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Radium Part II: Trying to Close Pandora’s Box

Tom Wellock
NRC Historian

Until 1945, radium was the best known radioactive material. It was widely found in consumer and medical products. And, as we saw in Part I of this series, it became notorious for fatally sickening radium watch-dial painters in the 1920s. With few exceptions, oversight of public and workplace safety for radium was mostly a state responsibility, and the federal government’s role was limited to such issues as preventing false advertising and regulating mail shipments.

USRadiumGirls-Argonne1ca1922-23-150dpiAt that time, radioisotopes came from just two limited sources. They were painstakingly isolated from natural ores, as was radium, or created in small batches in particle accelerators. These accelerators fire beams of electrons, protons and other particles at elements to create radioactive isotopes. Today the products of these two processes are called NARM—short for Naturally-Occurring and Accelerator-Produced Radioactive Material.

Scientists working on fission and the Manhattan Project discovered new radioactive isotopes with interesting properties. They soon became widely available to scientists, who found many uses for these products, from medical to basic research. They were under federal control and soon eclipsed the small amounts of radium and other NARM that existed before the war. Cold-War security concerns demanded federal control of nuclear technology and this new radioactive material.

Still, the 1946 Atomic Energy Act avoided intruding on state authority over NARM. It focused the Atomic Energy Commission’s oversight on fissionable material such as uranium and thorium and reactor-produced isotopes. The AEC controlled the vast majority of radioactive material.

This division of power didn’t disturb existing state authority but made little technical sense. An isotope produced in a reactor would be identical to one found in nature or produced in an accelerator.  Moreover, state oversight was uneven.

Radium_Periodic Element TableRadium had lost its luster and fallen into disuse. Safer reactor-produced isotopes and sources with shorter half-lives mostly replaced radium for medical uses. Radium consumer products disappeared from stores by the 1970s. But products made with radium during its heyday (see Part I) retain their hazard for a long time.

So, from time to time, reports would emerge of products found in someone’s attic or office, or contamination found in a building. This prompted the Public Health Service to launch a program to collect and safely dispose of old radium sources.

Beginning in the late 1960s, state radiation control officers called for legislation to give the AEC and later the NRC the power to regulate radium and other NARM. In 1985 the NRC asked to be given authority over NARM waste disposal, but Congress took no action. The status quo remained, in part due to difficulties Congress had deciding on the federal agency best suited to regulate radium and oversee cleanup.

Little changed until the 1990s when terrorism provided a new dimension of concern. Experts worried that untracked or stolen radioactive sources, including radium, could be used in “dirty bombs.” Between 1998 and 2003, as part of the U.S. delegation to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the NRC worked with member nations on a code of conduct for radioactive sources. To limit the potential for “malicious acts,” the code appealed to each country to develop a national system of regulation for a list of radioactive sources — radium among them.

In the wake of 9/11, support for the IAEA code gained momentum. Congress included a provision in the 2005 Energy Policy Act giving NRC oversight of radium and other sources of NARM. A consensus for federal regulation emerged only when national security issues joined long-standing health concerns.

Radium Part I: Opening Pandora’s Box

Tom Wellock
NRC Historian

Marie and Pierre Curie

Marie and Pierre Curie

When Marie and Pierre Curie discovered Radium-226 in 1898, it opened up the atom’s secrets and offered hope that its mysterious radioactive rays were a miracle cure. Sobering reality replaced euphoria as radium factory workers began to die.

Radium taught the world of radiation’s dangers, yet it was not until 2005 that Congress put all aspects of radium safety oversight under the federal government. Until that time, it was primarily regulated — to varying degrees — by the states. This three-part blog series traces radium’s long unique history where states took the lead in regulating it and compensating victims.

Soon after the Curies’ discovery, radium became a consumer and medical sensation. Its radiation reduced tumor growth, and researchers found somewhat elevated levels of radiation at some medicinal spas, such as Saratoga Springs, N. Y., and Hot Springs, Ark. Conclusion? Radiation was a life saver. One physician claimed that radium’s “radiation prevents insanity, rouses noble emotions, retards old age, and creates a splendid youthful joyous life.”

Manufacturers hawked quack products they claimed were laced with radium as a miracle cure and status symbol: elixirs, kitchenware, clothes, pillows, razor blades, and cigarette holders, even condoms. Radium’s luminescent properties also made possible glow-in-the-dark paint for watch dials.

In 1925, the New York Times reported one of the earliest instances of radiation-induced cancer. Its victims were young women—watch-dial painters in New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois. The intricate work required them to “lip point” their brushes by licking them. Infections and cancers of the jaw followed from the ingested radium. The isotope’s bone-seeking properties and long half-life made it particularly dangerous. (The time required for the radioactivity to decrease by one-half is referred to as the half-life. The half-life of Ra-226 is about 1,600 years.)

The tragic story of the “radium girls” transformed radiation’s image from panacea to poison. Public discussion turned to compensating victims and limiting radium exposures—duties that usually fell to state courts and agencies. In New Jersey, reformers won their fight for a law allowing compensation for “radium necrosis.”

State labor and health agencies were able to halt lip pointing, but their power over industry was sometimes limited. For example, the New Jersey Labor Department issued to U.S. Radium Corporation an order to tighten safety for its dial painters — “comply or close.” It closed and moved elsewhere.

RadiumAd2_0_Altantic MagFederal agencies mostly deferred to state authority over radium. They issued studies, organized conferences, and developed voluntary safe work practices. The Federal Trade Commission had some influence in shutting down falsely advertised products, such as the “fountain of youth” tonic Radithor, but safety assurance was a state prerogative.

With World War II, change came as nuclear reactors of the U.S. wartime atomic program flooded the world with new isotopes, reducing to near insignificance radium’s commercial and medical applications. The Curies’ Nobel-Prize discovery was about to become an afterthought.

Part II will be posted on Wednesday.

Election Year, the Hatch Act and NRC Employees

Eric Michel
Attorney

flagLike most Americans, the employees of the NRC are watching the 2016 elections and considering who to vote for in November. But unlike most Americans, there are a number of political activities which NRC employees – as part of the federal government – cannot do.

The prohibitions are contained in the Hatch Act, a law first passed in 1939. The act restricts executive branch employees in their actions related to partisan elections – and not just at work. The intent behind the restrictions is to maintain a politically neutral federal workforce, free from partisan influence or coercion.

As outlined in the NRC’s Management Directive 7.10, NRC employees cannot engage in political activity while on duty or while inside a federal building. They can’t wear a partisan political button, display a campaign sign in their office or use their government computer to send an email advocating for or against a partisan political candidate or political party.

Even while off duty, NRC employees cannot solicit or receive funds on behalf of a partisan candidate or political party. You also won’t find NRC employees on any ballot for a partisan election – that’s prohibited, too.

Activities most NRC employees are allowed to do on their own time includes:

  • Register and vote
  • Assist in voter registration drives
  • Contribute money to political organizations
  • Distribute campaign literature
  • Attend political rallies and fundraisers
  • Volunteer for a campaign

They can also run for office in a nonpartisan campaign, such as for a seat on a school board.

Career Senior Executive Service employees are under a few additional restrictions. Senate-confirmed Presidential appointees, such as the NRC Chairman and Commissioners, have their own specific rules.

Penalties can range from being reprimanded to being fired to being fined up to $1,000.

More information about what NRC and other federal government workers can and cannot do related to elections can be found here.

 

Back to Basics – Seeking Comment on a New Commission Public Meeting Policy

Lance Rakovan
Senior Communications Specialist

We are always looking to make our public meetings better. To that end, we’ve drafted a new Commission policy statement on public meetings and are seeking public comment to make sure it hits the mark. The new policy statement is meant to re-affirm the importance of public participation in NRC’s public meetings and address a number of concerns noted previously by the public and NRC staff.

audienceFirst, some background. The NRC has had a formal policy regarding open meetings since 1978; the most recent revision was issued in 2002. The NRC assembled a task group on Enhancing NRC Public Meetings in June 2014. The task group recommended steps be taken to:

  • improve consistency of public meetings across the agency;
  • encourage increased management support for public interaction; and
  • seek out creative ways to effectively engage the public and promote participation.

In response to the task group’s report, the staff has begun implementing several enhancements to the existing public meeting process, including drafting the new policy statement.

The most significant proposed change to the policy statement is a revised meeting category system based on the level of public participation. The current categories of NRC public meetings are labeled 1, 2, and 3. Public participation levels for Category 1 and 2 meetings are essentially the same. However, public participation for a Category 3 meeting can range from the NRC simply engaging in dialogue with members of the public to receiving comments from the public (and responding later).

This has sometimes led to confusion over what to expect from a public meeting. The revised categorization system removes the 1, 2, and 3 labels and incorporates a clear description of the level of public participation planned for the meeting:

  • Observation Meeting
  • Information Meeting With Q&A
  • Commenting-Gathering Meeting

We hope these revised categories will help you prepare for and participate in NRC public meetings and will make more clear what you can expect. The table below compares the current categories to the proposed new categories. blog-capture_small

The NRC will be hosting a public meeting via webinar on September 29, 2016, to provide information and answer questions to help those interested in submitting comments. Formal comments, though, won’t be accepted during the meeting. To provide your comments on the draft statement, go here. Comments will be accepted until November 14, 2016.

Senior Earthquake Experts Help Analyze Palo Verde Risk

Brittain Hill
Senior Advisor
Office of New Reactors

The NRC regularly works with outside experts when we examine technical issues, including earthquake hazards. We’ve just reviewed how the Palo Verde nuclear power plant in Arizona used experts as it re-evaluated its quake hazard. We’re satisfied with the results.

pv-from-mountainsFor almost 20 years the agency has used the Senior Seismic Hazard Advisory Committee approach to consider a broad range of information in earthquake hazard analysis. Western U.S. nuclear power plants have followed this method to help meet the NRC’s post-Fukushima effort to re-evaluate their quake hazards. Palo Verde, the Columbia power plant in Washington and the Diablo Canyon power plant in California each used a detailed SSHAC process to better understand where quakes could occur and how quake energy causes the ground to move at their site.

Different kinds of uncertainty make earthquake analysis difficult. Quakes are random in many ways, and quake science is incomplete. The SSHAC approach is valuable because it effectively includes both types of uncertainty in the analysis.

Palo Verde started the process with a series of expert workshops in 2013 and 2014. The workshops identified and gathered the best available information, and then moved on to discuss how best to analyze that data. NRC staff observed the workshops and reviewed the written results of this work, concluding the plant correctly used the SSHAC process.

The plant examined historic quakes out to about 250 miles from the site, including large quakes in southern California and northern Mexico. Both Palo Verde’s effort and the NRC staff’s independent analysis found about 900 quakes to consider. While the plant later found it used some incorrect values in examining those quakes, additional plant analysis and independent NRC calculations found the correct values slightly decreased the site’s quake hazard.

All of this leads the agency to conclude Palo Verde developed an appropriate model for quake sources around the site.

The plant also reviewed U.S. and international databases and numerical models of ground motions in areas similar to Arizona. Palo Verde’s effort also considered how nearby California and Mexico quakes could affect the site’s ground motion. From there, the plant calculated likely quake hazards of different strengths and the resulting ground motions at the site. As with the other parts of the re-evaluation, the NRC staff did independent calculations and concluded the plant’s approach was appropriate.

The NRC’s overall review reaches the conclusion that Palo Verde is designed to withstand future quakes in its area, so the plant has completed its seismic re-evaluation. We’ll give the Columbia and Diablo Canyon re-evaluations the same sort of scrutiny to ensure they’re able to withstand future quakes in their areas. The NRC’s website has more information on the overall re-evaluation effort.

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