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Panama, with IAEA Support, Ensures Nuclear Security at World Youth Day

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President Juan Carlos Varela and his wife welcome Pope Francis upon his arrival at the Tocumen International Airport for World Youth Day 2019.(D.Calma/IAEA)

With Pope Francis and the presidents of Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and Portugal in attendance, the World Youth Day for Catholic youth, held at the end of January in Panama City, was a major event featuring five days of concerts, vigils, prayers, masses and more.

Panama’s authorities, which had to ensure security during the event, sought IAEA assistance to incorporate nuclear security into the overall security arrangements.

Ensuring nuclear security plays an important role in a successful major public event. Measures need to be taken to prevent malicious use of nuclear and other radioactive material out of regulatory control. The spread of radioactive material at such an event could have severe health, social, psychological, political, economic and environmental consequences.

Lieutenant Colonel Alexis De Leon leads the Joint Task Force through a pre-event threat assessment. (D.Calma/IAEA)

“Our priority is security... and all scenarios have to be considered,” said Lieutenant Colonel Alexis De Leon, the chief of the Joint Security Task Force, established by Panama to secure the event.

Securing the event required managing high concentrations of people in small areas, coordinating between civilian and military institutions and ensuring that there were enough radiation detectors for robust nuclear security measures. Panama authorities started their planning years in advance with support from the IAEA and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

From all over the world, catholic youth gathered in Panama City to celebrate their faith. (D.Calma/IAEA)

The official World Youth Day events – including vigils, prayers, catechetical sessions, concerts and masses – took place at more than 20 official venues. Throughout it all, the Joint Security Task Force performed carefully choreographed security screenings of the venues. Equipped with Personal Radiation Detectors and Radionuclide Identification Devices provided by the IAEA, special teams swept venues to detect any radioactive or nuclear material before the events started. Once they were underway, the teams mixed with the crowds of participants, their detection equipment on alert in backpacks or attached to belts.

The events’ proximity to the Panama Canal, a passage used by more than 13,000 ships a year to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, also had to be considered.

“We have a unique geographic position... and we must protect our national resources,” said Commissioner Didier De Gracia, a member of Panama’s National Security Council. “We have to respond to the threats and ensure security of transport through the Canal.”

International cooperation

Natasha Dormoi Eluf, Director of the Office of International Affairs and Technical Cooperation in the Ministry of Health, emphasized the importance of coordinated international cooperation, including with the IAEA.

“The international community is there and ready to help,” she said, encouraging other countries interested in hosting such major public events to use the support offered. “There is no need to be concerned about insufficient equipment or human resources. The IAEA and the international community assisted us with both.”

IAEA support for the event included loaning radiation detection equipment and holding training events. The support was provided under an agreement signed in November 2017 by the government of Panama and the IAEA.

“Nuclear security contributed to the success of this event,” said Juan Carlos Lentijo, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security. “Panama made good use of the IAEA’s nuclear security services, and their preparations for this event can serve as a useful model to other countries hosting major public events. The Agency offers support on request to help countries fulfil their national responsibility for nuclear security.”

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