As the Fukushima nuclear reactors continue to send low-doses of radiation outward and calls intensify to review the American nuclear plant fleet, a key research program that studies the health impacts of small amounts of radiation exposure could face elimination.
Columbia biologist David J. Brenner, who studies radiation but is not funded by the DOE program, told The Atlantic that losing the low-dose radiation program "would really hurt our capabilities, moving forward, either to figure out how to respond sensibly to a large scale radiological event in this country or to figure out the best way forward in terms of the future of nuclear power."
Sadly, one way or another, it seems the low dose program is in trouble. The House budget would effectively leave the entire Biological and Environmental Research division within the Office of Science with no budget for the rest of fiscal year 2011. By capping its spending at about half of its budget from last year halfway through the year, there would be almost no money left to run the scientific operations. House Republicans appear to have targeted the division because of its emphasis on the basic science of climate change, according to a March 18 article in Science Magazine.
But even assuming the best possible scenario for the fiscal year 2011 budget, the Department of Energy's funding request for the fiscal year 2012 would cut the Radiobiology budget 45 percent. The total Radiobiology budget stands to have just $14.3 million to work with in fiscal year 2012, down from $25.9 million in 2010 and a requested $23.9 in 2011 [pdf].
So, even if the program survives Republican attacks, the DOE's own funding request means the Low Dose Radiation Research Program will still have to scale back research on precisely what happens to the body when it receives the kinds of small doses of radiation one receives flying cross-country, in medical imaging machines, passing through X-ray scanners, and after nuclear accidents.
In a Nature News editorial, Brenner called attention to the general problem of lack of research funding for precisely the topic of low-dose radiation, especially in a post-Fukushima world.
"The uncertainties associated with our best estimates of the health effects of low-doses of radiation are large," Brenner wrote. "And not knowing the risks means that we really don't know what is a reasonable evacuation zone, whom to evacuate, when to evacuate or when to allow people back."
At a time when the nation's nuclear future is up for reevaluation, this kind of research program should be strengthened, not cut back.
Regardless of how one comes down on nuclear power's past, present, or future, it just makes sense to know the effects of radiation on human beings. For nuclear proponents, more precisely determining the risks would allow them to make their case that such dosages pose little or no danger. Many nuclear opponents feel precisely the opposite. Only more research can definitely determine the health impacts of low-doses of radiation, if there are any.
The Low Dose Radiation Research Program is housed at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. We contacted both its program manager, Noelle Metting, the PNNL public affairs office, and the Department of Energy. They all declined to comment on the record or had not returned contacts by the time of publication.
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