WASHINGTON—The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) cautioned today that some news outlets unintentionally may be alarming citizens with investigative reports that draw conclusions unsupported by the investigation itself.
NEI cited tonight’s much-promoted ABC News report on an international shipment of a suitcase containing 15 pounds of uranium as a case in point. According to ABC News.com, “It was the kind of uranium that—if highly enriched—would, by some estimates, provide about half the material required for a crude nuclear device and more than enough for a so-called dirty bomb, the nightmare scenario for American authorities.”
The report continues, “But this particular uranium was depleted and not highly enriched, therefore not dangerous—but similar in many other key respects.”
Notwithstanding the network’s desire to inform viewers about potential terrorist threats, the conclusions reached by ABC News about movement of radioactive materials are not supported by this specific investigation, NEI’s vice president for communications, Scott Peterson, said. The depleted uranium transported by ABC could not be used to make a nuclear bomb and, thus, one material cannot be linked to the other.
“Transport of 15 pounds of depleted uranium is perfectly legal and poses no threat to the public. The ABC correspondent might just as well have been carrying 15 pounds of oranges in a suitcase, because one activity is just as legal and safe as the other,” Peterson said.
Depleted uranium is shipped daily around the world and routinely used as counterweights in airplanes and elevators, he noted. The Title 10 Code of Federal Regulations Section 40.22 stipulates that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has evaluated this amount of material for safety considerations and believes the risk to the public is minimal; therefore, a specific license is not required.
“The nuclear energy industry understands and appreciates the goal of the reporting. However, this was a flawed investigation that runs the risk of needlessly alarming viewers at a time of heightened sensitivities. We respectfully urge greater caution in this area,” Peterson said.
With regard to potential use of radioactive material in a “dirty bomb,” the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said, “In most cases, any immediate deaths or serious injuries would likely result from the explosion itself, rather than from radiation exposure. It is unlikely that the radioactive material contained in a dirty bomb would kill anyone. The radioactive material would be dispersed into the air and reduced to relatively low concentrations, resulting in low doses to people exposed. In addition, most people would be expected to run away from the explosion, further reducing potential exposure. A low-level exposure to radioactive contamination could slightly increase the long-term risk of cancer.”
Uranium fuel rods that have been used in reactors could not be converted into a dirty bomb because of the material’s physical characteristics, the security that protects it at U.S. nuclear energy facilities, and the high level of radioactivity in the fuel. Because used nuclear fuel is highly radioactive, terrorists would have to undertake tremendously complex steps to protect themselves while moving it from nuclear facilities.
The nuclear industry has programs in place to address unwanted and uncontrolled radioactive materials (orphan sources), and to assist in finding affordable, legal disposition for radioactive materials. Additionally, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has provided funding to the Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors (CRCPD)—a group of state radiation protection officials—to support a national program dealing with orphan source materials.
The Nuclear Energy Institute is the nuclear energy industry’s policy organization. This news release and additional information about nuclear energy are available on NEI’s Internet site at http://www.nei.org.