Keeping Radioactive Sources Under Control

IAEA Exhibit Shows Ways to Safely Manage Old Radium Needles

Protective Clothing“Hands on” conference exhibits demonstrate how the IAEA is cleaning up the world’s radium -- a powerful radioactive source once used in cancer treatment -- to prevent it falling into the wrong hands or inadvertently coming into contact with the public.

The Agency’s aim is to render radium sources safe in all Member States by the year 2005. Used to treat cancer over the past century, radium sources were packaged similar to sewing needles and easily mislayed. Each needle potentially remains hazardous for centuries, with radium's half-life surpassing 1600 years. The tiny radioactive source poses both a health threat and security risk, as it could be used to spike explosives to make what's been called a “dirty bomb”.

The Agency has been working with Member States since 1997 to retrieve, condition and safely store these radioactive needles. Conditioning the source is painstaking work, which is carried out on-site using a mobile set of tools and equipment. The needles are tightly sealed within a concrete drum and labelled. The Agency has helped national authorities in Latin America and Africa to safely condition and seal their spent radium sources and work in Asia is underway.

The radium cleanup is part of a bigger Agency agenda to condition and make safe spent sealed and “orphaned” radioactive sources. This includes the cleanup of powerful cobalt and caesium sources. To date the IAEA has carried out over 50 conditioning operations in more than 40 Member States worldwide.

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