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.

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.