U.S. Report Details Serious Safety Issues With Nuclear Regulation and Evaluating the Security of U.S. Nuclear Material

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One of the most serious threats facing the United States and other countries is the possibility that other nations or terrorist organizations could steal a nuclear warhead or nuclear weapon-usable materials from poorly secured stockpiles around the world, or that nations could divert nuclear material intended for peaceful purposes to the development of nuclear weapons.  In 1987, an accident involving a medical device containing about 1,400 curies of cesium-137, killed four people in Brazil’s Goiania region and injured many more. The accident and its aftermath caused about $36 million in damages to the region. The decontamination process required the demolition of homes and other buildings and generated 3,500 cubic meters of radioactive waste.

According to IAEA, there were 2,164 confirmed cases of illicit trafficking in nuclear and radiological materials worldwide from 1993 through 2011. In prepared testimony presented March 14 to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on oversight of government management, the federal workforce and the District of Columbia, the GAO warns of many severe lapses in security of US nuclear materials not only inside our borders, but also with US nuclear materials in international countries.

Agencies Face Challenges in Coordinating U.S. Efforts to Combat Nuclear Smuggling Overseas:

No single federal agency has lead responsibility to direct federal efforts to prevent and detect nuclear smuggling overseas.  DOD officials told inspectors that they believed NSC has played a negligible role in coordinating programs to counter nuclear smuggling.  In one inspection noted in the report, it was observed that a storage facility containing devices with thousands of curies of cesium-137 had several unsecured large openings in the roof.

The DOE and NRC do not have a comprehensive, detailed current inventory of U.S. nuclear material–including weapon-usable material–that is located overseas.  Nuclear cooperation agreements do not contain specific access rights that enable U.S. agencies to monitor and evaluate the physical security of U.S. nuclear material overseas, and the United States relies on its partners to maintain adequate security.   The commission also found that no single federal agency had the lead responsibility to direct these efforts. Therefore the GAO recommended, among other things, that NSC review U.S. programs working to prevent nuclear smuggling overseas to reduce fragmentation and potential overlap. NSC declined to comment on the recommendations.

Among other things, NSC officials told the GAO that estimating the costs associated with the President’s goal of reducing worldwide nuclear materials over the next 4 years is impossible, mainly because the initiative is predicated on having other countries provide assistance and share costs, and it is impossible to forecast cooperation that may occur with other countries, including the resumption of denuclearization efforts in North Korea. The GAO also found that the time frames for the initiative are uncertain because NSC officials did not consider the 4-year time frame to be a hard and fast deadline.

Rather than achieving a specific level of nuclear material security around the world within the 4-year time frame, the President’s proposal has value in broader terms, according to NSC officials. They described the value of the President’s proposal as a “forcing function” to

(1) accelerate ongoing U.S. nuclear nonproliferation programs,

(2) drive closer integration of nuclear nonproliferation programs across the federal government, and

(3) mobilize greater international responsibility for and commitment to nuclear material security.

Is the United States effectively securing nuclear materials within its borders and around the world?

As the GAO reported in September 2011, federal agencies are not able to fully account for U.S. nuclear material overseas that is subject to nuclear cooperation agreements, finding that the agreements do not contain specific access rights that enable agencies to monitor and evaluate the physical security of U.S. nuclear material overseas. The report found that the agencies responsible for reviewing foreign partners’ security are not doing so systematically, leading to a suggestion that Congress consider directing DOE and NRC to fully account for U.S. weapon-usable nuclear materials overseas and consider amending the Atomic Energy Act to require access rights allowing the United States to verify adequate protection of U.S. nuclear materials if future agreements cannot be negotiated to include such rights.

The NRC and DOE could not fully account for the location and disposition of U.S. enriched uranium overseas in response to a 1992 congressional mandate.  The report shows that NRC, in consultation with U.S. agencies, was able to verify the location of 1,160 kilograms out of 17,500 kilograms of U.S. enriched uranium remaining overseas as of January 1993. According to DOE and NRC officials, no further update to the 1993 report was issued, and the U.S. government has not subsequently attempted to develop such a comprehensive estimate of the location and status of U.S. uranium overseas.

U.S. interagency teams made 55 visits from 1994 through 2010 and found that countries met IAEA security guidelines approximately half of the time.  Specifically, U.S. nuclear material has remained at sites in three countries where physical protection measures are unknown or the sites have not been visited by an interagency physical protection team in decades.

Of the approximately 17,500 kilograms of enriched uranium exported from the United States, 12,400 kilograms are currently not eligible for return to the United States. The vast majority of this amount–about 10,000 kilograms–is currently not eligible for return because the material does not have an acceptable disposition pathway, such as permanent disposal or potential reuse. Another 2,000 kilograms of material is located primarily in the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) member countries and is in use or adequately protected, according to GTRI officials.

The physical security concerns are not confined to countries that have limited infrastructure and resources, potential vulnerability of nuclear material at certain facilities in high-income countries was raised by NSC officials.

DOE, NRC, and State generally disagreed with the recommendations when commenting on the draft report, including the need to reconcile inventories with partner countries, stating that these reconciliations were unnecessary while adding that implementing the recommendations, generally, would adversely impact U.S. commercial competitiveness in overseas markets and diminish U.S. influence to advance our nonproliferation objectives and cost jobs at home.

NRC’s Security Requirements Do Not Prescribe Specific Measures for Protecting Radiological Sources at Hospitals and Medical Facilities:

The Government Accountability Office, or GAO has found many shocking lapses in security surrounding radioactive materials stored in US medical facilities.   The NRC, which is responsible for regulating the security of radiological sources in U.S. hospitals and medical facilities, issued a security order in 2005 that directed licensees possessing radiological sources of concern to implement increased controls for access, detection and assessment, material shipments, physical barriers, information protection, and sensitive information.

According to NNSA, there are about 1,500 medical facilities in the United States that contain high risk radiological sources, for a total of about 22 million curies of radioactive material.  Hospitals and medical facilities in the United States are significant users of radiological sources contained in medical devices used primarily for cancer treatment and research. The amount of radiation emitted by the sources in these devices varies according to the size and type of source. For example, teletherapy machines contain a single cobalt-60 source ranging from about 1,000 to 10,000 curies, while irradiators can occasionally contain up to 27,000 curies or more of cesium-137.

The total number of these sources in use worldwide is unknown because many countries do not systematically account for them.

The GAO visited 25 hospitals and medical facilities in seven states and the District of Columbia, interviewed regulatory officials from 20 states, and interviewed agency officials at DOD, DOE, NRC, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and also reviewed relevant laws, regulations, and guidance for overseeing commercial radiological sources.

GAO found that NRC’s security controls for hospitals and medical facilities do not prescribe the specific steps that must be taken to protect their radiological sources. GAO also found that medical facilities have implemented the controls in various ways. This has created a mix of security measures at the locations GAO visited that could leave some facilities more vulnerable than others.

The NRC has relinquished jurisdiction for licensing and regulating radiological sources to 37 states called Agreement States, whose offices are typically administered by state health or environment departments, and which inspect licensees to ensure compliance with state regulations that are generally compatible with NRC Regulations. However the NRC’s security order and implementation guidance are broadly written and do not prescribe the specific steps that licensees must take to secure their sources. Rather, they provide a general framework for what constitutes adequate security practices.

According to NRC, the intent of the increased controls is not to provide absolute security from theft or unauthorized access. Rather, the intent is to develop a combination of people, procedures, and equipment that will delay and detect an intruder, and initiate a response to the intrusion.

There have also been reports that the NRC inspectors are also adversely affected by the lack of oversight.  One NRC inspector said that security inspections were particularly difficult for her because she is trained as a physicist. She said that the controls were confusing, and she did not understand the nuances of security. An Agreement State inspector from another state that was visited told investigators that he was not qualified to do security inspections. However, he said that he was doing the best he could to interpret the controls and help the licensees implement the requirements. Other inspectors from this state reported that they were placed in the awkward situation of having to enforce regulations that they did not believe they were fully qualified to interpret.

When GAO auditors visited 25 hospitals and medical facilities in different parts of the nation that implemented the NRC order, they found a number of security weaknesses. At a hospital in one state, two cesium-137 research irradiators using approximately 2,000 curies and 6,000 curies, respectively, are housed in the basement of a building that is open to the public. The hallway leading to the irradiator room has a camera, but it is pointed away from the room. The door to the room is opened by a swipe card lock, and there are no cameras or other security measures inside the room. Inspectors observed that one of the irradiators was sitting on a wheeled pallet. When they asked the radiation safety officer (RSO)–the designated hospital official responsible for the security of radiological sources–if he had considered removing the wheels, he said no. This response was given even though the irradiator room is located in close proximity to an external loading dock, and the cameras along the corridor to the loading dock are displayed on a single monitor.

At another hospital “in a major U.S. city,” auditors found that the interior door to a blood bank with a cesium-137 blood irradiator of 1,500 curies has the combination to the lock written on the door frame. The hospital security administrator told auditors “that he often walks around erasing door combinations that are written next to the locks.”

A radiation safety officer at a university hospital couldn’t tell auditors exactly how many people had the right to unescorted access to the hospital’s radiological sources, other than it was at least 500 people. The database the hospital uses doesn’t allow for entering records of individuals beyond 500, he explained. In the past, he added  the number had been as many as 800. By contrast, a major medical research facility at a military installation visited by GAO auditors permits access to four individuals.

NUCLEAR NONPROLIFERATION Further Actions Needed by U.S. Agencies to Secure Vulnerable Nuclear and Radio…

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