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About Radioactive Source Reduction and Management: Overview

Radiation Source Reduction & Management
 Source Reduction  Source Tracking   Orphan Source Detection
  and Response
 Orphan Source Recovery

The energy emitted by radioactive materials as they decay can be used for such activities as measuring physical properties or the progress of chemical processes in literally hundreds of medical and industrial applications. Applications include measuring the moisture content of soil, measuring density or thickness of materials, eliminating static, and various medical applications. For example, in the paper manufacturing industry, the weight of the sheet per unit area can be determined from the interaction of radiation with the paper. This allows for the continuous monitoring of thickness. In the medical field, following the time course and uptake of a radioactive isotope of iodine (usually iodine-131) enables physicians to evaluate thyroid function.

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What are sources?

Radioactive sources, often called "sealed sources," are usually small metal containers in which a specific amount of a radioactive material is sealed. Some types of specialized industrial devices, such as those used for measuring the moisture content of soil and for measuring density or thickness of materials, take advantage of the unique properties of radionuclides, such as Cobalt 60.

Sources are usually enclosed in a housing that prevents the escape of the radiation. Equipment that contains one of these sealed sources is called a "sealed source device." As long as the source remains sealed and the housing remains intact and the devices are handled and used properly, there is no health risk from the radioactive source within. In fact, manufacturers of these devices must demonstrate protectiveness in order to receive a license to manufacture and sell them. Purchasers of the devices must be licensed to use the device in the intended manner, and are required to safely and legally dispose of the sources.

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What Hazards are Presented by Sealed Sources?

Worldwide, more than 40 deaths and 266 serious injuries have been attributed to uncontrolled radioactive source incidents, some of them related to contaminated scrap metal. Metal processing industries are very concerned about the potential for radioactive materials in scrap metal entering their facilities. Through the end of 2001, an estimated 10,000 plus detections of radioactivity at scrap yards and steel mills in North America had been reported.

The radioactivity can come from contaminated metal or from sealed sources contained in industrial or other devices. About 240-250 sealed sources fall out of regulatory control. When lost, stolen, or abandoned, they are referred to as "orphan sources." Once out of regulatory control, sources can make their way into the scrap metal supply through accidental or intentional disposal. If they are not detected prior to melting, human exposure and costly cleanups result. (There have been 96 reported melting in steel mills worldwide, with the average cost in the U.S. for cleanup of a facility being about $12 million.)

There have also been incidents in which orphan sources have been found by individuals who have carried or opened them and been seriously exposed. In addition, sources that fall out of regulatory control potentially can be used to make radiation dispersal devices (RDDs), more commonly called dirty bombs. Exit EPA Disclaimer

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What is Being Done About These Hazards?

EPA shares the scrap metal industry's concern and has carried out a number of projects to reduce the number of incidents. Because EPA does not have regulatory authority over sealed sources, these projects have focused on voluntary approaches preventing the entry of sources into the economy, tracking sources that do enter the economy, and finding and securing sources that have fallen out of control. These projects focus on four areas:

These projects are supported by two important tools: life-cycle analysis and product stewardship. Life-cycle analysis determines how radionuclides enter the economy for use in sealed source devices and eventually leave the economy. This helps in identifying uses for which alternative technologies might be possible and points at which radioactive sources could fall out of regulatory control. Product stewardship focuses on responsible management of radioactive materials at each stage of the product life-cycle.

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EPA's primary goal in its prevention projects is to eliminate the loss, theft, or abandonment of sealed sources. We are working toward this goal by seeking alternative technologies to reduce the number of sealed sources that are manufactured.

Alternative Technologies for Industrial Applications

EPA is exploring alternative technologies as a way to keep radioactively contaminated scrap metal out of the U.S. metal supply. EPA has worked with stakeholders to identify non-nuclear alternatives that are technically and economically advantageous in certain industrial applications. Read more about Alternative Technologies for Industrial Applications here


An effective tracking and monitoring system will help prevent the loss of radioactive sealed sources. EPA and the Department of Energy (DOE) are investigating technologies to improve tracking and monitoring of high-level radiological sources during transport. This pilot project takes advantage of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags and is investigating their performance in proximity to radioactive sources. Read more about Tracking Radioactive Materials with Radio frequency Identification Tags

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While prevention is the most desirable protection, EPA has assisted the scrap metal and demolition industries by identifying and studying the origins of contaminated scrap and orphan sources and developing training. The Agency is also working with international organizations to prevent the importation of contaminated scrap.


As EPA has identified areas in which training is needed to help prevent the entry of radioactive sources into the metal supply, the Agency has developed CD-ROM-based training courses. Currently available are courses for scrap metal workers and demolition contractors and a new course on proper disposal of tritium exit signs is being developed.

EPA is working with the states and with the scrap metal industry to reduce the potential for radiation to contaminate scrap metal and hence, the steel supply. Read more about Contaminated Scrap Metal here

Scrap Metal from Domestic Nuclear Sites

Much of the metal at DOE facilities and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licensed sites is not contaminated, and can be released without a problem. DOE and NRC also maintain criteria for determining contamination levels for any material released, and therefore the likelihood of dangerously contaminated metal being released is very small. In addition, EPA found that the amount of scrap metal being generated by DOE and NRC facilities only accounted for 0.1% of the annual supply of metal used in the US.

International Trade

Scrap metal is one of the most widely traded international commodities. EPA and international metal processing industries share concerns about the potential for contaminated scrap to enter the U.S. market. EPA is investigating several approaches to this problem. Read more about International Response here

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A technical study on the release of radioactive metal for reuse or recycle, alerted EPA to the more serious problem of abandoned radioactive sources entering the public domain. Between 1994 and 1997, metal and recycling industries reported over 2,500 radioactive material incidents. Between 1995 and 1997, members of the U.S. public found about 50 sealed sources each year.

EPA Orphan Source Pilot Roundup

In response, EPA funded an Orphan Source Initiative with the Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors (CRCPD), a group of state radiation officials. Other government agencies and the steel and recycling industries cooperated. This initiative was designed to bring unwanted or abandoned sources under control and to provide for the safe and cost-effective disposal or reuse of the source.

These activities reduced the number of orphan sources and the potential for unnecessary exposure to workers, the public and the environment.

The Orphan Source Initiative also secured very large cesium sources located in schools throughout the country. Research revealed that instruments called Gammator Cs-137 irradiators, each containing a source of approximately 300 curies were located in academic institutions throughout the United States. These 1,800 lb. research instruments were given to the institutions in the 1960s through an Atomic Energy Commission grant. Of the 60 instruments known to exist, 25 have already been recovered and recycled.

Institutional knowledge of these instruments is fading and it is important to maintain control of these large sources, many of which have not been used in years. Many of the owners have been contacted. Disposal at a discount has been made available by coordinating the pickup of numerous instruments at a time. The cesium-137 is being repackaged and recycled for use in other instruments.

Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors (CRCPD) Assistance Web Site

The CRCPD developed an Unwanted Radioactive Materials Exit EPA Disclaimerweb site, which includes extensive information:

By working with the holders of the unwanted material and the waste brokers, the process of disposal has been simplified and in many cases made more economical through the bulking of materials.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Databases

NRC is developing a database to track sources. Neither the National Source Tracking System nor the Commission's Nuclear Materials Events Database (NMED) which tracks lost sources, will be publicly available. This effort is being coordinated with state information.

Department of Energy (DOE)

The Off-Site Source Recovery Project (OSRP) is a U.S. Government activity sponsored by the National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) Office of Global Threat Reduction and is managed at Los Alamos National Laboratory through the Nuclear Nonproliferation Division. The NNSA is a quasi-independent agency within the Department of Energy.

OSRP has an NNSA sponsored mission to remove excess, unwanted, abandoned, or orphan radioactive sealed sources that pose a potential risk to health, safety, and national security.

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