Ruling opens way for tighter radiation limit

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A RULING by the European Court of Justice earlier this month opens the way for Britain's nuclear safety regulators to impose more stringent radiation protection standards on UK industry than apply to the rest of Europe.

If the UK adopts stricter standards the British nuclear industry could have difficulties in meeting the limits. The court's decision, which initially affects protection standards in Belgium, has caused fury within the European Commission, with some officials describing it as incomprehensible and as an unacceptable political judgment.

On the eve of the single European market, the court appears to have overturned the concept that all EC countries should have the same radiation standards to protect workers. The European Court ruled that Belgium was justified in setting stricter standards to protect young people than those laid out in a pan-European directive from the European Commission.

In 1987, the Belgian government set a new dose limit for apprentices and students aged 16 to 18 who are exposed to radiation in the course of their studies. Such young people should receive no more than one-tenth the limit applying to occupationally exposed workers. But this level is three times more stringent than that prescribed in the 1980 Euratom directive on radiation safety - which set the limit at three-tenths of the occupational level.

The Commission took Belgium to court to make it relax the new protection standard. At the beginning of this month the court rejected the Commission's action.

This may remove constraints from Britain's National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB), which has been seeking stricter radiation standards for the UK's nuclear industry, but which has felt held back by the need to conform to Community legislation. The board said: 'The situation in general terms is that no one quite knows what the ruling means. We will continue to develop our own advice to government which is independent of the EC.'

Insiders think the judgment will set back publication of the EC directive expected in 1994, and free the UK regulators 'to set what limits we think are right for the UK'.

Dr Patrick Green, radiation campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: 'The door is now open for the NRPB to recommend reductions in national dose limits in line with its latest information on the risk of radiation exposure. It is imperative that they do so as quickly as possible.'

The board believes that the maximum tolerable risk from radiation is such that no one should receive a dose of more than 0.3milliSieverts in a year. But in the cause of harmonisation of European standards, the legal limit will be set three times more loosely, at 1mSv a year, with the 0.3mSv level being a 'constraint' rather than a legally determined limit. If limits were set at the 0.3mSv level then it might prove difficult for reactors such as Dungeness in Kent, and Bradwell in Essex, and fuel cycle facilities such as Sellafield in Cumbria to prove that they complied with the legal standards.

The Health and Safety Excutive, which will have to enforce any revised radiation standards, described the European Court's ruling as 'interesting'.