United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission - Protecting People and the Environment

Orphan Sources

The NRC is taking action to address the problem of unwanted and uncontrolled radioactive materials, often referred to as orphan sources.

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Definition of an Orphan Source

The term "orphan source" generally refers to a sealed source of radioactive material contained in a small volume--but not radioactively contaminated soils and bulk metals--in any one or more of the following conditions:

  • In an uncontrolled condition that requires removal to protect public health and safety from a radiological threat
  • Controlled or uncontrolled, but for which a responsible party cannot be readily identified
  • Controlled, but the material's continued security cannot be assured. If held by a licensee, the licensee has few or no options for, or is incapable of providing for, the safe disposition of the material
  • In the possession of a person, not licensed to possess the material, who did not seek to possess the material
  • In the possession of a State radiological protection program for the sole purpose of mitigating a radiological threat because the orphan source is in one of the conditions described in one of the first four bullets and for which the State does not have a means to provide for the material's appropriate disposition

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Examples of Instances Where Orphan Sources Have Become a Problem

  • Measuring and controlling devices containing radioactive materials that were improperly disposed of as scrap metal and taken to metal recyclers
  • Radioactive material used with gauges in industrial processes and in road and building construction that was found by the side of the road or in a river
  • Sealed radioactive sources used in oil and gas exploration that are no longer wanted but contain radioactive materials that exceed the limits for disposal at commercial low-level radioactive waste disposal facilities

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Actions NRC Is Taking

The agency has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on the management of certain of the materials. It also has approved providing funding to the Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors (CRCPD) --a group of State radiation protection officials--to support a national program for safely dealing with the materials.

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Additional Regulations and Guidance

  • 65 FR 79139 (12/18/2000) Base Civil Penalties for Loss, Abandonment, or Improper Transfer or Disposal of Sources; Policy Statement (Related to final rule, 12/18/00)

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Additional Documents and Other Resources

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Page Last Reviewed/Updated Thursday, March 29, 2012