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European Regulators Assess their Implementation of the Guidance on the Management of Disused Radioactive Sources

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Am-241/Be radioactive source previously used in well logging operations being removed under a disused radioactive source management program.” (Photo: W.Stewart/IAEA)

A national policy and strategy that accounts for the management of disused radioactive sources at the end of their life cycle is essential to prevent such sources from getting stolen or lost with potential safety and security consequences, concluded European regulators during the first in the series of virtual regional meetings on the implementation of the IAEA Guidance on the Management of Disused Radioactive Sources.

“It is at this stage in the life-cycle of a radioactive source that there is an increased probability that it may fall out of regulatory control and may cause accidental exposure or be used in a malicious act,” said Elena Buglova, Director of the IAEA Division of Nuclear Security in her opening remarks. “Long-term management is a matter of both nuclear safety and security.”

From cancer diagnosis to sterilization of medical equipment, to construction, and oil and gas exploration, radioactive sources are routinely used in medicine, industry, research and agriculture. There is a risk that a radioactive source that is no longer useful but still radioactive, called a disused source, may be abandoned or inappropriately discarded. This may lead to severe radiation exposure and lasting health effects. Intentional misuse of the most dangerous disused sources could have costly social, political, economic and environmental consequences.

Long-term management of disused radioactive sources requires planning and preparation of appropriate administrative and financial resources even before they are acquired. This includes provisions for when the sources outlive their initially-authorized purpose. The national policy and strategy provide a framework for such planning, including safety and security regulatory requirements during the full life cycle of the source as well as the responsibilities of suppliers, users and regulators.

During this virtual regional meeting from 25 to 27 January, more than 80 representatives from 40 European countries, including observers, compared their approaches to managing disused radioactive sources to those recommended in the IAEA Guidance on the Management of Disused Radioactive Sources, supplementary to the Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources. Similar interactions are scheduled for the Africa, Latin American and Carribbean, and Asia and Pacific regions in the coming months.

“Delegates have presented their experience with national policies and strategies for dealing with radioactive waste and strong regulatory frameworks for oversight of radioactive sources while they are in use,” said Jarlath Duffy, Senior Inspector for Ionizing Radiation at the Environmental Protection Agency of Ireland and Chair of the meeting. “However, some national policies and strategies do not incorporate the unique considerations of long-term management of disused radioactive sources, as opposed to radioactive waste in general.”

Disused radioactive sources may not need to be classified as waste. Although no longer useful for the initially-authorized purpose, some sources can be reused for other purposes, with appropriate licensing. For example, Co-60 sources initially used for teletherapy have successfully been reused in industrial irradiators. Alternatively, new radioactive sources can be manufactured reusing the radioactive material from the disused source.  

While many national policies and strategies for radioactive waste management focus on interim long-term storage and ultimate disposal solutions, like a geological repository, the disused radioactive sources present an alternative option.

“Many countries do not manufacture their own radioactive sources and therefore must import them from suppliers in other countries,” said Timothy Hayes, Nuclear Security Officer at the IAEA. “One of the potential management options for disused radioactive sources is to return them to the supplier at the end of their useful life under an agreement established between the user and supplier prior to the source being acquired.”

In practice, as the meeting participants highlighted, return-to-supplier is often the preferred management option, though it presents many challenges. In particular, the agreements between users and suppliers frequently do not include clauses about roles, responsibilities, and, most importantly, about the allocation of appropriate financial resources. For instance, the resources required include covering costs for certified packaging and international transport.

“Security and safety of nuclear and other radioactive material, whether used or disused, are a sovereign responsibility,” said Olga Makarovska, Senior Radiation Safety Specialist at the IAEA. “In the nuclear field, a national policy of one country may have consequences for another; and the Agency facilitates consideration of such variables through guidance recommendations, regional and international workshops, and information exchanges.”

The Guidance on the Management of the Disused Radioactive Sources was published in 2018 and, along with the Guidance on the Import and Export of Radioactive Sources, supplements Code of Conduct for Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources. To date, 40 countries have made the political commitment to implement the Guidance and 140 countries are commitment to implement the Code.

In his remarks Peter Johnston, Director of the IAEA Division of Radiation, Transport and Waste Safety, urged the participants to go further, highlighting that “political commitment to the Guidance is often a starting point for establishing or revising of the national policy and strategy, or laws and regulations for the management of disused sources. … [B]ut concrete implementation is a more substantive one.”

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