Radiation: Radioactive Materials Accidents

 By Spencer Wickham

Let’s face it, accidents happen, and they happen when you least expect it. There are risks associated with almost everything we do. Whether the risks are breaking a bone or two from riding a dirt bike (I know this from personal experience), or getting your foot run over by a forklift in an industrial accident—learning from your own and other people’s mistakes is a good way to keep them from happening again.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) seems to agree that
learning from our mistakes is a good idea. The NRC is developing a program that will allow the public to access the database which records accidents involving radioactive materials.

The NRC began tracking nuclear material events in 1981. In 1993, NRC developed the Nuclear Materials Events Database (NMED) to track events involving radioactive materials. Maintained by the Idaho National Laboratory, the NMED database contains more than 22,000 records of radioactive materials incidents that have been reported by NRC licensees, non-licensees and Agreement States regulators since January 1990. While these reported events vary in severity, the majority of them are minor incidents that pose little or no risk to the public.

NMED’s records include all non-commercial power reactor

incidents and events involving radioactive material. Regulated

licensees and Agreement States report the information to the NRC and include the basic description of each event, records of abnormal occurrences that could be a risk to the public, the radioactive material involved and type of event. The database includes nine categories of events, plus an “other” category for all other events:

I’ve responded to several of these types of incidents since I started

with the Division of Radiation Control (DRC). One accident that I remember well involved a nuclear moisture density gauge. These devices contain two radioactive sources—usually cesium and americium—and are used to determine the density of asphalt, soil and concrete. One Thursday afternoon, I received a call from an engineering company telling us that a gauge they were using had been run over by a soil grader. When I arrived on the scene, I interviewed personnel involved in the incident and performed contamination surveys. I was able to determine that no radioactive material had been released. Although minor incidents like this one occasionally happen on job sites, it is uncommon for radioactive material to be released.

The new NRC version of NMED will allow the public to learn about events like the one I described above. Other types of incidents—a pacemaker lost during shipment (loss of control), radiation to the wrong site during cancer treatment (medical), or a traffic accident involving a truck carrying X-ray equipment (transportation)—would also be retrievable from the database. Each incident provides the NRC with an opportunity to improve safety protocols to ensure that these unintentional releases remain the exception.

Accidents happen. But the folks at DRC work hard to make sure that they don’t; and if they do, that they don’t harm the public.

The public version of the NMED website will be available in the near future. Once the site is completed, you will be able to fill out and submit a self-registration form and establish your own username and password for future logins.

I am a University of Utah graduate and an Environmental Scientist at DEQ. In my free time, I like to stay active, and I enjoy riding dirt bikes, going to the gym, snowboarding, traveling, fishing and wake-boarding.