Focus: Depleted Uranium

The IAEA Focuses on Radiological Safety

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Under its Statute, the IAEA has the specific mandate to establish, in consultation and collaboration with other United Nations and specialized agencies concerned, standards for the protection against ionizing radiation and for the safety of radiation sources and to provide for the application of these standards. With respect to potential radiation hazards, the Agency has jointly developed the International Basic Safety Standards with the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization, and the Food and Agriculture organization. These standards, known as the BSS, cover a wide range of situations that give rise or could give rise to exposure to radiation such as the radiation hazard posed by depleted uranium.

The BSS sets limits for exposure to any combination of uranium isotopes, including those found in depleted uranium based on recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection and the estimates of health effects of radiation from the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Radiation. The established limits vary according to whether the scenario involves occupational exposures or exposures to the general public, but applies to any use of or practice involving ionizing radiation. For example, the BSS sets the annual dose exposure limits for members of the public and workers at 1 mSv and 20 mSv respectively, for any practice using ionizing radiation.

In the case of DU, determining whether or not these limits were exceeded would depend upon studying a representative group of individuals and calculating their possible doses from both internal irradiation, through ingestion and inhalation of DU particles and external irradiation.

The IAEA has assessed other cases of environmental radiation contamination to determine whether or not they comply with the limits of the BSS, for example in Fench Polynesia, Marshall Islands, Kazakhstan, and Kara Sea in collaboration with other UN organizations. In order to undertake such an assessment, a formal request must be first made to the Agency, the radiological situation of concern must be well defined (usually through a prior fact finding mission), and financial arrangements must be agreed upon.

If these conditions are met, the IAEA has the expertise to set up and co-ordinate an international study in order to evaluate the radiological situation. This study is generally conducted in four stages:

  • determining the source term through an environmental monitoring programme
  • modelling potential transfer pathways from the environment to humans
  • assessing the radiation doses to representative groups of individuals
  • checking for compliance of doses against the International Basic Safety Standards

Should such a study demonstrate that non-compliance with the BSS, the IAEA would recommend possible remedial measures. Should such non-compliance be so extreme as to possibly cause health effects, the World Health Organization would be responsible to deal with these health effects.

With respect to the need to clean up areas where DU weapons were used, the BSS dose not include specific criteria to assist in deciding what measures should be taken. However, the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) has established dose criteria (ICRP Publication 82, Pergamon Press 1999), which, in principle, could be applied to such decisions.

Many radiological protection decisions are based on comparisons with an annual dose limit for members of the public of 1 mSv. However, the ICRP has provided guidance using a scale of dose levels to help practical decision-making in a variety of situations.

Any intervention to clean up will need to be justified on a case-by-case basis. Pre-selected individual dose guidelines can only provide an input to decisions, and no single factor should be overriding. With these provisos, the ICRP has recommended a differentiated approach to intervention on the basis of individual effective dose. In cases where an individual effective dose of 100 mSv is exceeded, intervention should be "…almost always justifiable", while if the individual dose is above 10 mSv, intervention "…may be necessary". In contrast, for doses below 1 mSv intervention is "…unlikely to be justifiable".

Thus, to decide whether remedial measures (including a cleanup operation) would be justified, it is necessary to carry out an assessment of the dose received by individuals from exposure to depleted uranium to be compared with the ICRP guidelines.