About IAEA safety standards in radiation protection

» Why to have an international system of radiation protection?

While dealing with issues pertaining to radiation protection, the following situations could occur:

  • Some countries require a medical prescription to have radiation exposure for diagnosis, while other countries do not;
  • In some countries, whole body computed tomography screening is allowed, while in others it is not; 
  • One country’s dose limit for occupational protection is 20mSv/yr, while another country prescribes 50 mSv/yr, etc;
  • In some countries, there is pressure to impose dose limits for patients undergoing medical examinations, while in others there are no dose limits for patients;
  • In some countries, patients who have received therapy with unsealed radiopharmaceuticals are sent home after a few hours, while other countries retain the patients in the hospital;
  • In some countries, those working with radiation enjoy certain privileges, while other countries do not allow privileges to replace radiation protection measures. 

Such situations emphasize the need for credible international standards that are based on worldwide consensus.

» What are international standards on radiation protection?

International standards are a set of requirements agreed on by worldwide consensus, based on the knowledge of biological effects of radiation and on principles for protection from undesirable effects. The findings of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) and the recommendations of international expert bodies, notably the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), are taken into account in developing the IAEA safety standards.

  • Radiation effects: the Standards draw upon information derived from extensive research and development work by scientific and engineering organizations, at national and international levels, on the health effects of radiation and on techniques for the safe design and operation of radiation sources. They also draw upon the experience of many countries in the use of radiation and nuclear techniques. UNSCEAR, a body set up by the United Nations in 1955, compiles, assesses and disseminates information on the health effects of radiation and on levels of radiation exposure due to different sources;
  • Principles of protection: The principles for protection are obtained from the recommendations given by ICRP. The ICRP provides recommendations in a series of reports addressing general aspects of radiation protection and specific medical applications;
  • The IAEA safety standards: reflect an international consensus on what constitutes a high level of safety for protecting people and the environment from harmful effects of ionizing radiation. They are issued in the IAEA Safety Standards Series, which has three categories: Safety Fundamentals, Safety Requirements and Safety Guides.

The current international requirements related to medical uses of ionizing radiation are established in the Radiation Protection and Safety of Radiation Sources: International Basic Safety Standards (IAEA Safety Standards Series No. GSR Part 3). 

The Standards place requirements on those authorized to conduct a practice using radiation, and are based on the presumption that there is a national infrastructure enabling governments to discharge their responsibilities for protection and safety. It is this aspect that implicitly makes it necessary for international requirements to be established only by organizations with official status to establish these requirements. 

Which organizations fit into this slot? The official status accrues to international organization under the United Nation family. The IAEA is specifically authorized by its Member States, under the terms of its Statute to establish standards of safety for the protection of health and minimization of danger to life, in collaboration with the competent organs of the United Nations and the specialized agencies concerned and to provide for the application of these standards. Professional organizations can, however, collaborate and provide advice during the process of establishing and applying Standards.

The Standards have been developed with specific objectives to establish requirements for the protection of people and the environment from harmful effects of ionizing radiation and for the safety of radiation sources. The requirements have the force that is derived from the statutory provisions of the sponsoring organizations and further scope as contained therein.

Radiation Protection and Safety of Radiation Sources: International Basic Safety Standards (IAEA Safety Standards Series No. GSR Part 3) has been published in 2014. The publication is jointly sponsored by the European Commission (EC), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the IAEA, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (OECD/NEA), the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO).