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Regulators Use Innovative Methods to Assess Safety of Radiation Sources during COVID-19 Pandemic, IAEA Survey Finds

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Regulatory inspection of radiation sources in the field (Photo: D. Calma / IAEA)

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to severely impact all aspects of human activities, so too has it impacted the regulatory oversight of radiation sources which are used mainly in medicine, industry and research. A recent IAEA survey of regulatory bodies in over 90 countries found that national regulators are using innovative methods to adapt to the changing circumstances to ensure safety is not compromised.

Countries have a comprehensive regulatory framework to ensure that radiation sources are used safely and securely. This framework normally includes laws, regulations and guidance, an independent regulatory body and regulatory control activities, such as notification, authorization, inspection and enforcement.

Results from the survey indicate that regulators are able to maintain high levels of safety during this crisis, said Peter Johnston, Director of the IAEA Radiation, Transport and Waste Safety Division. “Through the findings, the IAEA has a more detailed understanding of challenges faced. It is also reassuring that national radiation safety regulators are adapting to the situation and want to share their experiences with others, and that countries are and have been working to mitigate the projected risks.”

The IAEA survey showed that a number of countries are concerned that potential safety risks might arise from the prolonged impact of the disease, on financial and human resources for regulatory activities, logistics, and other radiation safety infrastructure elements.

“The COVID-19 situation is an unprecedent situation, for which the regulatory body was not fully prepared,” said Faradally A. Ollite, Director General of Radiation Safety and Nuclear Security Authority in Mauritius, adding that “this, however, serves as an opportunity to look at the weaknesses in our regulatory processes and how we should be better prepared and organised to face any such emergency in the future.”

Findings

“The IAEA developed the survey to proactively assess how regulatory systems have withstood the effects of the pandemic. What was reported was a forced reduction of direct regulatory oversight, but also notable practices from regulatory bodies to continue performing their responsibilities,” said Ronald Pacheco Jimenez, Head of the IAEA Control of Radiation Sources Unit. “Countries reported that the economic downturn forecast and the strain on healthcare may impact on the safety of radiation sources, but necessary actions are being implemented to ensure that measures are in place and guidelines are followed to ensure the safe and secure use of these sources.”

Regulators have had to also address the procedures involved in the physical inspections of radiation sources by safety -related personnel, whose authorization and verification was required for the safe transport of radioactive sources.

The survey also provides details on how some regulatory bodies are facing resource constraints to meet the requirements of the safe and secure management of radioactive sources.

Innovative Practices

During these uncertain times, countries informed the IAEA that they are adapting approaches to the regulation of the safe use of radiation sources. In several countries, special authorization procedures have been implemented for diagnostic equipment used to combat COVID-19. Many countries reported that physical inspections could not be carried out and are replaced by remote oversight through review of documentation and virtual communication.

In Ireland, the regulatory body moved to a new virtual inspection system. “The challenge was to ensure that the continuation of inspections would not create an extra burden on the healthcare system. For the first time ever, inspections are being carried out virtually. The pandemic has forced the EPA to be innovative as we deliver on our role,” said David Pollard, Programme Manager for Radiation and Waste Enforcement at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Nuclear and radiation safety and security are national responsibilities and the role of the IAEA is to establish international safety standards and security guidance and to provide assistance to its Member States upon request.

The IAEA has assessed the survey results to understand the extent of the pandemic’s impact on regulatory oversight of radiation sources. The IAEA will use the information gathered to analyse how the issues identified during this pandemic can be used as a basis to update IAEA safety guidance for future pandemics.

“This analysis gives the IAEA and its Member States vital information on the improvements that should be made to prepare for any future pandemic,” Johnston said, adding that “the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic will guide our work in this area.”

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