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ICRP: Free the Annals!

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Submitted by Cynthia Folkers, NIRS
   Commenting on behalf of the organisation
Document The scope of radiological protection
Comments from Nuclear Information & Resource Service (NIRS) on ICRP Publication The Scope of Radiological Protection Regulations
Submitted 06/16/06

The ICRP summarize this scoping document on their comment website in this way: “Since virtually everything is slightly radioactive for natural reasons, there has to be a practical level below which material is not regarded as radioactive for radiological protection purposes…”. While we understand ICRP think this is a practical stance, it invites the same sort of abuse as the “de minimis dose” fiasco which ICRP mention and which we address below. In short, calling something non-radioactive for radiological protection purposes denies the nature of what it is; it denies the danger it poses no matter how small and takes away one of the only measurable aspects of radiological precaution: what substances do and do not decay radioactively. Much of the rest of the radiation protection regime is based on educated speculation and assumptions. One cannot simply “define” radioactive danger away. If exposures are too difficult or expensive to regulate at low doses, then low doses should be prohibited based on the recognized danger.

In general, this ICRP quote is a bell-weather for many of the recommendations made in this document: that is to abandon the lower levels of radioactivity for the purposes of protection , and absolve the generators (and profiteers) of any responsibility for substances we KNOW can cause cancer, congenital malformations and now, some forms of heart disease. This cannot possibly be what ICRP intend. It is irresponsible and potentially detrimental to us and to our environment.

Further, this abandonment goes against the principles set forth in Late Lessons from Early Warnings: the precautionary principle 1896-2000 (European Environment Agency) which specifically elucidates past mistakes with radiation protection. It recommends a precautionary approach which has heretofore been rejected in favor of a risk-based regime. If we do not act prudently, we will sacrifice a certain number of people who may be nameless and “statistically insignificant” yet who are human beings all the same.

In reviewing the bases of the ICRP scope document, there are a few overarching assumptions with which NIRS must disagree. We take issue with ICRP concerning their ability to decide what can and cannot be regulated based on the risk posed. We feel the distinction ICRP are making between de minimis dose and the risk from those doses for the purpose of regulations is a false dichotomy. Likewise, we take umbrage at some of the false assumptions surrounding natural ionizing radiation and man-made radiation. Finally, we see little room for precautionary action in any of these recommendations. Mostly, they favor a leap into the unknown rather than a more protective approach. This is especially dangerous since, as a matter of history, radiation recommendation bodies have only reduced the amount of radiation exposure allowed in the face of overwhelming evidence; and often only with public outcry even then.


“Furthermore, the stringency of regulatory requirements placed on an activity should be commensurate with the scale of risk arising from the activity.” ICRP claim this policy can avoid unnecessary spending and spare individual and societal freedoms. If we could actually rely on the risk numbers and if those who would be affected could approve or reject this risk, then this policy could work in practice as well as theory.

But the exposures can fall into a black hole of nameless, faceless victims. ICRP cannot always predict who will get the dose or how they will be affected due to a number of uncontrollable factors not the least of which is genetic susceptibility. They don’t know the risks. Obviously certain victims did not give consent, even tacitly. Individual and societal freedoms are therefore not protected in this scenario. Our scientific inability to provide precise predictions illuminates another difficulty: something Late Lessons calls “negative surprises” which include “complex, cumulative, synergistic or indirect effects”. Regulatory regimes should be humble enough that they have “a greater willingness to acknowledge the possibility of surprise.” ICRP are encouraging a lack of humility and willingness, even if that is not their intent. Since one can’t see the unanticipated cost associated with just a few of the factors we know we can’t predict, it stands to reason that we don’t know if the policy keeps costs down or not.

Further, ICRP are attempting to allow exemption or exclusion for low doses by swapping the concept of protecting from a “trivial dose” with the concept of “little or no improvement” from precaution. Instead of arguing deregulation on the grounds of “doses too low to matter”, they argue the benefits of the protective action aren’t worth it. In reality, this is a semantic term of art and does little to protect against the real effects that are caused from lower doses of radiation, especially from cumulative impacts. Apparently the words “trivial dose” imply a threshold below which a blanket exemption or exclusion will be allowed to occur. Since science shows there no threshold for radiation damage ICRP are left with a dilemma: how to exempt or exclude from regulation what is obviously damaging material. ICRP think that by playing with words they have avoided this tar pit. But to the public it appears as a cynical gesture and another way of denying regulatory responsibility.


ICRP bemoan the regulators’ and industry’s misuse of ‘de minimis dose’ concept:

In particular, ‘de minimis dose’ has been mistakenly interpreted as a dose below which any risk can be taken to be zero…Such a misuse and misinterpretation flies in the face of the presumption that there is no threshold of risk, and it has thereby caused much confusion

But ICRP still give recommendations for levels of radiation that should be exempt or excluded from regulations. It is sheer farce that ICRP would recognize the dangers of low dose radiation in one breath and still absolve it and its generators from responsibility in the next. This “policy” puts ICRP in the position of admitting they are not being fully protective and are abandoning the world to a certain amount of currently unquantifiable damage. Additionally, it shows exactly how nuclear governments and profiteers can twist ICRP proclamations to suite their own ends. This puts a great deal of responsibility on ICRP. NIRS has emphasized this dilemma in previous comments to the committee.

Artificial Assumptions

“Experience shows that the desire for regulatory control appears to be generally stronger when the source of the exposure is perceived to be a technological by-product, and therefore “artificial’, than when it is considered to be ‘natural’”. While this statement is true on its face, this observation is used by those in industry, government and radiation committees to justify additional radiation exposures. These vested interests “reason” that because people are willing to accept a certain amount of natural radiation exposure, they are automatically willing to accept additional doses from artificial sources. In fact, the groundwork for additional exposure is being established in this ICRP scoping document:

Individual members of the public do not generally take account of the variation in exposure to natural background radiation when considering moving from one part of the country to another, or when going on holiday. It can, therefore, be judged [by regulators] that a level of dose which is small in comparison with the variation in natural background radiation can be regarded as trivial.

This assumption is ludicrous. First, many people are unaware of natural background variability to begin with, much less the large increase in external dose from monazite sands or the increase in exposure to cosmic rays when moving to Denver, CO, for instance. If they were truly educated we don’t know what they would choose. Even if people make a conscious choice to move to an area of higher natural radiation, it does not mean that they are opening themselves up to more radiation abuse. One should not assume this for members of the public or workers in medicine or industry.

Not only are there moral reasons (avoidance of potential disease, personal choice, etc) to reject this silly assumption, there are also technical reasons. Many natural exposures are external (cosmic rays) or internal to a specific organ (radon). This damage can vary markedly from internal damage from a soup of artificially created radioactive material. These relationships are complicated and humility is needed to recognize our scientific limitations in predicting exposure outcomes. This is mandated by the precautionary principle. In short, natural exposure levels should NOT be used to justify any further exposures or releases. The ICRP document appears to be encouraging this very practice.

We appreciate that ICRP recognize current facilities have already taken away society’s choice. NIRS would go one step further and argue for more public participation in the siting and relicensing of nuclear facilities and in waste management and isolation decisions. We fear the ICRP scoping recommendations would hinder this public participation further. Late Lessons sums up the history of radiation regulation quite aptly:

…although we have learnt much about the risks of radiation exposure in the last 100 years…we are still constantly having to react to new knowledge. For instance, the risk rate from radiation-induced cancer was perceived (by ICRP) as four to five times higher in 1990 as compared to 1977. This resulted in changes in dose limits but was a belated response to mounting incontrovertible evidence, a situation which has been a recurring theme in the history of radiation protection, where precaution has sometimes been lacking despite the clear warnings given from the discovery of radiation to the present day.