Proposal for New Radiation Exposure Limits
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
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Those of us who have trouble planning ahead might sympathize with the challenge facing some government scientists. They have to think ahead one million years. The government wants to protect residents for that many years when it buries highly radioactive nuclear waste in Nevada. The Environmental Protection Agency just proposed new radiation exposure limits for people living near the targeted burial site and these limits would apply far, far, far into the future, as NPR's Howard Berkes reports.
HOWARD BERKES reporting:
A lot can happen in a million years in 25,000 generations, notes Jeffrey Holmstead of the Environmental Protection Agency who spoke with reporters yesterday on a noisy telephone line.
Mr. JEFFREY HOLMSTEAD (Environmental Protection Agency): That's about 990,000 years longer than human civilization, about 995,000 years longer than recorded human history. So the time frames that we're dealing with here, the scientific challenge of setting a standard is really unprecedented.
BERKES: The EPA has proposed new standards for radiation exposure for people living near Yucca Mountain, Nevada. That's where the Department of Energy wants to bury 77,000 tons of nuclear power plant waste. A federal court ruling forced the EPA to consider the million-year time span which prompted this question during the EPA conference call.
(Soundbite from EPA conference call)
Unidentified Man: How the hell can you know what's going to happen a million years from now? And how do you build something that can guarantee these levels for all these years into the future?
Mr. HOLMSTEAD: That's a pretty darn good question when you put it that way.
BERKES: One EPA answer was to ask the Department of Energy. Craig Stevens is a DOE spokesman.
Mr. CRAIG STEVENS (Spokesman, Department of Energy): We are looking to the best scientists using the best available science and the computer modeling that they have at their disposal, and we believe that we can meet the standard.
BERKES: The standard permits slightly more radiation exposure in a year than in one chest X-ray. That's during the first 10,000 years of nuclear waste storage. The radiation exposure limit balloons during the next million years to the annual equivalent of 35 chest X-rays. That concerns opponents more than the million-year time frame. Bob Loux is Nevada's nuclear waste czar.
Mr. BOB LOUX: It tells you that this site is so bad and so poor that, in fact, the government has to go way overboard to propose a standard simply to make sure this site gets through the process. It's once again the triumph of politics over science.
BERKES: The EPA says its million-year standard equals the radiation exposure that exists naturally in high-elevation cities like Denver. The proposed limit now gets 60 days of public hearings and comment. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will eventually decide whether nuclear power plant waste can be buried safely for a million years. Howard Berkes, NPR News.
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