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.

Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

18 thoughts on “Working Together to Keep Radioactive Materials Safe”

  1. This is Imperative. And, even a kid would know the importance of keeping such things safe. Its good to know that these two bodies have joined hands

  2. Columbia River, Washington state?
    We must do better than this for our children’s future.

  3. Recent events involving security failures at NNSA controlled sites does not insure public confidence regarding response and security of radiological materials. There is also a problem with some Federal Agencies attempting to decrease the requirement for secure transport of Plutonium MOX nuclear fuel. To expensive says some, some cannot see further than the financial bottom line of a spread sheet.

  4. can we control over radioactive material? if you not know about that then read this article carefully then you will know!

  5. Thank you for the reference document. The “Training and Exercises” subject area is one of the shortest areas within the document. It completely ignores preparidness and the necessity of training. The document was prepared in 1996 and requires updating. If this is the plan to be currently followed relating to an emergency response it is inadequate.

    Quote from the plan regarding training: “Federal agencies, in conjunction with State and local governments, will periodically exercise the FRERP.” The current plan as it relates to nuclear facilities does not take into consideration the lessons learned from Fukushima; the 10 mile exclusion zone is not realistic. The only training or preparidness exercises are conducted with agencies and local entities within the 10 mile zone. Ignoring the areas outside the 10 mile zone.

    There are no indications of any requirement to brief or train first responders and local law enforcement along transportation routes.

    Recent events involving security failures at NNSA controlled sites does not insure public confidence regarding response and security of radiological materials. There is also a problem with some Federal Agencies attempting to decrease the requirement for secure transport of Plutonium MOX nuclear fuel. To expensive says some, some cannot see further than the financial bottom line of a spread sheet.

  6. Thank you for your reply.

    Unfortunately, in typical governmental bureaucratic form you skirt the issue. We know Bellefonte is not an active plant but that is not the issue. The issue is training and readiness either as a response to an event involving transportation of Radiological Hazardous materials along transport corridors in NE Alabama and/or training for a radiological response either as a result of a transport accident or a disaster event at a nuclear facility such as Browns Ferry. One of the weaknessesses identified post Fukushima is a lack of a readiness response at the disaster site. Your bureaucratic answer does not promote training which results in increased readiness.

    To say the “10 mile zone” is the extent of a radiological hazard is ridiculous and an example of denial and capitulation at the hands of an industry whose primary concern is that of the financial bottom line, not human health and welfare. In that area you are either part of a solution or part of the problem. In this case it appears there are those at the NRC that have not learned the lessons of Fukushima.

    When will the NRC staff and leaders learn the Lessons of Fukushima concerning radiological disaster response as it relates to local governmental entities and the civilian populace?

  7. These comments are becoming increasingly unrelated to the blog topic written by Kim Lukes about source security. Per the Comment Guidelines, we’ll be answering those questions in the Open Forum section of this blog.


  8. Victor Dricks and David McIntyre worked with the relevent program staff to answer the question submitted above.

  9. As this comment is out of my area of expertise, I asked staff from the Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response to provide a response. Here it is:

    For each U.S. nuclear power plant site, there is a defense-in-depth strategy for protection that consists of an approved onsite and offsite emergency plan (that includes Emergency Planning Zones) and a strategy for expanding protective actions beyond the 10-mile EPZ, if conditions warrant. These plans and strategies are reviewed and assessed periodically by the NRC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA provides oversight of offsite response plans that support nuclear plants, while the NRC reviews and approves the onsite plans. Licensees are also required to exercise their emergency plans with offsite authorities biennially. These exercises allow reliable and consistent coordination between nuclear power plants, federal partners, and state and local governments so that there can be an accurate assessment of the public safety impacts of a nuclear accident.

    These plans must be in place and the nuclear power plant and local/state authorities must demonstrate that they can successfully implement the emergency plans prior to the facility receiving a license from the NRC to operate.

    Much of Scottsboro, Alabama is located within the 10 mile EPZ of TVA’s proposed Bellefonte site and before operation of the plant, the first responders will be trained to deal with radiological hazards that could result from an accident at the Bellefonte site.

    Kim Lukes

  10. Dear Kim Lukes,

    Thanks for your reply – I will have additional questions – but for starters I’m wondering if you can tell us which other NRC staff members contributed to the response to my query.

  11. Along the same lines….Kim, can you please comment regarding Diablo Canyon’s storage & also about the danger of tsunamis and/or earthquakes coming from the 13 faults around it? Thanks!

  12. As this comment about waste and SONGS are out of my area of expertise, I asked other staff members to weigh in on the issues raised.

    Your comment links two issues the federal government is wrangling with: Disposal of unwanted radioactive sources no longer serving their function in industry, academia or medicine (e.g., the Temple University irradiator), and the storage and ultimate disposal of spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s commercial nuclear power reactors.

    While the federal government moves toward creating consolidated storage facilities for spent fuel, and ultimately a repository for permanent disposal, the spent fuel does need to remain at the reactor sites until alternatives are available. According to Department of Energy figures, San Onofre had about 1,460 metric tons of spent fuel stored onsite at the end of 2010 – most of this in pools.

    Spent-fuel storage, both in pools and dry casks, has an excellent safety record and is successfully isolated from the environment. Even at Fukushima, the spent fuel storage pools and casks performed their safety function well, despite early concerns about the pool in Unit 4.

    Tsunamis like the one that devastated Fukushima are caused by earthquakes along “subduction zones,” where the force of the earth’s movement shoves one tectonic plate under another rather than the more common horizontal movement of two plates rubbing against each other. The only subduction zone along the U.S. West Coast is the Cascadia zone, stretching from northernmost California and along the Oregon and Washington coasts and northwards to British Columbia.

    Earthquake and tsunami risks will not be factored into the NRC’s staff’s pending decision on the restart of the San Onofre Unit 2 reactor. That decision will be based solely on the NRC staff’s determination of whether Southern California Edison’s can safely operate the plant at 70 percent power for five months. In its decision to grant an operating license to San Onofre, the NRC carefully considered the geologic history of the site as well as its potential vulnerability to tsunamis and concluded that the robust design of the facility afforded adequate protection against both hazards.

    Kim Lukes

  13. Columbia River, Washington state?
    We must do better than this for our children’s future.

  14. The repeated use of the word “safe” by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear power industry may lull some people into a false sense of security about the imminent threat posed by the accumulation of radioactive waste piling up – primarily at the over one hundred reactors around our country. My concern is not just about Temple University’s old irradiator – but closer to home – the decades of high level radioactive waste crammend into over-crowded cooling pools sitting outside of Southern California Edison’s twin San Onofre containment domes on our fragile shoreline between San Diego and Los Angeles – threatening the lives and property of millions upon millions of people.

    Edison’s damaged nuclear plant is situated in a tsunami zone riddled with earthquake faults – it’s my understanding that there are over four million pounds of radioactive trash on site. Is this an accurate figure? Where can we find information about the inventory of radioactive waste at this nation’s nuclear power plants? Why on earth do we allow the nuclear industry to continue to churn out this dangerous material when we still have no idea how to safely isolate it from the accessible environment for as long as it is lethal?

    Two years after the events that triggered the ongoing nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima it’s my understanding that the NRC is most likely an additional two years away from addressing earthquake and tsunami lessons learned from Fukushima. Will earthquake and tsunami risks be factored in when the NRC decides whether or not to agree that Edison restarting its damage Unit 2 San Onofre reactor poses “no significant hazard”?

    I hope Kim Lukes or someone from the NRC can respond with specific answers to my questions.

    Thank you,

    From the San Onofre Danger Zone, Myla Reson

  15. Local law enforcement, fire and rescue in Scottsboro, Alabama have stated to me they have never been briefed on radiological hazards; whether a transportation hazard or fixed hazard such as a nuclear power plant presents. Evacuation plans are lacking and deficient involving counties and first responders in those counties surrounding the counties where nuclear power plants are located.

    Recent radiological disaster events have demonstrated that hazardous radiation levels will reach far beyond the 10 mile ring, up to 120 miles away and greater from the radiation source is likely depending on weather conditions. Preparidness will save lives and prevent leadership chaos during any disaster.

    Counties and cities surrounding a radiation disaster are the ones which will support the initial emergency response and may have to initiate a radiation response themselves. There is no training in area involvement and response. 3) There have been no coordination, training or emergency response drills/exercises relating to a radiological disaster in Northeast Alabama. There are several major transportation corridors across Northeast Alabama which could be utilized to transport radiological materials. Proactive management, planning and training are important prior to transportation events or to boost disaster readiness in the event of any radiological disaster, particularly in areas less than 100 miles from a nuclear reactor or nuclear fuels facility.

    Governmental leadership hiding from the unexpected catastrophe is not part of readiness nor defense in depth

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