Goiânia´s Legacy Two Decades On

Accident Led to Review of International Safety Standards for Radioactive Sources

Twenty years on: the scrap yard on Rua 6, Goiânia, one of the sites affected by the worst accident involving a radioactive source that the world has seen. (Photo: K. Hansen/IAEA)

Lessons drawn from the 1987 Goiânia accident in Brazil are still helping shape actions on radiation safety and security decades later. It was the worst accident involving a radioactive source that the world has seen. Cesium chloride from a dumped source that had ended up in a scrap yard spread undetected for over two weeks. Some 250 people were contaminated and four died in the first month. The event focused international attention on the issue of safety standards for radioactive sources.

"Before the 1987 accident the regulations were weak when it came to controlling radiation used in medicine and industry worldwide," says Eliana Amaral, IAEA Director of Radiation, Transport and Waste Safety. "There was no awareness that sources must be controlled from ´cradle to grave´; and to prevent the public accessing them. After the accident these concepts were fostered," Ms. Amaral says. [See the video report from the scrap yard on Rua 6, Goiânia, one of the sites affected]

The IAEA introduced rigorous safety standards for radioactive sources, namely the International Basic Safety Standards No. 115, co-sponsored by several international organizations.

Brazil´s request that the IAEA draw ´lessons learned´ from Goiânia paved the way for more open, transparent reporting of radiological accidents. "With all the developments which took place since the Goiânia accident - in terms of controlling the movement of radioactive sources, preparing emergency response plans and waste management - certainly the public and the environment are better protected now than 20 years ago," Didier Louvat, Head of IAEA Waste and Environmental Safety says.

Since the accident, the gradual replacement of sealed sources containing the soluble, powdery form of cesium chloride has been considered. In the USA, a 2008 report from the National Research Council has recommended that the US Government should take steps to promote the replacement of cesium chloride radiation sources, used in some medical and research equipment, with lower-risk alternatives. However, as the study also states, it is not easy to find the equivalent replacement for certain applications, which is part of the reason why such sources are still in use.

Goiânia´s legacy of a handful of cesium chloride is 3,000 cubic metres of contaminated waste. It is now buried in a near surface repository on the outskirts of the city, where it must be isolated for the next 300 years.

Some Problems Remain: ´Orphaned´ Sources

Despite improvements, worldwide radioactive sources are still lost and abandoned. In 2007, the IAEA knew of ten such incidents involving dangerous sources. Mr. Vilmos Friedrich, who heads an IAEA´s unit that supports countries to control radioactive sources, says these ´orphaned´ sources often enter the scrap metal exchange chain.

The IAEA is developing safety standards for dealing with orphaned sources in the metal recycling industry. It will provide guidelines for regulatory authorities, scrap dealers and metal recyclers on how to deal with radioactive sources found in the scrap. The IAEA is also driving a ´Cradle to Grave´ approach to the way countries take responsibility to keep radioactive material safe and secure. Its activities span from assisting Member States to search and secure abandoned sources, to training border guard to detect them and boosting a country´s regulatory capacity. "Safety must remain a strong concern and security is a rising concern, but both have to be covered very, very adequately," Didier Louvat says. -- Kirstie Hansen, Division of Public Information

Last update: 10 September 2014