and Disposal Options
Cesium-137 Blood Irradiators
Brian S. Kirk, B.A., J.D.
September 28, 2001
A. Irradiator Specifications
B. Cesium Facts
C. Radiation Contamination
D. Applicable Laws
B. Potential Liability
A. Disposal Options
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
DIFFICULTY OF DISPOSAL
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION AND CONTACTS
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
-Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors,
and Development Corporation, Inc.
-Chem-Nuclear (Barnwell, SC)
-American Ecology (Richland, WA)
-List of Waste Broker and Processor Services
-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
Phone: (416) 675-4530
Fax: (416) 675-0688
Address: 100 International Blvd.
Canada M9W 6J6
Phone: (781) 275-7120
Fax: (781) 275-5191
Customer Service: (781) 275-5191
Address: 10 DeAngelo Drive
Bedford, MA 01730
Links to Applicable Laws
-NRC Agreement and Non-Agreement States
-Code of Federal Regulations, Chapter 10- Energy
-Atomic Energy Act
-Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act