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Decommissioning and Disposal Options
for Cesium-137 Blood Irradiators

A report by:
Brian S. Kirk, B.A., J.D.
September 28, 2001

A. Irradiator Specifications
B. Cesium Facts
C. Radiation Contamination
D. Applicable Laws

A. Difficulty of Disposal
B. Potential Liability

A. Disposal Options
B. Conclusion

IV. Additional Information and Contacts

Cesium-137 sourced blood irradiators have been in production since the 1950's and have been integral in maintaining the quality and safety of the world's blood supply. However, as time has elapsed many of the original irradiators are coming to the end of their life span. The problem is that neither the U.S. Government nor the manufacturers of these irradiators had planned for the day when the irradiators would outlive their usefulness. Because of this, one finds limited options for decommissioning the devices. While some options for decommissioning or disposal do exist, they are difficult to ascertain and are not long-term solutions. The following report provides an insight into proposals for handling spent irradiators as well as potential liabilities for owner-operators and the options for decommissioning and disposal of cesium-137 irradiators.


Currently, the United States houses approximately 300 cesium-137 sourced blood irradiators produced by three leading manufacturers. CIS, Inc., MDS Nordion, and J.L. Shepherd & Associates are all properly licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the body charged with regulating these units, to manufacture and sell cesium-137 sourced blood irradiators. Each manufacturer's license states that the NRC will determine the handling, storage, use, transfer and disposal of the licensed sources. In addition, a state regulatory agency for each owner's respective state regulates each user/owner. While each manufacturer uses different designs and specifications, these irradiators generally have an initial activity between 2000 and 6000 curies when new. The entire unit is approximately the size of a small refrigerator and weighs roughly 5000 pounds. The units are generally leak tested every six months and have several other required safety regulations involving use, maintenance, and safety. The age of each unit varies up to 40 years, but similar models are still currently being manufactured and sold in the U.S.

Naturally occurring cesium is the non-radioactive isotope, cesium-133. In addition, twenty radioactive isotopes ranging from cesium-123 to cesium-144 have been artificially prepared. Cesium-137 is useful in medical and industrial radiology because of its long half-life of 30.2 years. Cesium-137 remains radioactive for approximately 180 years. Cesium is the most electropositive and most alkaline element, and thus, it loses its single valence electron and forms electrovalent bonds more easily than all other elements and it does so with nearly all the inorganic and organic anions.

When cesium comes into contact with plants and animals, it is absorbed into the system by replacing potassium in tissues and cells. Radiation destroys the most rapidly dividing cells of the body, particularly skin, hair, gastrointestinal tract, and bone marrow. Because bone marrow gives rise to the blood cells, including those of the immune system and the platelets that staunch bleeding, radiation victims are susceptible to infections and hemorrhaging as well as long term effects.

An incident exhibiting the effects of radiation contamination from a cesium-137 sourced blood irradiator occurred in September 1987, in the state capitol of Goiana, Brazil. A group of scavengers raided an abandoned cancer center and found a small lead canister, later selling it to a junkyard. A junkyard employee opened the container to discover a radiant, blue, glowing dust. The dust was cesiusm-137, the same highly radioactive material used in blood irradiators throughout the world. Over the next week, children and adults rubbed the substance on themselves because of the sparkle and the dust passed from home to home eventually contaminating 244 people, 54 of which were hospitalized for serious injury. In addition, several medical personnel and emergency workers, as well as their clothing and instruments, were contaminated. Within one week, four of the first six people to handle the cesium had died from pneumonia, blood poisoning and hemorrhaging. The accident contaminated everything from people to homes, businesses, soil and water. Those objects and structures that could not be decontaminated were dismantled or collected and stored in concrete drums as nuclear waste.

State Compacts
A Compact is an organization formed by states that have funded a consortium to deal with low-level radioactive waste issues on a regional level. Ten states are not currently affiliated with any Compact. The Compacts develop specific regulations for transportation, storage, and disposal requirements within the geographic bounds of the Compact States under the administration of a Host State. The Host State identifies and establishes uniform disposal requirements to be followed by each of the Compact States as well as a regional low-level radioactive disposal site within the Host State.

NRC Agreement and Non-Agreement States
Certain states, called Agreement States, have entered into agreements with NRC that give Agreement States the authority to license and inspect byproduct, source, or special nuclear materials used or possessed within their borders. Any applicant other than a Federal agency who wishes to possess or use licensed material in one of these Agreement States needs to contact the responsible officials in that State for guidance on preparing an application.

Manufacturers' Licenses
The license granted to the manufacturer by the NRC contains specific provisions and regulations regarding operation, care, safety, and training as well as explicit specification and manufacturing details for each model of irradiator.

Atomic Energy Act (42 USC §2011-2259)
The purpose of the Atomic Energy Act is to ensure the proper management of source, special nuclear, and byproduct material. The AEA, and the statutes that amended it, delegate the control of nuclear energy primarily to U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the NRC, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). DOE authority extends to source material, special nuclear material and byproduct material.

Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act (42 USC §2021)
The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act set milestones, penalties, and incentives for individual states or state compacts to site low-level waste disposal facilities. Little progress has been made on new low-level waste disposal facilities, and the only disposal facilities now open are in Barnwell, South Carolina and Richland, Washington.


The obstacle to replacing these irradiators is the difficulty and expense in disposing of the cesium source and the lead containment chamber. The factor most responsible for the difficulty is the high radioactivity of most units. Spent irradiators generally have a radioactivity of 1,000 to 3,000 curies, a significant amount of radiation. This puts these irradiators above the "Class C" classification designated for low-level radioactive waste, thus, making transportation and storage/disposal much more difficult. Although, there are many radioactive waste broker and processor services available in the United States, few can or will handle waste with a radioactivity of this magnitude.

The high radioactivity has a negative effect on transportation of the waste. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Department of Transit has stringent guidelines on the transportation of radioactive waste. This leads to very expensive processing, packaging and shipping costs. Most brokers or transporters who will transport the waste will also perform the packaging and shipping of the source. The disposal sites will also handle the shipping and packaging, however the costs are significant, roughly $13,000 at minimum. There is only one site in the United States, located in Richland, Washington (operated by American Ecology), that will accept waste classified greater than Class C. Unfortunately, due to regulation, Richland can only accept waste from 11 states located in the northwest United States . Furthermore, the Washington state regulatory agency must approve any disposal having an activity greater than 977 curies. Although another radioactive waste site, located in Barnwell, South Carolina, and has previously accepted such waste, the Barnwell site will no longer accept cesium waste of this magnitude.

In addition to the difficulty of transportation, handling and shortage of available space, the costs of disposing waste at the Richland site is considerable. Although their prices are regulated, Richland charges approximately $12,800 for waste that has an outside activity of 1r to 10r . The average outside activity for a cesium source is likely in the range of 400r to 600r. Thus, the cost of storage alone is roughly $800,000.

While recycling is an option for lower level waste, most recyclers of cesium deal with sources ranging from 1curie to 8 curies, 300 times less than the average activity for a 30 year-old blood irradiator. Some manufacturers can recycle the cesium sources into new blood irradiators, however, after the life span of the recondition irradiators, the same difficulties and liabilities will remain.

Unfortunately, 39 states in the U.S. do not have any option for disposal. The 11 states that do have an option are forced to struggle with the exorbitant costs. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the authority charged with regulating the manufacture, use, and disposal of these units, does not have a proposal for disposal of these sources. The NRC advises that the owners of these units hold and maintain their unit in a safe configuration until the NRC and DOE can propose a method of disposal or, more likely, can open a new waste disposal site. Their estimated time frame for a new waste site is 2010 at the earliest with realistic estimates closer 2025 or later. While the cost of maintaining a unit for 25 years is not tremendous, the potential liability is great.

Responsibilities and Exposure to Liability from Maintenance of Ownership
The potential liability for an owner who maintains an irradiator in a dormant state can be tremendous. For instance, based on the NRC's suggestion of "wait and see," an owner would be responsible for maintaining a unit for a minimum of ten to twenty years and possibly longer- up to 180 years, the length of time cesium remains radioactive. By maintaining ownership of a unit, the owner is responsible for safeguarding, storage, required periodic testing, maintenance, and associated fees. In addition, being an owner and having control over these units exposes the owner to both tort and environmental liability.

Difficulty in maintaining machines
As mentioned earlier, the half-life of cesium-137 is thirty years. At the half-life of an isotope, the initial radioactivity is reduced by one-half. Thus, at thirty years, a cesium-137 source likely will not be useful for blood irradiation. However, the source retains a very high radioactivity of approximately 1,000 to 3,000 curies on average. While the shielding in many of these irradiators is considerable and the units, by law, must be tested periodically, there is still a risk of leakage and radiation contamination. The risk of leakage increases significantly when one considers that the source remains a danger for approximately 180 years, much longer than the life span of any hospital, blood bank or cancer center. Although the current regulation is adequate, there is no assurance that records and maintenance of these machines will continue for the entire 180-year life span of the cesium source. For example, in the 1960's the U.S. Government donated several hundred of these machines to high schools and universities for student experiments. As the units aged, records were lost and most were moved into storage rooms and basements with no maintenance or inspection performed. It was not until the mid-1990's that the NRC updated its records and began to track down these lost units. Fortunately, these units were over-engineered for safety and no leakage occurred. However, the incident does demonstrate that the small likelihood of safely regulating and maintaining a unit for the next 180 years.

Potential Tort liability for injury due to leakage or contamination for up to 180 years
The risk associated with maintaining these machines is the potential for radiation leakage or accidental exposure. While the incidence of radiation leakage due to structural defects is relatively low, failures in the containment do occur. In addition to leakage from structural defects, an accident from moving or storing a unit, natural disaster, vandalism, terrorism or even carelessness is also possible. As evidence by the incident in Brazil noted earlier, the effects of radiation contamination are severe and the potential for human injury or death is substantial. In addition to injury and loss of life, there are severe financial consequences of radiation contamination. For instance, most objects and buildings that become contaminated are generally rendered useless and must be destroyed and stored as nuclear waste. In the case of a blood irradiator, leakage would likely mean high casualties from the high population density within a hospital. In addition, a closure of the hospital itself would be likely, particularly if the contamination moved into the piping or ventilation systems. Furthermore, the costs of environmental cleanup from a leak could be extraordinarily high. As the owner of a unit, one would most certainly be liable for both tort claims and environmental cleanup.

Potential Disposal Costs exceeding $1million
Currently, a few manufacturers will accept spent units for decommissioning. While this practice is environmentally responsible, these companies are under no obligation to continue accepting units. Nor is there any guarantee that these companies will maintain business operations. Without this option, the owner of a unit would be required to pay the high costs of disposal in a waste site, assuming that option is available. The owner may also choose to maintain the unit in its current location until the NRC or DOE can commission a new waste disposal site. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the new site will not have the same high costs associated with disposal as those sites currently in use. Thus, should the manufacturers discontinue their current practices, the potential cost for disposal would likely exceed the $1million mark.

Current Disposal Costs
While the manufacturers are still accepting spent irradiators, the costs of decommissioning a unit are relatively low. Although the costs are discussed in detail below, the average estimated cost of decommissioning a unit it roughly $25,000.


Fortunately, there are currently disposal options other than the site located in Richland. While they are under no obligation to do so, and may discontinue the practice at any time for any reason, some manufacturers will accept spent irradiators for a fee.

CIS, Inc.
CIS, Inc. chooses not accept any irradiators at this time. Their recommendation is to find a company that will install a new source if the unit is still in working condition. If not, they suggest finding some other way of disposing of the source. Presumably, this means the Richland site or another manufacturer that is willing to decommission the unit.

MDS Nordion
Nordion will accept, package, transport and dispose of any unit that they manufactured. They will not accept a competitor's unit at this time, presumably because they do not have proper licensing. However, MDS Nordion has applied for the required licenses and hopes to have them in approximately one year. The costs associated with packaging, transportation and disposal are far less than the Richland site. For a typical irradiator, the total cost can range from $12,000 to $25,000 depending on shipping distance, age of the unit, radioactivity, size, location within the building and ease of removal. Some of the oldest Nordion produced gamma cell (such as GammaCell 150, 200, or 650) units may cost up to $10,000 more for disposal because of their age. Nordion suggests that owners contact them directly for a quote for each individual unit.

J.L. Shepherd and Associates
J.L. Shepherd will accept and decommission irradiators it has manufactured and has been known to accept competitors irradiators as well. Costs vary significantly based on shipping distance, age of the unit, radioactivity, size, location within the building and ease of removal, as well as other factors. However, the costs are roughly $20,000 to $25,000. J.L. Shepherd suggests that owners contact them directly for a quote for each individual unit.

U.S. Ecology- Richland, Washington
As mentioned earlier, U.S. Ecology can potentially accept sources of this magnitude pending approval from the state regulatory agency. However, the costs are very high and a manufacturer such as JL Shepherd is a more cost effect solution at the present time.

U.S. Department of Energy
The U.S. Department of Energy does have a policy of accepting sources through its "Orphan Source Program." As related to the issue of disposing of spent irradiator sources, the Orphan Source Program is an emergency case-by-case determination that would allow the D.O.E. to package, transport and store or dispose of highly radioactive sources. However, the requirements for acceptance into this program are stringent and the D.O.E. usually accepts sources in emergencies only.

The design of these cesium-137 sourced blood irradiators is relatively safe as they are widely used throughout the world. However, when these units cease to be useful, the options for decommissioning them and disposing of the dangerous radioactive sources are minimal. It is only because of the responsible environmental policies and sound business practices of J.L. Shepherd and Associates and MDS Nordion that there are cost-effective options available. Should these policies change, there would remain only very costly alternatives for disposal in 11 states in the U.S. and no options for the remaining 39 states. Even the NRC, who is responsible for determining the method of disposal has no concrete proposal. The agency can only advise owners to "sit and wait." Unfortunately, as time passes, more of these irradiators lose their usefulness and are ignored or abandoned in storage rooms. The result is a highly increased potential for danger and owners left with few options but to hope that a solution is found quickly.


Links to State information and Contacts
-Guide to all applicable regulations, procedures and points of contact for disposal of low-level radioactive waste.
-Information for Individual States
-Industrial Radiographer Certification Contacts and Status

Knowledgeable Agencies
-Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors, Inc.
-Growth and Development Corporation, Inc.

Disposal Links
-Chem-Nuclear (Barnwell, SC)
-American Ecology (Richland, WA)
-List of Waste Broker and Processor Services

Government Agencies
-US Nuclear Regulatory Commission
-NRC, Office of State & Tribal Programs
-US Department of Energy

- JL Shepherd and Associates
Phone: (818) 898-2361
Fax: (818) 361-8095
Address: 1010 Arroyo Avenue
San Fernando, CA 91340

- MDS Nordion
Phone: (416) 675-4530
Fax: (416) 675-0688
Address: 100 International Blvd.
Toronto, Ontario
Canada M9W 6J6

-CIS, Inc.
Phone: (781) 275-7120
Fax: (781) 275-5191
Customer Service: (781) 275-5191 x. 3216
Address: 10 DeAngelo Drive
Bedford, MA 01730

Links to Applicable Laws

-State Compacts

-NRC Agreement and Non-Agreement States

-Maunfacturers' Licenses

-Code of Federal Regulations, Chapter 10- Energy

-Atomic Energy Act

-Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act

Foot Notes:

  1. Cesium-137 is a fission by-product from nuclear energy commonly used in medical radiology.
  2. Curie is measurement of rate of decay of radioactive materials. 1 curie is equal to 3.7 x 1010 disintegrations per second.
  3. Half-life of a radioactive isotope is defined as the time required for the number of radioactive atoms in a sample to decay by one-half.
  4. Case Study: Accidental Leakage of Cesium-137in Goiania, Brazil, in 1987, Alex Neifert.
  5. Id.
  6. Internet Links to all of these laws and regulations are located in Section III of this report.
  7. The waste site in Richland, WA can only accept waste from states associated with the Northwest Compact and Rocky Mountain Compact. The Northwest Compact includes HI, ID, MT, OR, UT, WA, and WY. The Rocky Mountain Compact includes CO, NV, NM, and AK.
  8. Rad (r) is defined as a unit of absorbed dose equal to 0.01Grays Californium dose. A rem is the quantity of ionizing radiation whose biological effect is equal to that produced by one roentgen of x-rays.
  9. The Effect of Gamma Rays, Kerry White. Education Week on the Web, September 11, 1996.

Text copyright © 2001 by Brian S. Kirk