Who is the 'reasonably maximally exposed' individual?

By Marlene Lang 


On June 2, 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy was expected to file its application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to move ahead with building the nation a nuclear waste dump 90 miles outside of Las Vegas, near fault lines and only 8 miles from the site of a 1992 earthquake. And above the water table. Has anyone told the DOE that water flows down, and carries with it almost anything that crosses its path?  


The DOE seeks permission to build this repository without a standard yet established for how much radiation may be “safely” released from the site over the long, hot centuries ahead. 


Hurry, hurry. Energy security is at risk with no place to put the garbage and the new president has expressed opposition to approval of the Yucca Mountain site. Obama reportedly has promised Nevada's Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that the project will receive ZERO dollars in the new budget. 


If the Yucca Mountain project is abandoned, the Department of Energy will have to scramble for another site, since it is already 10 years late on it legal obligation to provide a permanent repository for the nation’s dangerous nuclear power plant leftovers. 


The application submitted in June is opposed for a long list of reasons, but TMIA finds the absent EPA exposure standards most intriguing.  This standard-fuzzy application comes before the NRC, which will have three years to accept or reject it. 


The DOE must show that for the first 10,000 years after spent fuel from nuclear power plants and other high level radioactive waste from military uses is encased and buried in Yucca Mountain, a “reasonably maximally exposed individual” living in the area would receive radiation exposure no greater than 15 millirems each year. Other nations set the standard between one and 10 millirems. Getting an x-ray exposes you to about 10 millirems of radiation.


The Energy Policy Act of 1992 required the National Academy of Sciences to recommend a standard to the EPA, and for the EPA to establish a health and safety standard consistent with the Academy’s recommendation. Those pesky science nerds at the Academy are the ones who suggested that whatever standards are established should apply at least for the next one million years, since that is the time of expected geological stability.


By 2005, the EPA yielded a bit to the Academy and called on the NRC to project out one million years when it calculated likely radiation exposures. This was SO inconvenient. 


In 2001, the Bush administration officially named Yucca Mountain its locale of choice for the nation’s radioactive waste, and the NRC shortly after that issued a maverick version of standards established just for the Yucca Mountain dumpsite, though not clearly in compliance with the EPA or the Academy. The NRC promises in its handy and helpful literature to “modify its regulations to be consistent with the EPA’s additional standards as soon as they are formally issued.” 


There’s a good chance that the hypothetical “reasonably maximally exposed individual” is a Native American, if Yucca Mountain becomes the nation's radiactive waste dump, but that is apparently only incidental for certain policy makers who have shunned the advice of the National Academy of Sciences; the Academy advised establishing the standard of protection with an eye on critical groups of individuals expected to need protection against high radiation doses. This takes into account the principle of “intergenerational equity,” which says we should not subject future generations to greater risks than those acceptable to ourselves. It’s a Golden Rule thing, and therefore nebulous in its actual application. It does not matter if Yucca Mountain or another site is chosen. 


The revamped NRC standards were based not on concern for the actual, measurable exposure to radiation that a flesh-and-blood person living nearby might suffer now, or in the future. Instead, they were based on risk. 


About 8.5 of those reasonably maximally exposed individuals exposed to that 15 millirems of radiation in a year will develop a fatal cancer as a result. That means they will die, without any accident or catastrophe happening. And that’s if the repository is containing that rad waste “safely,” as planned. 


It’s a pity for those 8.5 dead people and their families, but hey, the benefits to the rest of us are high. We get power to run our gadgets, even if it creates an enduring human health hazard out in the desert. 


We don’t know what will happen out there, under those rocks over the next million years. That’s the kind of “risk,” however carefully assessed, that is every bit as foggy as ethical rules telling us to take care of people who aren’t even born yet. Following those rules seems like the better risk.

A version of this column was originally published in the SouthtownStar, Tinley Park, Ill., of the Sun-Times News Group. It is posted here with permission. Marlene Lang's column may be read at www.southtownstar.com.