Nuclear Security:

DOE Needs Better Information to Guide Its Expanded Recovery of Sealed Radiological Sources

GAO-05-967: Published: Sep 22, 2005. Publicly Released: Sep 22, 2005.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Eugene E. Aloise
(202) 512-6870
contact@gao.gov

 

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

Concerns remain over the control of sealed radiological sources, widely used in many industrial and medical devices and applications. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Department of Energy (DOE), and states have responsibilities for ensuring the safe and secure use and eventual disposal of these sources as low-level radioactive wastes. DOE must ensure disposal availability for greater-than-class C (GTCC) waste; states must do so for non-GTCC waste, that is, classes A, B, and C waste. NRC and DOE also collaborate to identify and recover unwanted sources that are not safe or secure. GAO examined DOE's (1) efforts to recover unwanted sources and develop a GTCC waste disposal option, (2) actions to recover and dispose of non-GTCC source waste, and (3) ability to identify sources for recovery and disposal.

DOE has increased emphasis on its source recovery project and begun the process of identifying disposal options for GTCC waste. DOE transferred project responsibilities to another office that has given the project higher priority and accelerated DOE's recovery efforts. DOE exceeded an earlier goal for recovering sources and has now collected over 10,800 of them. This recovery has been facilitated by additional project funding support and DOE's resolving a shortage of storage space for certain sources. In May 2005, DOE issued a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement to assess GTCC waste disposal options; however, DOE has not yet determined when a disposal site might be made available. DOE has expanded the scope of its recovery effort to include non-GTCC waste from sealed radiological sources, a change that could increase DOE expenditures. DOE recovered and commercially disposed of 443 of these sources from a bankrupt firm, at a cost to DOE of about $581,000. Given that unwanted sources in storage present higher vulnerabilities, DOE might need to recover more of them in the future if the commercial disposal site that currently accepts this non-GTCC waste from most states ceases to do so as planned in 2008. Lacking a commercial disposal option, DOE anticipates storing this waste, rather than disposing of it at DOE sites, because, among other reasons, it does not want to undermine the responsibility the Congress gave the states to provide disposal availability for non-GTCC waste. DOE lacks information that would assist its efforts to identify and recover unwanted sealed radiological sources that may pose a safety and security risk. DOE has useful information on the sources in its possession, including recovered sources. However, DOE does not know how many sources might need recovery and how much disposal capacity is needed for GTCC waste. NRC is developing a national source tracking system that would not be useful for DOE's source recovery efforts because it is only designed to track individual sources with high radioactivity. According to DOE, nearly all of the sites where it has recovered sources contained individual sources with lesser radioactivity than would be tracked by NRC, but their combined radioactivity posed enough of a risk to warrant their recovery by DOE.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: We recommended that DOE and NRC, in collaboration with a participating task force, evaluate and report on how the national source tracking system can be designed and implemented to improve DOE's ability to identify and track sealed radiological sources that may need DOE recovery and disposal. DOE concurred with this recommendation and took its own actions to respond to it. The NRC-led task force recommended that a comprehensive analysis be conducted on the inclusion of Category 3 source in the national source tracking system, but did not recommend inclusion at this time. We found that the inclusion of category 3 sources in this tracking system would aid DOE's recovery efforts, but we did not specifically recommend this action. In January 15, 2009, the NRC had a split vote on accepting the staff recommendation to defer the expansion of the national source tracking system. Because of this split decision, no action was taken to expand the system at this time. NRC still considers this recommendation as open.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy and the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in collaboration with the Task Force on Radiation Source Protection and Security, should evaluate and report on how a national source tracking system can be designed and implemented to improve DOE's ability to identify and track sealed radiological sources that may need DOE recovery and disposal.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We recommended that DOE and NRC, in collaboration with a participating task force, evaluate and report on the feasibility of disposing of unwanted sealed sources at DOE sites. In a December 20, 2005 correspondence to us, DOE concurred with this recommendation and indicated that it had completed actions to respond to it. According to DOE, while current policy and statutory responsibilities do not provide for the permanent disposal of this waste at DOE sites, when warranted, NNSA collects, stores, and disposes of unwanted non-GTCC sealed sources. The NNSA program has also performed a number of recoveries of non-GTCC sources where these sources were sent to commercial disposal. If commercial disposal is not available to meet long-term program needs, DOE stated that it would revisit policy and statutory issues regarding permanent disposal at its facilities. In a May 12, 2009 correspondence to us, NNSA indicated that the NRC-led task force had reported on a number of options to address the lack of disposal capability for unwanted non-GTCC sealed sources, including options to use DOE facilities and efforts to promote access to the two existing commercial facilities. The task force report did not advocate a particular option or options, but recommended that the issue be evaluated further. This further evaluation has been taken up by the Department of Homeland Security's Disused Source Focus Group, comprised of DOE, NRC, other federal agencies, state agencies, and the private sector. This Focus Group is charged with promoting disposal solutions for unwanted sealed sources. We therefore conclude that DOE has sufficiently evaluated and reported on this issue.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy and the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in collaboration with the Task Force on Radiation Source Protection and Security, should evaluate and report on the feasibility of disposing of this waste at DOE sites.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We recommended that DOE and NRC, in collaboration with a participating task force, evaluate and report on the feasibility of disposing of non-GTCC waste at DOE sites. In August 2006, the NRC-led task force evaluated and reported on a number of options to address the lack of disposal capability for unwanted non-GTCC sealed sources. These options included the use of DOE facilities. The task force report did not advocate a particular option or options, but recommended that the issue be evaluated further. The Department of Homeland Security has formed a Disused Source Focus Group, including NRC and DOE, to further evaluate this issue. The focus group is to investigate and recommend immediate and long-term options for both GTCC and non-GTCC sealed sources. We therefore conclude that NRC has evaluated and reported on this issue to satisfy the intent of the recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy and the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in collaboration with the Task Force on Radiation Source Protection and Security, should evaluate and report on the feasibility of disposing of this waste at DOE sites.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We recommended that DOE and NRC, in collaboration with a participating task force, evaluate and report on options for DOE to recoup the costs of collecting and disposing of unwanted sealed sources from licensees that may have no commercial waste disposal options. The NRC-led task force evaluated financial assurance requirements for Category 1 and 2 radioactive sources to assure that funding is available for final disposition of the sources. NRC has also formed a Task Force Working Group to provide recommendations on sufficiency of financial assurance. Currently, NRC regulations require funds be set aside for decommissioning. The working group is looking into whether these funds could be assessed for recovery efforts not associated with decommissioning. The group is also considering broadening existing financial assurance thresholds, assessing source-specific surcharges for disposal, and assessing universal disposal surcharges on all licensees. We therefore conclude that NRC has evaluated and reported on this issue to meet the intent of the recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy and the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in collaboration with the Task Force on Radiation Source Protection and Security, should evaluate and report on options for DOE to recoup these costs from licensees that may have no commercial waste disposal options.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We recommended that DOE and NRC, in collaboration with a participating task force, evaluate and report on options for DOE to recoup recovery and disposal costs from licensees that may have no commercial waste disposal option. In a December 20, 2005 correspondence to us, DOE stated that it did not concur with this recommendation because charging fees or recouping costs from licensees might inhibit them from registering their sources, leaving these sources at risk. However, in a May 12, 2009 correspondence to us, NNSA stated that it was working to minimize costs. For example, NNSA stated that it was working with manufacturers who charge licensees a fee ($500-$1,000) for receipt and disassembly of devices. According to NNSA, this effort saves the agency substantial costs by greatly minimizing the number of sites to which it must travel and labor for device dissembly. NNSA is also working on making packaging commercially available so that these items can be purchased by larger licensees. Finally, NNSA is working with the Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors to identify cost-sharing arrangements with licensees whose sources are recovered under the Source Collection and Threat Reduction project in states with commercial disposal. However, 36 states presently do not have such access to disposal for these unwanted sealed sources. We therefore consider that the actions taken by DOE to evaluate this issue and to reduce costs meet the intent of this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy and the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in collaboration with the Task Force on Radiation Source Protection and Security, should evaluate and report on options for DOE to recoup these costs from licensees that may have no commercial waste disposal options.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We recommended that DOE and NRC, in collaboration with a participating task force, evaluate and report on the cost implications of a potential expansion of DOE's recovery and disposal of unwanted non-GTCC sealed sources. DOE concurred with the recommendation in a December 20, 2005 correspondence to us and completed actions to close this recommendation. No action was needed by NRC.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy and the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in collaboration with the Task Force on Radiation Source Protection and Security, should evaluate and report on the cost implications of a potential expansion of DOE's recovery and disposal of non-GTCC waste from sealed radiological sources.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We recommended that DOE and NRC, in collaboration with a participating task force, evalute and report on the cost implications of a potential expansion of DOE's recovery and disposal of non-GTCC waste from sealed radiological sources. In a December 20, 2005 correspondence to us, DOE indicated its concurrence with this recommendation and that it had completed actions to respond to it. DOE indicated that NNSA had evaluated the cost implications of expanding its radiological threat reduction activities to recover and dispose of unwanted non-GTCC sealed sources. As a result, NNSA expanded its collection activities to address these sources because they posed a risk if used in a radiological dispersal device. In addition, NNSA indicated that it's budget allows for implementation of this activity. In a May 12, 2009 correspondence to us, NNSA stated that it's budget for collection of disused sealed sources had increased substantially since the 2005 GAO report, ranging from about $8 million in FY 2005 to about $16 million in FY 2009. During this time, NNSA's efforts to recover unwanted GTCC sealed sources expanded alongside efforts to recover the non-GTCC sealed sources. NNSA also determined that the GTCC waste threshold (DOE is responsible for providind disposal for all GTCC waste) should not be a constraining factor for determining what sealed sources to recover. However, NNSA informed us that because recovery contracts and task orders do not distinguish between GTCC and non-GTCC sealed sources for recovery purposes, it would be difficult for NNSA to engage in a cost analysis that would distinguish dollars spent on GTCC source recovery from those spent on non-GTCC source recovery. Nevertheless, NNSA estimated that the cost of collecting unwanted non-GTCC sealed sources has been $400,000 per year since FY 2007. We therefore conclude that DOE has evaluated and reported on the cost implications of a potential expansion of its recovery and disposal of non-GTCC waste from unwanted sealed sources.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy and the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in collaboration with the Task Force on Radiation Source Protection and Security, should evaluate and report on the cost implications of a potential expansion of DOE's recovery and disposal of non-GTCC waste from sealed radiological sources.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We recommended that DOE and NRC, in collaboration with a participating task force, evaluate and report on how a national source tracking system could be designed and implemented to improve DOE's ability to identify and track sealed sources that may need DOE recovery and disposal. In a December 20, 2005 correspondence to us, DOE stated that it concurred with this recommendation and that actions were taken to respond to it. DOE informed us that the NRC-led task force had evaluated ways to track and dispose of disused sealed sources. In addition, DOE informed us that it has a secure web-based system for licensees to register their excess and unwanted sealed sources and to provide detailed information about these sources. DOE wrote that this system has been used successfully for several years and is an integrated tool used for many aspects of the program. In a May 12, 2009 correspondence to us, DOE reported that NRC had developed and implemented a National Source Tracking System for certain sealed sources. Moreover, in April 2008, NRC published a proposed rule to expand the sources in this tracking system. DOE cooperated in this discussion. We therefore conclude that DOE has sufficiently evaluated and reported on this issue to meet our recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy and the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in collaboration with the Task Force on Radiation Source Protection and Security, should evaluate and report on how a national source tracking system can be designed and implemented to improve DOE's ability to identify and track sealed radiological sources that may need DOE recovery and disposal.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Dec 11, 2014

Dec 10, 2014

Nov 18, 2014

Nov 13, 2014

Oct 10, 2014

Sep 30, 2014

Sep 22, 2014

Jul 9, 2014

May 14, 2014

Looking for more? Browse all our products here