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Category Archives: Nuclear Materials

Moments in NRC History: Regulating for Safety and Non-Proliferation, Part II

Thomas Wellock

RTR_2Part I of our Research and Test Reactor Series looked at the promise and unique safety challenges of research reactors, beginning with North Carolina State’s first civilian-owned reactor in 1953.

In Part II of our video series, we look at how the focus on safety of these reactors evolved into a concern about their security.

The Atomic Energy Commission (the NRC’s predecessor) had developed design requirements for research reactors with large safety margins that tolerated errors. Extensive training and supervision was required of licensed operators. Sabotage was foiled by making the reactors’ uranium fuel difficult to remove or destroy.

However, weapons proliferation became a persistent concern. Reactor designers favored fuel highly enriched in fissionable uranium-235. Uranium-235, however, was also the stuff of atomic bombs.

Initially, the AEC only permitted export of reactor technology with low enrichment, but in the 1960s, it granted international requests to U.S. manufacturers for high performance research reactors. The reactors needed only small quantities of enriched fuel, and it was believed bilateral agreements and regular inspections would assure the used fuel was returned to the U.S.

But events in the 1970s – including India’s detonation of a nuclear device made possible with fissionable material from a Canadian research reactor — demonstrated the limits of this approach.

Lowering the fuel enrichment was seen as a viable solution. In 1978, the Department of Energy launched a program to develop a low enriched fuel that met the performance needs of research reactors. In the U.S., operators of 20 research reactors opted to switch to low-enriched fuel.

MIHAfter the 9/11 attacks, the United States launched the Global Threat Reduction Initiative to accelerate the conversion to low-enriched fuel. Twenty-seven reactors around the world, including six in the United States made this conversion, taking out of circulation enough fissionable material to make 20 crude bombs.

The NRC also pursued enhancements against sabotage and theft with better staff background screening, access controls, security searches, and coordination with emergency responders.

The decline of the nuclear industry since the 1970s and the production of isotopes abroad have reduced the need for research reactors in the U.S. Their numbers have dwindled to about 30. This brought a new concern — the vulnerability of the nation’s isotope supply for medical uses, especially molybdenum-99.

The video explores how that vulnerability is being addressed and how the NRC continues to ensure research reactors operate safely in today’s threat environment. I hope you’ll take the time to watch the video.

Updated: The Freedom to Demonstrate Demonstrated in Crow Butte Hearing

Victor Dricks
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region IV

Demonstrators voice their opinion ahead of an Atomic Safety and Licensing Board hearing.

Demonstrators voice their opinion ahead of an Atomic Safety and Licensing Board hearing.

Both opponents and supporters of the Crow Butte Resources, Inc.’s uranium recovery facility near Crawford, Neb., faced off this week during a hearing before the Atomic Safety & Licensing Board. The hearing, presided over by three ASLB judges, involves a challenge to the renewed license issued to the facility in late-2014.

The ASLB is an independent body within the NRC that conducts adjudicatory hearings and renders decisions on legal challenges to licensing actions.

The ASLB judges are hearing evidence this week addressing nine contentions filed by opponents of the facility from several local residents and the Western Nebraska Resources Council, known as consolidated interveners, and the Oglala Sioux Tribe. The hearing is being held in the Crawford Community Center.

Four of the contentions are related to the safety review and five are related to the environmental review. The contentions challenge the adequacy of the evaluation and protection of historical resources at the site, and the NRC’s analysis of the facility’s impacts on surface water, groundwater and the ecosystem. The hearing will run until all evidence has been heard.

In filings with the ASLB, the Oglala Sioux Tribe said it will argue that NRC failed to adequately follow all legally required processes before issuing a 10-year license extension for the facility, causing the tribe “irreparable harm,” as a result.

Iris Paris of Crawford, Nebraska, greets ASLB judges for their hearing today.

Iris Paris of Crawford, Nebraska, greets ASLB judges for their hearing today.

Expert witnesses scheduled to speak on behalf of the interveners include Dennis Yellow Thunder and Michael Catches Enemy of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, as well as an archaeologist, a biochemist and three hydrologists.

The ASLB hearings come just weeks after a documentary film titled “Crying Earth Rise Up,” co-produced by Lakota grandmother Debra White Plume, Prairie Dust Films and Vision Maker Media, premiered here in Crawford. The 57-minute film presents a case against uranium mining.

Owned by the Canadian Cameco Corp., Crow Butte Resources has been conducting in situ recovery of uranium for nuclear power plants at its site four miles east of Crawford for 20 years. Cameco is the largest operator of uranium mines in the United States. The company has submitted applications for three uranium recovery site expansion projects, which are in various phases of NRC review.

The ASLB has 90 days after the conclusion of next week’s hearing to affirm, modify or reverse its decision to renew the operating license for Crow Butte.

Update: This post has been edited to include all co-producers of the documentary.

UPDATE: Reducing Proliferation Risks AND Treating the Sick

Steve Lynch
Project Manager
Research and Test Reactor Licensing Branch

The United States does not produce a medical isotope used domestically in millions of diagnostic procedures each year. We’re talking about technicium-99m, or Tc‑99m — which has been called the world’s most important medical isotope.

Tc-99m is created from another radioisotope, molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), which, in some cases, is produced  using highly enriched uranium. A supply shortage that delayed patient treatments several years ago, coupled with the desire to reduce proliferation risks, prompted the world community to find better ways of securing the future supply of this isotope.

In 2012, Congress passed the American Medical Isotope Production Act to support private U.S. efforts to develop non-HEU methods for medical isotope production and begin phasing out the export of HEU. The National Nuclear Security Administration has been promoting domestic Mo‑99 production using different technologies through formal cooperative agreements with commercial partners.

These partners and several other companies have said they are interested in producing Mo‑99 in the U.S. They have proposed using several different technologies, ranging from non-power reactors to accelerator-driven, subcritical solution tanks. To support the transition to new technologies, the NRC is prepared to receive and review applications for construction permits, operating licenses, and materials licenses for new facilities, as well as license amendments for existing non-power reactors.

In fact, we are now reviewing two construction permit applications and a license amendment request. We licensed a small-scale technology demonstration project earlier this year.

Companies, facilities, and technicians involved in producing and administering Tc-99m to patients may also need to be licensed by either the NRC or an Agreement State. (There are 37 Agreement States, which have formal agreements with the NRC allowing them to regulate certain nuclear materials, including medical isotopes.)

For more information on the role of the NRC and other agencies in regulating the use and production of medical isotopes and other nuclear materials, visit the NRC webpage.

Kara Mattioli also contributed to this post.

This is an update to the original blog post, which originally ran in October 2013

Updating Nuclear Materials Transportation Regulations

Michele Sampson
Chief, Spent Fuel Licensing Branch

The idea of transporting nuclear materials can make people nervous. It’s easy to imagine worst-case accidents on the highway or involving a train. But stringent safety requirements, as well as coordination among federal agencies, international regulators, and state and local officials, help to ensure these shipments are made safely. This structure provides many layers of safety.

10cfrtwopartjpgFrom time to time, the requirements are updated to address new information. The International Atomic Energy Agency and U.S. Department of Transportation recently updated their requirements. The NRC just amended ours to reflect those updates, as well as to make some changes we felt were needed based on recent experience. You can read the Federal Register notice on the final rule, published June 12.

While the rules are revised periodically, the fact remains that nuclear materials are transported safely all the time. By far the majority of shipments involve small quantities of nuclear materials. Millions of these shipments are made each year and arrive at their destination without incident. Smaller shipments must be made in compliance with DOT regulations for shipping hazardous materials. The greater the potential risk of the contents, the more stringent DOT’s packaging requirements are. The DOT regulations limit how much radioactivity can be transported in each package. That way, no transport accident involving these small shipments would pose a serious health threat.

But what about larger amounts of radioactive materials? What about spent nuclear fuel?

In addition to having to meet DOT requirements, more radioactive cargo such as spent fuel must meet NRC regulations for nuclear materials packaging and transport in 10 CFR Part 71. These regulations include very detailed requirements for shipping under normal conditions, as well as stringent tests to show the packages can withstand severe accidents. These are the regulations we just finished updating.

If you would like to learn more about the transportation of spent fuel and radioactive materials, see our backgrounder.

Shedding Some Light On Tritium Illumination Devices

Shirley Xu
Health Physicist

Some radioactive materials are used to produce light. This is done by bombarding a special material known as a phosphor with the radiation (typically beta radiation) emitted by the radioactive material. Phosphor gets its name from the Greek words for “light” and “to bring.” The phenomenon is called “radioluminescence.”

Radioluminescence can be used to provide a low level light source to allow instruments or signs to be visible at night or for other situations where light is needed for long periods without electricity, such as emergency exit signs.

watchfacePaint with radium was the first radioluminescent product. Today, tritium is most commonly used, primarily on wristwatch faces and gun sights. Small tritium lights can be made by sealing tritium and a phosphor layer in small glass tubes. Such a tube is known as a “gaseous tritium light source” (GTLS), or more commonly, a beta light (since the tritium undergoes beta decay).

Tritium is a radioactive isotope with a half-life of about 12 years, which means the glass tube loses half its energy and some of its brightness in that period. So the types of GTLS used in watches generally have a useful life of 10 to 20 years. They give off a small amount of light: not enough to be seen in daylight, but enough to be visible in the dark. The more tritium that is initially placed in the tube, the brighter it is to begin with and the longer its useful life.

The NRC regulates devices that contain small amounts of tritium. Manufacturers and initial distributors of these devices need to have a distribution license issued by the NRC. They also need to have a separate license to possess and use the material. This license can be issued either by the NRC or the state. [There are 37 states that have agreements with us to regulate these types of radioactive materials. They are called Agreement States.] Anyone who initially buys one of these products from someone who has the proper licenses and subsequent owners of the product are exempt from the requirements for an NRC license.

Approval of these types of products would require extremely low risk of radiation exposures to members of the public from normal use, misuse or accidents. The NRC would also need to see the usefulness or benefits of the product. For example, items that could be mishandled, especially by children, will be approved only if they combine an unusual degree of utility and safety. Other countries have different regulatory requirements. That is why some tritium products available for sale internationally are not sold in the U.S.

These regulations can be found in 10 CFR Part 30 and Part 32.


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