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Working to Secure
Radioactive Sources

Radioactive sources have been widely used for decades to benefit humankind—to diagnose and treat illnesses, to monitor oil wells and water aquifers, and to irradiate dangerous microbes in food products. Millions of sources have been distributed worldwide over the past 50 years, with hundreds of thousands currently being used, stored, and produced.

Many of these sources are weakly radioactive, and therefore pose little radiological risk. But sources used in industrial radiography, radiotherapy, industrial irradiators and thermo-electric generators are most significant from a safety and security standpoint because they contain large amounts of radioactive material—such as cobalt-60, strontium-90, caesium-137, and iridium-192.

After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, increasing public apprehension about the security of radioactive sources became perceptible worldwide: could a radioactive source be turned into a devastating tool for terrorists? The possibility of one being used with malevolent purposes has already been confirmed in the United States.

Due to the wide distribution of sources, the radioactive materials needed to build a “dirty bomb” can be found in almost any country in the world, and more than 100 countries may have inadequate control and monitoring programmes necessary to prevent or even detect the theft of these materials, based on information available to the IAEA.

Internationally the issue is not new: long before 11 September, the need for securing radioactive sources was high on the agenda of the international radiation protection community and an essential element of the IAEA’s radiation safety activities.

Radiation detector

A vehicle-mounted radiation detector used in the June 2002 survey in the Republic of Georgia.

In 1998, hundreds of specialists and governmental representatives met at the first international conference on the issue, which was organized by the IAEA jointly with Interpol, the World Custom Organization and the European Commission, in Dijon, France. The conference recommendations were transformed during the IAEA General Conference into an international Action Plan to strengthen the global safety and security of radioactive sources.

Within this Plan, an internationally agreed identification of the sources deemed to be a threat, and a non-binding ‘Code of Conduct’ for States has been established. In December 2000, national regulators of radioactive sources met at a conference convened by the IAEA in Buenos Aires, Argentina. That Conference recommended reinforcing the Plan, which was subsequently endorsed by the IAEA Board of Governors on 10 September 2001 and later in the month by the General Conference.

No sophisticated anti-terrorist security measures are commonly in place and even well-regulated radioactive sources could be stolen and diverted with relative ease, as is the case for most chemical or biological substances. While the vast majority of radioactive sources are under the control of competent governmental regulatory authorities, the world is abundant in ‘orphan sources’, or sources that never have been subject to regulatory control, or were initially regulated but eventually abandoned, lost, misplaced, stolen or removed without authorization. Many industrial and medical radioactive sources are believed to be in this state.

“What is needed is cradle-to-grave control of powerful radioactive sources to protect them against terrorism or theft,” IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei recently told the world press. “One of our priorities is to assist States in creating and strengthening national regulatory infrastructures to ensure that these radioactive sources are appropriately regulated and adequately secured at all times.” Dr. ElBaradei also noted that while a number of countries have regulatory systems in place and are urgently stepping up security measures, many countries lack the resources or the national structures to effectively control radioactive sources.

In the face of this new reality the overall international strategy in the security of radioactive sources is being widened to include malevolence and terrorism. One very significant recent development is that the IAEA is collaborating with the United States Department of Energy (DOE) and the Russian Federation’s Ministry for Atomic Energy (MINATOM) in a new a tripartite working group on ‘Securing and Managing Radioactive Sources’. In June 2002, officials from the three sides agreed to develop a coordinated and proactive strategy to locate, recover, secure and recycle orphan sources throughout the former Soviet Union. This agreement represents the first concerted international response to the threat posed by vulnerable radioactive sources in the former Soviet Union. Funding and expertise is being provided by DOE and MINATOM.

The IAEA has been active in lending its expertise to search out and secure orphaned sources in several countries. In Kabul, Afghanistan, IAEA was called in to secure a powerful cobalt source abandoned in a former hospital. In Uganda, the IAEA helped the government to secure a source that appeared to have been stolen for illicit resale. A Georgian team supported by the IAEA successfully recovered two unshielded and unsecured radioactive Strontium 90 sources that caused injuries to three men in December 2001. The IAEA has been working with Georgia through its technical co-operation programme since 1997 to improve the safety and security of radioactive sources in this country where over 280 radioactive sources have been recovered since the mid-1990s. All of these sources have been placed in interim storage.

At the request of countries, the IAEA can send expert teams to help governments develop national strategies or to advise on dealing with disused sources. Its advisory teams work with countries to assess their systems for radiation control and its emergency response teams respond to radiological emergencies. Within its 2002 Action Plan to combat nuclear terrorism, the IAEA established a programme to ensure that significant, uncontrolled radioactive sources are brought under regulatory control and properly secured by providing assistance to Member States in their efforts to identify, locate and secure, or dispose of orphan sources.

Drawing parallels with the safety assistance programmes of the IAEA in the European region, where Technical Co-operation and extrabudgetary funds have been combined for maximum benefits, a similar approach is being pursued within the scope of the Nuclear Security Action Plan for delivery of security-related activities through the TC programme in a cost effective and timely manner.

  Strengthening Nuclear Safety and Security

Combating Illicit Trafficking
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Promoting the Safety and Security of Research Reactors
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Working to Secure Radioactive Sources
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