Government Issues Dirty-Bomb Cleanup Rules

The Department of Homeland Security has released safety guidelines for responding to a dirty bomb attack. Critics say that the section of the guidelines pertaining to cleanup is dangerously weak.

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The government has published new guidelines for responding to a dirty bomb attack. That's a conventional explosive packed with radioactive material. Critics say one section of the guidelines is dangerously weak: the part about cleaning up the mess. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.


The guidelines are 23 pages of very small print. Daniel Hirsch has read them all. He's president of a nuclear watchdog group called Committee To Bridge the Gap. He says most of the numbers in the document seem sensible, except for the cleanup guidelines which he says are way out of whack.

Mr. DANIEL HIRSCH (President, Committee To Bridge the Gap): The guidelines would allow absolutely massive radiation doses to members of the public. They contemplate doses as high as 10,000 millirem a year over decades, and that's the equivalent of about 50,000 chest X-rays. And the government's own official risk estimates are that that would produce a cancer in about a quarter of the people exposed. And that's amazing. I mean, it's a hundred times higher doses than any agency permits for any other purpose.

KESTENBAUM: The guidelines agreed that 10,000 millirem a year is worth worrying about, and, above that level, the guidelines say, the area would probably have to be cleaned up. But below that, the guidelines say, officials should decide on a case-by-case basis. The cutoff points were taken from an international set of standards. Kelly Classic says that approach makes sense. She's a radiation health expert at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

Ms. KELLY CLASSIC (Radiation Health Expert, Mayo Clinic): I think they've come up with a good guidance document but that's all it is, is a guidance document. And it'll take people who don't agree with these numbers, people who do agree with these numbers, and people like myself, sitting in a room, if, by some chance, this should ever, ever occur, sitting in a room and determining the long-term best course of action to take.

KESTENBAUM: But another expert was surprised the standards were so loose, and Daniel Hirsch of the nuclear watchdog group says some people working on the guidelines told him they were upset by what they saw as weak cleanup standards. Donald Tighe is a spokesman for the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House, who advises the president. Tighe says he doesn't know of any internal disagreement over the cleanup guidelines.

Mr. DONALD TIGHE (Spokesman, Office of Science and Technology Policy): It would be wrong for anyone to characterize this as somehow attacking or altering or undermining existing standards that are established, from a health or protection or a cleanup point of view. This doesn't change them. But there's also an incredibly wide range of potential scenarios.

KESTENBAUM: Do you, for instance, tear down a hospital if it's slightly contaminated but people still need to use it? Tighe says state and local officials specifically asked for flexibility so they could decide what was appropriate. Allowing 10,000 millirem a year, or 10 rem a year, may sound irresponsible. After all, that's hundreds of chest X-rays. But Andy Karam, a radiation safety expert at the Rochester Institute of Technology, says there's a lot of debate about what damage that dose will really do.

Mr. ANDY KARAM (Radiation Safety Expert, Rochester Institute of Technology): Workers in the Soviet nuclear weapons program received, in a lot of cases, 10 rem or more a year, for a fairly lengthy period of time, and the studies I've seen don't suggest that they're any more likely to get cancer than the rest of the people in the Soviet Union at that time.

KESTENBAUM: Public comments on the draft guidelines will be accepted through March 6th. David Kestenbaum, NPR News, Washington.

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