At the same time that citizens are cooling on nuclear power in Fukushima's wake and both nuclear regulators and operators are pushing emergency preparedness for worst-case scenarios, the EPA has moved to update radiation exposure rules.
They include some health-related guidelines to help responders determine evacuation needs and short-term exposure measures for situations not previously spelled out, according to Jonathan Edwards, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency's radiation division, and David McIntyre, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The guide is intended to be used by emergency planners.
But at least two environmental groups charge that the new guidelines, announced Monday in the Federal Register, relax existing rules.
"The new [protective action guides] eliminate requirements to evacuate people in the face of high projected thyroid, skin, or lifetime whole body doses," according to statements from the Nuclear Information and Resource Service and the Committee to Bridge the Gap.
Daniel Hirsch, president of Committee to Bridge the Gap, said the guide also recommends dumping radioactive waste in municipal landfills not designed for such waste and proposes options for drinking water that would increase the permitted concentrations of radioactivity "by as much as 27,000 times."
EPA and NRC officials deny that the guide relaxes any rules. They say the guide carries no legal authority but is required for use by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Edwards said he thinks the most controversial portions of the guide -- dealing with water and cleanup -- have been misunderstood because they deal with new situations for which guidelines did not previously exist.
But the groups -- both anti-nuclear -- are outraged.
"In essence the government is now saying nuclear power accidents could produce such widespread contamination and produce such high radiation levels that the government should abandon efforts to clean it up and instead force people to live with radiation-induced cancer risks orders of magnitude higher than ever considered acceptable," Hirsch said.
"There is no contradiction between efforts to prepare for the worst and efforts to ensure the worst never happens," he said. "These guidelines were developed for a range of events such as improvised nuclear detonation, radiological dispersal device (dirty bomb) and nuclear power plant accident.
"To say that the federal government is accepting an inevitable accident is silly -- it ignores all the efforts to prevent terrorists from obtaining nuclear materials and all efforts to improve the safety of nuclear power plants."
Tennessee Valley Authority spokesman Mike Bradley said the new guides will not affect the federal utility because it already meets or exceeds federal standards regarding radioactive exposures.
In fact, he said, Sequoyah Nuclear Plant set an industry record for the lowest number of worker exposures during its recent steam generator replacement outage. There were 22, he said.
Contact staff writer Pam Sohn at psohn@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6346.