In an appearance on Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Cato Institute adjunct scholar Steven Milloy cited his study of radiation levels at the U.S. Capitol Building to argue that the health safety standards recently imposed on the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nevada, nuclear waste repository are unduly stringent. But Milloy's findings -- that the radiation exposure at the Capitol is far higher than it would be at the Yucca Mountain facility under Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits -- were debunked shortly after he published them in 2001.
In June 2001, the EPA announced that the proposed storage facility in Nevada would be approved only if additional radiation exposure to nearby residents would not exceed 15 millirem annually during the first 10,000 years. Normal background radiation exposure amounts to approximately 360 millirem annually.
In April 2001, Milloy and his Cato Institute colleague Michael Gough released a study purporting to show that radiation levels at the Capitol were 65 times higher than the proposed standards for Yucca Mountain. The conclusion of the study read as follows:
We measured radiation dose rates inside the U.S. Capitol building and outside the Library of Congress' Thomas Jefferson Building to be substantially greater than the dose rates associated with background radiation, radiation from nuclear power production, ongoing worldwide radiation exposures from the Chernobyl accident and the radiation protection standards proposed by the EPA for the high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. Potential exposures to these radiation sources may increase the risk of fatal cancer by as much as 0.5 percent based on EPA risk assessment practices.
In the accompanying press release, Milloy was quoted as saying: “We hope that Sen. [Harry] Reid [D-NV] will act immediately to protect Capitol building visitors, employees and future generations from this radiation hazard.”
When a constituent contacted a member of Congress about Milloy and Gough's alarming findings, the architect of the Capitol (AOC) requested that the U.S. Public Health Service investigate the claims. But the public health officials' survey found only “normal background radiation” in the Capitol, according to an April 16, 2001, Roll Call article. The AOC communications officer, Bruce Milhans, surmised that Milloy and Gough “must have been measuring something they brought with them.”
When confronted with the Public Health Service findings, Milloy disputed the apparent discrepancy and backed off from his characterization of the radiation levels as a “hazard.” “I'm sure that the Architect measured the same levels of radiation that we did,” Milloy said. “If you look at the study closely, I don't really think there's anything dangerous at the Capitol at all.” These comments suggested that the radiation Milloy and Gough measured was, in fact, normal background radiation -- not the additional radiation that would be emitted by nuclear waste.
In a May 4, 2001, column on the Fox News website, however, Milloy repeated his misleading comparison of radiation levels at the Capitol and exposure standards at Yucca Mountain: “If radiation dose rates up to 65 times higher than those planned for Yucca Mountain aren't dangerous to Capitol building employees and visitors, what is the point of even more stringent standards for Yucca Mountain?”
But if the radiation rates Milloy measured at the Capitol merely represent the average “background radiation” experienced all over the world, then his argument is based on a flawed comparison -- between average background radiation and the additional radiation emitted at Yucca Mountain. The EPA's intent in setting the radiation standards at Yucca Mountain, after all, is to protect Nevada residents from radiation exposure beyond what they would normally encounter.
Nonetheless, in a one-on-one interview with guest host Jim Angle on the August 10 edition of Special Report, Milloy revived his debunked study of radiation levels on the Capitol to argue that the EPA's Yucca Mountain standards are “ridiculous.” The interview focused on the EPA's recent announcement of its revised standards for the Nevada facility, which include the original 15 millirem exposure limit for the first 10,000 years, as well as a 250 millirem limit over the following 990,000 years. But Milloy again set up a false comparison between background radiation levels and the additional radiation that will be emitted by the nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, claiming that “someone who works at the Capitol eight hours a day is going to be exposed to 20 times the radiation -- 20 times the radiation -- that comes out of Yucca Mountain.”
From the August 10 Special Report with Brit Hume:
MILLOY: Well, we think these standards are really ridiculous. They're very low. As a matter of fact, so low, we went over to the Capitol to measure the radiation --
ANGLE: The Capitol behind --
MILLOY: -- the Capitol building, coming out from statues and all the granite and marble. You know, it's naturally occurring radiation.
We found that someone who works at the Capitol eight hours a day is going to be exposed to 20 times the radiation -- 20 times the radiation -- that comes out of Yucca Mountain in a year.
ANGLE: Wait a minute. Hold on, hold on. Congress is arguing over these standards, and we've got all these court cases, and you're saying somebody who works in the Congress gets 20 times more in a day?
MILLOY: Over the course of a year.
ANGLE: Over the course of a year, than you would if you were living next door to Yucca Mountain?
MILLOY: And Yucca Mountain, right. And you really can't even measure the amount of radiation you get out of Yucca Mountain, because it's within the natural -- it's so far within the margin of natural radiation exposure we get, it's really unmeasurable.
Later in the interview, Milloy suggested that the 260 millirem of radiation he and Gough found at the Capitol was a separate phenomenon from the “natural background exposure” :
MILLOY: Well, the standard at Yucca Mountain is -- it's kind of technical -- 15 millirems per year. You go over to the Capitol, you're going to be exposed to as much as 260 millirems per year. The natural background exposure is about 350 millirems. So you can see, though, Yucca Mountain is very small in there.
Milloy has a long history of conducting scientific studies that benefit powerful corporate lobbies -- a strategy described as “sound science.” The practice has been described in the American Journal of Public Health as “sophisticated public relations campaigns controlled by industry executives and lawyers whose aim is to manipulate the standards of scientific proof to serve the corporate interests of their clients.”
Proponents of “sound science” purport to expose so-called “junk science,” which Milloy has described as “faulty scientific data and analysis used to advance special and, often, hidden agendas” of personal injury lawyers, social activists, government regulators and the media." This description, as well as the Capitol radiation study, appears on www.junkscience.com, a website Milloy founded in 1996 in association with a nonprofit organization called The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC). As journalist Chris Mooney explained in a February 29, 2004, Washington Post op-ed, the idea of “sound science” originated at TASSC:
That use of the term goes back to a campaign waged by the tobacco industry to undermine the indisputable connection between smoking and disease. Industry documents released as a result of tobacco litigation show that in 1993 Philip Morris and its public relations firm, APCO Associates, created a nonprofit front group called The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC) to fight against the regulation of cigarettes. To mask its true purpose, TASSC assembled a range of anti-regulatory interests under one umbrella. The group also challenged the now widely accepted notion that secondhand smoke poses health risks.
Milloy currently writes a regular “Junk Science” column for the Fox News website. In recent columns, he has argued that global warming represents "flawed science," that pesticide use in schools poses no threat to students, and that “radical environmentalists” are the "real energy problem."
In addition to letting Milloy's viewpoint go unchallenged, Angle ignored other issues related to radiation exposure at Yucca Mountain. While providing a platform for Milloy's four-year-old Capitol radiation study, Angle failed to mention the recent revelation that government scientists may have falsified safety studies related to the storage facility in order to meet quality assurance standards. Emails written by the scientists suggest that they altered documents pertaining to how quickly radioactive material stored at Yucca Mountain would travel outside the boundaries of the repository. Both the FBI and Congress are investigating the allegations.
Angle also stated during his interview with Milloy that the “whole issue” surrounding Yucca Mountain “is about exposure for people living near the site.” But the potential exposure created by the regular transport of nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain from facilities nationwide is also a major concern.