When Gauges Go Missing … UPDATED

Neil Sheehan
Public Affairs Officer, Region I

It’s easy to imagine the sense of distress that must have washed over a portable nuclear gauge user one recent morning when he realized the device he had stowed in the back of his truck was missing. The gauge had apparently tumbled from his vehicle as he drove along a road near Martinsburg, W.Va.

Despite the gauge user’s prompt retracing of his steps, the device was nowhere to be found and, as of today, has not yet been retrieved.

While the search goes on, some perspective is in order regarding the use of such gauges, which contain sealed sources of radioactive materials and are designed to take measurements of soil density at construction and other work sites. The reality is the loss of these portable gauges is an infrequent occurrence and that is due, in large part, to the requirements developed over time to avoid that from happening.

Indeed, NRC and Agreement State regulations clearly spell out the precautions gauge operators must take when the devices are not in use. (Agreement States are those that have signed an agreement with the NRC to regulate nuclear materials used within their borders for which the NRC would otherwise be responsible.)

For one thing, there is a security requirement that a minimum of two independent physical controls must be utilized to prevent unauthorized removal of a gauge when it is not under direct control and surveillance of company personnel. For another, there must be constant surveillance of a gauge when it is in an unrestricted area.

When violations of these requirements occur in non-Agreement States, the NRC will consider whether enforcement action is warranted. Agreement States will do the same in their jurisdictions.

What’s more, the NRC and Agreement States conduct typically unannounced periodic inspections of gauge owners to discern whether security and other requirements are being properly followed.

Provided the sealed source remains inside the shielded gauge, it should not pose a threat to the person or persons who have it in their possession. Nevertheless, the device needs to be back in the hands of personnel qualified to handle such material as soon as possible.

In a post-9/11 world, the NRC takes very seriously the security of radioactive materials, from nuclear fuel used in power reactors to small amounts of radioactive material housed in portable gauges transported on pick-up trucks.

05/17/2013 – Updated: There is now a happy post-script to the case of portable nuclear gauge that went missing earlier this month in West Virginia.

On May 3, a Pennsylvania firm doing work in the Mountain State reported to the NRC that a gauge had fallen off one of its trucks and could not be located. The NRC issued a press release on May 6 advising the public to be on the lookout for the device.  The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) put out its own release regarding the missing gauge on May 14, based on the fact that its owner, Valley Quarries, is headquartered in Chambersburg, Pa., and is licensed by the state.

A break occurred on May 15 when a Maryland resident contacted the DEP to say he had spotted the gauge along a roadside near Martinsburg, W.Va., and placed it in his trunk after deciding it must be something important. It apparently remained there until being handed over to the DEP and, in turn, to Valley Quarries.

The good news is that a preliminary evaluation has found the gauge was apparently not damaged. A service provider for Valley Quarries will confirm that is the case. n the meantime, the NRC’s inspection of the loss of the gauge is still in progress. As part of that review, the NRC and DEP teamed up for an inspection at the company’s headquarters late last week to evaluate safety and security protocols used by the firm with respect to its portable nuclear gauges.

When the NRC’s inspection is completed, the results will be made available to the public.

A Day In the Life of an NRC Materials Inspector

An NRC inspector walks up to a pickup truck that has a strange oversized camper. Next to the truck sits a device that looks like a large metallic lunch box with bright yellow labels, except this lunch box has what appears to be 30-foot-long tubes stretching from each end like tentacles. She takes out her radiation survey instrument and it starts to register a faint, familiar chirp.

The inspector has just stumbled upon a radiographic exposure device (camera) that contains a radioactive source (pill). Radiography is a type of non-destructive testing and can be compared to a type of mobile industrial X-ray service. The dense shielding within the camera surrounds the pill and protects those nearby from excess radiation exposure.

Back to our inspector, she is surrounded by a field of large pipes stretching across the open landscape like capillaries moving the rich natural gas and oil resources from their barren origin in western Wyoming to the urban centers where they are needed. The pressures of the fluids in these conduits is high. Any defects or weaknesses in the system can lead to leaks, failure, or catastrophe.

Similar to going to the doctor to get a chest x-ray, radiographers use the radioactive source to get images of the internal welds connecting the robust pipes. The resulting exposure, or image, can tell the engineers whether the pipe weld is weak and needs to be replaced, or if this one is sturdy and will get the contents to their destination safely.

The inspector completes her surveys; no readings were out of the ordinary. She discusses security controls with the radiographers; the radioactive source must not fall into the wrong hands. She verifies that the public is safe; the procedures were followed to ensure that no one was allowed near the radiation.

Jason Razo
Region IV
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