The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is issuing a “demand for information” to certain large users of tritium exit signs, which are commonly used by hospitals, hotels, and retailers. Specifically, the NRC has identified 61 organizations that possess 500 or more tritium exit signs, and will issue a demand for information (DFI) to each organization. The NRC’s issuance of the DFIs signals an increased interest by the NRC in the use, handling and disposal of tritium exit signs, and may be a prelude to future enforcement actions against any tritium exit sign user that cannot document its compliance with NRC requirements. Accordingly, the NRC’s recent action should cause all companies that use tritium exit signs to re-examine their compliance with applicable NRC and state law requirements.  

The NRC’s DFI will require the targeted entities to report certain information to the NRC within 60 days, including:  

  • a description of the organization’s tritium exit sign regulatory compliance program, including an explanation of how the organization complies with the requirements for possession, transfer, and disposal of the signs;
  • an accounting of the organization’s tritium exit signs;
  • an explanation of any discrepancies in the accounting and a discussion of the actions the organization has taken or will take to locate missing signs; and
  • a discussion of the actions the organization has taken or will take to prevent future loss.  

A DFI is a tool used by the NRC to require the submittal of information by licensees, usually under oath or affirmation, so that the NRC can make a decision regarding the need for further regulatory action, such as an inspection or enforcement action for any violation of NRC regulations. The DFI was prompted be recent reports by Wal-Mart, one of the largest users of tritium exit signs in the United States, that it could not locate some 15,000 signs at its store throughout the country.  

Users of tritium exit signs are “general licensees” of the NRC, meaning that they are authorized under NRC regulations to possess and use the signs without any specific NRC license, subject to certain regulatory obligations, including:  

  • appointing an individual to oversee regulatory compliance;
  • disposing of signs through an authorized entity;
  • abiding by the requirements for transferring of signs to another entity, including giving proper notice to the NRC; and  
  • reporting lost, stolen or damaged signs to the NRC or the appropriate Agreement State.  

In addition to meeting NRC requirements, many states prohibit the disposal of tritium exit signs in municipal landfills. In addition to state regulatory violations, improper disposal of tritium exit signs can result in liability for cleanup under state and federal Superfund and cleanup statutes.

Organizations that receive the DFI, as well as other significant users of tritium exit signs, should consider the need to implement a comprehensive plan to inventory, manage and control their tritium exit signs. As part of an effort to improve control of tritium signs, some licensees have conducted inventories of the tritium signs at their facilities and established data bases to improve accounting for the signs. Because of the potential for identifying violations of state environmental laws as well as NRC violations, companies should consider conducting such inventories in a manner that would qualify for penalty mitigation under state audit laws and policies.

In addition, licensees should focus on establishing programs and procedures to enhance the tracking and control of tritium signs. For any large user, it is possible that discrepancies will be identified as part of an accounting of the signs. It will be critical to have sound procedures in place to ensure proper control of the signs in the future, including controls to ensure the proper disposal of signs through the manufacturers or licensed radioactive waste disposal facilities.  

Given the NRC’s recent actions, all users of tritium exit signs, including those who have not received the NRC’s demand for information, should be proactive in reviewing their procedures for regulatory compliance.