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Category Archives: Nuclear Materials

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.

Maintaining Radioactive Material Security Through Rules, Not Orders

Kim Lukes
Health Physicist
Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards

The NRC’s rulemaking process can be lengthy. This ensures that members of the public and interested stakeholders have an opportunity to participate and provide feedback on new requirements as they are developed.

10cfrThere are occasions, though, when we need to move quickly. In these cases, the Commission can issue “orders” to any licensee to require them to address an issue promptly.

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, we revised our approach to security for certain radioactive materials. The NRC issued new security requirements via “orders” to certain licensees requiring added protective measures when using and transporting certain types and amounts of radioactive material. The new requirements focused on materials the International Atomic Energy Agency designates as Category 1 and 2; which are the two most safety significant quantities.

The strongest restrictions were placed on these categories of radioactive material through the NRC orders due to their type and quantity, which can pose the greatest potential risk to health if used to do harm.

The requirements included background checks to ensure that people with access to radioactive materials are trustworthy and reliable. The orders also required access controls to areas where radioactive materials are stored and security barriers to prevent theft of portable devices.

Over the longer term, the NRC developed new regulations to formalize the requirements in the security orders. The creation of Part 37 to Title 10 of the Code of Federal Regulations, published in 2013, was intended to replace the orders.  These rules ensure strong regulatory standards are maintained for the protection of certain types and quantities of radioactive material. NRC licensees were required to meet the new regulations in March 2014.

The NRC has agreements with 37 states allowing them to regulate radioactive materials. The Agreement States had to adopt compatible Part 37 security requirements, and their licensees had until March 19, 2016, to comply.

Because licensees are now in compliance with the new rules, the NRC has rescinded a series of material security orders. There is no change to security for these categories of radioactive material. These licensees have maintained the same higher level of security since we first issued the orders.

We are rescinding them because they are no longer needed. Licensees are complying with the Part 37 rules, instead of the orders. More details about the rescissions and our security requirements can be found here and in 10 CFR Part 37-Physical Protection of Category 1 and Category 2 Quantities of Radioactive Material.

REFRESH: Jefferson Proving Ground – The NRC’s Role

Jim Smith
Health Physicist
Materials Decommissioning Branch

refresh leafMost people think of nuclear reactors when they think of the NRC. Some may think of nuclear medicine or uranium. Many would be surprised to know we are also involved in regulating radioactive materials at U.S. military sites.

Although nuclear weapons are completely outside our purview, some military sites need an NRC license to possess and use certain nuclear materials. For example, the Army has a license to possess depleted uranium (DU) at a site in Indiana called Jefferson Proving Ground.

We wrote previously about the Army’s September 2014 plan to decommission that site. It asked the NRC to terminate the license, with certain access restrictions as allowed under our regulations. The NRC sent the Army a number of questions on the proposal.

In an April letter, the Army said it now believes the environmental and occupational risks of decommissioning outweigh the benefits. So instead of decommissioning and releasing the site for restricted use, the Army envisions keeping its license, at least for now, along with the security and surveillance requirements currently in place. The Army will follow up with a justification for its request for an exemption from the NRC’s “timeliness rule.” This rule requires licensees to notify the NRC within 60 days of permanently ceasing activities at a licensed site and either begin decommissioning or submit a decommissioning plan within 12 months. Rather than decommissioning the site, the Army now is proposing to maintain its license for possession of the depleted uranium penetrators dispersed across the impact area of the site.

The Army began using the 56,000-acre site in 1941 to test fire all sorts of munitions. The Army fired more than 24 million rounds before testing came to an end in 1994 and the installation closed in 1995 as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure Act. Today, the Army still owns about 51,000 acres of the original site, but nearly all of that is managed as a wildlife refuge. The Indiana Air National Guard uses another part of the site as an air-to-ground bombing training range. The 51,000-acre area contains unexploded ordnance —explosive munitions that could still go off—and live detonators, primers and fuzes, and can’t ever be used for farming, housing or commerce.

In the early 1980’s, the NRC got involved with the site when the Army wanted to test DU rounds there. The DU in these rounds is able to penetrate the armor on a tank. Over a 10-year period, the Army fired about 220,000 pounds of DU projectiles into a 2,080-acre area known as the DU Impact Area, which lies within the 51,000 acres with unexploded ordnance. The Army still has its NRC license for the DU and now wants to maintain the DU Impact Area as it currently exists.

duPictureAbout 162,000 pounds of DU remain in the DU Impact Area. There is also a high density of unexploded ordnance in this area. The Army proposes to leave the DU and unexploded ordnance in place because cleanup would be very dangerous and very expensive. To keep people out of the Jefferson Proving Ground site, the Army will keep the current access barriers—including a perimeter fence with padlocked gates and security warning signs—as well as legal and administrative controls.

We expect to have public conversations with the Army as it develops its justification for continued licensed possession of the depleted uranium. These discussions will either be in the form of in-person meetings or teleconferences. Either way, we will announce them ahead of time on our public meeting website. The public will be able to ask questions of the NRC. The Army may, but is not required to, answer questions from the public.

REFRESH is an occasional series where we revisit or update previous posts. This first ran in December 2014.

Under Cover of Night: An Irradiator Moves 2.5 Miles

Victor Dricks
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region IV

On Super Bowl Sunday, while millions of Americans were gathered in front of their television sets, two NRC employees were en route to Anchorage, Alaska, as part of the agency’s mission to ensure the security and safety of irradiators.

Under controlled conditions, large commercial irradiators in the U.S. use gamma rays to kill germs and insects in food products and containers. But the smaller irradiators — about the size of a mini refrigerator — are used in lab settings for sterilizing medical supplies and products. They have their own built-in shielding. Material to be irradiated is placed in a small canister which rotates, exposing the material to radiation. The process leaves no radioactive residue behind, and the devices have been used safely by workers for more than four decades in the United States.

Moving the small irradiator took a big, coordinated effort.

Moving the small irradiator took a big, coordinated effort.

Because all irradiators contain sealed sources of radioactive materials that could be of interest to terrorists wanting to make a “dirty bomb,” the NRC has very rigorous security requirements governing their use.

The NRC team was onsite to monitor preparations to move a small irradiator from its existing location to a new facility about 2.5 miles away. But that short trip involved months of planning and tight coordination between the licensed owner, the NRC and local law enforcement agencies.

All irradiator operators must have a license from the NRC or an Agreement State before they can obtain a sealed source containing radioactive materials. Since Alaska is not an Agreement State, their lab-sized, self-shielded irradiator was subject to NRC licensing and oversight.

Before the irradiator was moved, the NRC team conducted a thorough inspection of the new facility to ensure security was adequate and procedures were in place for handling a variety of emergencies. James Thompson, Region IV Senior Health Physicist, and Brooke Smith, an acting branch chief in the Region’s Division of Nuclear Materials & Safety, spent several days reviewing company records and operations, worker training programs and maintenance procedures to ensure compliance with NRC regulations.

Late in the evening on February 10, Anchorage police began cordoning off streets along the route the irradiator would take to its new home. Shortly after 1 a.m., a special truck carrying the irradiator rolled out of a building under the watchful eyes of dozens of local enforcement agents and a SWAT team. The truck had special security features required for the movement of large quantities of radioactive material, per U.S. Department of Transportation requirements.

The tight security, the cover of darkness and the “cloak of secrecy” approach was more than a bit out of the ordinary for the NRC inspectors. But the journey proved uneventful – which was the ending to the story everyone was working toward.

When Duty Calls Region IV Goes Offshore

Victor Dricks
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region IV

Lizette Roldan, a health physicist in the NRC’s Region IV office, is not particularly fond of the water. But when duty called, she took a deep breath, steeled her nerves and underwent training on how to escape from a sinking helicopter in order to participate in a specialized inspection program.

Lizette Roldan conducted an inspection on this offshore rig in May 2015 of licensed activities by Quality Inspection & Testing, Inc.

“I’m actually pretty terrified of the water, but I refuse to live in fear,” said Roldan, a tri-athlete who runs three to five miles daily to stay in shape. “I saw this as a challenge that I could overcome.”

Roldan is one of three Region IV health physicists who periodically fly by helicopter to inspect oil rigs in offshore federal waters on behalf of the agency. Rick Munoz and James Thompson have also performed offshore inspections.

Although the inspection procedures are similar for both land-based and offshore locations, the offshore inspection program requires special training designed to teach basic aviation safety awareness and emergency egress procedures from helicopters that crash into the ocean.

The periodic inspections are coordinated with U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which provides helicopter transportation to offshore platforms and barges laying underwater piping in the Gulf of Mexico.

Most offshore inspections are of short duration but inspectors may occasionally be required to stay overnight on the platforms for a variety of reasons (weather, helicopter availability, extended monitoring). The scope of inspection activities on offshore facilities normally involves the inspection of Agreement State licensees working in federal waters under reciprocity agreements.

Roldan underwent her Helicopter Underwater Egress Training at a special facility in Louisiana where she and three other trainees were strapped into the cockpit of a helicopter simulator that was dunked four times into a large swimming pool.

“I focus on remaining calm, that’s the most important thing,” Roldan recalled.

The first dunking was the easiest.

“I watched water fill the helicopter cockpit as it was lowered into the pool, took a deep breath, unhooked my seat belt and with the three other trainees swam out of an ‘open’ window to escape,” she said.

Then it got harder. The weight of a helicopter motor and its rotor means the helicopter will likely turn upside down when sinking. The second dunking required escape from the submerged and inverted helicopter through a window that had to be opened from the inside. The exercise escalated to having to coordinate escape from the submerged inverted helicopter with three other trainees. It’s scary, but safe. Scuba divers are present during the tests to ensure the safety of the trainees.

Roldan also had to learn how to survive a fire on an oil platform by jumping into the sea, show she could tread water for five minutes, form a “survival circle” with others while awaiting rescue and fight off sharks by kicking them in their snouts.

Obviously, for these special NRC inspectors, it’s not just another day in the office.

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