Radioactive Sources:

Opportunities Exist for Federal Agencies to Strengthen Transportation Security

GAO-17-58: Published: Feb 7, 2017. Publicly Released: Mar 9, 2017.

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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security work to secure high risk radioactive sources during ground transport. After the 9/11 attacks, these agencies have collaborated to strengthen the security of these sources.

However, we found that NRC does not inspect motor carriers (such as large trucks) for compliance with its security requirements, and it doesn't collect data on all shipments. Additionally, NRC and DOT have different security and safety thresholds—which may allow some shipments to be transported without certain safety protections. We made recommendations to address these issues.

 

Division of Regulatory Authority among Federal Agencies Responsible for the Security of Risk-Significant Radioactive Sources during Ground Transport

Graph of federal agencies responsible for radioactive source security during ground transport.

Graph of federal agencies responsible for radioactive source security during ground transport.

Multimedia:

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Shelby S. Oakley
(202) 512-3841
oakleys@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

Since September 11, 2001, the three federal agencies responsible for securing risk-significant radioactive sources (those considered most dangerous) during ground transport have taken steps to strengthen the security of these sources. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires source licensees to ensure that motor carriers transporting these sources have security measures, such as 24-hour monitoring of shipments of potentially fatal sources. The Department of Transportation (DOT) updated its regulations to require security plans for these sources, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) established security standards for commercial drivers' licenses. The agencies' participation in three collaborative mechanisms—a task force, memorandums of understanding (MOU), and coordinating councils—has also facilitated security improvements. The figure below illustrates how the agencies divide their responsibilities.

Division of Regulatory Authority among Federal Agencies Responsible for the Security of Risk-significant Radioactive Sources during Ground Transport

Division of Regulatory Authority among Federal Agencies Responsible for the Security of Risk-significant Radioactive Sources during Ground Transport

NRC and DOT face challenges related to collecting data and ensuring compliance with NRC security requirements for ground transport of risk-significant radioactive sources, but opportunities exist to address them. For example, NRC does not directly inspect whether motor carriers contracted by licensees to transport risk-significant sources have implemented its security requirements because its regulatory authority extends only to its licensees. Instead, NRC requires licensees to ensure that carriers meet the requirements, and its inspectors are to verify that licensees do so. DOT and state officials have regulatory authority over carriers, but their inspectors do not enforce compliance with NRC security requirements because DOT does not have that authority. Thus, no federal or state agency directly inspects carriers for compliance with NRC's security requirements. Under a 2015 MOU, the three agencies committed to coordinating on inspection activities to optimize available resources. By consulting with DOT and DHS to identify an approach to verify that carriers are meeting NRC's security requirements, NRC has an opportunity to further strengthen the security of shipments of risk-significant sources, for example, by having DOT inspectors verify compliance during on-site investigations.

Why GAO Did This Study

Concerns have been raised that risk-significant sources could be stolen by terrorists and used to create a “dirty bomb.” NRC is responsible for licensing the possession and use of these sources. DOT regulates the transport of such sources, and DHS is responsible for securing all modes of transportation.

GAO was asked to review the security of these sources during ground transport. This report examines (1) the steps that NRC, DOT, and DHS have taken since September 11, 2001, to strengthen the security of these sources; and (2) the challenges that exist to further strengthening the security of these sources during ground transport and opportunities to address them.

GAO reviewed relevant laws and regulations, analyzed information on source shipments, and interviewed federal agency officials, officials from four motor carriers identified through interviews and research, and officials from two of the largest source manufacturers.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making three recommendations, including that NRC, in consultation with DOT and DHS, identify an approach to verify that carriers meet NRC requirements. NRC agreed with the recommendation. DOT agreed to consult with NRC and DHS, but did not fully concur, citing a lack of authority. GAO clarified the recommendation in response to DOT's concern.

For more information, contact Shelby S. Oakley at (202) 512-3841 or oakleys@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In its 60-day response letter from NRC to GAO, NRC repeated its position on this recommendation as stated in its formal agency response that was included as appendix III in the report. In both cases, NRC states that it disagrees with this recommendation. NRC disagrees that the specific number of shipments by mode of transport is always needed. NRC explained that existing information collection requirements already exist for category 1 quantities and that it had previously determined that collection of shipment information for category 2 quantities was not necessary. NRC also stated that NSTS would not be the appropriate database to capture shipment information; it is not designed to capture real-time information. In addition, NRC does not consider the proposed collection activity to be of sufficient benefit to justify the additional cost of capturing the information. Therefore, NRC does not believe that adopting this recommendation would result in significant improvements to safety. Despite its disagreement with this recommendation, we will continue to monitor whether NRC takes any actions that would result in addressing the concern GAO raised.

    Recommendation: To improve the awareness of how risk-significant radioactive sources are transported within the United States and to better determine whether Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is meeting its goal of providing reasonable assurance for preventing the theft or diversion of these dangerous materials, the Chairman of NRC should take actions to collect information from licensees on the number of shipments and mode of transport for such sources--for example, by identifying the extent to which an existing NRC database (e.g., the National Source Tracking System) may be used to capture this information.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: As noted in the NRC comments on the GAO report, the NRC agrees in general with the second recommendation to explore with Federal partners an approach to verify that motor carriers meet 10 CFR Part 37 transportation security requirements. The NRC commits to exploring how the respective agencies can verify that motor carriers are meeting the NRC's applicable Part 37 transportation security requirements. This recommendation will remain open until NRC presents evidence that it has acted on it.

    Recommendation: To further enhance the security of radioactive sources during ground transport, the Chairman of NRC, in consultation with the Secretary of Transportation and the Secretary of Homeland Security, should identify an approach to verify that motor carriers are meeting NRC's Part 37 security requirements applicable to transportation, for example by having DOT inspectors verify compliance with NRC Part 37 security requirements during their on-site investigations.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In its 60-day response letter, NRC stated that it recognizes that HRCQ thresholds fall under the jurisdiction of DOT. The NRC commits to exploring with DOT the potential costs and security benefits associated with lowering the HRCQ threshold so that more if not all , of the shipments of Category 1 quantities of radioactive material may be classified as HRCQ shipments. In its 60-day response letter, DOT concurred with this recommendation and stated that it planned to consult with NRC and the Department of Homeland Security Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, and its internal stakeholders to evaluate potential costs and security benefits of lowering the HRCQ threshold, which they expect to complete by January 15, 2018. This recommendation will remain open until evidence is presented by NRC and DOT that they have examined the costs and benefits of lowering the HRCQ threshold.

    Recommendation: To further enhance the security of radioactive sources during ground transport, the Secretary of Transportation, in consultation with the Chairman of NRC and the Secretary of Homeland Security, should consider examining the potential costs and security benefits associated with lowering the Highway Route Controlled Quantity (HRCQ) threshold so that more, or all, category 1 shipments are classified as HRCQ shipments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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