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GAO and the Fake Licensees

Duncan White
Senior Health Physicist

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report today on a “covert operation” they conducted to test the NRC and some states on the process of issuing licenses for possession and use of radioactive materials.

First some facts: GAO established a fake company and made three attempts to obtain a license. GAO was successful in only one case. As part of their operation, GAO then altered the license and placed orders for radioactive material with two companies that could have resulted in GAO receiving double the quantity of material authorized in the license. That quantity of material would have posed a higher potential risk than what was actually authorized in the unaltered license, and would have required additional security measures.

In the language of radioactive materials categories (see box), the fake GAO company had a valid license for a Category 3 quantity, but used a modified copy of that license to order a Category 2 quantity.

It is important to note that the public’s safety was never at risk because GAO never actually obtained radioactive material.

The license GAO obtained was granted by one of our Agreement States (the 37 states that regulate radioactive materials under agreements with us). After we learned of the GAO actions, we immediately made sure that the Agreement State knew the license was obtained under false pretenses and revoked it, and notified manufacturers and distributors of the revocation. We also made sure that the 36 other Agreement States knew about the issue.

Our next step was to figure out what went wrong. Working with the Agreement State that issued the license, we found that the licensing staff did not complete all the required steps of the pre-licensing procedures. In GAO’s other two attempts, the licensing officials who correctly denied GAO’s fake company a license – in another Agreement State and in an NRC regional office – did follow all the steps of those procedures.

Knowing the root cause helped us to focus our corrective actions. The NRC and all the Agreement States responded with steps to improve training and underscore the importance of following procedures. All licensing and inspection staff at the NRC and in the Agreement States completed this re-training in December 2015.

NRC and Agreement State officials also formed joint working groups to see what additional lessons can be gathered from the GAO operation. These groups have been meeting since January 2016. Among their tasks, the groups are reviewing the pre-licensing guidance and evaluating new strategies to improve license verification and transfer procedures for the quantity and type of material involved in the GAO sting.

The groups will also consider GAO’s specific recommendations. Once this work is completed, the NRC staff will present to our management and Commissioners any policy questions that emerge from the reviews, including whether we think changes are needed to the current security and tracking requirements for radioactive materials.

The NRC takes radioactive materials security very seriously. We participate with 13 other federal agencies on a U.S. Government task force that has evaluated the security of radiation sources in the U.S. over the past 10 years. This group has identified no significant gaps in source security and recommended no legislative changes.

GAO reccomend__HorizontalBased on this comprehensive, ongoing review, we believe current NRC regulations for licensing radioactive sources remain adequate for protection of safety and security, consistent with the risks they pose. Nonetheless, the NRC is doing what it can to see what lessons from the GAO operation can be applied to strengthen radioactive materials security.

7 responses to “GAO and the Fake Licensees

  1. drbillcorcoran July 23, 2016 at 6:03 am

    Always ask about claimed “root causes.”

    ONE: What were the harmful conditions, behaviors, actions, and inactions that resulted in each of the “root causes?”
    TWO: Which of those harmful conditions, behaviors, actions, and inactions have equal or better claim to be called “root causes?’
    THREE: Which other harmful conditions, behaviors, actions, and inactions were necessary to the causation of the harms incurred?
    FOUR: Which of those harmful conditions, behaviors, actions, and inactions have equal or better claim to be called “root causes?”

  2. drbillcorcoran July 18, 2016 at 3:02 pm

    Your blog stated: “Knowing the root cause helped us to focus our corrective actions. ”

    What was “the root cause?”

    • Moderator July 18, 2016 at 3:46 pm

      As stated in the post: Working with the Agreement State that issued the license, we found that the licensing staff did not complete all the required steps of the pre-licensing procedures. (My emphasis added.)

      Duncan White

      • Lisa A. Powell July 22, 2016 at 9:59 pm

        What is the Policy or Procedure for handling license staff of Agreement States that do not follow licensing procedures?

      • Moderator July 25, 2016 at 9:44 am

        The state that issued the license completed a self-assessment and root cause analysis of their implementation of the pre-licensing guidance and the events that led to granting the license. This evaluation will serve as an important starting point for the NRC and Agreement States, working together, to evaluate their licensing programs and make enhancements to address any vulnerabilities. In addition, the NRC will use its oversight process, the Integrated Materials Performance Evaluation Program, to evaluate this state’s program and ensure that all Agreement States and NRC regional offices continue to fully implement the pre-licensing guidance and other upgrades made to the licensing program after 2007.

        Duncan White

  3. Public Pit Bull July 18, 2016 at 12:23 pm

    So what?! Small quantities of nuke materials are peanuts & that’s why the NRC allows agreement states to “control” them. The NRC needs to turn this small stuff over to the states completely. The NRC needs to focus entirely on protecting us from our aging nuclear power plant fleet!

  4. Ann troxler. July 15, 2016 at 6:03 pm

    Good work DUNCAN AND ALL.

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