Wanted: Lost radioactive sources

10 December 2010

Seven sources of radioactive cobalt-60 (Co-60) have gone missing from a former iron foundry in Poland - and the country's issuance of the equivalent of a 'wanted' poster to retrieve them highlights the importance of controlling radioactive materials.

PrJ20 container (Image: PAA)
Have you seen this PrJ20 container? (Image: PAA)

The discovery that a lead container holding the radioisotopes had gone missing during was made on 4 November during a routine inspection of the site of the bankrupt Ursus iron foundry in Lublin by regulators from the Polish National Atomic Energy Agency (Panstwowa Agencja Atomistyki, PAA). After verifying the list of the missing sources, the PAA's Centre for Radiation Emergencies (CEZAR) notified the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) , European Commission, Council of Baltic Sea States and other countries associated with Poland through bilateral nuclear safety and radiation protection agreements on 7 December.

The seven Co-60 sources range in activity from nine to 20 MBq and are not hazardous as long as they remain in the PrJ20 container, which weighs about 40kg and measures "approximately 30-40 cm". The missing Polish sources have been classed as Category 4, according to details posted on the IAEA's Nuclear Events Web-based System (NEWS) - that is, very unlikely to be sufficient to cause permanent injury, although possibly enough to temporarily injure someone who came into contact with it if not managed safely or securely protected.

Lost or stolen?

Radioisotopes are used in a wide variety of industrial and medical processes. Co-60 can be used in a range of applications including gauges in blast furnaces to measure furnace performance. It can also be used for gamma sterilisation, industrial radiography, density and fill height switches. Such wide use results in a wide dispersal of the materials in many countries across the globe and finding the whereabouts of lost

US Embassy buys 'uranium' 

Today's releases from WikiLeaks contain cables from the US Embassy in Rangoon, Myanmar detailing an approach by a man offering to sell 'uranium-238'.
Staff purchased a sample of less than about 50g and sent it via diplomatic pouch for testing at a US Army facility.
The civilian claimed to have access to 2000kg of uranium-bearing ore and to be ready to sell this to other embassies, should America decline his offer. 
In reality, the 'grey metallic' nature of the powder, supposedly removed from ore, casts doubt on the man's claims but the event nevertheless illustrates the market for such materials.

sources is taken very seriously by the IAEA and other world players, not least because they could be of interest to malevolent groups. 

US President Barack Obama pledged in 2009 to secure vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years: no small task, considering that the IAEA estimates that millions of radioactive sources have been distributed over the past 50 years.

Russia this week signed a pledge to provide $6.5 million in funding to the IAEA's Nuclear Security Fund, which finances the agency's ongoing Nuclear Security Plan to contribute to global efforts to achieve worldwide, effective security wherever nuclear or other radioactive material is in use. Meanwhile, Itar-Tass reports that the USA and Japan are in the process of setting up a new joint group to develop techniques to combat illicit trafficking of radioactive substances. The US Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has the role of securing radiological material in the USA. Its Off-Site Source Recovery Program (OSRP) has so far recovered over 25,000 disused and unwanted sources licensees.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News