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The Nation

Proposed 'Dirty Bomb' Response Guidelines Faulted

Critics say the plans allow too much public exposure to radiation -- for too long. Officials say they had to consider economic realities.

November 11, 2005|Janet Wilson and Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writers

The Department of Homeland Security is poised to enact new safety guidelines for responding to a "dirty bomb" attack, despite warnings from some government experts and anti-nuclear activists that the plans would permit dangerous long-term levels of radiation exposure.

A copy of the guidelines provided to The Times shows they are meant for dealing with anything from a crude radiological device to a full-scale nuclear weapon. The cleanup guidelines would permit indefinite radiation exposure levels higher than those allowed to remain at Superfund sites. They would also permit continued shipment, sale and consumption of contaminated food and drinking water for an "intermediate" phase that could last a year or more.

If a dirty bomb attack only contaminated a small area, the guidelines said, "it might reasonably be expected that a complete return to normal conditions can be achieved within a short period of time. However, if the impacted area is very large, then achieving even very low criteria for remediation of the entire area and/or maintaining existing land uses may not be practicable."

Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Edward McGaffigan Jr., part of an interagency group that formulated the guidelines, said members had to balance economic realities with health risks. He said that although nuclear power plants like those in California had large contingency funds set aside for accidental releases, it was impossible to respond the same way to an attack.

Referring to one of California's two operating nuclear power plants, McGaffigan said, "We can force San Onofre [Nuclear Generating Station] to set aside half a billion dollars ahead of time -- but by definition, in a crisis we don't have access to Al Qaeda pockets to finance a half-billion-dollar cleanup.

"We have to do something, and do it as best we can," McGaffigan said. "Obviously we would clean up a building; we would remove most of the materials -- but if there's some residual radiation that's no more than background levels, why should we raze it?"

Critics, including a federal official who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the guidelines would allow residual radiation far higher than naturally occurring levels.

"It's outrageous," said Daniel Hirsch, head of Committee to Bridge the Gap, a group that studies nuclear risk. "They are permitting much higher doses than are protective of the public, and appear to be doing so as part of an overall effort to relax public radiation protections."

Hirsch referred to a companion proposal, also controversial, that would relax or eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency's guidelines on allowable radiation exposure from a wide variety of other sources, including nuclear power plants, dumpsites and even airport security devices. Those guidelines, which are being evaluated by the White House Office of Management and Budget, are expected to be released for public comment soon as well. Other standards will remain in place.

The dirty bomb guidelines, prepared over the last several years by representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Homeland Security, the EPA, the Centers for Disease Control and others, have been approved by the Office of Management and Budget, and are expected to be published in the Federal Register within weeks, according to staff members at several federal agencies.

The guidelines, intended to help state and local officials deal with an attack, would take effect after 60 days of public comment.

"We want to have something active," McGaffigan said. "I think the findings are great. Bottom line, it's a very well-done document."

A Homeland Security spokeswoman did not return calls for comment. Spokesmen for California's health and emergency services departments said they were not familiar with the guidelines, but that they might comment once they received them and that they would update their own and local contingency plans if necessary.

The recommendations outline a three-stage framework for dealing with nuclear attacks: initial emergency response; an intermediate phase when roads and subways are reopened and businesses and hospitals resume operation; and a final cleanup phase to shield the public from long-term radiation exposure.

Americans are typically exposed to an average of 360 millirems of radiation every year from natural and manufactured sources. A chest X-ray is roughly equivalent to 10 millirems of additional exposure.

During initial response to a nuclear attack, emergency response workers would probably be exposed to very high levels of radiation as they attempted to extinguish fires and save lives, the guidelines state.

Ideally, the general public would be evacuated or sheltered in places with much lower radiation levels. But even critics acknowledged that unhealthy exposures for many people would probably be unavoidable.

In the intermediate phase, as officials allowed people to return to homes and businesses, the guidelines would permit public exposure to as much as 2 rems of radiation for the first year, and 500 millirems a year after that. For an undetermined period, they would also allow the public to consume food and water containing radiation of up to 500 millirems a year each.

Officials on the interagency group included no benchmark numbers for maximum exposure for long-term cleanup, arguing that it could be impossible to fully protect the public from some long-term radiation exposure in the case of a major attack.

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