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Examining the Reasons for Ending the Cancer Risk Study

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer

One way NRC regulations protect communities around U.S. nuclear power plants is by requiring the plants to regularly sample air, water, and vegetation around their sites. Results of this sampling are sent to the NRC (and in some cases state agencies) to show only very tiny amounts of radioactive material are released during normal operations.

Even with this scrutiny — and a 1990 study showing no difference in cancer mortality rates between those living near U.S. reactors and those living elsewhere — questions persist about cancer risk from nearby reactors. The NRC had worked with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) since 2010 on a study into the potential cancer risk of living near a U.S. nuclear power plant. But we ended this work earlier this month after a hard look at the low likelihood of getting usable results in a reasonable time frame.

radiationsymbolWhy are we comfortable that this decision, also driven by our budget situation, is in line with our mission to protect public health and safety?

First and foremost, the staff considered existing conditions around U.S. reactors, as shown by the ongoing environmental sampling and analysis we mentioned earlier. That evidence supports the conclusion that the average U.S. citizen’s annual radiation dose from natural sources, such as radon and cosmic rays, is about a hundred times greater than the largest potential dose from a normally operating reactor.

This information shows how complicated it would be to single out an operating reactor’s potential contribution to cancer risk. Researchers looking for small effects need a very large study population to be confident in their results. The NAS discussed this issue in its report on Phase 1 of the cancer risk study. The NAS said that the effort “may not have adequate statistical power to detect the presumed small increases in cancer risks arising from… monitored and reported releases.”

The NRC staff examined the NAS Phase 2 report plans to validate the methods recommended in Phase 1. The Academy was very clear that the pilot study at seven U.S. sites was unlikely to answer the basic risk question. The NAS proposal said: “any data collected during the pilot study will have limited use for estimating cancer risks in populations near each of the nuclear facilities or for the seven nuclear facilities combined because of the imprecision inherent in estimates from small samples.”

The pilot study would also examine potential differences between individual states’ cancer registries. Large differences in registry quality or accessibility would hurt the study’s chances of generating useful results.

The NAS concluded they would need more than three years and $8 million to complete the pilot study. If the pilot succeeded, expanding the research to all U.S. operating reactors would require additional years and tens of millions of dollars. The NRC decided that in our current budget environment the time and money would not be well spent for the possible lack of useful results.

The NRC agrees with the NAS that the study’s overall approach is scientifically sound. Interested individuals or groups can examine the NAS Phase 1 and 2 reports for a more detailed discussion of the methods and resources needed to conduct the proposed study. The NRC staff will examine international and national studies on cancer risk to see if we should conduct any future work in this area.

EXIT — A Good Sign of Radiation

Maureen Conley
Public Affairs Officer

refresh leafMost people know radioactive energy can be harnessed to provide electricity and even to diagnose and treat certain illnesses. But would it surprise you to learn that radioactive materials also perform an important safety function by lighting emergency EXIT signs?

Look for the EXIT sign the next time you go to work, school, a sporting event, religious service, the movies, or the mall. If the sign glows green or red, chances are it contains a radioactive gas called tritium. The tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, is sealed into glass tubes lined with a chemical that glows in the dark. Tritium emits low-energy radiation that cannot penetrate paper or clothing and even if inhaled, it leaves the body relatively quickly. As long as the tubes remain sealed, the signs pose no health, safety, or security hazard.

exit3We estimate there are more than 2 million of these signs in use in the United States. To ensure safety in handling and the manufacturing process, we and our Agreement State partners regulate the manufacture and distribution of tritium EXIT signs. Companies have to apply for and receive a license before they can manufacture or distribute one of these signs.

But because the signs are designed to be inherently safe, the NRC does not require any special training before a building can display the signs. Users are responsible for meeting the requirements for handling and disposal of unwanted or damaged signs and for reporting any changes affecting the signs.

exit2Proper handling and disposal is the most important safety requirement for these signs. A damaged sign could contaminate the immediate area and require an expensive cleanup. That is why broken or unwanted signs must be return to a licensed manufacturer, distributer, radioactive waste broker or radioactive waste disposal facility.

Tritium EXIT signs are one of several types of radioactive consumer products that we allow. These products can be produced and sold ONLY if they have a benefit that outweighs any radiation risk. See our earlier blog post for more information on how we regulate these products.

REFRESH is an occasional series where we revisit previous blog posts.

NRC Science 101: The What and How of Geiger Counters

Joe DeCicco
Senior Health Physicist
Source Management and Protection Branch

In earlier Science 101 posts, we talked about ionizing radiation and different types of radiation. In this post, we’ll look at the Geiger counter, an instrument that can detect radiation.

science_101_squeakychalkJust to recap, the core of an atom (the nucleus) is surrounded by orbiting electrons, like planets around a sun. The electrons have a negative charge and usually cancel out an equal number of positively charged protons in the nucleus. But if an electron absorbs energy from radiation, it can be pushed out of its orbit. This action is called “ionization” and creates an “ion pair”—a free, negatively charged electron and a positively charged atom.

Humans cannot detect creation of an ion pair through their five senses. But the Geiger counter is an instrument sensitive enough to detect ionization. Most of us have heard or seen a Geiger counter. They are the least expensive electronic device that can tell you there is radiation around you—though it can’t tell you the original source of the radiation, what type it is or how much energy it has.

How does it work? A Geiger counter has two main parts—a sealed tube, or chamber, filled with gas, and an information display. Radiation enters the tube and when it collides with the gas, it pushes an electron away from the gas atom and creates an ion pair. A wire in the middle of the tube attracts electrons, creating other ion pairs and sending a current through the wire. The current goes to the information display and moves a needle across a scale or makes a number display on a screen. These devices usually provide “counts per minute,” or the number of ion pairs created every 60 seconds. If the loud speaker is on, it clicks every time an ion pair is created. The number of clicks indicates how much radiation is entering the Geiger counter chamber.

You hear a clicking sound as soon as you turn on the speaker because there is always some radiation in the background. This radiation comes from the sun, natural uranium in the soil, radon, certain types of rock such as granite, plants and food, even other people and animals.

The background counts per minute will vary; the needle will move or the number will change even when there is no know radiation source nearby. Many different things cause this fluctuation, including wind, soil moisture, precipitation (rain or snow), temperature, atmospheric conditions, altitude and indoor ventilation. Other factors in readings include geographical location (higher elevations give higher counts), the size and shape of the detector, and how the detector is built (different chamber material and different gases).

geigercounterDepending on the elevation and the type of Geiger counter, a typical natural background radiation level is anywhere from five to 60 counts per minute or more. Because background radiation rates vary randomly, you might see that range standing in one spot. It is important to understand that the Geiger counter indicates when an ion pair is created, but nothing about the type of radiation or its energy.

Other types of instruments can provide an exposure rate (expressed as milliroentgen per hour or mR/hr). These counters must be calibrated to read a particular type of radiation (alpha, beta, gamma, neutron, x-ray) as well as the amount of energy emitted. The reading will only be accurate for that type of radiation and that energy level. And these instruments need to be calibrated regularly to be sure they are providing correct information over time.

For more sophisticated environmental radiation readings, check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s nationwide system, RadNet. Using equipment far more sensitive than a Geiger counter, it continuously monitors the air and regularly samples precipitation, drinking water and pasteurized milk.

Over its 40-year history, RadNet has developed an extensive nationwide “baseline” of normal background levels. By comparing this baseline to measurements across the U.S. states in March 2011, following the accident at the Fukushima reactors in Japan, the EPA was able to detect very small radiation increases in several western states. EPA detected radiation from Japan that was 100,000 times lower than natural background radiation—far below any level that would be of concern. And well below anything that would be evident using a simple Geiger counter, or even Geiger counters spread across the country.

If RadNet were to detect a meaningful increase in radiation above the baseline, EPA would investigate immediately. With its nationwide system of monitors and sophisticated analytical capability, RadNet is the definitive source for accurate information on radiation levels in the environment in the U.S.

By the way, the Geiger counter is also called a Geiger-Mueller tube, or a G-M counter. It was named after Hans Geiger, a German scientist, who worked on detecting radiation in the early 1900s. Walter Mueller, a graduate PhD student of Geiger’s, perfected the gas-sealed detector in the late 1920s and received credit for his work when he gave his name to the Geiger-Mueller tube.

The NRC Considers Amending Radioactive Release Regulations

Tanya E. Hood
Project Manager
Office of New Reactors

Part of the NRC’s mission includes making sure nuclear power plants control and monitor the very small amounts of radioactive material that might be released during normal operations. Filtering and otherwise maintaining a reactor’s cooling water can create radioactive gases and liquids. The amounts generated and released vary depending on a reactor’s design and overall performance. The primary regulations for radioactive emissions (also called radioactive effluents) from commercial nuclear power plants are in 10 CFR Part 50, Appendix I.

These rules are designed to keep normal airborne or liquid releases low enough that any public radiation dose would be a minute fraction of the dose from natural background radiation. Appendix I also requires U.S. nuclear power plants to further reduce potential doses as much as reasonably possible. This set of regulations includes requirements for plants to regularly sample their nearby environments.  The plant’s samples of air, water, milk, soil, vegetation, sediment and fish come from the property line, on-site, and from nearby towns.

quoteIn 2007, the International Commission on Radiological Protection published recommendations that account for updated scientific understanding of the way to calculate radiation doses. For the past few years we’ve been considering amending the NRC’s radiation protection regulations. We’ve talked with public interest groups, other federal and state agencies and the industries or individuals we regulate on the possibility.

The NRC’s Commissioners gave the staff direction about potentially amending these regulations in December 2012. The Commission told the staff to begin developing the regulatory basis for revising the NRC’s radiation protection regulations in 10 CFR Part 20 and regulations for radioactive effluents from commercial nuclear power plants in 10 CFR Part 50, Appendix I “to align with the most recent methodology and terminology [in the ICRP 2007 recommendations] for dose assessment.”

The NRC just held a meeting soliciting feedback on the development of a draft regulatory basis for updating 10 CFR Part 50, Appendix I in Savannah, Ga., on June 27, 2014. The attendees, either in person, on the phone or watching our webinar, gave us some great comments to consider.

We’ll continue the discussion later this summer by issuing an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) in the Federal Register. The notice will list future meetings and describe the regulatory process in more detail.

Based on feedback received from the public conversations and the ANPR, NRC staff will complete the regulatory basis and make a recommendation to the Commission on whether revisions that may affect how radiation dose is calculated, how it is measured and how radioactive effluents are reported annually are warranted. The NRC staff anticipates the regulatory process related to potential updates will take several years to complete.

Next week, NRC staff from several offices will participate in the 59th Annual Meeting of the Health Physics Society, in Baltimore, Md., and will participate in a technical session that will cover, in more detail, the NRC’s efforts on this issue. In addition, Chairman Allison Macfarlane will address this topic, among others, in the meeting’s opening plenary session.

NRC Science 101: What is Plutonium? UPDATED

Maureen Conley
Public Affairs Officer

science_101_squeakychalkIn earlier Science 101 posts, we talked about what makes up atoms, chemicals and matter. In this post, we will look at a specific chemical element — plutonium.

Plutonium is a radioactive, metallic element with the atomic number 94. It was discovered in 1940 by scientists studying the process of splitting atoms. Plutonium is created in a nuclear reactor when uranium atoms, specifically uranium-238, absorb neutrons. Nearly all plutonium is man-made.

Plutonium predominantly emits alpha particles—a type of radiation that does not penetrate and has a short range. It also emits neutrons, beta particles and gamma rays. It is considered toxic, in part, because if it were to be inhaled it could deposit in lungs and eventually cause damage to the tissue.

Plutonium has five “common” isotopes, Pu-238, Pu-239, Pu-240, Pu-241, and Pu-242. All of the more common isotopes of plutonium are “fissionable”—which means the atom’s nucleus can easily split apart if it is struck by a neutron.

The various isotopes of plutonium have been used in a number of applications. Plutonium-239 contains the highest quantities of fissile material, and is notably one of the primary fuels used in nuclear weapons. Plutonium-238 has more benign applications and has been used to power batteries for some heart pacemakers, as well as provide a long-lived heat source to power NASA space missions. Like uranium, plutonium can also be used to fuel nuclear power plants, as is done in a few countries. Currently, the U.S. does not use plutonium fuel in its power reactors.

plutoniumNuclear reactors that produce commercial power in the United States today create plutonium through the irradiation of uranium fuel. Some of the plutonium itself fissions—part of the chain reaction of splitting atoms that is the basis of nuclear power. Any plutonium that does not fission stays in the spent fuel. Spent nuclear fuel from U.S. reactors contains about one percent plutonium by weight.

The different isotopes have different “half-lives” – the time it takes for one-half of a radioactive substance to decay. Pu-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years and Pu-241’s half-life is 14.4 years. Substances with shorter half-lives decay more quickly than those with longer half-lives, so they emit more energetic radioactivity.

Like any radioactive isotopes, plutonium isotopes transform when they decay. They might become different plutonium isotopes or different elements, such as uranium or neptunium. Many of the “daughter products” of plutonium isotopes are themselves radioactive.

Many metric tons of plutonium are currently contained in spent nuclear fuel around the world. To be usable, plutonium needs to be separated from the other products in spent fuel through a method called reprocessing. Reprocessing separates plutonium from uranium and fission products through chemical means. Once separated, plutonium oxide can be used as fuel for nuclear power reactors by mixing it with uranium oxide to produce mixed oxide or MOX fuel. The U.S. government has historically discouraged the use of this technology for national security and environmental reasons.

The NRC is currently overseeing construction of a facility in South Carolina to make MOX fuel using plutonium removed from U.S. nuclear weapons declared excess to military needs, as part of a Department of Energy program to convert it into a proliferation-resistant form that would be difficult to convert again for use in nuclear weapons.

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