IG: Improve system for tracking radioactive material

IG Report: “Audit of the Development of the National Source Tracking System”

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A proposed Web-based national system to track licensed radioactive material may not be robust enough to account for all the risks the material poses, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) inspector general.

The National Source Tracking System (NSTS) may be inadequate because the supporting regulatory analysis, which provides the framework for the system, is based on unreliable data from an interim database the agency established, according to the IG’s report, which was released last week. The analysis also does not provide alternative options.

“As a result, NRC may not account for all byproduct material that represents a risk to the common defense and security and public health and safety,” the report states. “Such risks could result in economic, psychological and physical harm to the United States and the public.”

The proposed system would enhance the agency’s data on radioactive material used in the industrial, medical and research sectors. The agency administers 4,500 material licenses while 33 states, which have NRC authority to regulate certain materials, administer 17,300 licenses.

Under current regulations, licensees only need to give the agency the types and quantities of nuclear material that they are supposed to posses, not what they actually have, according to the report, which was released last week.

NRC officials are amending regulations to require state licensees to report on the manufacture, transfer, receipt and disposal of materials above a certain threshold. But the report adds that the agency is only following the minimum requirement established by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In 2003, the IAEA revised its “Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources” and recommended each member state develop a national source registry of certain radioactive sources. Although the code was non-binding, the U.S. government endorsed it.

The Code of Conduct classified radioactive materials into five categories. At a minimum, the IAEA stressed nations should include Category 1 (“personally extremely dangerous”) and Category 2 (“personally very dangerous”) sources in their national registers. Category 3 is deemed “personally dangerous” while categories 4 and 5 are “unlikely to be dangerous” and “not dangerous” respectively.

The NRC established an interim database to track only radioactive sources equal to or above Category 2. According to the report, the database contained information on about 3,600 Category 1 and/or 2 sources, but NRC staff had estimated licensees have about 75,000 Category 1 and/or 2 sources. This was because of how certain scientific devices, which contain multiple radioactive sources, were counted.

“An NRC staff member said that overall the data in the Interim Database is probably accurate within a factor of 10,” according to the report. “A factor of ten means that the data could be off by a multiple of ten. For example, if the database indicated 3,600 sources, one could reasonably expect that the actual number of sources would be between 360 and 36,000.”

The report states that NRC officials did not know the number of sources of each category in the United States. Some said there are many Category 3 sources that could “significantly expanded” the system, while another staff member said some people are overestimating that number.

Another issue is the problem of tracking the movement of such materials – such as those below a certain activity level – within the United States and from abroad and the possibility they could be diverted.

The IG recommends that NRC officials conduct a comprehensive regulatory analysis that explores viable options, such as those in the IAEA’s Code of Conduct, and validate information in the interim database before the NSTS rulemaking is finalized.

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