Disused sources

Radioactive sources are used worldwide in medicine, industry and research. Once they fall out of use, the risk of them being unprotected or abandoned increases. The IAEA’s Safety Standards provide the international requirements to control disused sources and helps Member States implement technologies to recover, condition and store them.

A sealed radioactive source is a container of encapsulated radioactive material, which usually has the appearance of a small, harmless piece of metal. The capsule or material of a sealed source is strong enough to maintain leak tightness under the conditions of use for which the source was designed, and also under foreseeable mishaps. Sealed radioactive sources are used in various applications in medicine, agriculture, industry, transportation, construction, geology, mining and research.

Disused sources are defined as sources that are no longer used and there is no intention of using them again in the practices they were authorized for. Spent sources, which can no longer be used for their intended purposes as a result of radioactive decay, are a sub-set of disused sources.

If lost or not properly controlled, disused sealed sources can be a threat to human health and the environment. Exposure to large doses of radiation from an unshielded high-activity source can be lethal or cause severe radiation injury. If the source capsule is damaged, the radioactive material can be released and dispersed, resulting in contamination to the environment and potential radiological hazards for people.

Ensuring safety in the use of radiation sources and operation of related facilities is of paramount importance for the protection of people and the environment from any associated radiation risks. In order to ensure radiation safety, a cradle-to-grave system for the control of radiation sources is needed.

Such a system requires first of all that relevant laws and regulations are in place, a national infrastructure for the control of radiation sources is established and that regulatory control activities are implemented. The regulatory body needs sufficient resources and competent staff, while the regulatory control activities would need to include all necessary steps, from authorization to inspection and enforcement.

Through its Safety Standards and other documents, such as the Code of Conduct on Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources and the Guidance on the Import and Export of Radioactive Sources, the IAEA provides the international requirements and recommendations for an appropriate and sustainable regulatory system for the control of radioactive sources. The Agency also provides various tools to assist regulatory bodies in strengthening the effectiveness of their activities, including the Self-Assessment of Regulatory Infrastructure for Safety (SARIS), the Regulatory Authority Information System (RAIS), the Control of Sources Network (CSN) and the Radioactive Waste Management Registry (RWMR) for operators.

The IAEA also assists its Member States in implementing safe and cost-effective technologies for recovering, conditioning and storing sealed radioactive sources. Direct assistance includes:

  • Search for potential orphan sources, as well as recovery and safe management of found sources;
  • Recovering, characterizing and conditioning of disused sealed radioactive sources, including radium sources, lightening conductor sources and smoke detectors, for long-term storage or disposal;
  • Completion of national inventories of disused sealed radioactive sources, source characterization and record-keeping; and
  • Providing assistance for the repatriation or recycling of high-activity disused sealed radioactive sources.

The Agency also helps improve national capabilities for disused sealed source management, by advising on the designs for facilities to condition and store these sources; by providing technical procedures on the handling, conditioning and storage of DSRS; and by offering training on the design of facilities and on technical procedures. The IAEA also maintains an eLearning platform that contains lectures and presentations covering topics in the Cradle-to-Grave-Management of disused sealed radioactive sources, as well as other topics on spent fuel and radioactive waste management, decommissioning and environmental remediation.

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