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Radioactive Sources Safely Removed from Three African Countries

Neutron sources are packaged for transportation and disposal. (Photo: M. Al-Mughrabi/IAEA)

Under a global security initiative, an IAEA-supported operation has safely conditioned, packaged, and shipped radioactive neutron sources from three African countries to the United States for ultimate disposition.

The neutron sources were recovered from South Africa, Sudan and Côte d´Ivoire before their repatriation in January 2006 to the United States, the country from which they originally came. The consolidated operation was carried out without using special arrangements and in conformance with the IAEA´s international regulations for transportation of radioactive materials.

The sources were collected and stored by the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa. Experts from the USA´s Off-Site Source Recovery Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the IAEA were on site to package the sources for transportation and ultimate disposal. The extent of cooperation was underscored by South Africa´s acceptance of all the radiation sources, its interim storage of them, and its hosting of experts from the IAEA, Los Alamos, and representatives of 14 African countries on site to witness the conditioning and shipment of the sources.

The operation may pave the way for more consolidated approaches involving multiple countries to control old and used radiation sources and return them to the original supplying nation, said Mr. Mohamed Al-Mughrabi, a technical officer in the IAEA Waste Technology Section. The Section supported the operation in cooperation with the governments of South Africa, Sudan, Côte d´Ivoire, and the United States.

"Repatriation of radiation sources and devices promotes both safety and security," he said. "It reduces the potential for inadvertent radiation exposures and the possible misuse of the sources to spread contamination."

He sees a continuing need for such operations. Manufacturers of radioactive sources and devices containing sources normally agree to accept their return, he explains. However, it´s often the case that companies go out of business or the costs of return are too high for a developing country to bear. That´s when international support is needed for conditioning, storage, and recovery operations that are technically safe and sound, he says.

The January shipment involved neutron sources whose supply originated in the USA. Such sources - which can contain plutonium, americium, or beryllium, for example - are used for research and in commercial gauges and instruments for applications in the agricultural, construction, petroleum and other industries.

The operation was funded by the US National Nuclear Security Agency through the IAEA Office of Nuclear Security. Its successful conclusion demonstrates how IAEA Member States can work together to reduce safety and security threats from unused radioactive sources. Additional missions in Africa and expansion of missions into Latin America are in the planning stages.

So far, alongside the United States, Hungary, France, and India are among IAEA Member States which have accepted and supported the return of sealed radioactive sources originally supplied through or by them.

Last update: 27 July 2017