Rarely in the history of the IAEA has radiation-based technology provided so much opportunity and presented such great risk. The harsh reality is that broader distribution of radioactive materials and sources makes more sources available to more people, thereby increasing the probability of incidents and accidents. As human beings derive greater benefit from ionizing radiation, they also stand a higher risk of being exposed to its harmful effects.
Several factors make this a particularly urgent issue. New nuclear technologies are constantly being developed and deployed. Environmental concerns related to future energy supplies, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change are renewing interest in large-scale nuclear energy production. Geo-political instability creates a black market for radioactive materials, and some States seem to persist in their attempts to acquire or develop capacity in nuclear weapons.
To realise the potential of radiation-based technologies for peaceful purposes, we must confront the associated challenges. On one hand, the nature of today’s global environment is that a significant risk can arise virtually any time, anywhere. On the other, Member States are more cognizant of the responsibilities associated with deployment of nuclear technology. Thus, there is a pressing need to strengthen the safety network at every level. This can only be achieved by sharing knowledge, expertise and resources between Member States and the IAEA, and—increasingly—amongst Member States and with other interested parties. Fortunately, both Member States and the IAEA are better prepared than ever to operate in this way.
Over the past ten years, the IAEA’s technical cooperation programme undertook a massive effort to empower developing nations to realise social and economic goals through the application of radiation-based technologies. The Model Project on Upgrading Radiation Protection Infrastructure (the Model Project) represented a significant shift in priorities in that the aim was not to deliver technology per se, but rather to ensure that Member States acquired the capacity to self-manage all related aspects of radiation protection.
Without question, the project keeps achieving a great deal. Virtually all participating countries are making significant progress in establishing a basic safety infrastructure; many also are developing the human resources required to tackle the issues of exposure control and emergency preparedness.
This strengthened capacity enables Member States to realise more benefits from radiation-based technology more quickly. Moreover, through the knowledge and experience gained, more countries are reaching a level of maturity where they recognize that they hold responsibility for the radioactive sources and materials found within their borders.
In addition to achieving its goal of strengthening the radiation protection infrastructure, the Model Project effectively creates a network of peers—each Member State is better equipped to make its own decisions about technology needs and is empowered to manage the related safety and security issues. Radiation-based technologies will continue to evolve, as will the safety standards that underlie their application. Thus, it is imperative to find ways to increase knowledge sharing and to impress upon Member States that there is no “end point” to any area of radiation protection; each aspect must keep pace with technological evolution.
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