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Introduction: The Sealed Radioactive Sources
Communications Toolkit

In most countries, the use of radiation is controlled by a combination of regulatory oversight, standards, good practices, and professional expertise. Despite this layered approach towards safety, accidents with sealed radioactive sources continue to occur. Serious injuries or deaths have been reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from exposure to sealed sources. Investigations into the root causes behind such accidents have often concluded that the lack of information either regarding safety practices by users or of the potential risks by third parties has been a significant factor in these accidents.

Safety is not the only concern with respect to sealed radioactive sources however. With the recent rise in concern for terrorist activity and given the widespread availability of sources, the possibility that a terrorist group could use a source to produce a radioactive dispersal device cannot be ignored.

The IAEA developed this toolkit to help improve communication with key groups about safety and security issues related to sealed radioactive sources. Many people may benefit from improved communication skills, particularly those working with sources and those likely to be involved if control over a source is lost:

  • officials in government agencies,

  • medical users, industrial users and the scrap metal industry,

  • the general public may also benefit from an understanding of the fundamentals of radiation safety.

Government Agencies

At the national level, several government agencies may be involved in the importation, use, transport, and disposal of sealed radioactive sources. Those working at such agencies and policy makers in general need to be aware of the safety and security issues that could arise from the use of sealed sources.

Medical Users

In medical settings, those using sealed radioactive sources need to be trained in and knowledgeable about radiation protection. But they may be less familiar with broader issues that can affect safety and security, such as long term management and appropriate disposal of sources. These users could also benefit from lessons learned from previous accidents.

Industrial Users

Users in industrial settings are the most diverse and may have varying levels of training regarding the safe use of sealed radioactive sources. To prevent accidents, users need information about good safety practices, as well as security issues and the potential implications should a source be lost. These users could also benefit from lessons learned from previous accidents.

Scrap Metal Industry

Because improperly managed sources have often ended up as scrap metal, those working in the scrap metal industry need to be informed of the potential risks, trained how to recognize the trefoil radiation symbol and trained in what to do should they find a source.

General Public

Improperly managed sources pose a risk to members of the general public who may find them, but are unaware of the potential danger.

Elements of the Toolkit

The toolkit is a starting point for communication on safety and security matters relating to sealed radioactive sources. Additional information referenced in the fact sheet under “Key Publications” is available from the IAEA.

The toolkit contains:

These elements could be used as the basis for a presentation or training session, or simply given out to these groups.

Improving Communications

To be effective, communications is a two-way process where information is exchanged between both parties (a sender and a receiver). It is important, therefore, for the communicator to listen and respond to sensitivities, concerns or questions that may be raised. It may be possible to anticipate some of these in advance, and to some extent, these have been considered in the various elements of the toolkit. However, communications will always be a dynamic process, so those who are communicating should be:

  • respectful to the audience;

  • knowledgeable about the subject matter and able to answer questions;

  • able to simplify scientific and technical concepts into plain language that can easily be understood;

  • at ease dealing with the public;

  • honest and sensitive to concerns that might be raised; and

  • able to follow up if needed.

The IAEA TECDOC-1076: Communications on nuclear, radiation, transport and waste safety: a practical handbook provides useful information towards improving communications.

The IAEA TECDOC-1205: Management for the prevention of accidents from disused sealed radioactive sources is an important reference document.

Other Useful Information

The toolkit provides only an introduction to the wealth of the information available from the IAEA. The IAEA produces Safety Standards and technical documents that provide technical information on a wide range of subjects related to sealed sources. These documents are available online at

In the Event of an Emergency

While most countries may have national and local plans to deal with accidents relating to radioactive materials, experience has shown that even localized events can raise international concerns and enquiries from the media. Preparation for an emergency, therefore, may involve planning beyond national or local boundaries and must include how to communicate effectively. Elements of the toolkit may provide useful information for this purpose.

Two international conventions exist to help facilitate exchange of information and provision of assistance in the event of an accident:
the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident (the “Early Notification Convention”) and the Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency (the “Assistance Convention”). Most IAEA Member States are parties to these two conventions. Documents/index.html

Decontamination following the radiological accident in Goiânia due to an uncontrolled sealed source. Credit: CNEN/Brazil.

To notify the IAEA of an emergency, parties to these conventions should contact (by phone) +43 1 26026 3911 or
(by fax) +43 1 26007-29000.


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