YAOUNDE, CAMEROON. Nuclear safety is a major concern in all countries, especially in a region of turbulence and occasional violence, such as Central Africa. That is why the government of Cameroon has strengthened nuclear security over the past few years with the support of the IAEA and its partners.
Although Cameroon does not have nuclear installations such as a power plant or a research reactor, it uses nuclear technology in medicine, industry and research. About 200 radioactive sources are currently in use, as well as 50 disused sources that are not powerful enough to be useful but still contain enough radioactive material to cause harm. Managing these radioactive sources and keeping them under regulatory control, out of the hands of malicious actors, has been a major focus of the country’s National Radiation Protection Agency (NRPA), the regulatory body responsible for both radiation safety and nuclear safety.
Until 2019, disused radioactive sources were mostly stored in backyards or temporary storage facilities at the institutions that used them. The Nuclear Security Support Plan, developed in collaboration with IAEA experts, has been at the heart of the country’s activities ever since, starting with the compilation of an inventory of all radioactive sources.
With funding from the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration and technical support from the IAEA, the NRPA built a secure repository for low-level sources commonly used in industry, in older smoke detectors, and in brachytherapy, a form of radiation therapy based on implanting small radioactive sources inside the body. . The vault, opened in 2019, provides improved safe and secure storage, including physical protection with multiple fences, alarm and lock systems, and a surveillance camera system. At the end of their service life, high activity sources, such as those used in teletherapy, are repatriated to their country of origin or to another country with appropriate reuse, recycling, storage or disposal facilities. The sources still in Cameroon are planned to be removed as part of an international IAEA project funded by Canada through the IAEA Nuclear Security Fund.
There are several disused sources in storage in Cameroon, and more will be delivered in the coming months. As a next step, these sources will have to undergo what is called conditioning: they will be removed from the devices that contained them, characterized and placed in safe and secure capsules and storage containers. This procedure reduces the potential harm that disused sources can cause when they come into contact with people. Experts sent by the IAEA will oversee source conditioning later this year, said Jean Felix Beyala Ateba, senior scientist in charge of managing disused radioactive sources at the NRPA. “There is local expertise to carry out conditioning, but we asked an international expert to supervise the process for the first time,” he said.
Safety is also a key factor when transporting sources from an airport to user facilities or transporting disused radioactive sources, whether from a research center or hospital to a secure storage facility or to a port for repatriation to one’s country. origin. To strengthen the regulator’s skills in this area, an exercise involving several neighboring countries is planned for the end of this year. “When sources are in transit between two points, the vulnerability to theft or sabotage is higher, and radiation protection officers work in tandem with law enforcement to ensure the security of the transfer,” Beyala Ateba said.
At the same time, the IAEA is assisting Cameroon in developing the country’s transport security regulations.
Overall, about 49% of all thefts reported to the IAEA since 1993 have occurred during the authorized transport of nuclear or radioactive materials, such as sources. “Over the past decade, this figure has risen to almost 60%, highlighting the importance of strengthening transport security around the world,” said David Ladsous, head of the IAEA’s Transport Security Division.