Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM)
The term NORM is used to identify naturally occuring radioactive materials which may have been technologically enhanced in some way. The enhancement has occured when a naturally-occurring radioactive material has its composition, concentration, availability, or proximity to people altered by human activity. The term is usually applied when the naturally-occuring radionuclide is present in sufficient quantities or concentrations to require control for purposes of radiological protection of the public or the environment. NORM does not include source, byproduct, or special nuclear material (terms defined by law and referring primarily to uranium, thorium and nuclear fuel cycle products); or commercial products containing small quantities of natural radioactive materials (e.g., phosphate fertilizer, potassium chloride for road de-icing) or natural radon in buildings.
Naturally occuring radioactive materials are everywhere
Radioactive isotopes of uranium, thorium, carbon, potassium, polonium, lead, radon, and more than a dozen other elements are present in rocks, soils, building materials, consumer products (e.g. lawn fertilizers), foods, and even in our own bodies. Many food products, especially nuts, fruits, and leafy plants (e.g. tobacco) concentrate these radionuclides by extracting them from the surrounding soil. In addition, a variety of commercial products such as watch dials, smoke detectors, gas lantern mantles, ceramic glazes, and air filters contain radionuclides such as uranium, thorium, radium and polonium.
NORM in consumer products
While of interest, the amount of NORM in consumer products is generally very low. Recently our regulatory agencies have begun investigating (with the intent of regulating) waste materials containing NORM generated in large amounts by a variety of industrial processes. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified more than 50 specific waste processes that contain NORM. These wastes fall into two categories: 1) highly active, discrete materials such as radium needles used in medical applications; and 2) diffuse, generally less radioactive NORM wastes such as residues from mining or petroleum production and water treatment facilities. It is the latter type of less radioactive, more common and diffuse material that poses the most difficult issues for regulation of NORM. The EPA estimates that billions of metric tons of such waste are produced annually in the United States. For example, the metal mining and processing industry alone generates about one billion metric tons of waste containing NORM each year and has already generated nearly 50 billion metric tons of such waste.
NORM in the oil and gas industry
Radionuclides are known to be associated with organic materials in nature; therefore, oil, gas, and oil field brines frequently contain radioactive materials. These materials accumulate in piping used to remove and process petroleum and natural gas. The EPA estimates that about 8 million metric tons of NORM waste will be produced by the gas and oil industry over the next 20 years.
NORM in the geothermal and mineral extraction industry
NORM have been found in geothermal wells. According to EPA estimates, the geothermal industry may generate up to 1.4 million metric tons over the next 20 years. NORM are also present in certain important mineral deposits, such as monazite and iridium ores, throughout the United States. Monazite and iridium are used in a number of industrial applications such as catalytic converters in automobiles and are thus valuable from a commercial standpoint. In addition, production and use of phosphate fertilizer as well as coal combustion generate substantial quantities of NORM wastes. Finally, sludges and contaminated resins from the purification of water contain NORM. The EPA estimates that over 6 million metric tons of drinking water purification materials containing NORM will be generated over the next 20 years.
Regulation of NORM
The regulation of NORM is made difficult because everything in our world is radioactive to some degree. Deciding which materials to regulate and how they should be regulated is a challenge facing state and federal authorities as well as the public.
A metric ton is 1,000 kilograms or about 2,200 pounds (1.1 tons).
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Glossary | Natural Radioactivity | NORM | Radon
Copyright HPS, 1997