Lapses exposed at the NRC

13 July 2007

Government investigators found US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) procedures seriously lacking when they obtained a radioactive materials licence in the name of a bogus company.

The investigation, by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), was carried out on the instructions of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. It raised the spectre of terrorist ambitions to spread radioactive contaminants, possibly by way of explosion.

GAO staffers made two applications for a radioactive materials licence in the name of a company that existed only on paper. One was sent to the NRC, the other to an unnamed 'agreement state', which had taken on the NRC's regulatory role in this area.

Basic checks on the legitimacy of the company - such as internet searches and checks with state company registries - were not carried out by the NRC, which supplied a licence by mail in four weeks after some liaison. Upon receipt, GAO found that the licence could be altered to allow the company to hold an "unrestricted quantity" of material, rather than the "small amounts" on the original licence.

Then, using the amended licence, GAO staffers agreed with commercial suppliers to buy sealed-source equipment of the kind used in the construction industry.
One of the suppliers said that it onlychecked buyers' licenses as supplied by fax, and did not double-checkdetails with the NRC. Another offered a discount for volume orders, but the GAO declined and did not go through with any purchases.

However, the equipment under discussion contained over 1.6 Curies (59.2 TBq) of americium-241 in total - an amount the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) consider "could cause permanent injury to a person who handled it, or was in contact with it for some hours." It could also prove fatal for a person to be in close contact with this amount of unshielded radioactive material for a period of days to weeks, although the IAEA stresses this is unlikely.

In 2003 americium 241 was listed by an NRC/Department of Energy working group among the "materials of greatest concern" with respect to potential terrorist misuse.

The application with the agreement state was halted when the licensing officer said she would undertake a site visit before a licence would be issued. This is a 'long-standing policy' of the state, which also interviews managers and radiation safety officers before granting licenses. This procedure is more stringent than NRC guidelines.

The NRC suspended its licensing program for specific licenses when it learned of GAO's investigation. It thereafter conducted conference calls with many of the 34 agreement states and is reviewing its guidance in accordance with GAO recommendations.

GAO said the NRC should consider whether site visits to new licensees should be mandatory; NRC should conduct periodic oversight of licence application examiners; and NRC should explore options to prevent counterfeiting of its licenses.

Further information

US Nuclear Regulatory Commission

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