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UN issues guidelines for first responders in case of nuclear accidents, terrorist attack

UN issues guidelines for first responders in case of nuclear accidents, terrorist attack

The first people on the scene of a nuclear or radiological emergency, whether from a terrorist attack, an accident or theft, the so-called ‘First Responders’ who are usually local medical, police and fire brigades, now have a detailed list of “do’s and don’ts” under key United Nations guidelines issued today.

“Responders generally have no experience with radiation emergencies as they are very rare,” UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Incident & Emergency head Warren Stern said. “They can benefit a lot from practical guidance about what’s known about radiation, and how to deal with accidents and incidents involving nuclear or radioactive materials.”

Through new web pages and a series of publications, the IAEA is now filling that gap for these first responders, the emergency teams that could be called to the front lines of a nuclear or radiological incident or accident, as well as for national officials backing up the early response.

The guidelines range from setting up safety perimeters, evacuating the public and assuming people are contaminated, to ensuring there are no armed people or explosives in the area and avoiding recovery until a radiological expert has prepared a plan.

The new web pages and reports cover different types of emergencies including: uncontrolled dangerous radioactive sources; misuse of dangerous industrial and medical sources; public exposures and contamination from unknown origins; serious overexposures; malicious threats or acts; and transport emergencies.

On a potential terrorist blast, the guidelines note that the greatest threat comes from the direct effects of an explosion rather than from radiation exposure or contamination. The greatest radiological hazard comes from inadvertent inhalation or inadvertent ingestion of the material dispersed by an explosion or fire or from handling radioactive debris or material in an unexploded device.

Limited stays near the source in an unexploded so-called radiological dispersal device or large pieces of debris by response personnel should not be hazardous but holding such material could produce injuries in minutes, according to the guidelines. Fire fighters are generally equipped with respiratory apparatus that provides good protection against the inhalation hazard.

“There can be significant adverse and inappropriate public reaction and economic consequences if public and financial institution concerns are not promptly addressed,” the guidelines sate. “Excess radiation induced cancers should not be detected following this type of emergency, even for emergencies involving large amounts of radioactive material.”

On transportation accidents, three hazards are cited: a small possibility of a release resulting in inhalation near the source; contamination if ingested; dangerous levels of external exposure from being near the accident for an extended time. Being in the vicinity for a short period, for example to conduct life-saving action, should not be hazardous.

Loss or theft of a source containing sufficient radioactive material to qualify as a dangerous can lead to unknowing handling and permanent injuries from external exposure or inadvertent ingestion as well as to localized contamination, requiring clean-up. Unknowingly handling quantities from 10 to 100 times the quantity criteria for a dangerous source could be immediately life threatening.