The NRC: We’re Ready to Respond

Ops Center ExteriorIn the wake of recent events in Japan, we received a lot of questions about how we plan for and would respond to emergencies involving licensed materials and facilities in the U.S. People wanted to know:

What happens if there’s an emergency? What would the NRC do? What should I do?

Every day at the NRC, there are teams of people working to address these very questions. Our emergency preparedness and incident response programs ensure that the NRC and licensees are prepared to respond in the unlikely event of an emergency involving NRC-licensed facilities or materials.

We maintain equipment, policies, and procedures for response activities and we regularly test, evaluate, and update them. We have trained personnel who continuously monitor licensee activities to make sure they are in compliance with regulations. We also have specially trained NRC responders who are on-call at all times to be able to respond quickly should an incident occur.

We require licensees to have plans in place to respond to incidents, protect against radiological releases, and reduce the impact of incidents. Licensees are required to review these plans on a regular basis. Plans are also tested through regularly scheduled comprehensive exercises.

In the event of an emergency at a licensed facility, the NRC would independently assess the licensee’s response. If necessary, the NRC has the authority to, and would, order actions to mitigate the potential release of radiation. The NRC’s role with licensees is very clear and the incident response program ensures rapid actions by licensees and the NRC in order for the agency to make needed assessments.

Under the National Response Framework, the NRC coordinates the federal technical response to an incident that involves one of our licensees. We work closely with the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate response efforts and to understand when the response would shift from being coordinated by the NRC to being coordinated by DHS. We have worked out the details of this in several tabletop exercises.

We also work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state and local governments to support their needs in planning and preparing to respond to incidents.

In response to questions about NRC’s incident response program, we updated the Incident Response Backgrounder. In it you’ll find more information about how the NRC responds to emergencies involving licensed materials and facilities.

I will be using this blog to address your questions and concerns about emergency preparedness and incident response, so please let me know what you’d like to hear about.

Sara Mroz
Emergency Preparedness Specialist

Medical Use Harnesses Radioactive Material for Good

The magic pill that cures cancer has not been invented yet. However, a radioactive “pill” is already in use by physicians to destroy certain cancers from the inside out.

Many people fear radiation because it can cause damage to living cells, but modern medicine has learned to harness that characteristic for good use. If the radiation can be focused on the cancer cells, then the healthy cells can be spared.

There’s a device used by oncology departments across the country called a high dose-rate remote (HDR) afterloader. If the cancer meets specific criteria, like certain breast tumors, it may be a candidate to receive the HDR treatment. The device looks like a slimmer, sleeker version of R2D2 of Star Wars fame. Except instead of holding holograms from Princess Leia inside, it safely stores a small radioactive source with shielding around it.

On the day of the procedure, multiple tiny tubes connected to the HDR device, are inserted into the breast tissue where the tumor is located. The physicist programs the HDR device to automatically crank its source from the shielded position inside the HDR device, through the connecting tubes, and finally settling at a precise position inside the tumor. For the few seconds or minutes that it is there, the source irradiates the tumor tissue directly surrounding it, sparing most of the healthy breast tissue that is further away. When its job is complete, the source retracts into the HDR device, where its shield keeps radiation inside, and it is safe to re-enter the treatment room.

The NRC inspector discusses the procedure with the oncology staff. They talk about interlocks and emergency procedures. While malfunctions are rare, the staff is always ready to respond if the source were to be stuck outside the HDR device or fails to retract when required. The inspector verifies that the physicist uses a radiation meter to check that the source returned to its proper place inside the HDR device. Even though the goal of the treatment is to irradiate the tumor with a large amount of radiation, this must be balanced with the need to reduce the radiation that all the other tissues in the body receive. After treatment, the physicist demonstrates to the NRC inspector how the amount of radiation prescribed by the physician matches the amount of radiation actually deposited in the tumor during treatment.

This is only one example of how radioactive materials are used in medicine. There are many others uses in industrial, commercial and academic applications that the NRC inspects to ensure the safety and security of workers and the public.

Jason Razo
Region IV
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