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A Life-Saving Hotline

A Life-Saving Hotline

Ms Elena Buglova was part of the IEC team to respond to Chile´s call for assistance, after a construction worker was severely burned by a lost radioactive source. The Centre is a 24-hour contact point for countries dealing with nuclear or radiological emergencies. (Photo: D.Calma/IAEA)

Story Resources

Chile, 15 December 2005 -- A construction worker finds a small, shiny, metallic object at a building site in Chile. He puts it in his pocket, and later shows it to a colleague. They take it to their boss. By the end of the day, six others have examined it. By evening, the worker is in hospital, vomiting from radiation poisoning. What he´d found was a powerful, unshielded iridium-192 source. By accident, it had dislodged from equipment where it was used to check for welding flaws in the building under construction. Within days, Chile´s radiation and health authorities place an urgent call for help to the IAEA in Vienna. The worker´s medical condition had turned for the worse. Who can help?

This story is by no means unique. Venezuela, Thailand, US, Brazil, Georgia, Australia, in fact most countries around the world, have experienced radiological accidents involving lost, stolen, or damaged radioactive sources. Many of them contact the IAEA for specialized support and assistance, through an emergency hotline that´s been built up internationally.

"We´re lucky the system´s in place," says Ms. Elena Buglova, a doctor who specializes in radiation protection. "A quick response can minimize danger to people and contamination of the environment."

Ms. Buglova works with the hotline -- the IAEA Incident and Emergency Centre (IEC) -- and was called in to assist Chilean authorities. The Centre has become a 24-hour contact point for notification and support to countries in dealing with nuclear or radiological emergencies, including security-related threats.

"The IEC can leverage global resources and expertise to respond to local accidents anywhere in the world," says the IEC Head, Warren Stern. "In the case in Chile we quickly had a team of top international experts coming from France, Brazil, Argentina and the IAEA on the ground," he said.

"A big part of our job is also to make sure countries are prepared for an emergency ahead of time," Mr. Stern said. Right now, many countries find it hard to handle all the safety or security problems that can arise when radiological or nuclear material is involved, he says, especially injuries demanding specialized care.

Quick Action in Chile

When Chilean authorities called on the IAEA for help, the Centre assembled and dispatched Ms. Buglova and an international team of five more experts within the day. Once in Santiago, the team reconstructed the sequence of events at the construction site to piece the puzzle together: how did the source come to be lying, unshielded, on the ground in the first place? Who might possibly have been exposed to it? What dose of radiation did they receive?

The team examined the patients and advised on the best treatment. For the construction worker who found the source, the fast assessment "helped to save his life," Ms. Buglova said. He had severe radiation burns where the source had rested in his back-pocket, and was flown to a specialized hospital in France for surgery.

Answering Chile´s call for help is a key part of the IEC´s work, but its raison d´être lies in the rare event of an accident at a nuclear power plant. The Centre was established in the wake of the Chernobyl accident in 1986, when winds swept radioactive materials from the burning reactor over much of Europe. In the absence of timely and verifiable information about the accident, the need for it became paramount. International conventions were drawn-up and adopted within months of the disaster. The IAEA was tasked with new responsibilities, should there ever be a transboundary release of radiation again.

Under the Convention on Early Notification of an Nuclear Accident and the Convention on Assistance in Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency, the IAEA is responsible for gathering, verifying and exchanging official, real-time information among countries, relevant organisations, and the media and public when transboundary consequences might occur. An important part of the task is to provide and coordinate assistance and advice to the affected State, should it request help.

The IEC, based at the IAEA´s Vienna headquarters, recently underwent a million dollar upgrade, with financial support from the United States and other countries. A large screen dominates the Centre, where the latest information on any radiation incident or emergency is beamed for all in the room to see.

In an emergency, the Centre shifts from "normal-ready" to "basic-response" to "full-response" depending on the severity of the event. It´s a quick transformation into a hive of activity, as phones ring and workstations fill with IAEA specialists from across the house -- from scientists that can calculate possible radioactive fallout patterns and the implications of what a subtle change in wind direction may mean; to experts in nuclear terrorism; and engineers versed in the design and operation of nuclear power plants. Their expertise is pooled, to keep the Centre operational around the clock.

Over the years, the IEC was activated during an accident at a nuclear facility in Tokaimura, Japan (1999) and more recently during an incident at a nuclear power plant in Paks, Hungary (2005). Neither event resulted in a transboundary release of radiation, but they did make international headlines. The IAEA was called in, and fact-finding teams sent to independently assess what went wrong, and offer lessons learnt.

Each year the Centre receives on average, one to two calls for help that are severe enough to swing it to "basic-response" mode, with teams typically sent to the emergency site to assist. Thankfully its "full-response" mode has never needed to be activated. But the readiness for the unexpected, or what was once unimaginable, is the concrete of the IEC´s foundations, backed by the best brains on calls from around the world. Mock drills are run to test the IEC capabilities, the most recent exercise lasted 50 hours straight, and involved over 60 countries and seven international organizations.

A good share of the IEC´s work also focuses on helping IAEA Member States develop their own emergency plans, train personnel to deal with nuclear and radiation emergencies; and put into place radiation monitoring programmes, procedures and standards.

"A particular priority now is to strengthen arrangements in case of a terrorist attack using nuclear or radioactive materials," says Mr. Stern. "We´re working closely with Member States to help them to develop their national response capabilities." See the Photo Essay under Story Resources for more.

-- By Kirstie Hansen, IAEA Division of Public Information