By Tim Devaney - 08/04/14 01:01 PM EDT
Green groups say the Environmental Protection Agency's plan to weaken radiation standards at nuclear power plants would triple the likelihood of people in surrounding communities developing cancer.
The EPA said earlier this year it is considering new rules that green groups claim would actually weaken radiation standards, increasing public exposure by at least three times from the current level. The agency has not updated the standards since 1977.
The Committee to Bridge the Gap is one of about 70 environmental groups that sent EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy a letter over the weekend, asking her to reconsider the new rules as the public comment period closes and the agency enters the final stages of rule-making.
In addition to the environmental groups, more than 6,000 people have written to the EPA opposing the changes to the radiation standard, Hirsch said.
Under the EPA's current standards, about one in every 500 people who are exposed to radiation develop cancer, but the new rules would increase the risk even more, Hirsch said.
"They've given a free pass to radiation," Hirsch said.
But EPA officials contested the claims of environmental groups, explaining the agency is still weighing whether to move forward with new radiation standards.
"We did not change the radiation standards and it would be inaccurate to state otherwise," EPA spokesperson Liz Purchia said, though she acknowledged that the agency is considering such a move, which is what the environental groups are complaining about. "What we did was ask the public what considerations should go into a proposal if we decide to develop one."
This comes as Republicans and business groups complain about the EPA's so-called "war on coal," pointing to new rules that would cut carbon emissions at new and existing power plants around the country.
But environmental groups speculate the Obama administration could be trying to replace coal production with nuclear energy, which they say is why the EPA is loosening radiation standards.
Environmental groups, however, express deep concerns about this plan.
"I would not say that nuclear is safer than coal, not at all," Hirsch said.
"Choosing between coal and nuclear is a form of picking one's poison, either carbon or plutonium," he added. "But we believe that shouldn't be the choice. The choice should be between dangerous pollutants and renewables, which are far safer."
Renewable energies such as solar, wind and hydropower are all better replacements for coal than nuclear energy, Hirsch said.