IAEA reviews transport

3 August 2003

Last month, the International Atomic Energy Agency hosted the International Conference on the Safety of Transport of Radioactive Material. By Michael Price

Since 1961 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has had the responsibility for formulating and maintaining the regulations for the safe transport of radioactive material (RAM). These regulations provide the basis for the national regulations of many member states of the United Nations. In some cases the regulations became mandatory through the legally binding regulations of the relevant modal authorities such as the International Maritime Organization. The regulatory framework incorporates international conventions on specific topics such as SOLAS (safety of life at sea) as well as regional agreements including the international regulations concerning the carriage of dangerous goods by road (ADR) covering road transport in Europe. In all there are currently 21 international agreements and 22 regional agreements in force in the area of RAM transport.

The system of regulation set up by the IAEA has resulted in an excellent safety record with low environmental and human impacts. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) considers the transport of RAM as having no radiological impact. But, although the record is good it will only continue to be so provided that the regulations are reviewed and, if necessary, revised and there needs to be continued vigilance bearing in mind the evolution of scientific knowledge and public attitudes. As part of the process of continuous evaluation the IAEA organised a five-day conference from 7-11 July 2003 in the Austria Centre, Vienna, Austria. The conference was hosted by the Austrian government and co-sponsored by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the Universal Postal Union (UPU), and in cooperation with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). During the opening session of the conference the meeting was addressed by the director general of the IAEA Mohamed ElBaradei. He said that, despite the outstanding regulatory system and the excellent safety record, there remain some concerns regarding the transport of RAM as evidenced by the issues highlighted in the transport safety resolutions passed annually by the IAEA general conferences since 1997. Another anxiety is where airline pilots, truck drivers, carriers and even particular ports deny a transport service. Clearly the board of governors of the IAEA was seeking to be seen to be even-handed during the conference and to be assured about:

• What improvements to the regulations are necessary.

• Whether the safety standards are applied uniformly throughout the world.

• How to demonstrate the transparency of the regulatory system.

• How to address the concerns about plutonium, irradiated nuclear fuel and high-level waste.

• Whether the current system for emergency response is a suitable regime for the transport of RAM.

The introductions by the IAEA director general and the president of the meeting, Max Hughes, the Australian Ambassador to Austria, were followed by presentations which described relevant work by ICAO, IMO, the UPU, IATA and ISO. When the outline of the conference was first promulgated it was clear that the IAEA had set itself a difficult task. The only other major conference on this subject is on the Packaging and Transport of Radioactive Material (PATRAM), which originated in the USA in 1965 and is now held approximately every third year, the next PATRAM being planned to take place in Berlin in September 2004. The IAEA conference was focused on experience and practice in the regulation of RAM transport and it addressed a much wider geographic basis by working through the competent authorities of member states. That format enabled the meeting to be arranged in such a way that a consensus of opinion on the wide range of topics covered within the subject could be assembled prior to the end of the conference and forwarded to the board of governors of the IAEA. Running the conference in this way enabled the IAEA board to achieve a distillation of the views of the majority of world experts on the subject. This information would be a very important input to the annual general conference of the IAEA.

The number of participants was 534, drawn from 82 member states, 89 inter-governmental and 5 non-governmental organisations. The conference clearly achieved a necessary initial aim, which was to act as a forum representative of world experts. The way that the conference was organised facilitated the exchange of information and led to an easier discussion of views, in contrast to the difficulties of keeping up with the multiple parallel sessions of PATRAM conferences.

Papers falling within the scope of the conference were solicited on the basis that they would be included in a book of contributed papers and a CD and be summarised in oral presentations by rapporteurs. The 117 papers submitted obviously led to considerable programme challenges. The rapporteurs generally were drawn from the authors of invited papers whose contributions provided an initial structure to the conference. But because of the number of papers some of the rapporteurs were only able to devote a minute or two to describe and comment on certain papers. This was the only down side of the conference. The subsequent stages of distilling the views of conference participants via the session chairmen were well handled. The output, which was circulated to the conference on the last day, consisted of well-prepared documents containing summaries of the sessions. As a second distillation, the president of the conference

provided a document containing his final summary and findings. The way in which the whole process was achieved lends considerable credence to the conclusions.


The Cherbonyl accident showed up the deficiencies in international arrangements for dealing with liability for nuclear damage. Although this is a legal area not well-known to many of the participants, the session on liability made it clear that the subject is important irrespective of whether a state has a nuclear industry. There are five inter-related sets of conventions and protocols which bear on the subject, led historically by the 1960 OECD Paris Convention and the IAEA Vienna Convention of 1963. But the record of participation as signatories to such instruments is poor. Indeed it was reported at the conference that states with 57% of the world's operating nuclear power reactors are not parties to any nuclear liability convention. Transport of RAM between and among such states is therefore not covered by any treaty that deals with liability. This situation needs to be resolved but many elements bear on this such as the origin and destination of the shipment, the nature of the materials, the features of the damage, nationalities involved and the legal system which applies. It was instructive to be reminded of the complexities of the grounding of the US supertanker Amoco Cadiz which caused a large oil spill off the Brittany coast of France with the case being judged under US law. At present there are the thorny problems that flow from the variable adherence to the conventions and the fact that many states do not adhere to any convention. The diverse views expressed on the definition of the term damage, the amount of compensation and the issue of international jurisdiction confirm the view that the subject will not be settled quickly and that its solution would be complex. That said it appeared that the best way would be by amendment of the 1997 IAEA Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC) with the IAEA acting as the catalyst for this process.

Radiation protection

Organisations involved in the transport of RAM are now required to implement radiation protection programmes (RPPs, see page 38) to control radiation exposure to the public and workers. Surveys confirm that the exposures received under normal conditions are generally low and well below 0.1 milliSievert per year for members of the public and generally below 1mSv/y for workers. The transport of large fuel flasks for the nuclear industry is therefore of minor consequence for its contribution to dose. The exception to this generalisation is that the dose to transport workers involved in the supply of radioisotopes can be significant (<10mSv/y.) Participants from other sectors of the nuclear industry were concerned with this situation since it casts a shadow over the whole industry.

The introduction of RPPs should usefully enhance the provision of information and the establishment of procedures for dealing with routine and non-routine conditions.

Quality assurance

The safe transport of RAM depends on the execution of quality assurance backed up by compliance checks carried out by the regulatory authorities. In 1998 the IAEA offered a Transport Safety Appraisal Service (TranSAS) to member states. These are a useful method of in-depth audit that at the same time add transparency to the process. To date four countries have availed themselves of the service and many positive comments were made about their usefulness. However the extension of this service appeared to be limited due to the relatively fixed budget of the IAEA. The IAEA was asked to explore ways of escaping from the current funding and effort restrictions. It was also suggested that a review of the experience in the four TranSAS missions to date (to Brazil, Panama, Turkey and the United Kingdom) would be useful to aid future missions.

'Standard' material

The transport of 'standard' material is generally in support of electricity generation as well as for industrial and health care applications. The IAEA regulations provide a sound basis for such packages and the safety record is good. The overall dimensions of packages are often dictated by the geometry of the fuel assembly pay load and they use a variety of shielding materials. The CONSTOR range of transport and storage casks was developed to simplify the package manufacturing process using concrete so that such flasks do not require to be made in highly specialised industries of advanced countries.

David Rogers gave an impressive presentation about the transport of gamma sterilisation sources which are a clean and reliable means of achieving sterilisation or the removal of organic contaminants in medical, pharmaceutical and food applications. They are vital for dealing correctly with the mounting problem of medical disposables and devices and they provide 40% of the world's needs in this field at an acceptable cost.

There are only two suppliers of gamma sterilisation sources but at least 200 sterilisation plants are in operation so that transport is vital. But the difficulties of arranging transport are daunting. Only one in ten shipping lines will convey Class 7 goods; some ports will not receive Class 7 materials and the lengthy processes for the transit of a ship reduces the choice of lines by a further factor of ten. Further difficulties occur where no shipping lines or routes are available, such as to South Africa. The vital message that needs to be brought home is that such blocks to the transport process endanger all mankind not just those who support nuclear generation of electricity.

'Non-standard' material

In recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of non-standard material radioactive sources that have been found or have been abandoned by their former owners. A paper from Georgia reported that more than 200 such sources (of 226Ra, 137Cs and 60Co) have been found. Special techniques are needed to construct packages for transport to a safe storage site and the non-standard materials are often of abnormal shape and size.

There is a noticeable increase in the use of radioactive materials in developing countries. Several papers referred to the safety of transport of naturally occurring RAM (NORM) where the IAEA transport regulations include an allowance of a factor of ten over the exemption quantity levels for NORM provided they are not intended to be processed to extract the radionuclide contained therein. This leads to some internal inconsistency in the regulations so that a study of the basis for the factor of ten easement should be examined by the IAEA.

Regulatory process

It is accepted that adherence to the IAEA transport regulations will produce a package which adequately protects the public under all conceived conditions. This involves package design and manufacture, compliance with regulatory tests and administrative and quality assurance procedures, allied to suitable training. The regulations are now reviewed every two years to keep in step with the rhythm of the revisions of the regulations of the modal authorities such as the IMO and ICAO. The first of the biannual revision cycles has been completed and the experience was positive. The second cycle of revision is underway. The main comments were that time is needed to ensure common implementation of new requirements and to accommodate changes to procedures and staff training.

Many participants expressed approval that the current regulations provide a high level of safety provided that they are complied with. Some who are involved in transport operations urged that changes to the regulations had to be justified.


The session on 'communication with the public and between governments' illustrated various aspects of communication with the public. A Canadian contribution described the interactions with the public over test shipments of mixed plutonium/uranium oxide which were designed to show how weapons-grade plutonium could be transformed into nuclear fuel. The French described their experience in applying the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) to transport events. Notification and classification of the severity of transport events are a succinct way to inform the public and the media. The INES initiative has been taken up by various other countries and resulted in a draft guide covering the application of INES to RAM transport events.

A Japanese paper emphasised the importance of providing safety information to relevant coastal states in advance of shipments of RAM, as recommended by the IAEA general conference in September 2002 as a means of improving communications. However, the provision of such information is voluntary and reasons for not conforming cite physical security considerations and the fact that a ship has the right of free navigation based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which does not require pre-notification. This results in coastal states, such as Peru and New Zealand, expressing their concerns about the lack of pre-notification.

Emergency procedures

Various countries, such as the USA, the UK, Germany and Japan described their emergency organisation. It is obvious that the main structure of an emergency procedure needs to describe the roles and obligations of the main participants. The IAEA guidance document provides a framework strategy for dealing with transport accidents whilst recognising that the potential consequences of road, rail and air transport accidents are different. It was considered that response capability varies markedly around the world. This implies the need for countries to have the capability to invoke external assistance. Necessarily such arrangements should be broadly in place ahead of any possible incident. Global response capability is not yet accepted by all states.

Training of emergency response teams is a critical aspect. It is important to build confidence within and between governments as well as with the public and the media and other involved parties.

Prior notification of transport can be useful in managing emergency response but runs counter to security measures. The longer the advance notice of a transport operation the less secure it will be.

Findings and recommendations

The aim of the meeting was to foster information exchange, to discuss critical issues and to formulate findings and recommendations. These were incorporated into the report of the conference president and can be summarised as follows:

• Doses to the public and workers from the transport of RAM are very low, but there are some exceptions.

• Robust compliance and quality assurance programmes conforming with the IAEA transport regulations are essential to build confidence in the safety of RAM transport and the TranSAS service is an important tool in this. Transparency is a way to achieve credibility.

• Current IAEA transport regulations provide an effective system and a high level of safety for RAM transport, the primary safeguard being invested in the package. The process is sufficiently flexible to deal with the evolving situation whilst also providing regulatory stability. The test requirements for Type B packages for maritime transport are soundly based.

• New strategies are needed to facilitate transport in the face of increasing international trade and refusals by carriers, ports and handlers to accept consignments of RAM. Enhanced efforts or separate treatment may be required to improve the speed of transport for medical applications.

• Guidance is needed on how to deal with 'orphaned' or discovered sources, the number of which has increased significantly. Additional research is needed regarding the level at which to set the regulatory limits for the transport of very low activity naturally occurring RAM.

The conference can be judged to have succeeded in responding to the challenge, posed at the beginning of the conference, to undertake a thorough review of the regulatory and technical issues and to identify the way ahead. The output from this conference will clarify the work of the IAEA board of governors in its task of maintaining and updating the IAEA transport regulations.
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