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Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Headquarters Campus site in Rockville, Maryland, 30 January 2012, Flickr

Issue Brief

Legal Regulations on Radioactive Materials

Together, state and federal laws create a multi-level regulatory system designed to control activities involved in the nuclear fuel cycle and nuclear production. The use of radioactive materials is regulated by different agencies:
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for setting air emission and drinking water standards
  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates linear accelerators, which are devices used to create radioisotopes for use in some nuclear medicine procedures. The states regulate the operation of these devices
  • The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) protects the health and safety of the public and the environment by licensing and regulating the civilian uses of source material (uranium and thorium), special nuclear material (enriched uranium and plutonium), and byproduct material
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "Regulation of Radioactive Materials," September 22, 2017 [last updated], accessed July 31, 2020, https://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/radiation/protects-you/reg-matls.html.Of more than 20,000 active sources, byproduct, and special nuclear materials licenses in place in the United States, around one fourth are administered by the NRC while the rest are administered by 37 Agreement States. Specifically, the NRC creates requirements for dose limits for radiation workers and members of the public, exposure limits, and monitoring and labeling radioactive materials. Additionally, the NRC licenses fuel cycle facilities and regulates activities related to the use, mining, and processing of uranium, including facilities that process and handle special nuclear material, source material, or both. The Division of Fuel Cycle Safety, Safeguards, and Environmental Review is responsible for the effective regulation of operational fuel facilities and the licensing of new facilities. As allowed by the Atomic Energy Act, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "Regulation of Radioactive Materials," September 22, 2017 [last updated], accessed July 31, 2020, https://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/radiation/protects-you/reg-matls.html#statesthe NRC enters into agreements with governors to allow individual states to regulate the use of specific radioactive materials, including radioisotopes used in medicine and industry. This includes materials such as radium and radon.

Since the 1960s, a number of international agreements have been adopted to regulate nuclear material around the world. In 1968, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) held its 190 signatory countries accountable to regulation ensuring the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear weapon states, disarmament of already existing nuclear weapons in nuclear weapon states, and the protection of the right to pursue nuclear energy. Following this landmark agreement, the international community expanded nuclear weapon testing regulations, which culminated with the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). In addition to its role in negotiating and signing this wave of international nuclear agreements, the U.S., in 1977, signed a Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) permitting the IAEA Galen L. Stone and David A.V. Fischer / International Atomic Energy Agency, "The Text of the Agreement of 18 November 1977 between the United States of America and the Agency for the Application of Safeguards in the United States of America," IAEA-INFCIRC-288 (Vienna, Austria, December, 1981), 2, accessed July 31, 2020, https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/infcirc288.pdf."… to apply safeguards… on all source or special fissionable material in all facilities within the United States, excluding only those facilities associated with activities with direct national security significance to the United States.”

Despite the U.S.'s adoption of both international and domestic regulations on nuclear material, there is a list of radioactive material that is exempted by the NRC for public use. These exemptions include particular commercial items with radioactive material, like smoke detectors using americium-241, irradiated silicon semiconductors using phosphorus-32, and steel contaminated by cobalt-60.

Sources

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. "International Agreements Relating to Nuclear Weapons." 2018. Accessed July 31, 2020.

National Research Council. "Regulation and Oversight of Uranium Mining, Processing, Reclamation, and Long-term Stewardship. In Uranium Mining in Virginia: Scientific, Technical, Environmental, Human Health and Safety, and Regulatory Aspects of Uranium Mining and Processing in Virginia. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2011. Accessed July 31, 2020.

Stone, Galen L. and David A.V. Fischer / International Atomic Energy Agency. "The Text of the Agreement of 18 November 1977 between the United States of America and the Agency for the Application of Safeguards in the United States of America." IAEA-INFCIRC-288. Vienna, Austria. December, 1981. Accessed July 31, 2020.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "Fuel Cycle Facilities." February 21, 2020 [last updated]. Accessed July 31, 2020.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "Regulation of Radioactive Materials." September 22, 2017 [last updated]. Accessed July 31, 2020.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "Uranium Recovery Regulations, Guidance and Communications." August 2, 2017 [last updated]. Accessed July 31, 2020.
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