IAEA assists in securing Congolese disused radioactive sources

18 January 2021

Two disused radioactive sources, previously used in cancer treatment, have been transported to safe and secure storage locations in the Republic of the Congo. The relocation of the sources - which are expected to be exported outside the country next year - was supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

One of the Congolese disused radioactive sources is securely guarded prior to its transport (Image: M Warnau; D Ladsous/IAEA)

The University Hospital of Brazzaville received a new cobalt 60 (Co-60) sealed source in 2010 for its teletherapy machine, replacing its original source, which was no longer able to deliver effective treatment. The disused sealed source was then packaged and shipped by boat to the supplier. However, the delivery of the package was blocked in transit due to problems with the shipping documents and was returned to the Republic of the Congo. Since 2010, the Co-60 source has been stored at the Autonomous Port of Pointe Noire, one of the most important commercial harbours in Central Africa. Meanwhile, the replacement source installed in the teletherapy machine has also decayed to a level of radioactivity that is no longer useful for clinical teletherapy purposes.

The IAEA noted that while the sources no longer emit enough radioactivity to be useful for radiotherapy, they are still radioactive and therefore need to be controlled and managed safely and securely.

"The August 2020 explosion that occurred in Beirut Harbour reminded the Congolese Authorities of the risks to unmanaged or unregulated material, particularly in national ports and harbours," said Martin Parfait Aimé Coussoud-Mavoungou, Minister for Scientific Research and Technological Innovation. Congolese decision-makers agreed that the disused source had to urgently leave the Autonomous Port of Pointe Noire.

A detailed national action plan was developed, involving the cooperation of several branches of the government, including the Ministries of Defence, Transportation, Health, Mines and Energy, as well as the Ministry of Scientific Research and Technological Innovation. A transport security plan was finalised on location in November, with the support of IAEA experts. They designed a security system for the package and conducted a pre-shipment verification and simulation. At the same time, 45 participants were trained from the five government ministries involved in the transport by road of the source in Pointe Noire.

On 17 November, IAEA experts also conducted a site assessment of the locations where the sources would be temporarily stored until final export. Following the assessment, the government made changes in line with IAEA recommendations to increase the security of these locations. The transport by road of the Pointe Noire source took place at the end of the IAEA experts' mission. The sources are now secured and awaiting final removal from the country to an appropriate long-term storage facility.

"The safe and secure transport and the temporary storage of these disused sources has enabled the country to ensure that there are no risks of malicious acts or accidents with the potential for radiological exposure that could affect the safety of people and the environment," said Raja Adnan, who oversaw the work and activities of the IAEA Division for Nuclear Security as the division's director until the end of 2020.

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 authorised for. The IAEA's Safety Standards provide the international requirements for the control of disused sources and helps member states implement technologies to recover, condition and store them.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News