Restructuring Nuclear Regulations. (Commentaries)

By Mossman, Kenneth L. | Environmental Health Perspectives, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Restructuring Nuclear Regulations. (Commentaries)


Mossman, Kenneth L., Environmental Health Perspectives


Nuclear regulations are a subset of social regulations (laws to control activities that may negatively impact the environment, health, and safety) that concern control of ionizing radiation from radiation-producing equipment and from radioactive materials. The impressive safety record among nuclear technologies is due, in no small part, to the work of radiation safety professionals and to a protection system that has kept pace with the rapid technologic advancements in electric power generation, engineering, and medicine. The price of success, however, has led to a regulatory organization and philosophy characterized by complexity, confusion, public fear, and increasing economic costs. Over the past 20 years, regulatory costs in the nuclear sector have increased more than 250% in constant 1995 U.S. dollars. Costs of regulatory compliance can be reduced sharply, particularly when health and environmental benefits of risk reduction are questionable. Three key regulatory areas should be closely examined and modified to improve regulatory effectiveness and efficiency: a) radiation protection should be changed from a risk-based to dose-based system; b) the U.S. government should adopt the modern metric system (International System of Units), and radiation quantities and units should be simplified to facilitate international communication and public understanding; and c) a single, independent office is needed to coordinate nuclear regulations established by U.S. federal agencies and departments. Key words: dose, economic costs, nuclear regulations, radiation quantities, regulatory framework, risk. Environ Health Perspect 111:13-17 (2003). [Online 7 November 2002]

doi:10.1289/ehp.5650 available via http://dx.doi.org/

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Social regulations are laws to control activities that may negatively impact the environment, health, and safety. Without regulations, organizations may not take into account the full social costs of their actions. Government intervention is necessary to assure that workers have adequate information about workplace health and safety hazards and to impose cost controls so that organizations do not excessively pollute the environment (Gausch and Hahn 1999). Nuclear regulations are a subset of social regulations that deal with controlling ionizing radiation exposure from radiation-producing equipment and from radioactive materials. Nuclear technologies overall have an impressive safety record. The Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in 1979 caused serious damage to the plant, but there were no deaths or injuries to workers or to the general public as a result of releases of radioactive material to the environment. In contrast, the Chornobyl accident in 1986 caused serious environmental and public health effects because of deliberate inactivation of safety systems. This resulted in massive releases of radioactive material to the environment from a reactor with minimal containment capabilities. Excellence in nuclear safety is due primarily to the work of radiation safety professionals and to a protection system that has kept pace with the rapid technologic advancements in electric power generation, engineering, and medicine. The price of success, however, has led to a regulatory organization and philosophy characterized by complexity, confusion, public fear, and increasing economic costs. From 1980 to 2000, regulatory costs in the nuclear sector have increased more than 250% in constant 1995 U.S. dollars (Figure 1).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Simplifying nuclear regulations without compromising worker or public health and safety would serve two purposes. First, costs of regulatory compliance could be reduced sharply, particularly when health and environmental benefits of risk reduction are questionable (Figure 2). For example, a 2000 U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report estimated public expenditures in excess of $100 million to clean up radioactively contaminated soil at the Nevada Test Site to levels less than 10% of the natural radiation background (GAO 2000). …

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