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Searching Safely: IAEA Organizes National Training Course to Facilitate the Recovery of Orphan Radioactive Sources in Barbados

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Course participants familiarizing themselves with radiation detection instruments. (Photo: J.C. Benitez Navarro/IAEA)

Radioactive sources are considered to be ‘orphans’ if ever they are lost, abandoned, misplaced stolen or transferred without proper authorization. Orphan sources pose a risk to the public and the environment, which must be addressed by national nuclear regulators and operators, as well as by police, emergency responders and public health officials. To strengthen the ability of local authorities to locate and recover orphan sources, the IAEA recently held a training course in Bridgetown, Barbados. The course equipped relevant actors with both the theoretical knowledge and hands-on training necessary to perform orphan source searches in a safe and comprehensive manner. The course covered elements of search and recovery from the perspective of both regulators and operators. Participants learned to handle recovered sources correctly, and to use radiation detection equipment.

Sealed radioactive sources are extensively used in medical, research, agricultural and industrial activities. If used safely and securely, these radioactive sources do not pose any threat to people or to the environment. However, radioactive sources can sometimes be lost, stolen or may otherwise fall outside of regulatory control, allowing them to fall into the hands of unlicensed and untrained parties, or even in scrap metal recycling plants, leading to accidental contamination. If the sources fall into the hands of those with malicious intent, they may also present a security threat.

Through its technical cooperation (TC) programme[1], the IAEA strives to minimize the risk posed by sources which fall outside of regulatory controls by increasing worldwide awareness of orphan sources and by providing hands-on training to strengthen the capacities of both regulators and operators to manage them safely and securely.

Course participants searching for orphan sources, during the field exercise. (J.C. Benitez Navarro/IAEA)

The four-day training course in Barbados began with a series of technical lectures, delivered by IAEA and international experts, which established the theoretical basis for the detection and recovery of orphan sources. How, what kind and in what quantities are radioactive sources used in Barbados? How might such sources be abandoned or lost? And how are orphan sources found, identified in the field and subsequently recovered?

These fundamental questions were addressed by the expert lecturers ahead of a field exercise, during which the 23 participants were asked to apply their newly-established understanding of both radioactivity principles and detection equipment to find and identify low-activity and shielded radioactive sources in field conditions. To simulate a real-world scenario, while simultaneously ensuring the safety of all participants, the location of each low-activity source was carefully marked by the course supervisors, but withheld from the trainees, who relied on their new skills to independently recover and handle the sources.

One of the key benefits of the course was to bring together stakeholders from a wide range of organizations that could be involved in source detection and recovery. “The main stakeholders from the Environmental Protection Department, the Ministry of Environment and National Beautification, the Ministry of Health and Wellness, the Barbados Fire Service,  the Royal Barbados Police Force, the Sanitation Service Authority, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, the Department of Emergency Management, the Barbados Defence Force, and the Ministry of  Labour and Social Partnership Relations were brought together,” said Anthony Headley, acting Director of the Environmental Protection Department. “This has strengthened their knowledge and ability to control radioactive sources in Barbados.”

[1] RLA9081, ‘Strengthening Cradle-to-Grave Control of Radioactive Sources’

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