Radioactive sources are used in many ways. They are used to sterilize food and medical instruments, to develop crops that better resist diseases and harsh conditions, to diagnose and treat patients, to gauge the thickness of materials, x-ray pipes and much more. Some research is possible only through using radioactive sources.
But radioactive sources, despite all of their benefits, can be dangerous if misused, either inadvertently or deliberately.
This is why the IAEA works with its Member States to help them ensure the safety and security of radioactive sources. This work was the focus of the International Conference on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources: Maintaining the Continuous Global Control of Sources Throughout Their Life Cycle, held in October 2013 in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates.
The meeting, which attracted more than 300 participants from almost 90 countries and six regional and international organizations, highlighted the achievements made in the decade since the IAEA General Conference endorsed the Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources.
The Code serves as guidance to states for developing policies, laws and regulations related to the safety and security of radioactive sources. Though not a legally binding document, 119 States have expressed their political support for the Code and followed up by using it to create or strengthen their national regulatory infrastructures.
Though this is an achievement that has helped improved safety and security, there is still much to do, said Denis Flory, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the IAEA Department of Nuclear Safety and Security.
"We need to recognize that the Code is still far from being globally implemented. We need to identify remaining challenges, look ahead and agree on solutions and actions to further strengthen the safety and security of radioactive sources," he said at the Conference opening.
Pil-Soo Hahn, Director of the IAEA Division of Radiation, Transport and Waste Safety, said the level of implementation of the Code varied in the countries that have committed to it.
"It is therefore incumbent on the IAEA, as well as the global community, to assist all states seeking support to ensure that the appropriate legal and regulatory infrastructure for the safety and security of radioactive sources is established in all states, and in a harmonized way," he said at the Conference closing.
Some Conference participants called for a legally-binding convention to replace the voluntary Code, but no consensus was achieved. Those in favour of a legally-binding instrument argued it would bring more clout, while those against cautioned that it would be difficult for such a convention to gain the same support as the Code. The IAEA Secretariat expressed readiness to continue discussions on the matter.
Another hotly debated topic at the Conference was how to manage radioactive sources when they no longer are of use. Several strategies, including repatriation, recycling, in-country storage and disposal were discussed.
"It was very clear that there is no 'one size fits all' solution for all states," Hahn said.
The Conference functioned as an opportunity for states to report on their work under the Code, something 67 countries have done so far. Meetings to enable such reports are held regularly.
"In approximately three years' time, when we reconvene as part of the formalized process for sharing information on implementation of the Code of Conduct, I hope that we are able to report on further tangible progress in making radioactive sources safer and more secure," Hahn said.