Nuclear safety experts recover stray radioactive sources in Nigeria

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At the request of the Nigerian government, the IAEA deployed a team of nuclear safety experts to secure and transport several potentially hazardous radioactive sources in the country. Staff from the Agency´s Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology department (NEFW) traveled to several different locations within Nigeria to safely recover the radiological sources and ship them in transport containers for return to Canada or processing at a Nigerian waste facility. With widespread application in a variety of medical, industrial, and research applications, keeping people safe from any potential risk from neglected neutron sources is a high priority.

'In countries where there are few proper places for safe and secure storage of used radioactive materials, we help to make sure that potential danger is removed,' said Josef Neubauer, a nuclear engineer in NEFW, who managed the Nigerian repatriation project. 'We make trips such as these on an almost monthly basis to recover disused material that could be inappropriately used.'

At the request of the Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NNRA), the IAEA assembled a team of radiation recovery experts to pick up the sources in three locations around the country. The team travelled to two hospitals and a research centre over a weeklong period last July, and recovered sources that were formerly used for cancer treatment and an insect irradiation project. The seven high-activity sources were expired, but would have posed a public safety threat had anyone come into contact with them. A high degree of security was maintained during the mission, with police accompanying the transport of the sources at all times. NNRA staff and bomb squad staff also assisted the multinational team to recover the sources.

The mission was not without its challenges. In addition to difficulty in disassembling some of the units, the team encountered vehicle breakdowns, equipment delays, and traffic jams. At one recovery mission in a hospital, an unforeseen equipment delay forced the team to complete its task under the dark of night.

While some original radioactive source manufacturers agree to accept a source´s return, there are cases when the cost of return is prohibitive or a company goes out of business. International support such as that provided by the IAEA can help countries to manage the import, use, and export of radioactive sources. When assistance is requested from Member States, the IAEA deploys experts and assistance to work in concert with a country´s regulatory authority on a case-by-case basis.

The IAEA´s work in this area is focused largely in developing countries, and the Agency is in planning stages of broadening its global reach to respond to assistance requests in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Background

The IAEA works in a coordinative role in recovery and repatriation cases such as these. In recent years, NEFW staff have managed an average of 8-12 visits to countries asking for assistance in recovering stray radioactive sources. Most of the time these visits are to developing countries. In a number of cases, the Agency contracts with original equipment providers and other experts to handle these recovery efforts. In Nigeria, for example, experts from two firms were contracted by the Agency to assist with the mission.

Nigeria has seen its stockpile of radioactive sources grow in recent years. With widespread applications in petroleum, medical, and manufacturing sectors, the country has taken efforts in recent years to improve its administration of radioactive sources. The country established NNRA, its regulatory body, in 2001.

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