Breaking Bottlenecks

IAEA Tackles Transport Woes of Life-saving Radioactive Materials

Shipments of radioisotopes for medical use are clearly labelled. (Photo: G. Webb/IAEA)

The IAEA is helping to unblock global transport routes by 2013 for the life-saving radioactive materials crucial to the diagnosis and treatment of cancer or heart disease that all too often are left stranded on the tarmacs and docks of the world´s sea- and airports.

Reasons for the delays and shipment refusals range from suspicion and lack of information about the safety of handling such radioactive materials to complex local or national regulations. Over some routes, ships are transiting repeatedly in harbours refusing radioactive cargoes, making carriage by shipping lines virtually impossible; air delays and the short half-lives of an isotope may mean the product will expire en route, rendering the shipment useless.

"There are not enough carriers for cargoes of radioactive material and we have too many remaining bottlenecks. The objective is to have safe, secure and sustainable transport networks for all shipments, in terms of routes and also of carriers," said IAEA expert Jean-Yves Reculeau. "Five more worldwide carriers for sea or air transport would improve the situation at once."

Several thousand packages of medical radioisotopes are transported each day, while there are some 150 shipments per year of Cobalt 60, used, for example, to sterilize medical products. The IAEA, as per its 1959 United Nations brief, has established safety standards appropriate for the transport of radioactive materials which should be, and in principle are, accepted internationally. Nonetheless, even when these safety standards are adhered to, shipments are delayed or refused, a problem which is referred to in industry parlance as "denials and delays".

Overcoming Hindrances

A case in point is Molybdenum-99, the parent isotope of Technetium-99, which is used to map blood flow to the heart or the spread of cancer to the bones in some 30 million medical imaging procedures a year. Due to its short half-life of 66 hours, Molybdenum-99 transport depends heavily on air carriers, several of which refuse to carry radioactive substances.

Earlier this month, the Port of the Everglades in the United States removed the prohibition of entry, transhipment and transit to the port of radioactive materials used to combat cancer.

"This sets a positive precedent for cooperation and communication among the IAEA Denials Secretariat, national and local officials to facilitate transport," Mr. Reculeau said.

In another example, Kazakhstan, with the assistance of the IAEA, has completed work to expand the production of Molybdenum-99 domestically and is in the final stage of approvals before the production is available for use on patients. Kazakhstan also wants to transport its product to other countries to maximize the benefit of their efforts for the region and possibly beyond.

"The need to ensure safe, secure and sustainable transport for the new production facilities is essential to their success," said Jim Stewart, Head of the IAEA Transport Safety Unit. He added that three international groups - the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Air Transport Association and the International Federation of Airline Pilots´ Association - "have become involved in helping to remove barriers to air transport for the new production in Kazakhstan."

The IAEA has developed a database of 228 instances of denials and delays. The IAEA, as part of the Denials Secretariat, analyses the database to determine trends and also uses it as a platform to tackle individual problems. According to the database, 48 of the 50 incidences of air transport problems recorded were delays, due in part to confusing regulations, while some 160 of 175 sea problems were denials, with, for example, some ports declared no-go zones for radioactive cargoes.

In another success, Brazil in December 2009 altered regulations to remove such shipment obstacles. The regulatory code for civil aviation was amended to give radioactive material for medical use the status of priority cargo. For sea transport, officials made substantial policy changes at Santos harbour, following intensive information, education and training of the port staff that covered radiological protection as well as medical uses of the materials.

Further IAEA work

The IAEA has a full agenda on this topic this year.

"In 2011, the IAEA is organizing a sequence of consultant and technical meetings, including regional workshops, to perform in-depth analysis of the newly issued denial and delay reports, to update regional action plans, to develop a communication strategy and its derivative tools: communication toolkit, brochures aimed at carriers, a simplified training course and an e-learning package on denial," Mr. Reculeau said.

The IAEA also maintains a global network including Regional Coordinators and National Focal Points as liaison officers. But to date, only 69 of the IAEA´s 152 Member States have nominated National Focal Points.

This week, the IAEA is discussing the security of Molybdenum-99 supply at a meeting at the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

These activities are designed to ensure that it is possible to transport these materials in a safe and secure manner, which is consistent with the United Nations directive to ensure that transport safety regulations "be framed so as to not impede the movement of goods."

"Safety and security are crucial and the related requirements must be met. But sustainability is also crucial so that effective delivery is duly achieved," Mr. Reculeau said.

Last update: 10 September 2014