By John LaForge
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is being pushed by the industry to “drastically weaken its safety and security regulations,” writes Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in The Hill.
Industry lobbyists claim that proposed new, experimental, untested, and unlicensed “micro” or “small modular” reactor designs will be so much safer than today’s faulty units, that they will need less oversight and regulation.
Lyman points out that these design plans, which have “new safety and security risks,” exist only on paper or have a limited or mostly irrelevant practical record.
Still the nuclearists have convinced many in Congress that NRC rules and regs are to blame for the collapse of new reactor licensing and construction in the U.S.
The current NRC is drafting a new “Part 53” rule that requires applicants to provide ‘experimental evidence’ that demonstrates an achievable high level of reactor safety. NRC Chair Christopher Hanson has pointedly demanded that the industry “show [their] work.”
But the industry meddled deeply in the rule-making process because it wants to delete any requirement for “probabilistic risk assessments” — technical analyses of all the things that could go wrong with new reactors and how well safety systems might work during emergencies. As Lyman writes, “it is hard to imagine a ‘risk-informed’ licensing process that does not require applicants to quantify risks.”
While the industry promotes the weakening of worker protections, new evidence suggests that radiation exposure standards should be toughened. The British Medical Journal for August 16, 2023, published a major new study of over 300,000 nuclear industry workers. The principle finding was that prolonged exposure to low doses of ionizing radiation is associated with a higher risk of death from cancer than previously thought.
The international team analyzed deaths among a huge cohort of 309,932 workers in nuclear industries in the U.K., France, and the United States. They calculated that for every cumulative unit of radiation (or “Gray”) that workers were exposed to, the risk of death from solid cancer increased by 52%.
Matthew Dunn, vice president of Medical Physics at the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine, said, “This study provides good evidence that even low doses of radiation in medical, occupation, or environmental settings have the potential to cause cancer.”
Paul Pharoah, professor of Cancer Epidemiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said, “The researchers found a 50% increase in risk per Gray of ionizing radiation with evidence that the increase in risk per Gray is greater at lower doses — for 0 to 20 mGy there was a 130% increase in risk per Gray.”
“People often assume that low dose rate exposures pose less carcinogenic hazard than the high dose rate exposures experienced by the Japanese atomic bomb survivors,” the team wrote in the BMJ. “Our study does not find evidence of reduced risk per unit dose for solid cancer among workers typically exposed to radiation at low dose rates.”