Senators Express Concern in Response to GAO Audit on Source Security

By letter dated August 22, 2016, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein expressed concern to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chair Stephen Burns regarding the findings in a July 2016 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report titled, “Nuclear Security:  NRC Has Enhanced the Controls of Dangerous Radioactive Materials, but Vulnerabilities Remain.”  NRC Chair Burns responded by letter dated October 7, 2016.  In his letter, Chair Burns provides assurances that NRC takes its obligations related to the licensing of radioactive materials seriously and outlines actions that the agency has taken in response to the GAO audit report.

Senator Charles Schumer expressed similar concerns to NRC Chair Burns in a letter dated October 2, 2016.  Senator Schumer also issued a press release titled, “Explosion that Shook NYC Highlights Real Risk of a ‘Dirty Bomb’ in NYC; Shocking Fed Report Shows How Almost Anyone Can Use Loophole to Purchase Radioactive Material Required to Carry Out Attack in Major City; Senator Urges Nuke Agency to Overhaul Check System Putting NY’ers at Risk.”


Senator Feinstein’s Letter  In her August 2016 letter, Senator Feinstein expresses concern regarding  “how easy it can be for a person to obtain a license to acquire radioactive materials that could be used to make ‘dirty bombs.’”  The letter requested that NRC Chair Burns respond with the steps NRC will take to secure radioactive materials licenses and provide answers to eight questions.

NRC Chair Burns’ Response  “The NRC takes its obligation to ensure the security of licensed radiological material very seriously,” states NRC Chair Burns in his October 2016 response to Senator Feinstein.  “The NRC has taken a number of actions to address GAO’s recommendations and to continually ensure that the requirements for the protection of radioactive material are effective and suitable for the materials being protected.”

Chair Burns response notes that “the NRC has two substantial efforts currently underway that, when complete, will provide information that will help determine the details of any future steps and enable the scheduling of those activities” including that:

  •  the NRC will be reporting to Congress in December 2016 the results of the agency’s program review of
10 CFR Part 37, “Physical Protection of Category 1 and Category 2 Quantities of Radioactive Material,” and,
  •  the NRC staff will report to the Commission in 2017 on options to address the recommendations made by the GAO audit report.

Detailed responses to Senator Feinstein’s questions are enclosed with Chair Burns’ response letter.

Senator Schumer’s Letter  Senator Schumer’s October 2016 letter expresses concern about NRC’s process for licensing the purchase of Category 3 radioactive material and the possibility that unauthorized users could obtain it.  “I urge the Commission to consider suspending licenses for Category 3 radioactive material until these licenses are monitored by the NRC in a National Source Tracking System (NSTS),” states Senator Schumer.  “The recent attack in New York City underscores the critical need to ensure that this highly dangerous material is purchased only for legitimate and authorized use.”

For additional information and direct links to the letters and press release, please visit the Resources Page of the Disused Sources Working Group (DSWG) web site at


GAO Audit  GAO-16-330, which was issued on July 15, 2016, concludes that NRC and Agreement States have taken several steps to help ensure that radioactive materials licenses are granted only to legitimate organizations and that licensees can only obtain such materials in quantities allowed by their licenses.  (See LLW Notes, July/August 2016, pp. 1, 18-20.)  However, GAO also determined that NRC and Agreement States have not taken some measures for better controlling Category 3 quantities of radioactive material—such as tracking and agency license verification—that leave vulnerabilities.

GAO-16-330 recommends that NRC take the following three actions: (1) take the steps needed to include Category 3 sources in the NSTS and add Agreement State Category 3 licenses to the WBL as quickly as reasonably possible;
(2) at least until such time that Category 3 licenses can be verified using the LVS, require that transferors of Category 3 quantities of radioactive materials confirm the validity of a would-be purchaser’s radioactive materials license with the appropriate regulatory authority before transferring any Category 3 quantities of licensed materials; and, (3) as part of the ongoing efforts of NRC working groups meeting to develop enhancements to the pre-licensing requirements for Category 3 licenses, consider requiring that an on-site security review be conducted for all unknown applicants of Category 3 licenses to verify that each applicant is prepared to implement the required security measures before taking possession of licensed radioactive materials.

NRC Response  In a memo dated July 29, 2016, in response to the GAO audit report, NRC Commissioner Jeff Baran proposed that NRC staff revisit the question of whether and how to track Category 3 sources.  On October 18, 2016, NRC issued a Staff Requirements Memorandum (SRM) that directs agency staff to submit a notation vote paper to the Commission that includes the following seven items: (1) an evaluation of the pros and cons of different methods of requiring transferors of Category 3 sources to verify the validity of a transferee’s license prior to transfer; 
(2) an evaluation of the pros and cons of including Category 3 sources in the NSTS; 
(3) an assessment, based on these evaluations, of these and any additional options that the staff identifies for addressing the source accountability recommendations made by the GAO; (4) a vulnerability assessment which identifies changes in the threat environment between 2009 and today that argue in favor of or against expansion of the NSTS to include Category 3 sources; (5) a regulatory impact analysis of the accrued benefit and costs of the change, to include impacts to the NRC, Agreement States, non-Agreement States, and regulated entities; (6) a discussion of potential regulatory actions that would not require changes to NRC regulations that arose from or were considered by the staff working groups—including changes to guidance, training, and other program improvements such as more closely monitoring the implementation of the staff recommendations using the Integrated Materials Performance Evaluation Program (IMPEP) process; and, (7) any other factors arising from the staff’s currently ongoing assessment that the staff concludes would bear on the Commission’s deliberation on the proposed change.

The SRM states that the NRC staff’s evaluations for the notation vote paper “should begin after completion of the ongoing broader evaluation of the overall source protection and accountability strategy for sources due to the Congress at the end of this year.”  It further states that the results of the assessment of the security requirements in 10 CFR Part 37 should be used to inform the NRC staff’s evaluation and that, in conducting these evaluations, the staff “should assess the risks posed by the aggregation of Category 3 sources into Category 2 quantities and consider the current views of our Agreement States partners.”  The staff’s evaluation and notation vote paper are due to the Commission within 10 months of the issuance of the SRM.

Links to GAO-16-330, Commissioner Baran’s memo and the SRM in response thereto can be found on the Resources Page of the DSWG web site at

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