to inflame an unpopular issue in the battleground state of Nevada. Most Nevadans oppose Yucca Mountain, even if it is not their top issue. John McCain, the Republican candidate, supports developing the dump; Barack Obama, the Democrat, has vowed to halt it.
Yet others believe that by releasing the new standards, the Bush administration hopes to accelerate the project before leaving office. The Energy Department reached a major milestone this summer by submitting the dump’s application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for approval. Had the cancer standards been released before that, Nevada would have likely sued again and potentially delayed the submittal.
Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, said, “There is no way this weak standard will breathe life into the Bush-McCain plan to dump nuclear waste in Nevada.” He and Republican Sen. John Ensign vowed to continue fighting it.
A nuclear watchdog group, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, called for an independent investigation into whether the Energy Department can realistically meet the new standards.
The Democratic chairman of a House environmental committee, Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, said the government should withdraw the project’s application and start over once the Energy Department proves it can protect Nevadans’ health.
The Bush administration’s release of the new risk standard “only reinforces how their entire approach to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project has put politics and the financial health of the nuclear industry ahead of science and the health of the public,” Markey said.
The cancer risk wouldn’t start immediately. That’s what makes talking about cancer at Yucca Mountain tricky. The conversation immediately fast-forwards to the never-never land of planning a facility that will be around for 1 million years.
At first, the risk will be much smaller. For the first 10,000 years, just one in every 1,000 people living in the desert around Yucca Mountain would be at risk of getting cancer. That’s about as much danger as the Environmental Protection Agency allows at other sites with nuclear contamination. Some even have a higher risk.
But what has always tripped up Yucca Mountain planners is what happens in the far-off future, the post-10,000-year time frame, as the waste sits in the mountain for the next million years.
Who knows? Maybe there will be a cure for cancer by then.
But those future years are when the biggest potential risk for exposure occurs. If the containers holding the nuclear fuel begin to corrode, waste could spread into ground water used for drinking and irrigation.
The Energy Department says its models show very little waste will escape — just a small fraction of what the new standards allow. Watchdogs are skeptical.
Still, the new cancer risk standard is an improvement, all sides agree. The original would have allowed as many as 1 in 70 future residents to die of cancer. The court said no way.
But putting 1 in 125 residents at risk of cancer in the far-out future is still more than the government allows at its other nuclear-contaminated sites, said Daniel Hirsch, a longtime anti-nuclear activist who teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Hirsch likes to say the EPA’s approach is like falling off the Empire State Building: The first 50 floors are fine. But the last few are the killers.
The Environmental Protection Agency said the new standard “protects public health and safety for one million years.”
The agency assumes less risk by estimating residents live near the site for only 30 years, rather than 70 years, as watchdogs calculate.
“Developing a standard that will apply for 25,000 generations is unprecedented,” the agency said. “In meeting this challenge, we followed international guidance and applied our best scientific judgment.”
The new standards come at a pivotal time as Nevada’s point man fighting the project, Bob Loux, the director of the state agency for nuclear projects, resigned this week after Gov. Jim Gibbons called for his ouster following Loux’s role in a pay-raise scandal.
Some experts say there may be no one else in the country with the expertise and experience to run the office Loux has headed since its inception 25 years ago.
And the pro-Yucca forces see Loux’s departure as a chance to reconsider the potential economic benefits of hosting a waste dump.
Loux, who will remain on the job until his successor is appointed, said Wednesday the state is reviewing whether it will again sue the government for stricter standards.
Hirsch is a believer in the concept of generational ethics — that this generation has a responsibility not to saddle the next with contamination, which he says the Bush administration would allow at Yucca Mountain.
“For purely political reasons, to try to help get an unsafe project approved, they have overridden the science — and the ethics — of creating so many cancers in people not even born yet,” he said.
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