Nuclear Security:

Federal and State Action Needed to Improve Security of Sealed Radioactive Sources

GAO-03-804: Published: Aug 6, 2003. Publicly Released: Sep 9, 2003.

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Sealed radioactive sources, radioactive material encapsulated in stainless steel or other metal, are used worldwide in medicine, industry, and research. These sealed sources could be a threat to national security because terrorists could use them to make "dirty bombs." GAO was asked to determine (1) the number of sealed sources in the United States, (2) the number of sealed sources lost, stolen, or abandoned, (3) the effectiveness of federal and state controls over sealed sources, and (4) the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and state efforts since September 11, 2001, to strengthen security of sealed sources.

The number of sealed sources in the United States is unknown because NRC and states track numbers of licensees instead of individual sealed sources. Users of certain devices containing sealed sources are not required to apply to NRC for a license. Accounting for these devices has been difficult. In addition, since 1998, more than 1,300 incidents have taken place in the United States where sealed sources have been lost, stolen, or abandoned. The majority of these lost devices were recovered. Security for sealed sources varied among the facilities GAO visited in 10 states. Also, a potential security weakness exists in NRC's licensing process to obtain sealed sources. Approved applicants may buy sealed sources as soon as a new license is issued by mail. Because the process assumes that the applicant is acting in good faith and it can take NRC as long as 12 months before conducting an inspection, it is possible that sealed sources can be obtained for malicious intent. In addition, NRC currently evaluates the effectiveness of state regulatory programs, but these evaluations do not assess the security of sealed sources. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, NRC and states have notified licensees of the need for heightened awareness to security, but have not required any specific actions to improve security. NRC has been developing additional security measures since the attacks, and issued the first security order to large facilities that irradiate such items as medical supplies and food on June 5, 2003. Additional orders to licensees that possess high risk sealed sources are expected to follow. NRC and states disagree over the appropriate role of states in efforts to improve security. NRC intends to develop and implement all additional security measures on licensees with sealed sources, including those licensed by states. However, over 80 percent of states responding to our survey feel they should be given responsibility to inspect and enforce security measures.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The NRC has been working more closely with the States since October 2002 to enhance security of radioactive sources. In July 2003, the NRC, Organization of Agreement States (OAS), and the Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors (CRCPD) commenced the Materials Security Working Group (MSWG) and Materials Security Steering Committee. These efforts have been productive in achieving a common understanding of the types, amounts, availability, vulnerabilities, and security enhancements for high-risk radioactive sources. NRC, together with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), designated the radionuclides of concern and action levels for those isotopes. The NRC has also sought to reconcile the DOE/NRC designation of high-risk radioactive sources with the designation developed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In July 2003, consensus was reached on a revised IAEA Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Sources. The revised Code of Conduct was endorsed at the IAEA General Conference in September 2003. The U.S. representative to the IAEA made a U.S. commitment to implement the Code of Conduct in October 2003. The MSWG ensures close coordination in the development of additional security measures for those licensees possessing category 1 or category 2 quantities of radionuclides of concern as defined in the revised IAEA Code of Conduct and other materials security issues. The NRC met with the leadership of the OAS and CRCPD on June 6, 2003, to encourage a collaborative approach. The MSWG developed additional security measures for manufacturers and distributors of certain high-risk radioactive sources, and the NRC issued Orders implementing these measures on January 12, 2004. The MSWG is currently developing protective measures for other categories of licensees possessing high-risk radioactive sources (as defined in the Code of Conduct) with completion expected in 2004.

    Recommendation: To determine the sealed sources of greatest concern, the Chairman of NRC should collaborate with the agreement states to identify the types, amount, and availability of the highest risk sealed sources and the associated health and economic consequences of their malicious use. In addition, NRC and the agreement states should determine how to effectively mitigate the psychological effects of their use in a terrorist attack.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Prior to focusing on generally-licensed devices, NRC is focusing on cradle-to-grave controls on high risk specifically licensed sources. When these efforts are complete, NRC agrees with GAO's recommendation that it is worth considering the specific licensing of certain generally licensed devices and that a cost/benefit analysis would be useful. According to NRC, a rulemaking was initiated in FY 2007 to examine the delineation between general licensing and specific licensing for (radioactive) byproduct materials. A rulemaking working group, including state representatives, was formed and prepared a draft proposed rule in spring 2008. Following Commission review, the NRC published the proposed rule in the Federal Register on August 3, 2009 (74 FR 38372), which would have required owners of generally licensed devices containing greater than 1/10th of IAEA category 3 quantities of certain radionuclides to be specifically licensed. The proposed rule included a draft regulatory analysis that evaluated the expected costs associated with the rule. The public comment period ended on October 19, 2009. Many comments were received from states, industry, members of the public, and other stakeholders, in which the stakeholders expressed their views regarding the cost, benefits, and risks associated with the proposed rule changes. In December 2010, in recognition of the costs in comparison with what the Commission judged to be limited safety benefits, the Commission voted not to approve the final rule, but did approve a change in compatibility designation that allows state nuclear regulatory bodies (Agreement States) the flexibility to enhance accountability, address issues specific to their jurisdictions, continue programs that are proven beneficial, and to adopt requirements based on their specific circumstances and needs.

    Recommendation: In addition, accountability over generally licensed devices needs to be improved and gaps in the current licensing process need to be addressed. Because new efforts will involve additional licensing and inspection of potentially thousands of licensees and devices, the Chairman of NRC should determine, in consultation with the agreement states, the costs and benefits of requiring owners of devices that are now generally licensed to apply for specific licenses and whether the costs are commensurate with the risks these devices present.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In December 2006, NRC issued new guidance to agreement states adding additional screening criteria for issuing new radioactive materials licenses. For example, one criterion suggests that the license examiner perform an Internet search using common search engines to confirm that an applicant company appears to be a legitimate business that would require a specific license. Another screening technique calls for the license examiner to contact a state agency to confirm that the applicant has been registered as a legitimate business entity in that state. If the examiner believes there is no reason to be suspicious, he or she is not required to take the steps suggested in the screening criteria and may indicate "no" or "not applicable" for each criterion. If the license examiner takes additional steps to evaluate a criterion, he or she should indicate what publicly available information was considered. If there is concern for a potential security risk, the guidance instructs license examiners to note the basis for that concern. In late 2006 and early 2007, special agents from GAO's Forensic Audits and Special Investigations team used fictitious names and companies to illicitly apply for NRC and agreement state radioactive materials licenses. Although they were unsuccessful in obtaining an agreement state license because the state required an in-person site inspection, they successfully obtained an NRC license fraudulently, despite the new screening criteria. License examiners concluded they need take no steps to verify the authenticity of GAO's fraudulent application. This recommendation has been superseded by three new recommendations in a testimony describing FSI's sting operation [GAO-07-1038T (job code 192228)] and is therefore being closed as not implemented.

    Recommendation: In addition, accountability over generally licensed devices needs to be improved and gaps in the current licensing process need to be addressed. Because new efforts will involve additional licensing and inspection of potentially thousands of licensees and devices, the Chairman of NRC should modify NRC's process of issuing specific licenses to ensure that sealed sources cannot be purchased before NRC's verification--through inspection or other means--that the materials will be used as intended.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2005, NRC and the 33 Agreement States decided to coordinate efforts to increase the control of radioactive materials that could potentially be of use to terrorists. NRC and the Agreement States developed essentially identical legally binding orders and/or requirements that spelled out increased controls for certain radioactive materials. These orders were issued in December 2005. Agreement States will regulate those controls over licensees in their jurisdictions while NRC would retain authority over the licensees in non-Agreement States. NRC's and the Agreement States' cooperative efforts effectively leverage federal and state resources to increase protection and accountability over radioactive materials.

    Recommendation: Finally, to ensure that the federal and state governments' efforts to provide additional security to sealed sources are adequately integrated and evaluated for their effectiveness, the Chairman of NRC should determine how officials in agreement and non-agreement states can participate in the development and implementation of additional security measures.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC agrees with the recommendation to include criteria and performance measures in GAO's periodic evaluations of Agreement State effectiveness. NRC staff has developed program review criteria and performance measures to evaluate the effectiveness of NRC's and the Agreement States' oversight of the implementation of increased controls over radioactive material. NRC staff developed a procedure to incorporate increased controls into the review of NRC Regional and Agreement State materials programs. In addition, an instruction for Integrated Materials Performance Evaluation Program (IMPEP) team members was developed to provide further guidance to reviewers for performing IMPEP review of NRC regional and Agreement State materials programs. The review criteria, performance measures, and instructions for IMPEP team members were finalized in March 2006 and are now integrated into NRC's evaluations of the effectiveness of its regional materials programs as well as Agreement States' radioactive materials programs.

    Recommendation: Finally, to ensure that the federal and state governments' efforts to provide additional security to sealed sources are adequately integrated and evaluated for their effectiveness, the Chairman of NRC should include criteria and performance measures of the NRC's and the agreement states' implementation of additional security measures in NRC's periodic evaluations of its and agreement states' effectiveness.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission


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