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Statement to the International Conference on Security of Radioactive Sources

Vienna, Austria

Vienna, Austria


I am pleased to welcome you all to this conference on a subject that continues to generate serious public concern: the security of radioactive sources. Around the world, radioactive sources have been used for decades to benefit humankind - to diagnose and treat illnesses, to monitor oil wells and water aquifers, to preserve food, as well as for many other uses. Millions of sources have been distributed worldwide over the past 50 years, with hundreds of thousands currently in use. Most of these sources, such as those in smoke detectors, are weakly radioactive and individually pose little radiological risk. However, about 12 000 industrial radiography sources are supplied annually; more than 10 000 medical radiotherapy units are in use. These types of sources - and others such as those contained in thermo-electric generators - are significant from a safety and security standpoint, because they contain potentially lethal quantities of radioactive material.

To protect the public from the hazards of ionizing radiation, cradle-to-grave control is essential for these radioactive sources. For many years the IAEA has been helping States to strengthen their national regulatory infrastructures, to ensure that such radioactive sources are appropriately regulated at all times. Until recently, our emphasis has been on the safety of radioactive sources, with source security as one aspect of safety. However, in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, and the stark awareness of the potential for radioactive sources to be used in malevolent acts, source security has taken on a new urgency. But while a number of countries are stepping up relevant security measures, many others lack the resources or the national structures to effectively control radioactive sources.

Orphaned Sources

A widespread problem involves sources that, due to loss, theft, or abandonment, have fallen outside official regulatory control - the so-called "orphaned" sources. This problem has been especially present in the Newly Independent States, where transitions in governments have in some cases led to a loss of regulatory oversight of radioactive sources.

In a large number of cases, even without malevolent intent, the loss of control of radioactive sources has resulted in death or serious injury. The well known incident in Goiânia, Brazil, in the eighties, is frequently cited as an example - a case in which the inadvertent dismantling of a radiotherapy source, and the dispersal of caesium-137, resulted in a number of fatalities and significant social and economic disruption.

Many factors can lead to loss of control of radioactive sources, including: ineffective regulations and regulatory oversight; the lack of management commitment or worker training; poor source design; poor physical protection of sources during storage, transport and use; abandonment due to economic factors; as well as theft or other malicious acts. In view of this wide range of possible causes, addressing the problem is a difficult and complex challenge.

Radiological Terrorism

As I just mentioned, after the events of September 2001, issues related to terrorist activities - including nuclear and radiological terrorism - were catapulted into the spotlight. Given the apparent readiness of terrorists to disregard their own safety, the personal danger from handling powerful radioactive sources can no longer be seen as an effective deterrent. This awareness prompted a thorough re-evaluation of the risks involved. In view of recent reports about terrorist plans to build and deploy radiological dispersion devices - and given the inadequacy of source controls I just mentioned - it is clear that additional security measures are urgently needed. This concern has been the focus of the international community in the past 18 months. I trust that this conference will help to identify what has been accomplished and to focus on additional measures that need to be taken to cope with the challenge.

Clearly, the use of a radiological dispersion device - sometimes referred to as a "dirty bomb" - will, as with any explosion, kill or injure people through the blast. But, the most severe impacts of a dirty bomb would probably be the panic and social disruption associated with exposure to radiation, the very purpose of an act of "terror".

IAEA Activities

The IAEA and its Members have been hard at work to raise the levels of radiation safety and security associated with radioactive sources, focusing on countries with urgent needs. Nearly a decade ago, the IAEA established the "International Basic Safety Standards for Protection Against Ionizing Radiation and for the Safety of Radiation Sources", and recently the Agency has used a "Model Project on Upgrading Radiation Protection Infrastructure" to help Member States establish the infrastructure to improve their control of radioactive sources. Both the Basic Safety Standards and the Model Project have included specific aspects related to source security as well as safety - but in many countries these requirements have not been implemented, with the result that the regulatory control of radioactive sources remains weak, and the States' inventories of such sources not well maintained.

The Agency has also developed a Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources, a Categorization of Radioactive Sources and an international database on radiation events (RADEV). In addition, the Agency has sponsored a number of relevant international conferences, which made specific recommendations for creating national source registries, securing orphaned sources, and preventing criminal misuse involving nuclear and other radioactive materials.

But the most direct impact of IAEA activities in this area has come in actual field work: that is, assistance to States to meet urgent needs or to provide the training, equipment and expert advice to raise the level of performance in the area of source security - including through the Agency's appraisal service for evaluating a State's radiation safety regulatory infrastructure.

In a number of cases, the IAEA has lent its expertise to locate and secure orphaned sources. In Kabul, Afghanistan, last year, the Agency helped to secure an abandoned powerful cobalt source. In Uganda a week later, we helped the Government to secure a source that appeared to have been stolen for illicit resale. And a Georgian team supported by the IAEA successfully recovered two powerful radioactive sources that had been left unshielded and unsecured.

Similar problems with orphaned sources exist in other countries. Recently, a tripartite initiative was established by the Agency, the US Department of Energy (DOE) and the Russian Ministry for Atomic Energy (MINATOM) - in an effort led by Secretary Abraham and Minister Rumyantsev - to locate, recover, secure and recycle orphaned sources throughout the countries of the former Soviet Union. Two joint missions were carried out in Moldova and Tajikistan last year, and more are planned for this year; however, no similar arrangement is available yet to help countries outside the former Soviet Union.

Another area of IAEA focus is on illicit trafficking and the potential malevolent use of sources. The Agency's Illicit Trafficking Database includes over 280 confirmed incidents since 1993 involving radioactive sources. The actual number of cases may well be significantly larger than the number reported to the Agency. Customs officials, border guards, and police forces continue to detect numerous attempts to smuggle and sell stolen sources.

The IAEA has been actively assisting States to strengthen their border controls against illicit trafficking and to improve their physical protection of radioactive sources. Recent examples include: workshops on border monitoring and illicit trafficking held in Vladivostok and St. Petersburg for customs and law enforcement officials from the Newly Independent States; a workshop on border monitoring for law enforcement officials in the Philippines; a meeting in Ghana to plan assistance to African States on the full range of nuclear security issues; and incident related advisory missions to Bolivia, Nigeria, and the United Republic of Tanzania on issues related to illicit trafficking.

Looking to the future, it is clear that much remains to be done to improve the security of radioactive sources worldwide. The IAEA will remain actively engaged in assisting States to search for, recover, and secure orphaned sources, and improve their own national measures for the control of radioactive sources.

This Conference

Before closing, I would like to acknowledge with gratitude the leadership shown by the US Secretary of Energy, Spencer Abraham - in continuing to highlight the urgency of addressing the security of radioactive sources worldwide. It was Secretary Abraham, during the September 2002 session of the IAEA General Conference, who suggested the need for our present conference.

The Agency is grateful to the Government of Austria for hosting this conference, the Governments of the Russian Federation and the United States of America for sponsoring the conference, and for the co-operation of the European Commission, the European Police Office, the International Criminal Police Organization, and the World Customs Organization. The control of radioactive sources is one among several areas of expanding Agency activity, and the Agency will need broad support from all its Member States, including financial support, to ensure that we deal effectively with this imminent danger. Naturally, the success of this conference will be measured by our success in agreeing and implementing the necessary measures to protect ourselves against any malicious use of radioactive sources. I wish you every success in your discussions.


Last update: 26 Nov 2019

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