Proposed EPA Rules Are Kryptonite to New Nuclear

Why Regulating a Harmless Emission Could Make Nuclear More Expensive

I like the proposed carbon emissions rules from Environmental Protection Agency. They address the real issue of balancing our energy mix and may be the only way to move forward in the absence of congressional leadership.

But the EPA has gone a little wild with their latest proposal. This new proposed emissions rule (actually a re-do of parts of 40CFR190 that may result in a rulemaking) is for nuclear power plants (Federal Register). An operating nuclear power plant has very low emissions of any kind except water vapor. No carbon emissions and almost no radioactivity emissions.

There has never been a problem with any nuclear power plant emissions in America, and emissions from them do not have any affect on the local population (RADICON Study; Comare Report). Even during the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, radionuclide emissions to the surrounding population were less than 1 millirem lifetime committed dose in a background of over 100 millirem per year (NRC TMI). Numerous comprehensive investigations, such as from Columbia University and the University of Pittsburgh, concluded that any radioactive release had no effect on human health and the environment.

And this was a nuclear meltdown. Normal operations certainly have no effects at all, primarily because we emplaced such heavy regulations on nuclear power plants from the very beginning.

So why re-do these regulations now? Fukushima? We’ve already made huge changes since Fukushima –– most were actually developed from the lessons of TMI –– those very lessons Japan ignored.

It turns out that a never-discussed radionuclide is at the center of these new rules: Krypton-85. It’s never discussed because it’s never been considered a hazard. And it still isn’t a hazard. When this proposal came out of EPA, those of us in the field looked at each other and said “Huh?” I can see revisiting the big guns like the Pu and U series, Cs-137, C-14, Tc-99, and a host of nuclides that could be a problem in high enough concentrations.

But Kr-85? That’s nonsense.

Kr-85 is a noble gas. Not in the sense that it’s honorable and dignified, but in the chemical sense that it cannot react with anything and can’t form chemical compounds or even individual molecules. It moves through the universe as a wholly separate single atom. Kr-85 can’t stick to anything or collect anywhere. Even if you breathe it in, it can’t sorb, react, or build-up inside of you, since the only process that has any effect on this element is Henry’s Law.

There is no way power plant emissions of Kr-85 can harm human health or the environment because it can’t do anything except completely dissipate immediately upon leaving the reactor. This is one of those few elements entirely governed by something called entropy, the reason that all the air in a room can’t suddenly move over to one side, a statistical possibility, but something that entropy won’t let happen no matter how many trillions of years you wait. By the time Kr-85 reaches the environment outside the gates of a power plant, it is below detection.

We have always focused on the radionuclides that can affect us, like Cs-137, Sr-90, Tc-99, I-131, and various isotopes of Pu, Am, U, and Np, because these can enter the body, and react or sorb in different tissues and organs. They have various biological half-lives, meaning they can enter biological pathways and be retained in the body for various times and can, if occurring in high enough concentrations, cause problems.

But this is not the case with Kr-85 because it can’t enter biological pathways. And Kr-85 decays to stable, non-hazardous, non-radioactive rubidium. This is quite different than that other radioactive noble gas that always gets discussed –– radon-222.

Rn-222 does decay to many radioactive progeny, like Po-218, Pb-210, Bi-214, to name a few. It is these radioactive radon-daughters that are worrisome since they are not noble and can stick in the lungs and enter biological pathways.

So there is no scenario in which Kr-85 released from a power plant could cause any health issues. We’ve known this for 50 years and nothing has changed.

So why is EPA talking about changing this now? Dr. Per Peterson, one of America’s most renowned nuclear engineers from UC Berkeley, recently discussed this very subject and the answer may be … wait for it … political.

As Peterson points out, “The major issue is that EPA may be attempting to regulate emissions of krypton-85, a noble gas that disperses so rapidly that it causes no detectable dose to anything anywhere, and no public heath consequence even remotely. There exists no plausible public health or environmental reason to regulate Kr-85 emissions, since they do not and can never have any significant public health or environmental impact (Energy Thorium).”

But setting absurdly low limits on Kr-85 emissions can make various new nuclear reactor designs more expensive, maybe even economically impossible. These are the new designs that are safer, can’t meltdown, can’t have a Fukushima or a TMI. They’re what we’re supposed to be moving towards in the nuclear arena.

Is EPA trying to make it impossible to build safer nuclear reactors? Are they trying to stop nuclear altogether?

Of course, EPA is the wrong agency to regulate Kr-85 emissions in the first place exactly because Kr-85 emissions have no demonstrable public heath or environmental impact and thus fall outside of EPA’s purview. This is NRC’s job, part of which includes regulating operations and reactor safety, where this issue falls.

With all the chemical and physical hazards we have in this country, especially in the energy, chemical and manufacturing industries, we don’t need to waste time on non-issues that have no scientific basis. EPA is too important to be exploited for this purpose.

If you want to kill nuclear energy for political reasons, do it through the political process.

James Conca has over 30 years of experience as a scientist specializing in geologic disposal of nuclear waste, energy-related research, subsurface transport, and environmental clean up of heavy metals. He is a contributor to Forbes, where this was originally published.

Photo Credit: Location of Projected New Nuclear Reactors, Nuclear Regulatory Commission