Contamination of oil and gas facilities with naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM) is widespread. Some contamination may be sufficiently severe that maintenance and other personnel may be exposed to hazardous concentrations. Contamination with radium is common in oil-production facilities, whereas contamination with radon and radon decay products is more prevalent in natural-gas production and processing facilities. Although largely unregulated until recently, U.S. states, notably Louisiana and Texas, have or are enacting legislation to control NORM contamination in the petroleum industry.
NORM contamination can be expected at nearly every petroleum facility. Some of it can be sufficiently severe that maintenance and other personnel may be exposed to hazardous concentrations. In addition, the industry must comply with new regulations. Mississippi and Louisiana have enacted legislation to control NORM; Texas will have regulations early in 1993; and other states, as well as Canada, can be expected to have similar regulations shortly.
Two general types of common NORM contamination will be controlled by these regulations.
Radium contamination of petroleum production facilities - specifically of pipe scale and sludge and scale in surface vessels. In addition, produced water may be radioactive from radium dissolved in underground water.
Radon contamination of natural-gas production facilities. This includes contamination with the long-lived decay products of radon. Facilities that remove ethane and propane from natural-gas facilities are especially susceptible to NORM contamination.
Naturally occurring radionuclides are widespread in the environment. In many geologic formations, radium, radon, and other radioactive elements are associated with oil and gas. When oil and gas are produced, traces of these radioactive elements also are produced. When the formation water contains traces of radium (radium-226, a decay product of uranium, and radium-228 from thorium), scale in the production pipe can become radioactive, sometimes containing several thousand picocuries of radium per gram of scale. The radioactivity results when radium coprecipitates with barium and strontium sulfates in the scale formation.