Security of sealed radioactive sources

The requirements of the Code of Practice for the Security of Radioactive Sources incorporated in the Protection from Harmful Radiation Act 1990  and the Protection from Harmful Regulation 2013 commenced 1 July 2013.

Radioactive substances are used in medicine, industry, research and education. In the past, the focus of legislation controlling the use of radioactive substances has been on safety and protecting the environment.

However, in the current global security environment, governments have identified a need to ensure that radioactive sources are secured to prevent their malicious misuse.

In April 2007, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) approved a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Security Strategy, which provides a framework to strengthen and enhance Australia's arrangements for CBRN security.

As the NSW radiation regulator, the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has an important role in implementing the radiological elements of the CBRN Security Strategy, as do its stakeholders who are responsible for radioactive sources.

The strategy establishes a national approach to regulating the secure possession, use, storage and transport of radioactive sources. It requires the NSW Government to audit and keep track of the location of sources, conduct education and awareness programs, manage disused and orphan sources, and respond to threats and incidents.

Code of practice for the security of radioactive sources

A key part of the strategy is implementation of the national Code of Practice for the Security of Radioactive Sources.

The Code sets out the security requirements that persons responsible for radioactive sources must implement in order to decrease the likelihood of the unauthorised access to, or acquisition of, sources by persons with malicious intent.

What the legislation applies to

The requirements apply to radioactive substances that are in the form of sealed radioactive sources (encapsulated or solid) but do not apply to unsealed radioactive substances.

Sealed sources are grouped into five categories, with security requirements that correspond to the risk posed by sources in each category.

Categorisation is based on the potential for sources to cause harm to human health. Categories 1, 2 and 3 sources are high risk, or 'security-enhanced', sources and potentially the most dangerous, with category 1 being the highest risk.

Categories 4 and 5 sources are less likely to cause harm and are not subject to the stringent security requirements the apply to security-enhanced sources.

Sources stored together may also be considered security-enhanced by aggregation, based on the total activity of the group of sources. The security requirements are then determined as for a single source.

What security-enhanced sources are used for in NSW

Gamma irradiation

  • used in large-scale commercial sterilisation of products such as medical supplies and animal feed
  • used for donated blood -  to kill lymphocytes which cause transfusion-associated graft-versus-host disease 
  • used for human and animal tissue and in cancer and other research.

Cancer therapy

  • in brachytherapy, where the source is placed inside or next to the cancer in the patient
  • in the application of highly-targeted doses of radiation to brain tumours ('gamma knife').

Industrial applications

  • in taking radiographs of engineered structures, for example bridges and aircraft, to detect stresses and faults
  • in gauging product characteristics, such as thickness and flows, in industrial processes, such as metal manufacturing. The Protection from Harmful Radiation Act 1990 and Protection from Harmful Regulation 2013 give effect to the Code, setting out obligations of persons responsible for security-enhanced radioactive sources.
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