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Security of Radioactive Sources Enhanced by the Republic of the Congo with Assistance from the IAEA

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A disused radioactive source is securely guarded prior to its transport. (Photo: M. Warnau; D. Ladsous/IAEA)

Two disused radioactive sources, previously employed in cancer treatment, are now in safe and secure storage in the Republic of the Congo, following successful transport and increased security at their temporary storage facility, with the support of the IAEA.

The sources no longer emit enough radioactivity to be useful for radiotherapy but are still radioactive and therefore need to be controlled and managed safely and securely. They are expected to be exported outside the country next year.

“It took time to understand the risks posed by the disused radiotherapy sources stored for so long in our country. Under the leadership of the President of the Republic of the Congo, all the national actors joined as one to ensure the removal of the disused radiotherapy source, in order to avert any  potential radiological impact on  the Congolese people,” said Martin Parfait Aimé Coussoud-Mavoungou, Minister for Scientific Research and Technological Innovation.

Securing these two sources is a very significant step towards increased nuclear security in Central Africa, said Raja Adnan, who oversaw the work and activities of the IAEA Division for Nuclear Security as the Division's Director until the end of 2020. “The safe and secure transport and the temporary storage of these disused sources has enabled the country to ensure that there are no risks of malicious acts or accidents with the potential for radiological exposure that could affect the safety of people and the environment,” he said.

Around the world, radioactive material is routinely used to diagnose and treat diseases, to conduct research and to help manufacturers meet industry-related specifications and standards. This material is typically managed safely and securely while in use; however, when it reaches the end of its useful lifespan, the risk of abandonment, loss or malicious acts grows. The IAEA’s Safety Standards and Security Guidance provide the international requirements for safety and security of radioactive material in use, storage and transport, and through its technical cooperation programme, the Agency provides support to countries to recover, transport and manage them.

A tale of two sources

A disused radioactive source was successfully transported to a safe and secure location in the Republic of the Congo in November 2020. (Photo: C. Kayath/MRSIT)

In 2010, the University Hospital of Brazzaville received a new cobalt 60 (Co-60) sealed source for the hospital’s teletherapy machine, replacing its original source, which was no longer able to deliver effective treatment. The disused sealed source was then packaged and shipped by boat to the supplier. However, the delivery of the package was blocked in transit due to problems with the shipping documents and was returned to the Republic of the Congo. Since 2010, the Co-60 source has been stored at the Autonomous Port of Pointe Noire, one of the most important commercial harbours in Central Africa.

In the meantime, the replacement source installed in the teletherapy machine of the University Hospital of Brazzaville has also decayed to a level of radioactivity that is no longer useful for clinical teletherapy purposes. As a result, the country now had to deal with two disused sources.

In recent years, IAEA technical cooperation and nuclear security experts and their counterparts in the Republic of the Congo redoubled their efforts to address the risks posed by the presence of these disused sources stationed at the hospital and at the port. A detailed national action plan was developed, involving the cooperation of several branches of the government, including the Ministries of Defence, of Transportation, of Health, of Mines and Energy, as well as the Ministry of Scientific Research and Technological Innovation.

Lessons from Beirut

Experts from the IAEA held a transport security workshop for stakeholders in the Republic of the Congo to ensure that best practices were followed throughout the operations. (Photo: T. Hayes/IAEA)

“The August 2020 explosion that occurred in Beirut Harbour reminded the Congolese Authorities of the risks to unmanaged or unregulated material, particularly in national ports and harbours,” said Coussoud-Mavoungou. Congolese decision-makers agreed that the disused source had to urgently leave the Autonomous Port of Pointe Noire.

Following a comprehensive planning and preparation phase, a transport security plan was finalized on location in November, with the support of IAEA experts. They designed a security system for the package and conducted a pre-shipment verification and simulation. At the same time, 45 participants were trained from the five government Ministries involved in the transport by road of the source in Pointe Noire.

On 17 November 2020, IAEA experts also conducted a site assessment of the locations where the sources would be temporarily stored until final export. Following the assessment, the government has made changes in line with IAEA recommendations to increase the security of these locations.

The transport by road of the Pointe Noire source took place at the end of the IAEA experts’ mission. Now, the sources are secured and awaiting final removal from the country to an appropriate long-term storage facility.

“In addition to organizing workshops on transport security, IAEA experts furthermore reviewed our transport plans and helped to administer the recovery mission. This support was invaluable, and now both sources are awaiting transportation outside the country,” said Coussoud-Mavoungou when addressing the national multi-ministerial team after the successful completion of the transport.

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