In September 2011, at the request of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration/Global Threat Reduction Initiative (NNSA/GTRI), the LLW Forum formed the DSWG. The working group, which was comprised of eight Directors of the LLW Forum, solicited input from a broad range of stakeholders at 19 meetings over a 30-month period.
Following the formation of the DSWG, significant advancements occurred regarding the disposal of sealed sources. The Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact (Texas Compact) commercial low-level radioactive waste disposal facility began operation in 2012, including the disposal of sealed sources from within and outside the Texas Compact region. With this facility, licensees in all states now have the ability to dispose of most disused sources. In September 2013, the Clive facility began accepting certain Class A sealed sources under a State of Utah approved limited one-year variance. The Branch Technical Position on Concentration Averaging and Encapsulation (CA BTP) being developed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) may provide for the acceptance of additional high activity sealed sources at the South Carolina, Texas, and Washington state disposal sites. While disposal is now possible for most disused sources, however, there has not been a dramatic increase in disposal activity.
Issues for Consideration
While society derives many benefits from the use of sealed sources, the national security threats posed by certain sealed sources requires that the nation reexamine the way in which such sources are managed. The current paradigm for the management of sealed sources does not fully reflect the reality of the post-9/11 threat environment. The magnitude of the disused source problem is large. There are approximately two million sealed sources and tens of thousands of disused sources in the United States; however, the exact number and location of the disused sources are unknown. The existing data systems do not inventory all sealed sources or track all disused sources in the U.S. that pose a threat to national security. While most licensees manage their disused sources in a responsible manner, there remains a national security concern because of the potential for malevolent use.
Once used for their original purpose, many sources are stored indefinitely. Contributing to the accumulation of disused sources is the fact that the cost of the eventual shipment and disposal of sources is not included in the purchase price; and in most states, financial assurance is not required. Therefore, some users are unaware of these costs. When considering the purchase of a new sealed source, the buyer is not required to consider the overall life-cycle cost of properly managing the source and most do not budget for its ultimate disposal. Thus, as currently configured, the economics of sealed source ownership do not motivate owners toward prompt end-of-life disposition, resulting in thousands of sealed sources being stored indefinitely. Since the purchase price of sources does not reflect the full life-cycle costs, users purchase more sources than they would if the total life-cycle costs were internalized.
The working group identified six major factors contributing to the disused source problem including:
- the life-cycle costs of managing and ultimately disposing of sealed sources are not internalized;
- the practices of the NRC and the NNSA do not fully reflect a consistent view of what sources pose a threat to national security;
- the regulatory system is not adequate for the post-9/11 threat environment;
- there are no financial incentives for disused sources to be reused, recycled, or disposed in a timely manner;
- the opportunities for recycling and reusing sealed sources are being underutilized; and,
- Type B shipping containers needed to transport certain high activity sealed sources are in short supply and are very expensive.
Findings and Recommendations
The NRC considers only Category 1 and Category 2 sealed sources to present a national security risk. However, the DSWG received input from NNSA that some Category 3 sealed sources pose a threat to national security. Accordingly, the working group concluded that the U.S. Government should reach an agreement across agencies regarding which sealed sources pose a threat to national security.
The DSWG also recommends that licensees should be informed about alternative technologies and the actual costs of reusing, recycling, or disposing of sources when they are no longer needed. Research on alternative technologies to replace sealed sources should be a priority of the federal government and the private sector.
While recognizing that the current regulatory system was developed to primarily protect health and safety, the DSWG advocates that NRC and the Agreement States should enhance the system to fully address the national security threat of sealed sources. According to the DSWG, a Specific License (SL) should be required for all Category 1 through 3 sources and all such sources should be tracked in the NRC’s National Source Tracking System (NSTS). The DSWG also recommends that the regulatory system should be restructured to provide economic incentives for the prompt reuse, recycle, or disposal of disused sources. In its report, the working group states that financial assurance requirements should be broadened to cover all Category 1 through 3 sources and increased to cover the full cost of transportation and disposal. Licensees should be required to pay an annual possession fee for each sealed source in inventory.
In addition, the DSWG recommends that the NRC and the Agreement States should develop a comprehensive regulation to limit the storage of disused sources to two years and authorize regulators to require the disposition of sources in storage for more than two years unless there is a demonstrated future use. The working group also contends that inventories of disused sources at sealed source manufacturers, suppliers, and waste brokers should be reduced. And, the DSWG states that NRC should reconsider its decision to allow foreign sources that may not have a commercial disposal pathway to be imported. The financial needs of the Agreement States should also be addressed.
According to the DSWG, federal and private research funding organizations should require grantees to budget for the disposal of sealed sources when they no longer are needed by the grantee.
In addition, the working group concludes that the reuse and recycling of sealed sources should be promoted. In this regard, they recommend that a study on measures to promote the reuse and recycling of sealed sources should be conducted by an agency such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They also argue that a sealed source “exchange” program should be established to facilitate the transfer of sources between those no longer needing sources and those looking to acquire sources.
In regard to issues related to Type B shipping containers, the DSWG advocates that NNSA undertake a market analysis of the demand for Type B shipping containers and take additional steps to encourage the private sector to increase the supply of commercially available Type B shipping containers. In addition, the working group recommends that NNSA identify several internationally-certified Type B shipping containers that would have widespread applicability to disused sources in the U.S. and submit applications to have these packages certified by NRC for domestic use. And, the DSWG states that the NRC should continue to expeditiously review applications for Type B shipping containers and should aggressively notify licensees and the Agreement States well in advance of the expiration of shipping container certifications.
An outreach program should be established, according to the DSWG, to assist licensees in identifying resources to assist with packaging, transport, and disposal of disused sources.
The working group also suggests that states with disposal facilities licensed to accept Class B and Class C low-level radioactive waste should examine their waste acceptance criteria and policies, including the alternative approaches provision in the revised CA BTP to facilitate the disposal of certain high activity sealed sources. The DSWG contends that the existing NRC-Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors (CRCPD) program should be adequately funded to address orphaned and abandoned sources and individual states should retain the ability to operate their own orphaned and abandoned source programs. In addition, the Texas Compact should continue to allow the disposal of sealed sources from outside the Texas Compact region.
The DSWG report acknowledges that NNSA needs to maintain the ability to recover orphaned and abandoned sources that present a national security threat for the foreseeable future. It also recognizes that the CRCPD Source Collection and Threat Reduction (SCATR) program has been effective in collecting and disposing of thousands of disused sources over the last seven years. Nonetheless, the DSWG argues that the long-term solution to the disused source problem is to hold the licensees who have purchased and obtained the economic benefit from the sources responsible for the proper reuse, recycling, or disposal of the sources when they become disused. To this end, the working group recommends that the NNSA should ensure that its programs do not provide a disincentive for licensees to properly reuse, recycle, or dispose of disused sources in a timely manner.
For additional information regarding the DSWG report, or to obtain a copy, please contact LLW Forum Executive Director Todd D. Lovinger at (754) 779-7551 or LLWForumInc@aol.com.