Viewpoint: Time to appoint a National Focal Point on denial of shipments

22 September 2020

As Member States of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) gather in Vienna this week for the annual General Conference, they should consider making universal the appointment of a National Focal Point on denials of shipment of radioactive materials to boost security of supply of medical isotopes, write Natanael Bruno and Serge Gorlin, co-chairs of the Transport Facilitation Working Group.

Natanael Bruno and Serge Gorlin

"In March this year, the COVID-19 pandemic triggered enormous disruption to global transport and trade routes when almost the entire world-wide passenger aircraft fleet was grounded.

As presented during an IAEA webinar, this situation, combined with countries closing borders to trade, meant that health centres around the world experienced problems importing medical radioisotopes and radiopharmaceuticals. Patients were deprived of material for diagnosis and therapeutic applications, including material used for cancer treatment.

A further factor that contributed to an already difficult situation was the existing policies of certain transport companies and ports to refuse radioactive materials as cargo. Symptomatic of this were the urgent efforts by governments at the height of the crisis to persuade a major European air carrier to start accepting radioactive materials to allow molybdenum99 to be exported to North America.

The non-acceptance of radioactive materials, also known as denials of shipment (DOS), is a chronic issue recognised by the IAEA. Beyond the delay in the provision of medical treatment and diagnosis, its serious effects include:

  • Shipment of material by circuitous routes, adding cost, safety and physical protection risk;
  • Impediment to the return of orphan sources from politically unstable regions; and
  • Shortages in the supply of sterile disposable medical products

To counter these risks, the annual IAEA Nuclear Safety Resolution calls upon Member States to facilitate the transport of radioactive material, and to “identify, if they have not done so, a national focal point [NFP] on denials of shipment of radioactive materials to achieve a satisfactory and timely resolution of this issue”.

NFPs have already been appointed in countries such as Sweden, Switzerland, Argentina and Brazil to coordinate and plan on matters relating to denials on a domestic level and to liaise with the IAEA. They also bring together key stakeholders, such as regulators, government agencies, customs organisations, shippers and port authorities to monitor the security of supply situation and to address bottlenecks.

Their coordination can make an important difference. In Brazil, thanks to the support of a national committee on denial of shipments, three new airlines have agreed to accept radioactive materials as cargo over the last five years. This meant that when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and passenger air transport was curtailed, the country was in a better position to distribute radioisotopes to health centres around the country.

While an NFP is an important element in ensuring the security of supply of radioactive materials it is not a panacea. Other factors that can improve the situation include training to ensure sufficient capacity is in place to regulate radioactive material transport; greater outreach by industry - perhaps in conjunction with NFPs - to interest ports, shipping companies, and airlines in carrying these materials; and more work to highlight the critical role radioactive materials play in public healthcare, and in economies in general.

With the COVID-19 pandemic far from over, further disruption to the transport of radioactive materials is likely. Causes might range from companies going bankrupt, sudden changes to regulation and COVID-19 outbreaks among ships’ crews. If they have not done so, Member States should seriously consider appointing an NFP. They can play a valuable role in moderating the effects of the denials of shipment - and the pandemic - on the timely delivery of radioactive materials to our health systems and economies."

Natanael Bruno and Serge Gorlin

Transport Facilitation Working Group is an independent, multi-stakeholder group of experts whose role is to propose strategies and activities necessary to enable the efficient global transport of radioactive materials.