Taking Charge in Chile
The Radioactive Waste Management Team from Chile's Commission for Nuclear Energy prepares to safely store old radium needles once used for cancer treatment. (Photo Credit: K. Hansen, IAEA)
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- Taking Charge in Chile
- Finding Homes for "Orphan" Sources
- IAEA Programme on Disused Sources
- Keeping Radiation Sources Under Control
- Safety & Security of Radiation Sources
- IAEA Technical Cooperation
- IAEA Features: Controlling Radiation Sources
- Radium’s History, US Perspective [pdf]
It not hard to imagine how a “hot” radium source ended up in the sewage system of a hospital in Chile. Like most sealed radioactive sources, it looked just like a normal piece of metal. To the uninitiated its appearance was similar to a sewing needle, but it contained a dangerously high concentration of radioactivity. The source was used in cancer treatment at the hospital, and was presumably flushed down the toilet by mistake.
Ms. Azucena Sanhueza is head of Radioactive Waste Management, Chilean Commission for Nuclear Energy (CCHEN). She and her team located the lost radium source and with the IAEA’s help have safely conditioned it for disposal, along with all other known radium sources in the country.
Radium’s half-life surpasses 1600 years, so each needle will remain hazardous for centuries unless it is safely conditioned, stored and disposed. The IAEA is working to render all radium needles worldwide safe by 2005. Since the Agency started its radium clean-up programme in 1997, about 11,000 individual radium sources have been conditioned in 45 Member States.
Ms. Sanhueza said the greatest concern with old radium sources is if the original encapsulation loses its integrity. Leaking radium sources are not uncommon. Many of the sources were manufactured decades ago, using antiquated technology. Over time, radium decay products and crystalyne water molecules produce a gasous product that builds internal pressure within the source causing it to leak.
Direct exposure to an unsealed or leaking radium source can cause widespread contamination. It is “very, very nasty,” says nuclear and chemical engineer, Mr. Mohamed Al-Mughrabi, who heads the Agency’s radium cleanup programme. “The contamination spreads quickly. Especially if you are unaware you are contaminated. It’s like running your finger across a dusty table. The particles are so fine they are picked up and absorbed in your sweat. Whatever you touch becomes contaminated. If you eat, the radioactive particles will be absorbed into your bones and remain there for life. Over time you will probably get bone cancer or some form of mutation,” he said.
The minute but highly concentrated radioactive material of radium sources, as well as other radioactive sources, also pose a security risk. Fears are if it fell into terrorist’s hands, it could be used to spike explosives to make what's been called a “dirty bomb”.
The use of radium for cancer therapy has largely been phased out over the past 20 years, as safer techniques using cobalt and caesium were developed. However, it is estimated there are anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 radium sources worldwide that still need to be conditioned.
With the IAEA’s support, the team in Chile led by Ms. Sanhueza became the first national team in Latin America to safely condition all its known radium sources. The next step, Ms. Sanhueza says, is working with the IAEA to condition an old caesium source so that it is safely packaged and stored.