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Because licensees are now in compliance with the new rules, the NRC has rescinded a series of material security orders.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.

Moments in NRC History: Regulating for Safety and Non-Proliferation, Part II

Thomas Wellock
Historian

RTR_2Part I of our Research and Test Reactor Series looked at the promise and unique safety challenges of research reactors, beginning with North Carolina State’s first civilian-owned reactor in 1953.

In Part II of our video series, we look at how the focus on safety of these reactors evolved into a concern about their security.

The Atomic Energy Commission (the NRC’s predecessor) had developed design requirements for research reactors with large safety margins that tolerated errors. Extensive training and supervision was required of licensed operators. Sabotage was foiled by making the reactors’ uranium fuel difficult to remove or destroy.

However, weapons proliferation became a persistent concern. Reactor designers favored fuel highly enriched in fissionable uranium-235. Uranium-235, however, was also the stuff of atomic bombs.

Initially, the AEC only permitted export of reactor technology with low enrichment, but in the 1960s, it granted international requests to U.S. manufacturers for high performance research reactors. The reactors needed only small quantities of enriched fuel, and it was believed bilateral agreements and regular inspections would assure the used fuel was returned to the U.S.

But events in the 1970s – including India’s detonation of a nuclear device made possible with fissionable material from a Canadian research reactor — demonstrated the limits of this approach.

Lowering the fuel enrichment was seen as a viable solution. In 1978, the Department of Energy launched a program to develop a low enriched fuel that met the performance needs of research reactors. In the U.S., operators of 20 research reactors opted to switch to low-enriched fuel.

MIHAfter the 9/11 attacks, the United States launched the Global Threat Reduction Initiative to accelerate the conversion to low-enriched fuel. Twenty-seven reactors around the world, including six in the United States made this conversion, taking out of circulation enough fissionable material to make 20 crude bombs.

The NRC also pursued enhancements against sabotage and theft with better staff background screening, access controls, security searches, and coordination with emergency responders.

The decline of the nuclear industry since the 1970s and the production of isotopes abroad have reduced the need for research reactors in the U.S. Their numbers have dwindled to about 30. This brought a new concern — the vulnerability of the nation’s isotope supply for medical uses, especially molybdenum-99.

The video explores how that vulnerability is being addressed and how the NRC continues to ensure research reactors operate safely in today’s threat environment. I hope you’ll take the time to watch the video.

Updated: The Freedom to Demonstrate Demonstrated in Crow Butte Hearing

Victor Dricks
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region IV

Demonstrators voice their opinion ahead of an Atomic Safety and Licensing Board hearing.
Demonstrators voice their opinion ahead of an Atomic Safety and Licensing Board hearing.

Both opponents and supporters of the Crow Butte Resources, Inc.’s uranium recovery facility near Crawford, Neb., faced off this week during a hearing before the Atomic Safety & Licensing Board. The hearing, presided over by three ASLB judges, involves a challenge to the renewed license issued to the facility in late-2014.

The ASLB is an independent body within the NRC that conducts adjudicatory hearings and renders decisions on legal challenges to licensing actions.

The ASLB judges are hearing evidence this week addressing nine contentions filed by opponents of the facility from several local residents and the Western Nebraska Resources Council, known as consolidated interveners, and the Oglala Sioux Tribe. The hearing is being held in the Crawford Community Center.

Four of the contentions are related to the safety review and five are related to the environmental review. The contentions challenge the adequacy of the evaluation and protection of historical resources at the site, and the NRC’s analysis of the facility’s impacts on surface water, groundwater and the ecosystem. The hearing will run until all evidence has been heard.

In filings with the ASLB, the Oglala Sioux Tribe said it will argue that NRC failed to adequately follow all legally required processes before issuing a 10-year license extension for the facility, causing the tribe “irreparable harm,” as a result.

Iris Paris of Crawford, Nebraska, greets ASLB judges for their hearing today.
Iris Paris of Crawford, Nebraska, greets ASLB judges for their hearing today.

Expert witnesses scheduled to speak on behalf of the interveners include Dennis Yellow Thunder and Michael Catches Enemy of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, as well as an archaeologist, a biochemist and three hydrologists.

The ASLB hearings come just weeks after a documentary film titled “Crying Earth Rise Up,” co-produced by Lakota grandmother Debra White Plume, Prairie Dust Films and Vision Maker Media, premiered here in Crawford. The 57-minute film presents a case against uranium mining.

Owned by the Canadian Cameco Corp., Crow Butte Resources has been conducting in situ recovery of uranium for nuclear power plants at its site four miles east of Crawford for 20 years. Cameco is the largest operator of uranium mines in the United States. The company has submitted applications for three uranium recovery site expansion projects, which are in various phases of NRC review.

The ASLB has 90 days after the conclusion of next week’s hearing to affirm, modify or reverse its decision to renew the operating license for Crow Butte.

Update: This post has been edited to include all co-producers of the documentary.

UPDATE: Reducing Proliferation Risks AND Treating the Sick

Steve Lynch
Project Manager
Research and Test Reactor Licensing Branch

The United States does not produce a medical isotope used domestically in millions of diagnostic procedures each year. We’re talking about technicium-99m, or Tc‑99m — which has been called the world’s most important medical isotope.

Tc-99m is created from another radioisotope, molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), which, in some cases, is produced  using highly enriched uranium. A supply shortage that delayed patient treatments several years ago, coupled with the desire to reduce proliferation risks, prompted the world community to find better ways of securing the future supply of this isotope.

In 2012, Congress passed the American Medical Isotope Production Act to support private U.S. efforts to develop non-HEU methods for medical isotope production and begin phasing out the export of HEU. The National Nuclear Security Administration has been promoting domestic Mo‑99 production using different technologies through formal cooperative agreements with commercial partners.

These partners and several other companies have said they are interested in producing Mo‑99 in the U.S. They have proposed using several different technologies, ranging from non-power reactors to accelerator-driven, subcritical solution tanks. To support the transition to new technologies, the NRC is prepared to receive and review applications for construction permits, operating licenses, and materials licenses for new facilities, as well as license amendments for existing non-power reactors.

In fact, we are now reviewing two construction permit applications and a license amendment request. We licensed a small-scale technology demonstration project earlier this year.

Companies, facilities, and technicians involved in producing and administering Tc-99m to patients may also need to be licensed by either the NRC or an Agreement State. (There are 37 Agreement States, which have formal agreements with the NRC allowing them to regulate certain nuclear materials, including medical isotopes.)

For more information on the role of the NRC and other agencies in regulating the use and production of medical isotopes and other nuclear materials, visit the NRC webpage.

Kara Mattioli also contributed to this post.

This is an update to the original blog post, which originally ran in October 2013