The import and export of sealed radioactive sources is part of the modern global trade. Radioactive sources are imported and exported daily from country to country or across continents, to meet the needs of a broad range of applications, from radiotherapy machines used in hospitals for cancer care to gamma radiography devices used in industry.
But how is the safety and security of sealed radioactive sources effectively managed while they are being imported or exported? The IAEA’s Guidance on the Import and Export of Radioactive Sources assists countries in establishing a globally harmonized control regime, including maintaining regulatory oversight throughout the import-export process between countries. It is a supplementary document to the IAEA’s Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources, and has received commitment from 130 countries.
“The political commitment to the Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources and its supplementary guidance is a strong indication of radiation safety and nuclear security culture,” said Lydie Evrard, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security. “The international community’s effective and comprehensive implementation of these instruments is crucial to ensuring safety and security of radioactive sources.”
The Guidance on the Import and Export of Radioactive Sources was first published in 2005, following the approval of the Code of Conduct in 2003. The current version, revised in 2012, specifically applies to Category 1 and Category 2 radioactive sources, such as Co-60 or Cs-137, which contain high radioactivity and are predominantly used in medical and industrial applications. Ensuring the safe and secure import and export of these categories of sources is critical as they have many benefits in cancer treatment and cardiovascular diseases diagnosis. At the same time, their high radioactivity makes them a threat in case of accidental radiation exposure or in any case of criminal or intentional unauthorized acts.
The importance of the Code of Conduct and its supplementary Guidance was extensively acknowledged during the IAEA’s International Conference on Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources: Accomplishments and Future Endeavours last year, with the continued implementation of its provisions among the main recommendations at the event’s outcome.
In addition, for the first time since the Guidance was published, 103 ‘Points of Contact’ nominated by 76 countries to facilitate the import and export of radioactive sources met last month in Vienna to discuss their experiences, challenges and lessons learned from its implementation. Points of Contact are people who act as facilitators during the export and import or radioactive sources in accordance with the Guidance.
Discussions during their meeting covered existing challenges faced, for example, how to proceed when the exporting country has not expressed political commitment to the Guidance, or how to ensure safety and security in cases where the necessary information from the importing country is delayed. A further challenge highlighted was how harmonization with legally binding documents, such as European Union regulations can be achieved.
“Some of the challenges regarding interaction between Points of Contact were discussed in plenary sessions, roundtables and case analyses, resulting in a set of good practices and recommendations for countries and the IAEA Secretariat,” said Houda Idihia, Chair of the meeting and Morocco’s Point of Contact since 2018. Recommendations included ensuring that Points of Contact have access to national radioactive sources catalogues; the use of standard forms to request consent of shipment and for notification prior to shipment, as well as notifying the exporting country upon the completion of the source import.
“The role of the Point of Contact is important for the communication, coordination and operational interaction with all relevant stakeholders having responsibility for safety and security of radioactive sources, including the regulatory bodies, customs, suppliers, carriers and licensees,” said Deyana Dosieva, Bulgaria’s Point of Contact and Head of the Radiation Protection Department of the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, addressing the meeting.
To assist countries in developing a common understanding about the role of the Points of Contact, and to enhance the implementation of the Guidance, the IAEA has established connectivity exercises to test timely response of the Points of Contact and facilitated regular meetings to enhance networking. The implementation of the Code of Conduct and its supplementary Guidance is also being discussed in the International Conference on Effective Nuclear and Radiation Regulatory Systems: Preparing for the Future in a Rapidly Changing Environment, underway this week in Abu Dhabi.