LAYING LOW: ALARA Minimizes Radiation Risks

Soon after ionizing radiation was discovered, evidence of human health risks from exposure to high doses of radiation began to emerge. Focus on the effects of exposure greatly increased after the atomic bombings of World War II, and continued as the United States began investing in nuclear solutions for both defense and energy interests. Congruently, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and later the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), established especially conservative regulations for the protection of civilians and nuclear workers alike. What eventually developed was the ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) protocol, otherwise known as the “gold standard” of nuclear safety.

While the considerably stringent ALARA regulations have been successful in preventing exposure to radiation and errs to the side of caution rather than pushing risk, there are still important economic factors to consider. Initially, stricter protocols were driven by growing public understanding of the safety risks of nuclear testing, and then later, nuclear power plants. Limits of radioactive material were set in reponse to public demands rather than scientific testing, however the Atomic Energy Commission felt that public rhetoric was strong enough to establish official radiation protocol. As a result, ALARA came into being, enforced by the NRC. The regulations are defined as:

Making every reasonable effort to maintain exposures to radiation as far below the dose limits in this part as is practical consistent with the purpose for which the licensed activity is undertaken, taking into account the state of technology, the economics of improvements in relation to state of technology, the economics of improvements in relation to benefits to the public health and safety, and other societal and socioeconomic considerations, and in relation to utilization of nuclear energy and licensed materials in the public interest.

The ALARA protocol should not be confused with maximum permissible dose restrictions which represent the top—or high end—of ionizing radiation exposure. Official maximum doses are set relatively high, but due to the ALARA protocol actual radiation worker doses prove to be much lower. However, while low average doses still means that many workers are exposed to far higher doses, average dose is the current standard of measure used by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the data point by which most nuclear-related facilities implement their processes.

By its own definition, ALARA establishes safety measures that are "reasonably achievable", which leaves to question the definition of reasonable. The presupposition rests on the idea that there is no dose level of radiation that doesn’t present additional risk. This means there will always be significant costs in achieving the lowest levels possible. It stands to reason, then, that when additional risks of exposure to radiation are very low to begin with, bringing them even lower becomes much harder to do and requires increasingly more resources. This raises questions from facilities with nuclear processes that cite ALARA protocol as a response to public outcry that may not represent our current understanding of low dose radiation health effects.

Ultimately, however, while the evidence remains in large part inconclusive, given the impact of the risks at stake, ALARA remains the standard safety protocol until further research maintains otherwise. And despite the influence of public opinion over scientific investigation, the ALARA protocol continues to be successful in limiting the exposure of radiation to low levels. The basis of the ALARA protocol is grounded in the “linear-no-threshold hypothesis” — risk is directly proportional to dose, even for the smallest exposures. This means increasing costs to conform, but until more conclusive research on the health effects of low radiation doses establishes new grounds, there simply is no alternative.

Click here for more information on Graver’s response to ALARA protocols.