The EPA gets it right, for once

Even a stopped analog watch is right twice a day. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took time off from destroying the jobs of poor Appalachians in the coal industry and regulating puddles on a ranch as “navigable waterways” to propose new regulations that could help jump start the nuclear power industry and even Nevada’s Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository.

The EPA is considering raising its radiation exposure limits by 350 times. While this may sound scary to some, it is actually sensible. Strict regulations during the Fukushima nuclear power plant incident in Japan triggered the evacuation of 130,000 residents. Over 1,600 elderly and sick Japanese died as a result of the evacuation, while no one died from the actual incident.

The problem is that environmental regulations have become more onerous as our technological ability to measure increasingly microscopic levels of contamination has increased. Sophisticated environmental tests can detect radiation and pollution at levels not detected even a decade ago. New technologies that could have made the Gulf oil spill cleanup cheaper and faster were banned because they left a microscopic 15 parts per million of oil in the water, an amount not even detectable until recently.

The cost of these regulations is lost jobs, productivity and higher prices in our poor economic environment that hurts both workers and consumers. Cleaning up the first 90 percent of pollution is relatively cheap and effective. But now that pollution can be measured and regulated down to infinitesimal levels, removing the last 10 percent can be astronomically costly. The EPA asserts its mandate does not require them to do economic cost-benefit analysis. The agency has been under increasing criticism over regulations that take risk aversion to ridiculous limits without considering economic tradeoffs that do more actual harm than the minute levels of pollution can. Over-regulation kills, because inefficient mandates on economic activity lower the standard of living for everyone, putting the most vulnerable people at risk.

The opposition to Yucca Mountain is based on these old regulations. If the EPA regulations that mandate radiation be as “low as reasonably possible” can be changed to “as high as reasonably safe,” there could be a revival of nuclear power. Extreme environmentalists would no longer have government backing for their absurd claim that no level of radiation is safe. We are constantly surrounded by natural low level radiation that does no harm. In fact low levels of radiation can have positive health benefits. If the regulations are loosened, it could upgrade Yucca Mountain’s safety rating as a storehouse of low-level waste. Worries about shipping low-level waste to the site could be downgraded. California’s San Onofre nuclear plant could come back on line, providing carbon-free energy to Southern California and Nevada.

Freedom demands common sense. Unfortunately, bureaucracies often put mission creep and expansion of their power over a duty to make reasonable regulations for the public good. Let’s hope the Environmental Persecution Agency moderates its regulations and permits to more reasonable levels of radiation, sulfur emissions and other targets of its crusade to scrub every microscopic speck of dirt from the earth. Progressives often have a desire for petty orderliness and cleanliness with a puritanical obsession that mirrors the obsession with purity and hierarchical authority you can find in conservatives. When these factions organize the instruments of state coercion to impose their values on one another, the results can be nasty for everyone.

How about a diverse society not constantly organized for political battle but rather for personal choice? A freed up world becomes cleaner and more efficient without the need for state coercion.