The nuclear industry and many health scientists strongly favor a proposal to end federal controls on some low-level radioactive waste, but government records show much of the general public is alarmed at the prospect.
"I don't want to die of cancer because you allowed somebody to dump low-level waste near my home, school or water source," Lisa Brown, of Corvallis, Ore., wrote in a recent letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.The Environmental Protection Agency also has stated its opposition to the NRC plan.
The commission is evaluating the hundreds of written responses it has received to a proposal published last December to end regulation of wastes - from nuclear plants, medical research, recycled metals and consumer products - which emit radiation at levels so low as to be deemed acceptable risks to public health.
The commission proposed setting the limit at 10 millirems per year per person. By comparison, radiation from a single X-ray is about 30 millirems, and the average American is exposed to between 200 millirems and 300 millirems a year from natural background radiation, not counting X-rays.
In its proposal, the NRC said "there is no clear consensus," based on existing scientific data, on exactly what level of radiation exposure should be considered an acceptable risk. Congress in 1985 instructed the NRC to set such a limit.
The commission said the risk of cancer death associated with exposure to 10 millirems per year is two in 1 million. A level of risk even five times greater than this would be of "little concern to most members of society," it said.
Of those writing to express a view on the proposal, nuclear utilities and scientists were uniformly in favor, although some disagreed on the exact level of acceptable exposure.
John J. Kearney, writing on behalf of the health physics committee of the Edison Electric Institute, proposed a dose limit of as high as 20 millirems per year.
"The associated risks, if any, are quite small compared to other actual risks an individual faces every day," he wrote. His group is an electric utility trade group.
Many private individuals, however, said they were troubled at the prospect of allowing producers of toxic wastes to dispose of it without federal controls.