In the wake of the strongest and deadliest earthquake to ravage China in decades, the task of searching through wreckage for victims and property proved an onerous one. The 7.9-magnitude earthquake of 12 May devastated China´s mountainous Sichuan Province, killing an estimated 69,000 people and causing extensive property damage.
Among the many dangerous materials buried in the rubble lay a hidden enemy - stray radioactive sources that could complicate relief efforts or cause contamination.
So when the Sichuan earthquake struck, Chinese authorities sprang into action. Utilizing IAEA training and donated equipment, Chinese emergency teams were deployed to the affected area for recovery efforts.
"Immediately after the earthquake, experts from relevant Chinese authorities were sent to examine the safety status of nuclear facilities and radioactive sources within the quake zone," remarked Chinese Ambassador Tang Guoqiang, at the June IAEA Board of Governors meeting. "All nuclear facilities are safe and under control, and all radioactive sources have been recovered."
In the two weeks immediately following the earthquake, a team of radioactive source search and recovery experts fanned out across all disaster-stricken areas. The teams used radiation detection equipment to pinpoint the location of 50 sources and safely recover all of them, according to China´s National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA). Most of the sources were used in industry.
Under an IAEA Technical Cooperation Project launched in early 2007, staff from Chinese national authorities was trained on how to search for "lost" sources, and to then control and dispose of them safely. A series of week-long national training workshops on orphaned sources and recovery was attended by roughly 100 Chinese search team members hailing from each of the country´s 31 provinces, though no one envisioned the devastation to come one year later.
"At the time of the training workshops, we had no clue that the training and equipment would be used in such a disaster," explained Nabil Lutfi, the IAEA Programme Management Officer responsible for organization of the workshops.
IAEA experts believe that this is the first time that training has been used for source recovery after an earthquake.
In addition to the training that Chinese authorities received, the IAEA made an in-kind contribution of nearly $100,000 worth of radiation detection and search equipment. The United States Department of Energy also donated over $164,000 worth of detection hardware. Both equipment donations were made in conjunction with the training programme.
"Equipment that China received from the Agency was applied during the recovery of radioactive sources, and the application of the equipment produced a good result," said Ambassador Tang.
Source recovery is important to ensure safety of local populations and safeguard against unintended contact with stray radioactive sources. Each of China´s 31 provinces has its own regional environmental protection authority. Chinese orphan source recovery efforts were managed in country by the Nuclear and Radiation Safety Centre, State Environmental Protection Agency.