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Category Archives: Nuclear Materials

Re-Evaluating Category 3 Source Protection and Accountability

Duncan White
Senior Health Physicist

Back in July, we talked about the Government Accountability Office’s investigation in which the GAO created a fake company that was successful in one out of three tries at getting a license for radioactive material. Once they received the license and placed an order, GAO then altered the license to increase the quantity of material authorized and placed a second order.  The higher quantity would have required additional protection measures beyond those required for the original quantity. The GAO never actually acquired any radioactive material and the public was never at risk.

On the day the GAO issued their report on the investigation, Commissioner Jeff Baran sent a memo to the other Commissioners proposing that NRC staff re-evaluate the methods used to account for Category 3 sources. (See “Categories of Radioactive Materials” at right). The other categoriesofradmat_editedCommissioners agreed and the Commission directed the staff to evaluate whether we should revise NRC regulations or processes governing protection and accountability for Category 3 sources.

The NRC and its partners in the Agreement States are working together to address these specific actions. That work will include, among other things:

  1. Evaluating the pros and cons of different methods for verifying the validity of a license before a Category 3 source is transferred;
  2. Evaluating the pros and cons of including Category 3 sources in the National Source Tracking System;
  3. Assessing any additional options to address the source accountability recommendations made by the GAO;
  4. Identifying changes in the threat environment since 2009 and considering whether they support expanding the NSTS to include Category 3 sources;
  5. Assessing the risks posed when a licensee possesses enough Category 3 sources to require the higher level protections for Category 2 quantities; and
  6. Getting input from Agreement State partners, non-Agreement States, licensees, public interest groups, industry groups, and the reactor community.

We will also consider recommendations made by the working group that evaluated the vulnerabilities identified by the GAO investigation. Additionally, we will consider our recently completed assessment of the security requirements in 10 CFR Part 37, “Physical Protection of Category 1 and 2 Quantities of Radioactive Material.” This review looked at the results of inspections of NRC licensees during the first two years the rule has been in effect, and events reported under the rule. The NRC sent a report on this review to Congress on December 14.

The NRC staff will develop recommendations related to Category 3 source protection and accountability and provide the recommendations to the Commission for deliberation in August 2017.

An important part of the NRC’s and Agreement States’ re-evaluation is soliciting input from our Agreement State partners, the impacted regulatory community and the public.  We have published a series of questions in the Federal Register to help assess the benefits, impacts, and costs of different alternatives. You can see these questions and send us your comments through the federal rulemaking website. We will provide opportunities to participate in the agency’s decision-making process through public meetings and webinars. More specific information about these opportunities for public involvement will be available on a new webpage. We welcome your input.

NRC’s Supporting Role in NASA’s Mars 2020 Launch

Don Helton
Senior Reliability and Risk Engineer

global-color-views-mars-pia00407-full“Outer space” may not come to mind when you think about the NRC. But we’re excited to be involved with NASA in the planning for a 2020 launch of another Mars rover.

As explained by NASA:

The Mars 2020 rover mission is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the red planet. Designed to advance high-priority science goals for Mars exploration, the mission would address key questions about the potential for ancient life on Mars. The mission would also provide opportunities to gather knowledge and demonstrate technologies that address the challenges of future human expeditions to Mars. The mission would take advantage of a favorable launch opportunity in 2020 when Earth and Mars are in ideal positions in their orbits for a Mars landing in early 2021.

So what does planetary exploration have to do with the NRC? Well, like past missions of this type, the Mars 2020 mission will use a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator – which goes by the fancy acronym of MMRTG. That’s a fancy name for using the radioactive decay of plutonium to produce electrical power needed to run the rover and its instruments.

mars-2020-rover-cad-diagram-pia20759-fullSince the NRC regulates the safe use of radioactive materials, we are part of the Mars 2020 Interagency Nuclear Safety Review Panel that NASA has convened to assure the safety of the launch. This process was originally put in place by Presidential directive and is used each time the U.S. prepares for this type of launch. In addition to NASA and the NRC, the panel includes members from the Department of Energy (which builds and owns the MMRTG provided to NASA), the Department of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency.

I am honored to serve as the NRC-appointed technical advisor to the panel. The panel’s job is to prepare a Nuclear Safety Evaluation Report — which will be delivered to the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy as part of NASA’s request for the President’s authorization of the launch. The panel will evaluate the potential radiological hazards associated with the launch, and the methods used to mitigate the risks.

The NRC has served a similar role in other NASA launches over the past several decades, most recently with the 2011 launch of the Mars Science Laboratory mission and its rover, Curiosity. In addition to this important activity, the NRC and NASA share knowledge in safety, reliability, and risk analysis methods and applications though a Memorandum of Understanding and other interactions.

NRC policy requires other federal agencies to reimburse us for providing services that aren’t part of our statutory mission. So NASA will reimburse us for labor and travel costs associated with our service on the launch safety review panel. In other words, NRC’s licensees (such as nuclear power plants) don’t end up footing the bill for NRC’s participation in this activity.

More on the Mars 2020 mission can be found at NASA’s website, and in the associated Final Environmental Impact Statement associated with this mission.

Updating Radioactive Materials Transportation Regulations

Emma Wong
Project Manager

10cfrIf you have ever wondered about the safety of packaging and transporting radioactive materials, now is the perfect opportunity to learn about it. The NRC is kicking off the process of updating our requirements in 10 CFR Part 71.

We do this periodically to reflect new information. Changes to international packaging and transportation standards published by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which serve as a standard for the U.S. and other nations, can also trigger revisions. Stringent safety requirements, as well as coordination among federal agencies, international regulators, and tribal, state and local officials, help to ensure radioactive materials shipments are made safely.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has primary responsibility for regulatory materials transport, while the NRC regulates packages for larger quantities. This structure provides many layers of safety.

When it is time to review our requirements, the NRC coordinates with DOT to ensure the two agencies have consistent regulatory standards. The process may take several years. We are also working to align our regulations with the IAEA’s.

To encourage public input, we are publishing an “issues paper” that outlines areas we have identified for possible revision. We’ll take comments on it for 60 days. We plan to use that input to develop a draft regulatory basis—a document that identifies a regulatory issue, and considers and recommends a solution. Once finalized, the draft regulatory basis will be made available for public comment. After taking comments on the draft, we can publish a final regulatory basis.

At that point, if our Commission agrees that revision to our requirements are needed, we would move into developing a proposed rule, then a final rule. Each step in the process takes about a year. Details on how to submit comments can be found in a Federal Register notice that will be published on November 21. This information and additional details about the rulemaking will be available on the federal rulemaking website.

We’re also planning a public meeting on Dec. 5-6 at NRC headquarters in Rockville, Md., to discuss the paper and answer questions. Details on participating, including by teleconference and webinar, can be found in our meeting notice.

img_0230While the regulations are being updated, the fact remains that radioactive materials are transported safely all the time. Millions of these shipments are made each year and arrive at their destination without incident. Occasionally, a carrier might be involved in a traffic accident. But in decades of experience, there has never been an accident that resulted in injury from exposure to the radioactive contents.

All shipments of radioactive material must also be made in compliance with DOT regulations. Smaller shipments pose extremely low risk. The larger the amount of radioactive materials, the more stringent DOT’s requirements are. DOT limits how much radioactivity can be transported in each package. That way, no transport accident involving these shipments would pose a significant health threat.

But what about larger amounts of radioactive materials? What about spent nuclear fuel?

In addition to meeting DOT requirements, larger shipments of radioactive cargo such as spent nuclear fuel and fissile material must meet NRC regulations for packaging and transport in Part 71. These regulations include very detailed requirements for shipping under normal conditions, as well as stringent tests to show the packages can withstand hypothetical severe accidents. These are the regulations we are updating now. If you would like to learn more about the transportation of spent fuel and radioactive materials, see our website.

Radium Part III: The NRC’s Role

Richard Chang
Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards

Radium_Periodic Element Table

We’ve been writing in this series about radium—how it was discovered, how it was used, how it can impact human health. Today we want to explain where the NRC fits in.

As we said in our last post, the states originally oversaw radium use. In 2005, Congress gave the NRC authority over radium through the Energy Policy Act. In 2007, we put in place our regulations on the control, use, and disposal of radium. These rules made clear that the NRC oversees radium only after it has been purposely concentrated for use.

Because many states already had laws on radium, we took over regulatory oversight in phases. We had full oversight for radium in all states by August 2009 (either through states that regulate nuclear materials under agreements with the NRC, known as Agreement States, or directly in those states that remain under NRC jurisdiction).

In 2007 after our regulations were put in place, we began talking to the U.S. Navy about radium contamination at their sites. As we learned more about this program and talked with the other branches of the military, we began working to clarify our role in the remediation at military sites. During the same time, we became aware of two specific radium cleanup efforts by other federal agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency has done cleanup work at the former WaterburyClockWaterbury Clock Company, in Waterbury, Conn. The National Park Service is also involved in a cleanup project at Great Kills Park, in Staten Island, N.Y.

As we learned more about these projects, it became apparent that a critical step for us to take would be identifying historical commercial radium sites; many of which were many decades old. As such, we began to look for sites in our jurisdiction that may have radium, and to find out how much, if any, cleanup was done. There are no known health and safety issues at any of these sites, but we want to make sure they do not pose a risk.

We contracted with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to help us develop a full picture of commercial radium sites. The lab started by cataloging the different products developed and sold to the public in the early 20th century. Oak Ridge scoured existing publicly available literature, records and databases, identified sites where radium may have been used to make consumer goods and looked for any cleanup records. We received the final results in November 2015.

We are working to get more information about the sites under NRC jurisdiction. We will be reaching out to site owners. Our goal is to confirm that these sites do not pose a risk to public health and safety and the environment. We’ll keep you posted on our progress.

Radium Part II: Trying to Close Pandora’s Box

Tom Wellock
NRC Historian

Until 1945, radium was the best known radioactive material. It was widely found in consumer and medical products. And, as we saw in Part I of this series, it became notorious for fatally sickening radium watch-dial painters in the 1920s. With few exceptions, oversight of public and workplace safety for radium was mostly a state responsibility, and the federal government’s role was limited to such issues as preventing false advertising and regulating mail shipments.

USRadiumGirls-Argonne1ca1922-23-150dpiAt that time, radioisotopes came from just two limited sources. They were painstakingly isolated from natural ores, as was radium, or created in small batches in particle accelerators. These accelerators fire beams of electrons, protons and other particles at elements to create radioactive isotopes. Today the products of these two processes are called NARM—short for Naturally-Occurring and Accelerator-Produced Radioactive Material.

Scientists working on fission and the Manhattan Project discovered new radioactive isotopes with interesting properties. They soon became widely available to scientists, who found many uses for these products, from medical to basic research. They were under federal control and soon eclipsed the small amounts of radium and other NARM that existed before the war. Cold-War security concerns demanded federal control of nuclear technology and this new radioactive material.

Still, the 1946 Atomic Energy Act avoided intruding on state authority over NARM. It focused the Atomic Energy Commission’s oversight on fissionable material such as uranium and thorium and reactor-produced isotopes. The AEC controlled the vast majority of radioactive material.

This division of power didn’t disturb existing state authority but made little technical sense. An isotope produced in a reactor would be identical to one found in nature or produced in an accelerator.  Moreover, state oversight was uneven.

Radium_Periodic Element TableRadium had lost its luster and fallen into disuse. Safer reactor-produced isotopes and sources with shorter half-lives mostly replaced radium for medical uses. Radium consumer products disappeared from stores by the 1970s. But products made with radium during its heyday (see Part I) retain their hazard for a long time.

So, from time to time, reports would emerge of products found in someone’s attic or office, or contamination found in a building. This prompted the Public Health Service to launch a program to collect and safely dispose of old radium sources.

Beginning in the late 1960s, state radiation control officers called for legislation to give the AEC and later the NRC the power to regulate radium and other NARM. In 1985 the NRC asked to be given authority over NARM waste disposal, but Congress took no action. The status quo remained, in part due to difficulties Congress had deciding on the federal agency best suited to regulate radium and oversee cleanup.

Little changed until the 1990s when terrorism provided a new dimension of concern. Experts worried that untracked or stolen radioactive sources, including radium, could be used in “dirty bombs.” Between 1998 and 2003, as part of the U.S. delegation to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the NRC worked with member nations on a code of conduct for radioactive sources. To limit the potential for “malicious acts,” the code appealed to each country to develop a national system of regulation for a list of radioactive sources — radium among them.

In the wake of 9/11, support for the IAEA code gained momentum. Congress included a provision in the 2005 Energy Policy Act giving NRC oversight of radium and other sources of NARM. A consensus for federal regulation emerged only when national security issues joined long-standing health concerns.

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