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Seeing the Full Picture: IAEA to Develop Comprehensive Guidance for the Management of Depleted Uranium used in DSRS Shielding

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Depleted uranium is often contained in the radiation shielding of sealed radioactive sources in a wide variety of applications, including agriculture, medicine, industrial applications, transport, as well as other technical and research areas, to protect users from radiation. Pictured here is an empty teletherapy head containing depleted uranium. (Photo: IAEA)

When a cancer therapy machine reaches the end of its life, attention centres on the safe and effective management of the disused sealed radioactive source (DSRS). But what happens to the rest of the machine, which may contain depleted uranium? Twenty-seven experts from 24 countries met in Vienna last week to discuss the challenges and solutions for the management of depleted uranium shielding that remains.

"The good news is that solutions exist and are implemented in several countries," said Lucien Pillette-Cousin, an expert from France. "Information and experience we have captured will be extremely useful for Member States, in partucular to operators and regulators in charge of the management of disused devices containing depleted uranium as shielding."

The inventory of disused sealed radioactive sources (DSRS) in various Member States is likely to increase over time, as use of devices with sealed radioactive sources continues worldwide. It is important that strategies for the safe management of these sources, once they reach the end of their useful life, also include options for the management of associated depleted uranium.

"Ensuring that users of cancer therapy and other machines with sealed radioactive sources have the full picture is really important" said Simona Sučić, an expert from Slovenia. "Each of the aspects of managing depleted uranium we have learned about is reasonably straightforward. Recycling is a path often used, but there are a lot of factors to be carefully considered."

Juan Carlos Benitez Navarro, the Scientific Secretary of the meeting added: "Depleted uranium is present in thousands of devices all over the world. Whether in cancer therapy units or industrial machines, many of these devices are old and will need proper management, including of depleted uranium.”

To make sure all aspects of safe management of depleted uranium are taken into account, the meeting participants were also joined by IAEA experts on technology, safeguards, transport and safety. They shared perspectives on the range of challenges present and how best they can be overcome.

"The meeting participants have given us some really great input," said Benitez Navarro. "We will use it to prepare a comprehensive report that includes training material, case studies and e-learning modules and make it available to all our Member States."

Background

Depleted uranium is a by-product of the production of enriched uranium for use in nuclear reactors. Although very low in radioactivity, depleted uranium must be physically protected and may be subjected to international safeguards. Commercially, depleted uranium is used in medicine, space, aviation and petroleum exploration. It is often contained in the radiation shielding of sealed radioactive sources in a wide variety of applications, including agriculture, medicine, industrial applications, transport, as well as other technical and research areas, to protect users from radiation.

During the past decade, the IAEA and its Member States have taken steps to lower the risks associated with DSRS. The IAEA has issued a series of technical guidance documents, safety standards, tools like Regulatory Authority Information System to keep an updated inventory of radioactive sources in addition to providing technical assistance to Member States, in the safe management of DSRS. Providing guidance on depleted uranium will help to complete the picture.

Last update: 29 Aug 2019

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