National Security

Published — February 27, 2019

Radiation is good for you? The fringe viewpoint gains ground in the Trump administration

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering formal proposals that would abandon current regulations that require licensees, such as the one pictured here, to keep human exposure to radiation as low as reasonably achievable. (Nuclear Regulatory Commission / Creative Commons)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is actively considering claims that low-dose radiation protections should be lifted because exposures make you healthier, a potential boon to radiation-related industries. 

Published in partnership with Mother Jones. 

Introduction

Since World War II, virtually every American business where radiation is present – hospital emergency rooms and cancer wards, uranium mines, nuclear power plants, and others – has operated under rules generally requiring that exposures be kept as low as possible. The rules are based on a widely-accepted scientific dicta that even small amounts of extra radiation can be harmful to human health.

Following those rules, though, is costly and often cumbersome, and so the requirement for low-dose radiation protections – known as the ALARA standard for “as low as reasonably achievable” – has long been annoying to a large swath of American industry. Estimates of the costs associated with these protections run into the billions of dollars.

Until the Trump era, opponents of the rules have gotten little traction in trying to upend low-dose radiation protections – such as isolation units, elaborate shielding, specialized air cleaners, and elaborate worker training — in federal regulations. But proposed relaxations have been percolating in recent months, courtesy of a little-known advocacy group called Scientists for Accurate Radiation Information, or SARI.

Petitioners (left to right) Mohan Doss, Mark Miller and Carol Marcus have asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to revamp radiation exposure regulations to acknowledge that low-level radiation exposure benefits human health. The broader scientific community rejects the notion, known as ‘hormesis,’ but the International Dose-Response Society for hormesis believers honored the petitioners along with the pro-hormesis group they helped found – Scientists for Accurate Radiation Information – with leadership awards in 2016. (Rio Grande Chapter of the Health Physics Society)

Members of the group, which claims its ideas have been wrongly dismissed and belittled by mainstream scientists, subscribe to a minority theory known as “hormesis.” It defies conventional wisdom by holding that damaging things that are dangerous in high doses might actually be beneficial to human health in small doses.

Despite swimming against the tide in the past, one of the group’s members has just been appointed to head a Radiation Advisory Panel at the Environmental Protection Agency, which helps set federal standards for radiation doses received by the public and by workers. And several of its recommendations to ease radiation protections are presently under active consideration by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

SARI’s members typically have more day-to-day connections to radiation than others, and potentially more influence: They have held jobs connected to radiation protection at the EPA, the Department of Labor, the Energy Department and its sub-agency responsible for building nuclear weapons at nine factories across the country. Practitioners of nuclear medicine, people employed in the nuclear industry, and professors who teach nuclear medicine or industrial hygiene also populate SARI.

The NRC’s consideration of the SARI views got started when three members of the group petitioned it in 2015 to abandon its current approach and accept that radiation in low doses is not only benign, but improves health. That was two years after SARI’s founding by industry officials trying to tamp down public concerns about the radiation that spilled from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The NRC took the petitions seriously. Its staff created a working group to study the issue, and insiders now say that work is done. According to Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesman, the five members of the commission as a result will take up the issue this spring.

Spokesmen and other NRC sources declined to predict the outcome. But if adopted, the proposed change would provide vast savings for radiation-reliant industries, allowing them to install new medical equipment, deploy new types of nuclear reactors, open or enlarge facilities for making key nuclear weapons components, and continue the clean-up of contaminated nuclear sites without undertaking such expensive precautions to limit radiation exposure to workers, patients and the public.

Pushing hormesis

The commission has had a pro-industry Republican majority since May 2018, when three Trump nominees to it were confirmed.  One was Annie Caputo, a former staff member for Republican Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.) that previously worked as a nuclear engineer for the Exelon Corp. a major utility; and the second was David A. Wright, a nuclear industry consultant and retired South Carolina public service commission member. Trump also tapped as the NRC chair Kristine Svinicki, a former Energy Department employee and nuclear engineer well-known for supporting industry as a commission member since 2008. Trump handed her a new five-year term.

This year, these three have already undone a draft rule written during the Obama administration – and hated by industry – requiring new protections at nuclear plants against floods and earthquakes like those at Fukushima. The Jan. 24 vote was a straight party-line 3-2 decision.

Undoing the low-dose radiation protections might be more complicated. Of more than 635 comments collected on the SARI-related low-dose radiation petitions before the NRC closed the record on Nov. 15, only about 100 comments favored any regulatory relaxation.

“If hormesis is incorrect or only applies under certain circumstances, removing the ‘as low as reasonably achievable’ principle could result in a large number of excess cancers,” Olav Christianson, who manages a nuclear medicine practice in Pittsburgh, wrote in a letter to the NRC opposing the proposed regulatory change. “Until we fully understand the health risks, we should continue to employ the most conservative approach.”

“Until we fully understand the health risks, we should continue to employ the most conservative approach.”

Olav Christianson, a nuclear medicine practice  manager, in a letter to the nrc

But the three main petitioners for a relaxation of radiation protections aren’t gadflies and they haven’t been passive — far from it.

Mark Miller, for instance, is a retired health physicist who spent 23 years at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, one of the three principal nuclear weapons design centers. His duties there included protecting workers from radiation exposure. In March 2017, Miller sent a copy of the SARI appeal to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, “who I was not a fan of,” Miller said, “because of some of his anti-science ideas.” Miller said he thought it was an opportune moment to relax the radiation standards as part of the Trump administration’s broader deregulation push. The following month Pruitt proposed to change EPA regulations to recognize the merits of hormesis.

A second petitioner, Carol Silber Marcus, is a physician specializing in nuclear medicine and a UCLA professor of radiology who once served on the NRC’s Advisory Committee on the Medical Use of Isotopes. Marcus said during a phone interview that she also works as a consultant for lawyers defending clients against radiation overexposure claims and for radiological pharmaceutical companies.

Marcus suggested in a Nov. 6, 2016 article that appeared in the journal Dose Response – a specialty publication created by hormesis supporters as a platform to spread their point of view – that radiation protection professionals, like those who belong to SARI, should purposely defy existing regulations.

“What if large numbers of licensees went on an ALARA strike?” Marcus wrote. “If large numbers of licensees do this, it would be hard for the NRC to fight it. The NRC would look ridiculous, as it should.” In an April 30, 2018, letter to NRC regulators last year she made clear her disdain for their meddling in nuclear medicine: “We do not need näive dilletantes at the NRC deciding what Nuclear Medicine physicians need to learn.”

When she’s teaching physicians in residence at UCLA, “I sneak in some stuff on low-dose radiobiology and explain to them that the government is lying to you,” Marcus said in a phone interview.

Mohan Doss, the third SARI member petitioning the NRC, is a medical physicist and professor at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Doss contends the benefits of low-level radiation are well established, but he concedes that many scientists disagree. “There’s plenty of evidence that shows cancer risk goes down after people receive exposures to low levels of radiation,” he asserted. He adds that “if radiation exposure standards were relaxed,” it would produce important savings for the nuclear power industry and for medical uses of radiation.

Like many of his colleagues in SARI, Doss says that exposure to a small amount of radiation causes a small amount of cellular damage, but asserts this triggers the body’s cells to repair themselves and enhances the immune system, and thus fuels better overall health through heightened resistance to illnesses, including cancer. He says he also rejects the idea that children and fetuses have any special vulnerability to lasting harm from low-level radiation exposures because their defenses are also enhanced with the exposures.

These assertions stand scientific consensus on its head. Most experts say to the contrary that even low doses of radiation cause cell damage that years later can promote uncontrolled cell growth and replication, and that children and fetuses are particularly susceptible to harm. That seven-decade-old view was reaffirmed as recently as last April in a study by a congressionally chartered nonprofit organization, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement.

The study, overseen by a dozen experts from the government, academia, and industry, and funded by the NRC, considered 29 contemporary scientific studies of the effects of low-dose radiation in reaffirming that even low-level radiation should be avoided to the extent possible.

“There is clear evidence of excess risks for many cancer types, such as bladder, breast, colon, stomach and lung,” from exposure to excess radiation, the report said. It acknowledged that at lower doses the relationship is less certain, but noted that several long studies of medical outcomes for tuberculosis patients given x-ray imaging known as fluoroscopy collectively showed “a straight-line relationship between breast tissue [radiation] dose and breast cancer, adding substantial weight to the judgment on the use of the [existing] model for radiation protection.”

It added that “there was no conclusive evidence” to refute the linear, or direct cause and effect, “relationship for many of the risks attributable to low-level ionizing radiation” – essentially endorsing the mainstream insistence on low-dose protections as a prudent, cautionary measure. The NRC members will consider the report as they deliberate about the SARI members’ petition, McIntyre said.

The 2018 report didn’t quiet the debate, however, in part because hormesis advocates have found numerous friends in the deregulation-oriented Trump administration.  During the six months that followed the radiation protection council’s unambiguous endorsement of the current standards, initiatives to relax human radiation protection standards made some sudden and striking inroads.

EPA’s proposal to roll back radiation regulation to save industry from compliance costs was the subject of a hearing last October organized by House Republicans. The hearing featured testimony from longtime hormesis supporter Edward Calabrese, a professor of toxicology at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, who has long allied himself with industries seeking to ease government regulations. A center he runs has been funded by the tobacco firm R.J. Reynolds, the chemical firm Dow-Corning, the oil firm ExxonMobil, and utility companies. He’s also the founder of the Dose Response journal that advocates for hormesis, and the sponsor of an annual conference about the theory.

Pruitt’s departure under an ethical cloud caused the EPA to put the proposal on a back-burner, but scientists and government personnel who’ve closely monitored the initiative say it’s scheduled to get renewed consideration in 2020. Meanwhile, a bill aimed at the same sort of regulatory rollback passed the House of Representatives in March 2017. Companion legislation was also introduced in the Senate, but the concept will likely face tough sledding now that the House has been taken over by Democrats.

Janet McCabe, an environmental lawyer who headed the EPA division responsible for radiation and air pollution protection during the Obama administration, compared hormesis supporters to climate change deniers whose interests are well positioned to benefit from the Trump administration’s industry-oriented deregulation campaign. McCabe said she was not surprised to see “this more fringe view getting an audience with this administration.”

But a closer look at the SARI membership list makes clear that its adherents have held important government jobs, often related to radiation controls, for decades.

SARI member Brant Ulsh, for example, is a veteran of the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health, a federal agency, where he prepared dose calculations for nuclear weapons site workers. Since 2012, he’s worked at Cincinnati-based M. H. Chew and Associates, which provides advice to radiation-related industries, including Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in northern California, one of the nation’s three nuclear weapon design centers, and a program based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee that performs radiation dose reconstructions for worker exposure incidents.

In January, Ulsh was appointed by Pruitt’s successor as EPA administrator, former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, to chair the agency’s radiation advisory board and help set future national exposure standards. His ideas will reach sympathetic ears at EPA, where since 2005, SARI member John Cardarelli II has been the scientific and technical leader of the agency’s program to detect airborne radiation and assess its consequences.

Last summer, Ulsh and Cardarelli coauthored a Dose Response article urging the EPA to adopt a hormesis-based approach. They said the current regulatory standard for radiation exposure unnecessarily complicates cleanup of sites that have been contaminated by past nuclear weapons-related work. “The impact to the United States is real, resulting in enormous cleanup costs that show no demonstrable benefit to society,” they wrote. Neither responded to email and phone messages seeking an interview.

Daniel O. Hirsch, an activist on radiation issues and former director of the University of California-Santa Cruz’s program on environmental and nuclear policy, said he was startled to learn that that “people who have an agenda of increasing the public’s exposure to radiation are now being placed in significant positions of power.” Those who say “radiation is good for you are placing people in danger,” Hirsch said.

Three other listed SARI members have similarly had important radiation protection responsibilities. Frank Crawford is a health physicist in the Labor Department’s Office of Worker Compensation Programs, which decides what role radiation exposure played in nuclear weapon workers’ health problems, and whether they or their heirs should receive compensation.

Rex Borders was responsible for cataloging and analyzing radiation releases at nuclear weapons labs and plants around the country, on behalf of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration until his retirement in March 2017. In a phone interview, he said he has not remained active in SARI since retiring. And Richard Hansen, according to the SARI website, works for the contractor that operates the Nevada National Security Site. Published reports he has written about how the public and the government should respond to attacks involving radioactive materials, such as an improvised “dirty bomb,” identify him as a counterterrorism expert.

Crawford, who speaks regularly about historical radiation contamination incidents at meeting halls crammed with cancer-stricken nuclear weapon workers and widows in cities like Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Los Alamos, New Mexico. Attempts to reach Hansen and Crawford by phone, email and through their listed employers were unsuccessful.

SARI’s minority scientific view that the exposure to low doses of radiation can promote better health – instead of helping cause cancer – even was also approved for presentation in 2016 to personnel responsible for worker safety at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a government facility famous for creating the first U.S. nuclear explosives as well as for a series of deaths and injuries stemming from radiation-related accidents. The Center for Public Integrity revealed in 2017 that poor safety practices and inadequate staffing there forced a shutdown of America’s only facility for production of plutonium pits for nuclear arms from 2013 to 2017.

“Low levels of radiation are not harmful to human life and, in fact, humans require additional exposure to ionizing radiation in order to achieve optimum health via a process known as Radiation Hormesis,” the laboratory’s presentation, entitled “(Mis)Understanding Radiation,” stated. The presentation argued that that “incidence of cancer and other illness is reduced when one is exposed to low levels of radiation.” It said that unwarranted fear of radiation is unnecessarily holding back nuclear energy development and further medical advancements that rely on radioactive materials.

The presentation was published on-line and given in person to the laboratory’s worker safety and security team, according to lab spokesman Kevin Roark. It was written several weeks after the McClatchy newspaper chain published a series documenting how more than 30,000 nuclear weapons workers had died from cancer caused on the job.

In a section of the Los Alamos presentation discussing a law established in 2000 to compensate employees of the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapon complex for cancer associated with workplace radiation exposure, the lab authors undiplomatically used this blunt bullet point first: “Everybody dies of something, eventually.”

“I was horrified when I read that,” particularly on the letterhead of a Department of Energy-sponsored laboratory where some of the dead and sickened workers were employed, said Terrie Barrie, an advocate in Colorado who assists weapon workers in their pursuit of health-related benefits. “For the current workers, it has to raise questions about whether they’re taking care of the workers the way they should be.”

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Jeff BurrightEngineer-PoetDr. A. Cannararobert rothMichael Milton Mann Recent comment authors
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G.R.L. Cowan
Guest

It would be fair for “hospital emergency rooms and cancer wards, uranium mines, nuclear power plants” to operate in a similarly cavalier way to airlines, gas wells and pipelines, phosphate fertilizer users, and people with basements.

But they don’t. ALARA selectively targets radiation exposure that is incurred in processes that deprive government of fossil fuel revenue.

Rod Adams
Guest

Though Mr. Malone has provided a fairly balanced report on the controversy over the health effects of low level radiation, his article includes several subtle slants that indicate where he stands on the issue. Here are a few additional facts and opinions that are worth considering by those who tend to believe that industry is always looking to relax regulations. All of the costs associated with keeping doses as low as reasonably achievable and cleaning up contaminated sites to the incredibly low level standard established by the EPA have corresponding revenues for companies and employees assigned to control doses and… Read more »

Eliw Yarden
Guest
Eliw Yarden

Thank you for the valuable insight provided by the somewhat clumsy reference to “scientists” in the phrase, “Specialist members of our species.” It helps to explain policies of the Japanese government toward its own subjects, The Japanese sector of the species residing in the Japanese Islands will evolve leaving a population, the majority of whose members will exhibit greater resistance to radiation than the residents of the United States. “We” can not afford to let them get away with that,

Dr. A. Cannara
Guest
Dr. A. Cannara

This is a serious comment?

Noel Wauchope
Guest

Thanks for this quite shocking story on the lengths that nuclear industry-connected people will go to, to make money. It makes the cigarette promoters look like amateur manipulators, and further shows the moral lows to which the Trump administration has descended.

LISA STILES
Guest
LISA STILES

Riiiiiight. Because we prefer money over, I don’t know, LIVING. And we like money even more than our families. Who do you think WORKS at nuclear plants and where do you think they and their families live? I’ve got a couple of engineering degrees. Do you really think I’d risk my health and safety, and those of my family, friends, and neighbors, for a job? That’s ludicrous and insulting.

Dr. A. Cannara
Guest
Dr. A. Cannara

How about the “lengths the” wind/solar industry will go to “to make money”?…
Solar/Wind/Battery Materials…
https://tinyurl.com/n3frxms
https://tinyurl.com/ybwpgzvu
https://tinyurl.com/z97vxqc
https://tinyurl.com/y9p45ujn
http://tinyurl.com/ycg32mbt
https://tinyurl.com/j38as7g
https://tinyurl.com/yb2ewy74
https://tinyurl.com/y7byyqmt
https://tinyurl.com/ydggt3rp

And, of course, the subsidies from the many to the few. Some billionaires are honest about that…
Warren Buffet (2014). “…on wind energy, we get a tax credit if we build a lot of wind farms. That’s the only reason to build them. They don’t make sense without the tax credit.”
http://tinyurl.com/meule2r

Radiation standards should be set scientifically, not emotionally.
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0009279718311013?dgcid=author

Jaro Franta
Guest
Jaro Franta

RE: “A fringe group that promotes the so-called positive effects of radiation”
So I take it that Patrick Malone, Senior National Security Reporter at The Center for Public Integrity, or Mother Jones, have conducted a survey of Health Physics professionals and radiation biologists, to ascertain the claim of “fringe group”, right?
Curiously, several years ago, such a survey found nothing like Patrick Malone’s claim.
Could it be that Patrick Malone simply made up a random, disparaging claim, because it suits his non-scientific world view?
With Mother Jones obligingly spreading the holy gospel.
Whatever happened to responsible journalism?

Jeff Burright
Guest
Jeff Burright

Can you please provide a link to this survey you mention? I understand how you might be sensitive to the connotations in the term “fringe” as a knock against reputability; however, you seem to be making an argument about majority vs. minority as opposed to perhaps a more appropriate dichotomy between “mainstream” and “fringe” (Fringe theories are ideas which depart significantly from a prevailing or mainstream theory – Wikipedia). Do you not consider the NCRP and ICRP (https://www.remm.nlm.gov/BOICE_REPORT_No_40_LNT_FINAL_Sept_2015.pdf) or the NAS (BEIR VII report) to be representative of the “mainstream” view? In fairness, it appears the UNSCEAR straddles the fence… Read more »

Derek Maggard
Guest
Derek Maggard

“Since World War II, virtually every American business where radiation is present… has operated under rules generally requiring that exposures be kept as low as possible.”
First sentence is about as false as a sentence can be. Even if “radiation” is substituted with “ionizing radiation” it’s still pretty bad.

L.V.
Guest
L.V.

The reality is that the true facts on radiation toxicity have been carefully obfuscated for ages by all nations profiteering handsomely from nuclear energy, medical radiation, and nuclear weaponry, such as the US, France, Russia, India, or Japan The conventional medical-dental industries and the nuclear-military industries (=the radiation cartel) have been, for well over half a century , perpetually lying about, and minimizing, the true toxicity of ionizing radiation (e.g resorting to false sneaky comparisons between radiation exposure from sunlight or an airplane flight to a dental or medical x-ray or the exposure to nuclear fallout, etc. to deliberately deceive… Read more »

Dr. Luca Pensabene
Guest
Dr. Luca Pensabene

I fully agree with you: “According to the dogma of hormesis smoking a few cigarettes a day is very healthy and will cure cancer”. This will soon open to raise limits for other pollutants, whether or not relatable with radiations.
This is unacceptable and it is junk science, like novaxxers or flatheathers.
I am a doctor, dealing daily with radiation issues: I will never accept this un-scientific approach.

robert roth
Guest
robert roth

great point until you brought up the anti vaxxers;your point now ruined

Rod Adams
Guest

There is a solid, legal reason that L.V. prefers to remain anonymous. People who publicly and falsely accuse others of criminal behavior are putting themselves at serious risk of being sued for libel. As a longtime member of SARI, I can testify that we are as far from a “criminal radiation business cartel” is is possible to be. We are what we say we are – a group of experienced, educated, knowledgable people who understand the health effects of ionizing radiation. We are deeply committed to sharing what we know as widely as possible in expectation that improved understanding will… Read more »

Chuck Broscious
Guest

We track the victims of Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory and it’s tragic not only how little they care not only about residents who live around the site but also the workers. For decades they cover up their radiation emissions to the air, water and soil. EPA, NRC, National Institute Occupational Health and state regulators are captured into silance and complicity in the coverup. There is a direct connection between nuclear weapons and nuclear power. They are twins of the same devil. They both kill indiscriminately starting with the most vulnerable without accountability. That’s why no insurance co. will… Read more »

Dr. Luca Pensabene
Guest
Dr. Luca Pensabene

I fully agree with all the raised concerns. To quote L.V. below: “According to the dogma of hormesis smoking a few cigarettes a day is very healthy and will cure cancer”.
This will soon open to raise limits for other pollutants, whether or not relatable with radiations.
This is unacceptable and it is indeed junk science, like novaxxers or flatheathers…but it might potentially make a lot of monies, and that’s enough.
I am a doctor, dealing daily with radiation issues: I will never accept this un-scientific approach.

Michael Milton Mann
Guest
Michael Milton Mann

Radiation is part of life, it always has been and it always will be.. you can understand it, or you can fear it. Nuclear power has the potential to improve our standard of living while protecting the environment.

Engineer-Poet
Guest

Author Malone does a lot of point-and-shriek. Here are a few examples: “EPA’s proposal to roll back radiation regulation to save industry from compliance costs” “a closer look at the SARI membership list makes clear that its adherents have held important government jobs, often related to radiation controls, for decades.” “Daniel O. Hirsch, an activist on radiation issues” “SARI’s minority scientific view that the exposure to low doses of radiation can promote better health – instead of helping cause cancer….” This behavior is problematic in a number of ways: 1. Malone does not even think to ask if the compliance… Read more »