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IAEA Boosts Support to Member States in Managing Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material

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Waste rock from a copper mining operation in Zambia. (Photo: Horst Monken-Fernandes/IAEA)

All minerals and raw materials contain radionuclides of natural origin. For most human activities involving these materials, the levels of exposure to radionuclides are not much greater than ionizing radiation background levels. However, certain operations can give rise to significantly enhanced exposures to so-called naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM). The IAEA supports countries in sharing information about cost effective and safe practices and strategies for managing NORM.

“While technical aspects of NORM management are well established, there is a need for broader analysis of approaches to determining national inventories and defining policies and strategies for managing NORM wastes and residues,” said Olena Mykolaichuk, Head of the IAEA Decommissioning and Environmental Remediation Section. “Constructive dialogue between different industries could eventually help countries establish sound national frameworks for managing and regulating NORM.”

In October, the IAEA will host its first International Conference on the Management of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM) in Industry, bringing together different players to discuss key issues with the aim to establish a portfolio of strategies for dealing with this specific area. The conference, which will also be live streamed, will be an opportunity to raise awareness about the need to properly address NORM related issues among industry, governmental authorities and other relevant stakeholders. The IAEA also issues safety standards and reference publications that offer guidance and good practices in this field.

NORM and industry

A wide range of industrial operations produce wastes and residues with increased levels of natural radionuclides. These  include extraction of rare earth elements; production and use of thorium and its compounds; production of niobium and ferroniobium; mining of ores other than uranium; production of oil and gas; the zircon and zirconia industries; manufacture of titanium dioxide pigment; the phosphate industry; production of iron and steel, tin, copper, aluminum, zinc and lead; combustion of coal; and water treatment.

Malaysia, for example, does not have a nuclear power plant, but faces issues regarding ionizing radiation as a result from the operation of a NORM related industry. “There is a lack of homogeneity and consistency in dealing with NORM by the various industries in different parts of the world. Developing countries are looking up to the more developed countries for case reference,” said Ismail Bahari, General Manager of Radiation Safety, Regulations and Compliance at Malaysia-based Lynas, the world’s second largest rare earths producer. “Unfortunately, there are diverse and conflicting opinions on allowable practices and unallowable practices when dealing with NORM, especially NORM wastes, among the developed countries.”

Marcelo Valinhas of Brazil’s state-owned Oil Company Petrobras said that, with regard to residues from the oil and gas industry, integrating the requirements of different regulatory bodies could facilitate NORM management. “The controls are similar in terms of the use of individual protection equipment, project lifetime, protection of the public and the environment protection,” he said. “Technological development can improve NORM management, especially in measuring activity within the area of operation and not in the laboratory.”

In addition to operational issues, a NORM residue is not necessarily a waste: in many cases it can be recycled or used in other applications and there are many opportunities for the safe use of NORM residues as by‑products. Regardless of whether a NORM residue is recycled, used as a by-product or disposed of as waste, safety considerations are of high priority and must be in place. Given the variability of potential exposure of the public and workers to NORM, a graded approach is seen as the appropriate course of action to ensure proper consideration of safety requirements that commensurate the associated risks. This was also highlighted at the Ninth International Symposium on Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material held last year.

“International harmonization of NORM practices and management is making progress, with countries taking various approaches to NORM,” said Philip Egidi, Environmental Scientist at the US Environmental Protection Agency. “The biggest challenge to dealing with NORM is to keep it in proper perspective relative to other environmental and workplace hazards. People need not be scared of NORM, but they need to respect it.”

The IAEA NORM 2020 conference will feature a series of dedicated workshops that will address specific topics in different industrial operations such as mining and processing of ores, phosphogypsum management, groundwater treatment, NORM management in the oil and gas industry, radiation protection in NORM Industry and sampling and characterization of NORM residues and wastes.

“Non-nuclear industries increasingly recognize the benefits of paying due attention to the potential radiological issues in their operations. Some of them have put in place effective management practices that can be useful and inspiring for others,” said Mykolaichuk. “We hope that this conference will be a forum for different industries to share those practices and experiences and learn from each other.

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