Nuclear Security: Actions Taken by NRC to Strengthen Its Licensing Process for Sealed Radioactive Sources Are Not Effective

GAO-07-1038T Published: Jul 12, 2007. Publicly Released: Jul 12, 2007.
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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulates domestic medical, industrial, and research uses of sealed radioactive sources. Organizations or individuals attempting to purchase a sealed source must apply for a license and gain the approval of either NRC or an "agreement state." To become an agreement state, a state must demonstrate to NRC that its regulatory program is compatible with NRC regulations and is effective in protecting public health and safety. NRC then transfers portions of its authority to the agreement state. In 2003, GAO reported that weaknesses in NRC's licensing program could allow terrorists to obtain radioactive materials. NRC took some steps to respond to the GAO report, including issuing guidance to license examiners. To determine whether NRC actions to address GAO recommendations were sufficient, the Subcommittee asked GAO to test the licensing program using covert investigative methods.

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Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Nuclear Regulatory Commission To avoid inadvertently allowing a malevolent individual or group to obtain a license for radioactive materials, NRC should develop improved guidance for examining NRC license applications. In developing improved screening criteria, NRC should consider whether site visits to new licensees should be mandatory. These improved screening criteria will allow NRC to provide reasonable assurance that licenses for radioactive materials will only be issued to those with legitimate uses.
Closed – Implemented
The agency concurred with this recommendation. Agency implemented action.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission NRC should conduct periodic oversight of license application examiners so that NRC will be assured that any new guidance is being appropriately applied.
Closed – Implemented
The agency concurred with this recommendation. Agency has implemented actions.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission NRC should explore options to prevent individuals from counterfeiting NRC licenses, especially if this allows the purchase of more radioactive materials than they are approved for under the terms of the original license.
Closed – Implemented
As a result of our work, NRC immediately suspended its licensing program on June 1, 2007, and issued stricter interim pre-licensing guidance on June 12, 2007. The new guidance generally requires that NRC conduct a site visit or face-to-face meeting prior to issuing a new license--making it more difficult for someone with malevolent intentions to obtain an NRC license.

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