This forum is about wrong numbers in science, politics and the media. It respects good science and good English.
The idea that current radioactive safety limits are somewhat conservative has been mentioned in this forum a few times over the years, for example in the threads "Too cheap to meter" and "Godzilla flees from the luminous watch". There was a news story last month, not reported in the mainstream news media at all (as environmental journalists can be relied upon to keep this kind of thing out of the newspapers), that the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) is potentially going to raise radioactive safety limits by a factor of more than a hundred (a reason.com article quotes the factor as being 350):
The motivation for raising the limits is not to make nuclear power and facilities cheaper, but apparently because somebody has noticed that the US economy could be crippled by applying current Green-approved over-the-top safety limits in the context of radioactive 'dirty' bombs and if a ƒukushima-type nuclear accident happened to occur in the USA. The radioactive material in the hypothetical dirty bombs would be most likely to come from medical radioactive sources or possibly from scraping radium paint off old military equipment instrument dials. Islamic terrorists tend to be pretty knowledgeable about the chemistry of bomb-making, but appear to have steered clear so far of including radioactive material in their bombs presumably due to religious taboos.
The only historical precedent I can think of for this issue of official safety limits being substantially raised is the situation in the late 19th century where very early road vehicles were restricted to a super-low speed limit with a man with a red flag walking or jogging in front of the vehicle. The speed limits in the UK were 4mph for rural areas and 2mph for urban areas, which were then increased in 1896 to 14mph. But was that only an increase of a factor of 7.
I have some suspicions here.
Safety limits are usually conservative and so what we are saying here is that they are unduly conservative.
Now it may well be apparent, to most of us who read the Godzilla stories that in that case and in many other fields of activity, and there is no reason to expect otherwise of radiation levels, that the norm is for conservative safety levels, but equally it should be apparent that it is extremely rare that such levels are ever made more modest.
Organisations like the EPA or any Governmental organisation tend to want to go to ever more stringent limits rather than the alternative - drink driving is a case in point where despite the evidence (except for the "computer models") not showing any significant benefits for a rather draconian new set of lower blood alcohol limits which will impose a severe additional social penalty, and let's face it, those who already break the current limit are unlikely to worry about the new limit so it is those who fall between the current and proposed limits who will be targeted despite there being very little evidence that this difference in levels will have any significant impact.....
So, for the EPA to be considering raising the limit there must be some very strong motivation or incentive.
Is the reason given the real reason or a handy justification? Trillions of dollars wasted is tax payer money in the event of some some upset. Not always sufficient reason for governments or organisations to change their stance.
Perhaps there is a powerful lobby group who need for this limit to be raised - it will be a case of following the money.... who stands to benefit most financially and has the necessary clout.
Maybe it is about workers in the nuclear industry where there are some significant cost benefits to be won or there is a class action suit pending or in prospect where it would help to have these limits relaxed?
It will be interesting to see if any traces of lobbying are evident.
Otherwise it is hard to see any motive for the EPA to act, unprovoked, in a sensible manner simply to save tax payers money in the event of some "incident".
But stranger things have happened.
If there is a lobby group involved, I think that the nuclear industry can be ruled out. One of the myths of the Green movement is that there exists a powerful 'nuclear lobby' always pushing for nuclear expansion, almost on a par with 'Big Oil', but this assertion does not stand up to examination. If the nuclear industry has the influence in the present day to get an arbitrary factor of safety of more than a hundred removed from radioactive safety limits, then I think it would have had the influence decades ago to ensure that the factor of safety had not been imposed in the first place. In the heyday of the Western nuclear industry, in the 1960s and 1970s, it might have had a bit of influence, but I'd say the influence is almost nil in the present day.
I can give an example to show that the UK nuclear industry has little or no influence - consider a tax in the UK called the "Climate Change Levy", details of which are given in this Wikipedia article:
The tax is basically a 'polluter pays' tax introduced by the Blair government in 2001 that is slapped on UK businesses to penalise them for using electricity which supposedly contributes to climate change. The tax is applied to fossil fuel generated electricity as might be expected, but is also applied to nuclear generated electricity, with only renewable energy being allowed an exemption from the tax. I'm pretty sure that the UK nuclear industry would have made some attempt to arrange that CO2-free nuclear generated electricity was exempt from the tax, but they obviously had no influence on Brtish politicians.
The reasons given in the news story for substantially raising the radioactive safety limits actually sound quite plausible to me. Terrorism can be regarded as being 'asymmetric warfare', and one of the main features of the asymmetry is that terrorists tend to operate on a shoestring budget, whereas their opponents are likely to be spending orders of magnitude more money to engage in the same conflict. Islamic terrorism, under the guidance of Bin Laden, has been particularly keen on the idea of squandering the money of its opponents, as this news article from 2004 describes:
In this news story Bin Laden announced that his plan was to defeat the USA by effectively bankrupting it, and he believed that his group had defeated the Soviets in the 1980s by making the war too expensive for them to continue with it. One way of economically damaging the USA would be to explode radioactive dirty bombs, taking advantage of unduly pessimistic radioactive safety limits.
I think I may have identified the potential class action lawsuit that the US Government might be nervous about. There was a news story several months ago which announced that the death toll of 1656 for people currently living in evacuation camps in the ƒukushima prefecture now exceeds the death toll of 1607 that occurred in the original tsunami event in 2011. The 1656 evacuee deaths are apparently due to stress and other illnesses related to the disaster. I assume there have been no radiation-induced deaths amongst the evacuees, otherwise the BBC and the Guardian would have been rather enthusiastically reporting such deaths and I'm sure I would have heard about it.
The problem with the super-conservative radiation limits for evacuation is that they don't appear to recognise the potential mental health problems that might be associated with evacuating more people than is necessary. A radioactive contamination hazard will be different from other hazards requiring evacuation in that it is likely to require a much lengthier evacuation, which might even be permanent, and it also has a unique feature where a powerful lobby group (Big Green), assisted by the mainstream news media, has a vested interest in making the evacuees think they are 'doomed' or have been subject to the most terrible of injustices, which won't help anybody with mental health issues.
There has also been a news story in the last day or two that the ƒukushima nuclear power plant operator, TEPCO, has been successfully sued by the family of a Japanese woman who committed suicide and has been ordered to pay nearly $500K in compensation.
I would deduce from this recent story that TEPCO must be responsible for setting the evacuation criteria in Japan rather than the Japanese government, and I would guess TEPCO have adopted something like USEPA criteria for the evacuation.
I'm not sure what we do about evacuation criteria for nuclear accidents and other radioactive contamination incidents in the UK. The only nuclear accident we have had in the UK was the 1957 Windscale fire. No evacuation was carried out for that incident even though it did involve a reasonably big release of radioactive material, probably because Big Green didn't exist back in those days.