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World Day of Safety and Health at Work: New Safety Report on Occupational Radiation Protection in the Uranium Mining and Processing Industry

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Central Mynkuduk Uranium In Situ Leaching Complex in Kazakhstan. (Photo: NAC Kazatomprom JSC/Kazakstan)

The mining of uranium has sustainably fueled the fleet of nuclear power plants in the world and will continue to do so in the coming decades. How can the workers involved in the mining and processing of uranium be adequately protected from radiological risks caused by uranium exposure?

The annual World Day for Safety and Health at Work is celebrated on 28 April, and to commemorate it, we are presenting a recent IAEA Safety Report providing hands-on guidance for regulators, operators, workers representatives, health, safety and environmental professionals on occupational radiation protection.

The Report is the first of its kind in the IAEA safety standards series, focusing on workers who may be externally exposed to radiation emitted from ores, processed materials, uranium ore concentrate and tailings, and internally exposed from inhalation or ingestion of radioactive material, and contamination through injuries.

The Report addresses suitable methods for control, monitoring and dose assessment for occupational exposure, and adequate radiation protection programmes. These must be designed and implemented for each of the three main methods of producing uranium — underground mining, open pit mining and in situ leaching (sometimes referred to as in situ recovery). The same approach shall be taken for each step of the life cycle of a uranium mining and processing: exploration, planning, construction and operation, decommissioning, handover and surveillance.  

“IAEA standards require that regulations on radiation protection and safety to be  comprehensive and stringent in the uranium producing industry,” said H. Burçin Okyar, an IAEA Radiation Safety Specialist. “This Safety Report provides practical information on the type of radiological risks that workers could face in the exploration, mining and processing of uranium, on exposure assessment, and on management of exposure based on the application of the appropriate standards and good working practices.”

To create a common understanding in the industry, the guidance is suitable for newly embarking countries to this industry but also for those with a well-established uranium mining and processing industry.

One such country is Kazakhstan, responsible for more than a one third of the global uranium production. “Countries that are considering further development or renewal of uranium deposits can use this Report as a guide to assess radiological risks that occur at each stage of the production cycle,” said Manas Iskakov, Director of Department of Occupational Health and Safety in Kazatomprom, a company extracting uranium in Kazakhstan.

The Report is based on the results of a questionnaire designed to provide a global overview of the occupational radiation protection in uranium mining and processing industry. The questionnaire, organized under the International System on Uranium Mining Exposures (UMEX) project, identifies leading practices and actions to be implemented for optimization of radiation protection.

Based on the answers from 36 operating facilities covering approximately 85 per cent of global uranium production in the questionnaire, it shows that the industry is committed to optimize protection of workers. Regulations are also in compliance with international standards on radiation protection.

The publication is accompanied by a training package, which is available for a download here.

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