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IAEA Helps Remove Highly Radioactive Material from Five South American Countries


One of the containers with highly radioactive sources which were transported from Paraguay for recycling. (Photo: National Radiological and Nuclear Control Agency of Paraguay)

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has helped remove 27 disused highly radioactive sources from five South American countries in a significant step forward for nuclear safety and security in the region. It was the largest such project ever facilitated by the IAEA.

The material, mainly used for medical purposes such as treating cancer and sterilizing instruments, was transported to Germany and the United States for recycling. Canada, where some of the sources were manufactured, funded the project upon requests for IAEA support from Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay.

The sealed Cobalt-60 and Caesium-137 sources pose safety and security risks when no longer in use, according to Raja Adnan, Director of the IAEA’s Division of Nuclear Security. “The removal of this large number of radioactive sources has significantly reduced those risks in the five countries,” Adnan said.

The project, carried out over five months, started in Peru and Uruguay late last year before continuing in Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay in February and March. The transport of sources to Germany and the United States was completed at the end of March.

“Some of these sources were stored at hospitals for more than 40 years,” said César José Cardozo Román, Minister, Executive Secretary, Radiological Nuclear Regulatory Authority of Paraguay. “With this action, a problematic situation has been solved, improving safety for the public and environment and reducing the risk of malicious use and possible exposure to radioactive material.”

In recent years, the IAEA has assisted Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cameroon, Costa Rica, Honduras, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia and Uzbekistan in the removal of disused sources. The South American operation was the largest the IAEA has so far coordinated in terms of both the number of highly radioactive sources and countries involved.

Alejandro Nader, Manager at the National Regulatory Authority for Radiation Protection, of the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Mining of Uruguay, said the project had delivered concrete benefits. “It was a real and concrete positive result for the country’s radioactive waste situation,” Nader said. “With the removal carried out through the project, Uruguay has no more disused highly radioactive sources. This is an excellent achievement to highlight in terms of safety and security.”

While nuclear safety and security are national responsibilities, the IAEA helps Member States upon request to meet these responsibilities through training, technical advice, peer reviews and other advisory services. Such efforts may include support for Member States in implementing the safe and cost-effective recovery, conditioning, storage, disposal or transportation of disused sealed radioactive sources (DSRS).

“The IAEA is working hard to help Member States prevent malicious acts and keep sources from falling into the wrong hands,” said project coordinator Gerhardus Liebenberg, Nuclear Security Officer at the IAEA.

Kate Roughan, who leads the DSRS team in the IAEA’s Waste Technology Section, added: “Managing disused radioactive sources is a challenge for many countries. Provision of training and capacity building for the various management options allow the Member States to meet this challenge. Source recycling is a good option when feasible, but the required specialized expertise is available in only a few countries.”

The IAEA publication Management of Disused Sealed Radioactive Sources provides guidance and options on how to manage such sources. The Agency also encourages Member States to follow the principles of the Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources and its new supplementary guidance on the Management of Disused Radioactive Sources.

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