Medical Use Harnesses Radioactive Material for Good

The magic pill that cures cancer has not been invented yet. However, a radioactive “pill” is already in use by physicians to destroy certain cancers from the inside out.

Many people fear radiation because it can cause damage to living cells, but modern medicine has learned to harness that characteristic for good use. If the radiation can be focused on the cancer cells, then the healthy cells can be spared.

There’s a device used by oncology departments across the country called a high dose-rate remote (HDR) afterloader. If the cancer meets specific criteria, like certain breast tumors, it may be a candidate to receive the HDR treatment. The device looks like a slimmer, sleeker version of R2D2 of Star Wars fame. Except instead of holding holograms from Princess Leia inside, it safely stores a small radioactive source with shielding around it.

On the day of the procedure, multiple tiny tubes connected to the HDR device, are inserted into the breast tissue where the tumor is located. The physicist programs the HDR device to automatically crank its source from the shielded position inside the HDR device, through the connecting tubes, and finally settling at a precise position inside the tumor. For the few seconds or minutes that it is there, the source irradiates the tumor tissue directly surrounding it, sparing most of the healthy breast tissue that is further away. When its job is complete, the source retracts into the HDR device, where its shield keeps radiation inside, and it is safe to re-enter the treatment room.

The NRC inspector discusses the procedure with the oncology staff. They talk about interlocks and emergency procedures. While malfunctions are rare, the staff is always ready to respond if the source were to be stuck outside the HDR device or fails to retract when required. The inspector verifies that the physicist uses a radiation meter to check that the source returned to its proper place inside the HDR device. Even though the goal of the treatment is to irradiate the tumor with a large amount of radiation, this must be balanced with the need to reduce the radiation that all the other tissues in the body receive. After treatment, the physicist demonstrates to the NRC inspector how the amount of radiation prescribed by the physician matches the amount of radiation actually deposited in the tumor during treatment.

This is only one example of how radioactive materials are used in medicine. There are many others uses in industrial, commercial and academic applications that the NRC inspects to ensure the safety and security of workers and the public.

Jason Razo
Region IV

How the NRC Works with Native American Tribal Governments

tribal outreach posterMy office, the Office of Federal and State Materials and Environmental Management Programs, oversees NRC’s intergovernmental activities. When you hear the word, “intergovernmental,” you might think it refers to interactions with state or other federal agencies. We do that, but it’s only part of the story. We also have discussions and meetings with members of Native American tribal governments. We seek to inform Native American communities of the nature of NRC’s regulatory activities, and learn of tribal needs and concerns about our work.

The NRC routinely interacts with tribes on such issues as uranium milling and nuclear reactor licensing, nuclear waste storage and transportation of nuclear materials. The NRC is committed to its government-to-government relationships with tribes.

Over the past year, the NRC has developed a protocol to help the agency work with tribal governments, and to increase NRC’s awareness of tribal participation in the regulatory process. This has helped to educate NRC about Native American culture and historical relations between the federal government and the tribes. Our staff has enhanced its ability to work with tribal governments by taking courses in such areas as tribal consultation, environmental policy and historic preservation. We have also made efforts to increase general outreach to tribes and to respond to specific requests.

In addition, we maintain a working relationship with the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, DC. This group represents the needs and interests of all 565 federally recognized tribes.

Our staff is now working on regulations that would require Native American tribes to be notified of reactor fuel shipments that may be transported across tribal reservation lands. We’ve corresponded directly with all 565 tribes and asked for comments on the proposed regulation. Additional information about this rulemaking can be found at http://www.regulations.gov/by searching under Docket ID NRC-1999-0005.

NRC’s tribal outreach is part of a broader federal effort to communicate more closely with the tribes. In this way, we hope we are getting to know one another a bit better. If you’d like to know more about this activity, please contact Rich Turtil at Richard.Turtil@nrc.gov .

George Deegan
Senior Program Analyst (Nuclear Materials/Waste Management)

NRC- It’s Not the Nuclear Reactor Commission

radiation symbolBefore I came to NRC, I thought the agency was set up just to make sure that 100 or so U.S. reactors operated safely. While that remains one of the agency’s most important missions, there is so much more that we do. For example, the office in which I work regulates 3,000 users of radioactive material and oversees 37 states that regulate about 20,000 other users of this material.

Most people know about nuclear medicine, where radioactive materials are used in diagnosing and treating illness. But many may not know that radioactive materials are also used in devices such as the gauges that measure moisture density in highway construction or in analytical equipment that makes sure airplanes don’t have structural defects. Radioactive material is used in a number of different applications (commercial, academic, and medical) with a broad range of societal benefits.

In my office, we make sure the people who use the material do so in a safe and responsible manner, and that they have the material properly controlled to protect it from being stolen or lost. We also make sure our licensees – those we license to use radioactive materials — are aware of their environmental responsibilities and we work to ensure sites where these materials have been used are decommissioned properly.

Our regional staff of license reviewers and inspectors, and their counterparts in the states, work closely with the licensees and with other key stakeholders to monitor performance. We track when things go wrong, what we call “events,” and make decisions on what steps need to be taken based on the safety significance of those events.

We ask various parts of the industry if our regulations make sense and whether or not they are effective; but we also provide members of the public with similar opportunities to express their comments. We typically use the Federal Register to post these public comment notices, but you may see future blogs highlight this, too.

My office has a broad range of regulatory responsibilities. I look forward to highlighting some of our issues and challenges in future posts. If you would like me to focus on one particular aspect of nuclear materials, waste management, decommissioning, or uranium recovery activities, just let me know in the comment section below.

George Deegan
Senior Program Analyst (Nuclear Materials/Waste Management)

NRC Talks Virginia Mining

The launch of the NRC Blog prompted a number of interesting comments on issues the NRC faces each day. Here’s one:

I live in Virginia and I would like to comment that a Canadian mining company is attempting to overturn a 1982 moratorium which makes it illegal to mine or mill uranium in Virginia. What seems to be overlooked is the separation of mining & milling uranium from the rest of what I call “the nuclear cycle”! The fact is that mining uranium has never been conducted in an area with as dense population, or with as much rainfall (42 – 45 inches annually). They have decided that we should be an experiment, and they have allies who have vested interests in this industry. We do not want to be guinea pigs in anyone’s experiment.

I would like to solicit the opinion of the NRC on this most important issue.

Uranium recovery – as we refer to the extraction and milling of uranium ore – is a complex regulatory subject covered by many federal and state laws dating all the way back to the Mining Act of 1872. The NRC’s authority stems from the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which gives the agency jurisdiction over uranium once its physical or chemical properties are altered for eventual use in the nuclear fuel cycle. As a result, the NRC does not regulate uranium mines – the conventional shafts or surface (strip) mines – but it does license and regulate uranium mills, the related facilities that process the ore into uranium oxide, or “yellowcake.” There is another type of uranium recovery, called in situ recovery (ISR), which injects a solution into the ground to extract uranium from the rock; the resulting uranium solution is then pumped to the surface for processing. The NRC licenses and regulates ISR facilities because the uranium processing begins underground. (We do not call these facilities “mines,” but everybody else does.)

Now, to Virginia: One of the nation’s larger uranium deposits happens to be in southern Virginia. Uranium prices have soared in recent years, and a company called Virginia Uranium has expressed interest in mining the deposit. The state has commissioned the National Academy of Sciences to study whether mining is feasible and safe given the environmental challenges cited by our commenter. If the project proceeds, it would involve conventional mining, which means the Commonwealth of Virginia and other federal agencies – not the NRC – would regulate the mine itself. However, the company will need to apply to the NRC for a license to construct and operate the mill. The mill would have to meet the tough requirements in NRC regulations (10 CFR 40, Appendix A) to protect the public and the environment from the mill’s operations and waste.

Given this regulatory picture, the NRC has no opinion to express on the Virginia mining project at this time. If and when the company submits a license application for a mill, the NRC will examine it thoroughly for technical safety and environmental impacts. The planned mill must meet NRC’s regulatory requirements for safe operation and protection of the public health and the environment, before it can receive an NRC license.

To correct one mistake in the original comment: According to Virginia Uranium, it is not a Canadian company but is owned by 31 land owners residing near the deposit. Information on the proposed project may be found in the NRC’s online ADAMS document database by searching for accession numbers ML081610623 and ML081630110. An NRC slide presentation to the National Academy of Sciences regarding conventional milling is at: ML110320309.

And for more information on the NRC’s regulation of uranium recovery, including applications under review for new facilities out West, see our newly revised, updated and expanded Uranium Recovery Web page at   http://www.nrc.gov/materials/uranium-recovery.html .

Dave McIntyre
Public Affairs Officer