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Government Issues Guidelines for Dirty Bombs Cleanup

January 4, 2006

The United States government issued on Tuesday, cleanup standards for a "dirty bomb" terrorist attack.

The Homeland Security Department guidelines set standards that in some cases would be far less stringent than those required for cleaning up Superfund pollution sites, commercial nuclear power plants and nuclear waste dumps.

The guidelines issued by the Homeland Security Department say that the impact from detonating a crude nuclear device or a dirty bomb could vary widely, from contaminating a small area, such as a single building or a city block, to possibly many square miles. Cleanup requirements could vary widely according to the agency.

Long-term radiation exposure using some of the guidelines issued Tuesday could be as high as ten-thousand millirems a year. That's equal to more than 16-hundred chest X-rays. By comparison, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission limits public exposure from the facilities it licenses to no more than 100 millirems a year.

The guidelines go into effect immediately but could be modified after a public comment period, brought stinging criticism from some environmental organizations and watchdog groups.

If there is a widespread contamination from a dirty bomb or an "improvised nuclear device", which could cause a crude nuclear explosion- some areas may have to be off-limits permanently, the guidelines said.

One watchdog group contends that the new Homeland Security guidelines "could cause one in four people to get cancer" if they return to the site of an attack.

Long-term radiation levels of 10,000 millirems a year as would be permitted by the guidelines in some cases can be expected to produce a cancer in one out of every four people exposed, said Diane D'Arrigo of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a Washington-based nuclear industry watchdog group, citing government radiation risk assessments.

The federal guidelines do not establish specific numerical standards for cleanup, but they cite radiation "Benchmarks" established by other agencies that would be accepted.

Among those benchmarks that could be used under the guidelines is one established by the International Commission on Radiation Protection, which cites a long-term release of 10.000 millirems a year as a acceptable exposure standard after cleanup.

However, by comparison, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not allow exposure to the public of more that 100 millirems per year in its cleanup standard. The exposure at a future Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site has a limit of 15 milllirems. Background radiation from natural sources averages about 350 millirems, while exposure from a chest X-ray is about 6 millirems.

A spokesman for the White House Office of Science and Technology, Donald Tighe, said the guidelines specifically avoided setting a numerical cleanup standard for long-term radiation exposure. Instead, he said, it is hoped the guidelines will help state, local, and federal officials choose appropriate cleanup standards depending on the circumstances.

Tighe also said that "It would be very inaccurate for anyone to characterize this as leaning toward any one side of the range of (cleanup) standards" that might be available.

But Daniel Hirsch, of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nuclear watchdog group in California, said the guidelines are so lax that it opens the way for cleanup efforts to fall short of what is needed to protect public health.

Hirsch went on to say that the Department of Homeland Security "is proposing a nuclear Katrina, a formal policy of allowing the public to be exposed to massive radiation doses from a dirty bomb while the government does nothing to protect them."