Delays and denials of shipments involving regulated radioactive materials used in medicine and industry are of growing concern to safety and industry experts. Meeting in Rome this week at an IAEA workshop, they agreed on an action plan for the Mediterranean region that seeks to ease hardships for hospitals, research centres and organizations that rely on timely delivery of beneficial radiation sources.
The shipment issues have surfaced over the past several years, with international dimensions. Data reported to the IAEA over a recent six-month period indicate more delays than denials are taking place. Denials block shipments entirely, and delays can virtually render a radioisotope useless because of its short radioactive half-life.
Between September 2007 and March 2008, a total of 69 reports of delays and denials of shipments (42 delays, 19 denials and 8 unspecified) were reported to the IAEA. Of these, 46 reports concerned air transport, while the remaining 23 cases concerned sea, rail and road transport modes. In terms of the most common types of radioactive sources involved, 23 reports concerned iodine-131 (which has a half-life of eight days and is used in medical diagnosis), 14 fluorodeoxyglucose (a solution used for medical imaging incorporating fluorene-18, which has a half-life of just under 110 minutes); and 13 cobalt-60 (which has a half-life of 5.27 years and is used in radiotherapy for cancer care, among other applications).
The main outputs of the Rome workshop are the establishment of:
- A regional action plan focusing on six areas (i.e. awareness, training, communication, lobbying, economic, and harmonization);
- A regional network that would allow participants to share their experience and lessons learned, as well as identify and disseminate best practices; and
- A regional database of denial of shipments instances that will help identify issues and trends in a consistent and reliable manner.
The participants also stressed that successful communication and strong cooperation between a range of partners is essential for eventually resolving problems. Partners include the International Steering Committee on Denial of Shipments, the IAEA, the UN and International Modal Organizations, trade associations, regional networks, and national focal points in each country will lead to a better understanding and, eventually, a resolution of this problem. The workshop was hosted by the Government of Italy through the National Agency for Environmental Protection and Technical Services (APAT).
At the workshop, the IAEA´s Khammar Mrabit, Head of the Regulatory Infrastructure and Transport Safety Section, highlighted the importance of tackling the issue of denial of shipments of radioactive material, emphasizing the importance of international safety standards and practices.
\"There has been no significant accident from transport of radioactive material over the past half century,\" he said. \"Denial of shipments potentially increases the risks to safety and security. We should not let the issue of denial of shipments of radioactive material render ineffective the good work that has been done for over 50 years of establishing a strong safety record.\"
In his welcome remarks, Roberto Mezzanotte, Director of APAT´s Department of Nuclear, Technological and Industrial Risk, also emphasized the urgency of the problem. \"The issue of denial of shipments is not just for specialists but affects the lives of millions of people around the world. The majority of the radioactive material shipped every day is used in hospitals for diagnostics and treatment of several illnesses,\" he said.
The three-day Regional Workshop on Denial of Shipment of Radioactive Material for Countries in the Mediterranean Basin was held in Rome, Italy, from 14-16 May. More than 80 participants from 15 countries of the Mediterranean Basin and eight international organizations and associations attended. The workshop was part of the IAEA´s response to reports of increasing numbers of instances of radioactive material being denied shipment by carriers, and followed a similar meeting in Montevideo, Uruguay, in July 2007 for the Latin American region. Three more workshops are scheduled for June 2008 in Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
Production of isotopes is limited to a few countries, which underscores the importance of timely, efficient and safe international shipments to hospitals and industries. Some radioisotopes, such as iodine-123 - used for heart and thyroid imaging - have a half-life of only hours. Consequently, any interruption to their delivery can threaten the medical care of patients.
According to industry statistics 85,000 nuclear medicine procedures are carried out around the world every day. Additionally, radioactive material shipped every day all over the world is also used in a multitude of industrial applications, research and development, and in the generation of electricity and power.