Enhancing Radiation Protection

Over the past ten years, more than 90 countries—and the IAEA— reaped benefits from targeted efforts to safely expand use of nuclear technologies.

When a new radiotherapy center in Gezira, Sudan, delivers its first therapeutic dose to a cancer patient, two things happen: A young man begins to regain his health and looks forward to being better able to support his family and contribute to his community; and a developing nation realizes an important step toward deriving the social and economic benefits of nuclear science.

The strategic application of nuclear technology in particular fields—human health, industry, food and agriculture, energy, water resources and environmental protection—has enormous potential to help shape the future of developing countries. But past radiological incidents, several of which involved high levels of exposure or death (Bolivia, Brazil, Cost Rica, Georgia, Ghana, Morocco, Panama and Thailand), underscore the inherent and very serious risks.

For this reason, the IAEA’s Departments of Technical Cooperation and Nuclear Safety and Security partner closely, particularly in the area of radiation protection.* They strive to consider every minute detail in the equation that brings together radiation sources, modern technologies, people and the environment.

Launched in 1996, the Model Project on Upgrading Radiation Protection Infrastructure (the Model Project) aimed to help Member States:

In fact, the hospital scenario above typically marks several years of intense collaboration amongst scientists, legislators, regulators, politicians and administrators from both Member States and the IAEA, orchestrated and aided by regional managers and technical experts from the IAEA.

As radiation protection team members can attest, every application of nuclear technology carries special considerations and unique challenges. And each country is equally distinct in terms of needs, technical capacity, availability of financial resources and adequately trained personnel (at both regulatory and user organizations), and overall infrastructure. In reality, a task that initially seemed manageable turned out to be monumental and created steep learning curves for all parties involved.

Laying the foundation proves to be the biggest challenge

When the Model Project was launched, it was anticipated that a five-year implementation period would provide enough time for each participating country to achieve the five Thematic Safety Areas identified. It quickly became clear that both the IAEA and the participating States had seriously under-estimated the scope and scale of the work involved—particularly in terms of achieving Thematic Safety Area 1: Establishment of a legislative framework and regulatory infrastructure.

Drafting legislation and corresponding regulations, navigating through parliamentary procedures, enacting new laws and establishing regulatory authorities that would hold responsibility for authorization, inspection and enforcement—for many Member States, building the infrastructure for nuclear technology was a very long walk through uncharted territory. To improve efficiencies and outcomes, the IAEA established a set of Model Legislation and Regulations—sample procedures for notification, authorization, inspection and enforcement, as well as for creating an inventory of radiation sources and installations. These models gave Member States with little or no infrastructure an important ‘head start’; rather than starting from scratch, they could adapt these laws and regulations to meet their specific needs. At the same time, the models supported a consistent, harmonized and integrated approach on the global level.

Still, this phase of the project required continuous attention and action by senior officials in various ministries or government agencies; in many cases, these individuals might not have had any prior knowledge of or experience in nuclear science and technology. Even though formal government commitment was in place, there simply were not enough trained people on the ground to carry out the tasks or enough financial resources available to purchase necessary equipment or build the required facilities.

Moreover, the longer the process dragged on, the more obstacles it was likely to encounter. In some countries, political elections led to a change in administration. At a minimum, this meant bringing new ministers and officials on board; but the worst-case scenario—a complete realignment of government priorities that left radiation protection low on the list—was not uncommon. In other instances, instabilities related to social, economic or political issues, including national and/or regional conflicts and war, sidetracked initiatives that were already well underway. Sometimes, the regional managers even found themselves starting again from square one, with an entirely new team of players.

Regional managers also had to quickly adapt to other obstacles of a more general nature including institutional instability, general infrastructure weaknesses, inadequate support at the decision-making level, inability to recognize the magnitude of certain problems, and failure to mobilize necessary human and financial resources. On average, it took Member States six years just to achieve Thematic Safety Area 1, stretching the limits of both work schedules and budgets.

When it became apparent that establishing the legislative and regulatory infrastructure would require much more time than anticipated, the Model Project adapted again. Technical officers and regional managers began to undertake parallel activities in other areas, particularly the achievement of the control of occupational exposure, so that some technologies could be delivered quickly — and safely put into operation — once legislative and regulatory issues were resolved.

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