Radioactive material missing en route to Michigan, NRC says

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Radioactive material headed to Michigan from an Ohio company never made it to its destination, according to a filing by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, prompting one expert to call the mishap "inevitable" considerinof the millions of shipments of the material each year.

New:Michigan-bound radioactive material reported missing has been recovered

In its "Current Event Notification" report for Wednesday, the commission that regulates commercial nuclear power plants and other civilian uses of nuclear materials in the United States said the Ohio Bureau of Radiation Protection had informed officials about a missing shipment involving Prime NDT Services Inc.

Prime NDT Services is an Ohio-based inspection company that performs testing services in the energy and industrial industries, according to its Facebook page, many involving pipelines and other energy industry equipment.

The Ohio radiation bureau learned from Prime NDT that a source of Iridium-192 was shipped through an unidentified carrier on July 12 from a facility in Strasburg, Ohio, to a facility in Michigan, the NRC said.

"As of July 21, the source has not been delivered ..." the Ohio commission's notice to the NRC reads.

A member of the Basra environment commission's radiation department scans radioactive material, Iridium-192, that had gone missing in Iraq for three months in 2016.

Iridium-192 is a radioactive isotope of iridium, which can be used in industrial gauges that inspect welding seams in equipment such as pipelines and in medicine to treat certain cancers, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The nuclear commission report categorized the isotope as a "Category 2" level of radioactive material, but did not specify the quantity of material that was being shipped or how it was packaged. 

"Category 2 sources, if not safely managed or securely protected, could cause permanent injury to a person who handled them, or were otherwise in contact with them, for a short time (minutes to hours)," the report said. "It could possibly be fatal to be close to this amount of unshielded radioactive material for a period of hours to days."

Steve Fetter, an associate provost and dean at the University of Maryland Graduate School and a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on International Security and Arms Control, said the missing material wasn't surprising.  

"It's not often, but it does happen because there are so many shipments of radioactive materials, millions every year, that I suppose it's inevitable that occasionally one goes missing or is misplaced," he said.

Fetter said the material typically is stored in a special container, "so there's really no risk to anyone unless that container is breached. And that would not be an easy thing to do. ... This is not something that would be a very attractive target of someone who was looking to steal and disperse a radioactive source because it's metal."

But the missing source of iridium-192 has some watchdog groups questioning safeguards in the handling of radioactive materials in the country.  

"It is alarming, the amount of materials that is being either misplaced or lost, like, say, off the back of a truck — we routinely see that — or stolen," said Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Oversight Project at Beyond Nuclear, a Maryland-based nonprofit advocacy group that opposes nuclear power and weapons. "... A lot of these materials, I will admit are eventually recovered. But a lot aren't."

Jesse Deer in Water, a community organizer with Michigan-based Citizens’ Resistance at Fermi 2, added: "It's really nerve-racking to know something like that could just happen."

It was unclear how long shipping the material to Michigan would have been expected to take. The company is based in Ohio just south of Akron; the Michigan delivery point was not specified. The carrier transmitting the material was redacted in the NRC notice.

The incident report refers to the shipment as a "Lost Source."

The carrier "is aware of the situation and believes that the package was delayed at their facility. On July 20, (the common carrier) informed Prime NDT Services Inc. that the package could not be located."

The information was revised Thursday to include the departments and entities notified.

Prime NDT officials did not respond to multiple messages for comment.

According to the NRC, Category 1 nuclear materials are for strategic uses and include quantities in excess of 5 kilograms of uranium 235 or uranium-233 or 2 kilograms of plutonium. Five kilograms equals slightly more than 11 pounds. 

Category 2 materials contain more than 1,000 grams of U-235 or more than 500 grams of U-233 or plutonium, or in a combined quantity of more than 1,000 grams. One thousand grams is equal to 2.2 pounds. 

In an email late Thursday, Viktoria Mitlyng, senior public affairs officer for the NRC, said the state of Ohio is responding to the incident as one of its agreement states.

Under the Atomic Energy Act, the NRC can relinquish its authority over certain radioactive materials to state governments that sign agreements with the agency.

Mitlyng said Ohio "has established a program to assume NRC regulatory authority to license and regulate byproduct materials (radioisotopes); source materials (uranium and thorium); and certain quantities of special nuclear materials within Ohio."

She added that Prime NDT is licensed by the state of Ohio, which "has regulatory authority in this situation."

Requests for comment from the Ohio Health Department's Bureau of Environmental Health and Radiation Protection were not immediately returned.

The event notification report for the material intended to be shipped to Michigan stated that multiple agencies were alerted, including the Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Emergency Management Agency. Also, the notice said, "the state of Tennessee has been informed."

Representatives for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Reached Thursday, a representative for FEMA's District 5, which includes Michigan and Ohio, referred questions to the NRC.

Instances of lost or missing iridium-192 have been reported in the past, in both instances, the materials were found but the misplacement in one case resulted in multiple deaths.

In February, a Mexican nuclear regulator informed the International Atomic Energy Agency that a radioactive source stolen during a robbery was recovered within days, according to the IAEA website.

The radiation source had been housed in a radiography camera used to inspect welding and concrete for hidden flaws, which was stolen from a vehicle the licensee used, the agency said.

In 1984, a lost iridium-192 source resulted in the deaths of eight people in Morocco, the NRC reported in a letter on July 16, 1985. 

Ir-192 sources were being used at fossil-fuel power plant under construction to radiograph welds. One of the sources, with about 30 curies of iridium-192, became disconnected from the drive cable and wasn't properly returned to its shielded container. The iridium-192 source dropped to the ground, where "a passing laborer noticed the tiny metal cylinder and took it home."

Within a short time, from May and June 1984, eight people, including the laborer and his relatives, died of "lung hemorrhages," according to the report by the NRC.

"Although the source container was marked by the internationally recognized radiation caution symbol, the source itself bore no markings," the NRC said.

According to the CDC, Ir-192 would be packaged for industrial uses in "pencil-like metal sticks of solid Ir-192 or small pencil-like tubes that contain pellets of Ir-192."

External exposure to the material, the CDC said, can cause burns, acute radiation sickness and death. Swallowing Ir-192 pellets could cause burns in the stomach and intestines. 

The material also could be used in what is known as "dirty bombs."

According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit organization that works to prevent attacks and accidents involving nuclear material, "a radioactive 'dirty bomb' or radiological dispersal device made by combining radioactive material with conventional explosives to spread it ...  could cause significant short- and long-term health problems for those in the area and could leave billions of dollars in damage due to the costs of evacuation, relocation and cleanup."

Radioactive materials used in those devices, the NTI said, "are dispersed across thousands of commercial, industrial, medical and research sites ... and many of them are poorly secured, particularly during transport when they are vulnerable to theft. In fact, the same isotopes used for life-saving blood transfusions and cancer treatments in hospitals around the world— such as cesium-137, cobalt-60 and iridium-192— could be used to build a bomb."

Staff Writer Hani Barghouthi contributed to this report.