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Egyptians spend eight weeks at Sandia learning how to safely handle sealed radioactive sources

Egyptians spend eight weeks at Sandia learning how to safely handle sealed radioactive sources

Fourteen Egyptian engineers, physicists, and chemists are spending eight weeks at Sandia this spring learning the intricacies of safely handling sealed radioactive sources. This training program is part of a larger project to greatly improve the cradle-to-grave management of sealed radioactive sources in Egypt.

Sealed sources are radioactive materials typically encapsulated in small metal vials or containers. They can be used for a variety of purposes — medical for eradicating cancers and industrial for anything from sterilizing surgical instruments to detecting erosion inside pipes.

"Of the 14 Egyptian students, only five had prior education and/or background in radiation protection," says John Cochran (4163), project manager of the Integrated Management Program for Radioactive Sealed Sources (IMPRSS) in Egypt. "We are giving them a condensed version of the training Sandia’s Radiological Control Technicians receive."

The special training the 14 Egyptians are receiving is tied directly to an incident in 2000 when an Egyptian farmer living in a rural area outside Cairo discovered a small shiny piece of metal on the ground. Thinking it unusual, he took it home to show his family. Five weeks later the man and his son were dead, and several other family members were seriously ill.

After much investigation, which even involved temporarily quarantining an Egyptian village, it was determined that the cause of death and illness was radiation exposure. The man had found a sealed source that came from a pipeline inspection instrument. It was accidentally left at the site.

The incident set off a national uproar that resulted in the government of Egypt wanting to greatly improve the country’s infrastructure to safely manage sealed radioactive sources.

Starting in 1994, Sandia hosted several Egyptians in the US on fellowships, and Sandia’s capabilities were known by the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority (EAEA). After the incident the EAEA contacted Sandia to help the country develop a program that would help protect the people of Egypt by improving the safety of cradle-to-grave management of sealed sources.

Sandia and the EAEA submitted a joint proposal to the US Agency for International Development in Cairo for funding.

"Three years went by between making the pitch and getting the money in the door. We were persistent," John says.

They then put together a program that covered the full life cycle of sealed source management, including tracking, awareness, security, regulatory reform, recovery, conditioning, storage, recycling, disposal, and the ability to respond to an emergency involving a sealed source.

Before training the 14 Egyptian engineers, chemists, and physicists, Sandia presented three-day classes in Egypt on sealed source management for members of the EAEA and the Egyptian Ministry of Health and another for users, like hospital personnel.

Brian Thomson of Behavior-Based Safety and Training Dept. 6342, who developed the eight-week program, says the curriculum is customized for the Egyptians’ needs. The program involves six weeks of lecture and hands-on training in a mock radiological area, one week of training on teletherapy devices (devices used for medical purposes such as cancer treatment), and one week of radiological emergency training and exercises.

Upon their return to Egypt, the 14 students will share their new knowledge of how to safely handle sealed sources with their colleagues.