Fundamental differences among government officials over the long-term health effects of low-level nuclear radiation have delayed the report of a White House-ordered task force.
The task force was set up last May to develop a coordinated federal program to meet growing public concern that low-level radiation exposure can increase the risk of leukemia and other cancers.
Controversy developed in "almost every one of the (six) areas studied," a task force member said. The split among task force participants reflects the deep differences that exist within the scientific community on the basic question of whether low-level radiation does have a harmful health effect over the long term.
One task force participant characterized the split as between the "users" -- the departments of Defense and Energy -- and the "guardians of truth" -- the departments of Health, Education and Welfare and of Labor and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
A Pentagon member, however, said conflicts were rare and "we resolved to disagree where there were alternative interpretations."
"There is no agreement on the facts, no agreement on science," another official put it.
As a result, seven drafts of reports and recommendations have circulated among the agencies. As of now, according to interviews with a variety of participants, the task force work stands as follows:
Science and research. There is no agreement on the prime question whether low levels of nuclear radiation are safe or harmful. There is a recommendation that current research and studies planned for the future be coordinated by a central agency. Today it is run by various agencies.
Benefits and care. No single program will be proposed for benefits to those exposed to low-level radiation in the past who subsequently developed leukemia or other cancers. Alternative options will be proposed for special groups such as the GIs and Utah residents who were subjected to direct radiation or fallout from the 1950s nuclear weapons tests in Nevada. Each such program will have its own levels of criteria and proof, one source said.
Public information. A final recommendation for this is still being drafted. The dispute, according to one source, is whether it will be "alarmist or educational."
"We don't want to get the whole nation alarmed," a participant said.
Reducing dosages. The task force will recommend a program to get doctors to cut down radiation used in diagnostic work, i.e. X-rays, which it found to be the major source for the exposure. At the same time it will stress that radiation needed for theraputic use should not be affected.
Institutional reorganization. This remains unsettled. After the interagency Federal Radiation Council was disbanded in 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was supposed to guide the president on radiation standards. EPA is "without competence" in this area, one task force member said, and should be replaced. Another suggested it would take "collaboration to get the job done" and it was difficult to see "to what extent any one agency can be responsible."
The study did show, however, that along with the central management of research, the government could use a central repository for dosage records for individuals working at occupations that expose them to radiation.
Access to medical records and the privacy act. The least controversial of the studies will recommend ways for researchers to acquire medical records in searching for radiation victims.
The full task force draft report was initially expected to be circulated for public comment last December. It was postponed until January and now is tentatively set to be released next week.
The work papers will run close to 700 pages, sources said. After two months review, a final report will be sent to the White House.
One of the key debates has arisen over benefits.
The White House, in its initial instructions, asked for a plan "for ensuring that persons adversely affected by radiation exposure receive the care and benefits to which they may be or should be entitled."
The sub-group that studied that issue disagreed over just what radiation exposure could be related to cancer.
Behind the benefits debate, one source said, hovered the idea "that if the government lets loose too easily, it will create hundreds of court cases and push nuclear power into a black hole."
Another task force member said, however, that low dose levels in the nuclear power plants "show they are not doing badly and should not worry."