A bad accident May 2 at the Prairie Island nuclear power reactor site contaminated “about” 100 workers internally with radioactive iodine-131. The crew was far inside the reactor’s misnamed containment area when it was doused with the toxic metallic fumes that the Nuclear Management Company, which runs the reactor for Xcel Energy, said were leaking from one of the system’s thousands of uranium fuel assemblies. None of the employees were wearing respirators when the gas “was inadvertently released on the workers and inhaled,” according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
A Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) speaker went as far as to say, “that 100 workers were exposed was a high number,” but that was about it in the indisputable fact department. The rest of the NRC’s and Xcel’s spin about the accident was obfuscation, misinformation and outright falsehood, but it is worth considering for future reference because radiation accidents are a part of our future.
In the Associated Press (AP) account that ran in at least 32 papers, the NRC’s flack, Jan Strasma, is reported to have said, “The annual limit considered safe for some radiation workers is 5,000 millirems.” (The 100 workers were exposed to 17 millirems, according to Xcel.) It is doubtful that Strasma used these exact words since he knows better. He may have been misquoted after saying that this annual limit is “considered allowable” for radiation workers. Allowable it is; safe it is not.
Every government agency that deals with radiation says in their official publications that there is absolutely no safe level of exposure, that every single radiation dose carries some increased risk of cancer and other illnesses. The Environmental Protection Agency, Energy Department, Transportation Department, the NRC itself and all the rest agree on this simple fact, which was emphatically restated in the 2005 BEIR-VII (Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation) report, the federal review that is used to set U.S. exposure standards.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press story by Dennis Lien had this doozy in the second paragraph: “No one was injured in the accident … according to Strasma.” Now, Lien is presumably under a tight deadline, but even a quick search of any of the above agency’s web sites would have exposed the lie as bunkum. The only question is: How serious was the injury? And again the NRC is not the place to look for an answer.
Nearly every report of the accident found Strasma saying the workers’ dose was “about as much as an X-ray,” and the Star Tribune’s Tom Meersman let the NRC get away with saying the exposure “did not have any health and safety consequences.”
The AP at least dug deep enough to force the disclosure that—if the workers’ radiation badges were working properly—they received almost twice the amount of a medical X-ray. But even this reference is a deliberate soft-pedaling by reporters who didn’t follow up with the obvious question: How does the NRC measure internal radiation exposure? The sad answer is that, as “low doses,” it doesn’t.
The nuclear industry and the NRC always pull out the ol’ X-ray comparison when they know full well that medical and dental X-rays are very short bursts of external radiation, while the inhalation of radioactive iodine-131 douses the lungs, causes chronic long-term irradiation of surrounding tissues, and is particularly dangerous to the thyroid. A better comparison comes from Dr. Chris Busby of Britain’s Low Level Radiation Campaign and author of ‘Wings of Death.” Busby says the difference between external and internal radiation is the difference between sitting before a glowing hot wood fire, and popping one of its red hot coals into your mouth.
Most news accounts quoted Strasma on how the contaminated workers had been “decontaminated.” This howler was easy to dismiss if you read the reports that mentioned the inhaled gas. (AP neglected to mention the inhaled gas.) That Strasma would dare to pose such an obvious fraud to the press shows how ill-formed most reporters and editors are. The workers’ “protective clothing” may have been discarded, and their hair shaved off, but nothing can decontaminate their lungs.
Finally, the accident has a lesson to teach about the corruption and inadequacy of the NRC itself. The agency is obligated to simultaneously promote nuclear power and to regulate or police the reactor operators. This conflict of interest is bad enough that it endangers millions of citizens, not just the industry workers who cynically call each other “sponges.”
In this case, even though the NRC’s regional representative, Strasma, said that contaminating 100 people was “a high number,” the national office decided that the accident was “not a reportable event.” To prove their point, and hide their shocking decision, the higher-ups buried its “incident” notice deep in its nearly unnavigable website. Only daily sleuthing by Michael Keegan and a notice to the press by Bonnie Urfer at Nukewatch in Wisconsin moved the editors and reporters to get on the phone and start asking questions.
Pam Gorman of Nuclear Management Company, the people liable for the accident, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “It was not significant. It’s not a major issue.” I hope readers who noticed this attempt at trivialization think otherwise. There are at least 100 people at Prairie Island who might.
John LaForge, 03213-090, is ordinarily on the Nukewatch staff, but is temporarily mowing lawns at the Duluth federal prison camp, doing a stint for trespassing against Bush II’s torture system at the “School of the Americas.”
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