What Is a Q Clearance?

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  • Written By: Benjamin Arie
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 16 September 2019
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Q clearance is a type of security clearance that is used within the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), along with many United States government agencies. This is the highest security clearance that is available with the NRC. A Q clearance means that an individual is authorized to view highly confidential documents and other information that involves nuclear research.

The intent of a Q clearance is to ensure that sensitive information does not fall into dangerous hands. Since the data covered is related to nuclear studies, it could potentially be used to create weapons of mass destruction or by a hostile country. In general terms, this clearance indicates that a person is trustworthy and is not likely to misuse important information.

Several steps are required before an individual is issued a Q clearance. An applicant must undergo a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI). The SSBI process is similar to the one used for the Department of Defense’s Top Secret security clearance. This inquiry is usually conducted by a federal law enforcement agent or group of agents. This investigation is used to verify and scrutinize the honesty and trustworthiness of an individual.


During an SSBI, agents verify an applicant’s previous employment and educational records. A criminal background check is also conducted, which reveals whether a person has been arrested anywhere in the United States. Organizational affiliations and previous residence locations are also checked. Unlike lower clearances such as the Secret level, a Q clearance investigation involves extensive in-person interviews with neighbors and acquaintances.

Some factors can immediately exclude an individual who applies for clearance. A history of illegal drug use or criminal action is usually disqualifying. Evidence that a person has lied during the application process, or has an allegiance to a foreign government can also preclude the clearance. Poor credit history is not immediately disqualifying, but agents must verify that an applicant does not have ongoing financial problems that would make him a potential target for bribery and coercion.

A Q clearance does not last forever, but must be periodically renewed. In order for clearance to be reissued, another background check is performed for verification. After five years, a reinvestigation is needed before the clearance is reissued. It can be revoked at any time, if the issuing agency has reason to believe an individual can no longer be trusted with confidential secrets.


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