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IAEA Report on 2013 Radiological Incident in Mexico Highlights Role of National Radiological Emergency Plan


A new IAEA publication provides a detailed account and analysis of a 2013 event in Hueypoxtla, Mexico, in which a vehicle transporting the head of a teletherapy unit was stolen and the device, which contained a Cobalt 60 radioactive source, was removed from its shielding and eventually discarded in uninhabited farmland. (Photo: CNSNS)

Every year, more than 20 million shipments of nuclear and radioactive material are safely transported by air, on the seas, on railways and roads. Historically, emergencies during the transport of radioactive material have had none or very limited radiological consequences, which have been resolved quickly. However, no matter how safe packages for the transport of radioactive material are, emergencies can still occur during transit.  

A recently released IAEA case-specific publication on accident response, the Radiological Incident in Hueypoxtla, provides a detailed account and analysis of such an event in Hueypoxtla, Mexico, which occurred in December 2013 during the transport of a radioactive source. A vehicle transporting the head of a teletherapy unit, used in cancer treatment, was stolen, and the device, which contained a Cobalt 60 radioactive source, was removed from its shielding and eventually discarded in uninhabited farmland. Following an intensive search and recovery operation, the source was recovered one week later. 

The publication identifies lessons from the event for organizations and persons responsible for the related emergency response, to help strengthen nuclear safety and security.  

The Hueypoxtla incident illustrates that a security event not directly related to the radioactive source may result in a radiological emergency at an unforeseen location, and that therefore, robust emergency preparedness and response arrangements should be put in place.  

The report concluded that no single agency can be solely responsible for such a response, and that a national radiological emergency response plan which describes the role, responsibilities and resources of relevant agencies and response organizations is needed.  

“Although no such emergency plan existed during this incident, some of the responders had trained and worked together during the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara in the nuclear security arrangements of major public events, and as a consequence of this experience, they knew which agencies could help to address it, and the right personnel to contact,” said Carlos Torres Vidal, Director of the IAEA’s Incident and Emergency Centre. 

The publication concluded that, not only is it necessary for the emergency response agencies to be adequately trained, there is also a need to train security and law enforcement agencies on the basics of radiological protection and on response to radiological emergencies.  

The publication is intended for competent authorities, regulatory bodies, first response organizations, law enforcement agencies and a broad range of specialists, including medical professionals involved in emergency response, emergency response planners and those responsible for radiation protection and nuclear security of radioactive material including in transport operations involving shippers, carriers and receivers, as well as facilities that use radioactive material.  

The publication describes the role of the IAEA in the response to the incident, which  on receipt of the initial information activated the IAEA’s Incident and Emergency Response System (IES)  leading to the information being published on a Unified System for Information Exchange in Incidents and Emergencies (USIE) accessible by all IAEA member countries.  

At the time, the IAEA sent an ‘offer of good offices’ to Mexico asking whether there was any assistance it might need in responding to the incident. Assistance was coordinated through the IAEA Response and Assistance Network (RANET), which enables countries to register their capabilities to assist other countries in response to nuclear or radiological incidents or emergencies.  To date, 39 countries have registered with RANET.  

The publication is part of the IAEA’s Accident Report series, launched in 1988, which aims to strengthen nuclear safety and security by making lessons learned from an accident available to a global audience. “The IAEA accident reports are a valuable resource for nuclear safety and nuclear security professionals around the world to learn from other countries’ experience and gather good practices for their own,” said Torres Vidal. “We encourage countries to report on incidents to share lessons learned and help strengthen emergency response and preparedness in other countries to protect people and the environment.” 

This year the IAEA released a Specific Safety Guide on Preparedness and Response for a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency Involving the Transport of Radioactive Material (SSG-65). It provides recommendations on emergency preparedness and response for the transport of radioactive material, including considerations for the emergency response when a nuclear security event, such as the theft of a source, is confirmed to be the initiating event.   

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