If federal regulators announced tomorrow that airplane travel were a cancer risk and that they would restrict it accordingly, lawmakers would have them in front of congressional hearings faster than one could say “frequent flyer.” Just because airline passengers are exposed to more solar radiation than their Earth-bound counterparts, most would agree, the feds shouldn’t consider plane trips a cause of cancer. But officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) obsess about similarly minute health “hazards” all the time, and they do so in ways that ultimately threaten, not protect, human health.
Today federal lawmakers are weighing a dispute between regulators and the nuclear industry over just how safe a proposed repository for spent nuclear fuel in Nevada has to be. The industry, consistent with recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences, says it is enough to limit annual exposure levels to, in effect, the dose one would receive on five coast-to-coast, round-trip plane trips across the United States. But EPA is insisting on limiting exposure to the equivalent of three trips and possibly even lower. The agency wants to limit radiation exposure from ground water at the site not tap water to the amount one would receive from less than a coast-to-coast round trip.
Nominally, at least, the debate in the Senate is about who should impose the standards the Environmental Protection Agency or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The administration is insisting that EPA have the power, and is threatening a veto otherwise. Sen. Frank Murkowski says he fears, with some reason, that if EPA has sole responsibility to set the radiation standard, it would set impossibly high criteria that would effectively kill the plan for permanent storage at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. The administration was supposed to have the repository open for business in 1998, but has been as obstructive as possible to an industry that Vice President Al Gore considers insufficiently friendly to the environment. “I hope we can come to a potential compromise, using the EPA standard,” Energy Secretary Bill Richardson says.
The more important argument here is whether trace exposure to radiation, of the kind one gets from cross-country plane trips, is worth an argument. It sounds bizarre, a kind of academic exercise akin to counting angels dancing on pin heads. One wonders if these people don’t have something more useful to do, like getting a drink at the soda machine or emptying the trash basket. But it is precisely this kind of regulatory regime with which Rachel Carson cursed the United States.
Ms. Carson based her influential “novel,” “Silent Spring,” on the fiction that exposure to disappearingly small amounts of man-made chemicals and radiation might poison man and everything else on the globe. The author was a biologist, not an expert in cancer research, and almost four decades later there is still no scientific basis for her warnings. But in the name of protecting the public, regulators now rely on her theory that there is no threshold below which exposure to alleged carcinogens is safe. This, in short, is the cancer-causing plane-trip theory.
If the reasoning here seems strained, to put it mildly, the calculation of the safety standards themselves is more dubious still. Because researchers can’t actually link cancer to trace radiation exposures, they have to engage in some acrobatic calculations to arrive at the health risks involved. By collecting data on the cancer fallout in Japan after the United States dropped atomic bombs there in World War II, researchers were able to establish a correlation between cancer and persons suffering high radiation exposure. Then they extrapolated guesstimated the health effects of Hiroshima to what those effects might be at radiation exposure levels a fraction of that. The implicit assumption here is that if Hiroshima was dangerous, then plane trips can’t be safe either.
Still following? Is anyone out there afraid of getting cancer from flying from Washington to Los Angeles and back? Boredom, maybe. Bad food, possibly. But cancer? From a scientific point of view, EPA’s groundwater standard is unwarranted. Complained the NAS in a letter to EPA last year, the agency’s proposal “will add little, if any, additional protection to individuals or the general public from radiation releases from the repository.” EPA, it said, “must make more cogent scientific arguments to justify the need for this standard.”
Although the health benefits are negligible, whether the one-trip standard or the five-trip standard applies, the difference in costs in trying to achieve the two is not. Chasing down every last molecule of radiation is very expensive and could threaten the feasibility of the repository and, ultimately, of the industry itself. Nuclear energy provides a little more than 20 percent of this country’s electricity. What would replace it when the lights go out?
It’s also true, wrote William Hendee, a past president of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine, in the 1996 American Enterprise Institute book, “Risks, Costs and Lives Saved,” that “Money spent to address those suspected but unproven risks is not available to prevent or correct problems such as industrial and domestic accidents, personal violence, tobacco use, alcohol abuse, and other known threats to human health. Those costs are the unfortunate consequences of misplaced fears and misused funds. Although there is no way to quantify their consequences, the social implications of such actions is enormous.”
So safety can be very dangerous. Rachel Carson and her disciples in this administration deserve great credit for helping to make it so.