Working Together to Keep Radioactive Materials Safe

Kim Lukes
Health Physicist
Office of Federal and State Materials and Environmental Management Programs
 

Occasionally the Department of Energy makes news when it picks up radioactive materials from users who no longer want them. DOE plays an important role when it secures these sources pending final disposal — often prompting headlines about keeping “dirty bomb” materials away from bad guys.

These headlines overlook the many layers of protection that keep radioactive materials secure every day. The NRC and Agreement State co-regulators require licensees with materials that could pose the biggest hazard to store them securely. When no longer needed, they can be securely stored on site, safely moved to a commercial disposal site or turned over to the federal government for disposal. The NRC and Agreement State regulators inspect licensees periodically to make sure they are meeting the requirements. These requirements provide adequate protection against theft or misuse of radioactive materials in the U.S.

Earlier this month the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), an arm of DOE, picked up a source that was no longer needed for medical research at Temple University in Pennsylvania. By law, DOE is responsible for disposing of this type of waste, although DOE does not yet have an approved disposal site or method. The department will store the source — in this case, an old irradiator containing cesium-137 — until a disposal site is available.

Before NNSA picked up the source, it was protected as all risk-significant radioactive sources are. (These materials are also known as International Atomic Energy Agency Category 1 and Category 2 quantity of sources). The NRC and its Agreement State partners put measures in place after Sept. 11, 2001, to protect high-risk radioactive materials against theft. Today, these measures protect more than 75,000 sources used in medical, commercial and research activities. The NRC just updated and expanded these security requirements, adding them to a new section of our regulations — 10 CFR Part 37.

The security requirements include:

• Background checks and fingerprinting to ensure that people with access to radioactive materials are trustworthy and reliable;

• Controls on who can access areas where radioactive materials are stored or used;

• Security plans and procedures to monitor, detect, assess and respond to unauthorized access attempts;

• Coordination and response planning between licensees and local law enforcement;

• Coordination and tracking of radioactive materials shipments; and

• Security barriers to discourage theft of portable devices.

Besides its Offsite Source Recovery Project, NNSA has a Global Threat Reduction Initiative to help improve the security of nuclear and radioactive materials internationally. NNSA also provides voluntary security enhancements domestically. Licensees who meet NRC or Agreement State security requirements can chose to work with NNSA to put additional security enhancements in place. The NRC cooperates with NNSA on this voluntary program. Security of these materials is a top priority for the NRC. We continue to assess and improve our security requirements as needed.