Answer to Question #11468 Submitted to "Ask the Experts"
The following question was answered by an expert in the appropriate field:
If a device or equipment is used for decommissioning a nuclear facility or for inspecting a site after a nuclear accident such as occurred in Fukushima, could it be reused and transported to other nuclear facilities? If the equipment is contaminated and put in an appropriate container for transport, can we be sure that the contamination threshold will meet regulations for transport? Should the equipment comply with the same regulations (contamination thresholds) during unloading at a radioactive site and at a public site?
The simple answer to your question is yes, materials or equipment may be released from one nuclear facility, then shipped to and reused at another, different nuclear facility. However, this practice will be subject to rigorous controls. In the United States, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and U.S. Department of Transportation have regulations in place that govern the release, transportation, and facility acceptance criteria of materials and equipment that originated from within a radioactive materials area (RMA), even when the equipment may not have been involved with handling or in direct contact with radioactive material. Essentially, when materials or equipment have been used within an RMA, the item is assumed to be "guilty" of being contaminated until proven otherwise.
When an item is to be removed from an RMA and either transferred to a non-RMA on the same site or released from the site, the item must first be subjected to a rigorous radiological survey process. The Multi-Agency Radiation Survey and Assessment of Materials and Equipment manual is a consensus U.S. regulatory agency document that provides extensive, robust guidance for conducting these release surveys.
If the radiological survey data that are generated confidently conclude that the item is either not contaminated or any contamination is below the allowable release limits, then the item may be released from the site without further radiological controls. Such a release means that the item may be reused and/or transported without radiological restrictions. Internationally, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has prepared numerous safety standards that provide requirements for the protection of people and the environment. The IAEA publication Radiation Protection and Safety of Radiation Sources: International Basic Safety Standards includes tables with the IAEA's published allowable levels of potential contamination on an item that may be safely released.
Alternatively, if the item is known to be contaminated or determined to be contaminated above the permissible limits during the release survey, the item or equipment will need to continue to be managed accordingly. Also, if there are inaccessible parts of the item that could have reasonably become contaminated, the item in most cases will be assumed to be internally contaminated, even if the exterior was found to be free of any residual radioactivity. In any of these scenarios, the item is managed with radiological restrictions. Provided there is a beneficial reuse pathway available, rather than disposal as waste, the item or equipment could be subject to a restricted release that could include reuse at another site undergoing decommissioning. The restricted release of items or equipment from a site must also be in accordance with site-specific policies and procedure—generally specified as a license condition—in addition to following all local and, when applicable, international regulations. Oftentimes sites will choose to implement release standards that are more rigorous than the requirements set forth by the regulatory agencies.
The item or equipment proposed for restricted release could only be shipped to and received at a facility or site licensed to accept radioactive materials, and the site license must include the form and type of the radioactive material affecting the item or equipment that will be received. Once the originating facility has arranged for and received authorization for the property transfer from the receiving facility, the item or equipment is properly packaged for shipment. The applicable packaging requirements will depend on the amount of radioactivity and/or radiation dose associated with the specific item. The IAEA transportation guidance is provided in another safety standard document titled Regulations for the Safe Transport of Radioactive Material.
The item or equipment is then shipped with special paperwork and by authorized shippers. The acceptance facility will likely perform a receipt survey to ensure that the radiological status of the item or equipment matches the manifest or other shipment or transfer documentation and can therefore be accepted at the facility for the intended use. The receiving facility will then implement handling, storage, and use requirements in accordance with the site-specific radiation protection procedures.
Tim Vitkus, CHP