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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.

Radium Part I: Opening Pandora’s Box

Tom Wellock
NRC Historian

Marie and Pierre Curie

Marie and Pierre Curie

When Marie and Pierre Curie discovered Radium-226 in 1898, it opened up the atom’s secrets and offered hope that its mysterious radioactive rays were a miracle cure. Sobering reality replaced euphoria as radium factory workers began to die.

Radium taught the world of radiation’s dangers, yet it was not until 2005 that Congress put all aspects of radium safety oversight under the federal government. Until that time, it was primarily regulated — to varying degrees — by the states. This three-part blog series traces radium’s long unique history where states took the lead in regulating it and compensating victims.

Soon after the Curies’ discovery, radium became a consumer and medical sensation. Its radiation reduced tumor growth, and researchers found somewhat elevated levels of radiation at some medicinal spas, such as Saratoga Springs, N. Y., and Hot Springs, Ark. Conclusion? Radiation was a life saver. One physician claimed that radium’s “radiation prevents insanity, rouses noble emotions, retards old age, and creates a splendid youthful joyous life.”

Manufacturers hawked quack products they claimed were laced with radium as a miracle cure and status symbol: elixirs, kitchenware, clothes, pillows, razor blades, and cigarette holders, even condoms. Radium’s luminescent properties also made possible glow-in-the-dark paint for watch dials.

In 1925, the New York Times reported one of the earliest instances of radiation-induced cancer. Its victims were young women—watch-dial painters in New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois. The intricate work required them to “lip point” their brushes by licking them. Infections and cancers of the jaw followed from the ingested radium. The isotope’s bone-seeking properties and long half-life made it particularly dangerous. (The time required for the radioactivity to decrease by one-half is referred to as the half-life. The half-life of Ra-226 is about 1,600 years.)

The tragic story of the “radium girls” transformed radiation’s image from panacea to poison. Public discussion turned to compensating victims and limiting radium exposures—duties that usually fell to state courts and agencies. In New Jersey, reformers won their fight for a law allowing compensation for “radium necrosis.”

State labor and health agencies were able to halt lip pointing, but their power over industry was sometimes limited. For example, the New Jersey Labor Department issued to U.S. Radium Corporation an order to tighten safety for its dial painters — “comply or close.” It closed and moved elsewhere.

RadiumAd2_0_Altantic MagFederal agencies mostly deferred to state authority over radium. They issued studies, organized conferences, and developed voluntary safe work practices. The Federal Trade Commission had some influence in shutting down falsely advertised products, such as the “fountain of youth” tonic Radithor, but safety assurance was a state prerogative.

With World War II, change came as nuclear reactors of the U.S. wartime atomic program flooded the world with new isotopes, reducing to near insignificance radium’s commercial and medical applications. The Curies’ Nobel-Prize discovery was about to become an afterthought.

Part II will be posted on Wednesday.

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.

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