EPA seeks to modernize nuclear standards

The Environmental Protection Agency is looking to modernize Nixon-era radiation standards for nuclear power plants.

The proposed standards, which haven't been updated since the 1970s, would establish new limits on how much radiation nuclear plants can emit during the course of normal production of electrical power without endangering public health.

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To put it in perspective, the rules have not been updated since before the high-profile nuclear meltdowns in Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania; Chernobyl, Ukraine; or Fukushima, Japan.

"These standards were the earliest radiation rules developed by the EPA and are based on nuclear power technology and the understanding of radiation biology current at that time," the agency said in the Federal Register.

"These standards have not been revised since their initial publication," it added.

The rulemaking process for radioactive materials began in the later days of the Nixon administration and was completed under the Ford administration in 1977.

For years, the EPA saw no need to update the regulations, because there were few changes in the industry, the agency explained.

But the EPA said it should update the rules now, "because growing concern about greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels has led to renewed interest in nuclear power," it said.

The EPA said the new standards would develop rules for disposing of radioactive waste materials and decommissioning old nuclear plants, neither of which were included in the original rules.

The current rules also exclude any references to the transportation of any radioactive materials, the EPA noted.

The new rules may also include provisions that would protect against ground water contamination; the current standard focuses on air pollution.

"Ground water contamination has been identified at a number of nuclear power plants and nuclear fuel cycle facilities," the EPA noted.