Keeping Radioactive Materials Safe and Secure

“Dirty bombs” – conventional explosives that include radioactive material – may have faded from the headlines, but government agencies remain vigilant to ensure the security of radioactive materials and guard against their misuse.

The NRC and its Agreement State partners enforce multi-layered security requirements for licensees that possess radioactive materials (also called “sources”) that would be most dangerous if used in a dirty bomb – also commonly known as a radiological dispersal device or RDD. These requirements include:

  • Background checks, including fingerprinting, to ensure that people with access to radioactive materials are trustworthy and reliable;
  • Personnel access controls to areas where radioactive materials are stored or used;
  • Security plans and procedures designed to detect, deter, assess and respond to unauthorized access attempts;
  • Coordination and response planning between licensees and local law enforcement agencies;
  • Coordination and tracking of radioactive materials shipments; and
  • Security barriers to discourage theft of portable devices with radioactive materials.

These requirements are performance-based rather than prescriptive, meaning the rules set objectives to be met but do not specify precisely how to achieve them. That’s because licensees using these materials are quite diverse – from hospitals to small health clinics or doctors’ offices, universities, large factories, and small businesses. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to securing these materials.

The NRC and its Agreement States imposed these requirements beginning in 2005 with a series of Orders. The requirements, along with some new provisions based on experience enforcing the Orders, are now codified in NRC regulations in 10 CFR Part 37, approved in March of this year, to take effect next year. Part 37 will require licensee personnel with security responsibilities to have recurring security training.

The NRC believes these security requirements provide adequate protection against the theft and misuse of radioactive materials. But we don’t rest there – we also cooperate with a program initiated by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) that offers voluntary physical security enhancements to help licensees meet NRC requirements with no start-up costs.

The NNSA also provides valuable training to police departments and others who must respond to security events involving radioactive materials. In addition to the facility security improvements, the NNSA works with radiological device manufacturers to harden their products against tampering.

These requirements are the foundation of the NRC’s effort to ensure security of radioactive materials so they can continue to be used to benefit society. But they are not the agency’s only efforts. In future blog posts, we’ll describe the National Source Tracking System, now in its third year of operation, and two other systems now in development: Web-Based Licensing and the Licensee Verification System.

Adam J. Gaudreau
Senior Project Manager
Source Management and Protection Branch
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