Sunday, September 20, 2020

Botswana: a nuclear disaster waiting to happen

Some member countries of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ÔÇô a United Nations agency that guards against nuclear proliferation and the adverse effects of radiological incidents – are refusing to do business with Botswana because although the country has been using nuclear technology for sometime, it is not regulated.
Botswana is also a member of IAEA, the United Nations agency set up in 1957 to monitor the peaceful use of atomic energy and which led the nuclear weapons inspection in Iraq just a few years ago. Botswana, however, has so far not complied with the agency’s safety standards.

The Deputy Director in the Department of Research, Science and Technology, Stephen Williams, told The Sunday Standard this week that Botswana uses nuclear technology and has radioactive sources all over the country. He said, “There is definitely a threat of contamination by radioactivity and mechanisms must be put in place to effectively deal with such a situation without any loss of life or damage to the environment.”

The Sunday Standard’s investigations have turned up information that among the most common radioactive sources in Botswana is Cesium 137, which results in increased risk of cancer. If exposures are very high, serious burns and even death can result. One example of such high exposure situations would be the mishandling of strong industrial Cesium 137 source. It can also be found in nuclear reactor waste and accidental releases such as the Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine, which released Cesium 137 into the environment killing tens of people.

Another common radioactive source in Botswana is Cobalt 60 which is also known to cause cancer. Exposure to gamma radiation from Cobalt 60 results in increased risk of cancer.

Botswana also has a lot of Iodine 131. Radioactive Iodine can be inhaled as a gas or ingested in food. If a family member has been treated with Iodine 131, you may have increased exposure to it through body fluids. Iodine 131 can cause nodules or cancer of the thyroid. The other common radioactive source in the country is Americium ÔÇô Beryllium 241 (AM 241), a man made metal produced from Plutonium. Am-241 found in the environment is a result of nuclear weapons testing. As a dust or fine powder AM ÔÇô 241 can cause certain cancers. When swallowed, absorbed through a wound or inhaled it can stay in the body for decades. It concentrates in the bones, liver, and muscles exposing these organs to alpha particles.
Botswana has for the past four months been in a rush to put together a regulatory body to protect the country from nuclear radioactivity. In its last sitting, Parliament passed the Radiation Protection Bill, 2006. The Radiation Protection Act provides for the safe use of atomic energy and nuclear technology in Botswana.

The Act also provides for the setting up of Radiation Protection Board, which would administer the safe use of atomic energy and nuclear technology. The decisions of the board will be implemented by the Radiation Protection Inspectorate.

Williams told The Sunday Standard, “The key sections necessary for effective regulatory activities include safety inspections, monitoring of workers and protection of the environment against the adverse effects of ionizing radiation, medical exposure control, waste management and emergency preparedness. The inspection team is in place but short of one professional. The environment section does not have the section head and waste management section also requires to be beefed up with another professional. It is important that appropriately qualified staff is identified without delay to take up such responsibilities.”

It emerged during the interview with Williams that a number of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) member states are refusing to do business with Botswana because although the country has been using nuclear technology for sometime, it is not regulated.

In one case, a Botswana company missed production targets because a member state of IAEA in Europe would not send the Americium-Beryllium 241 source unless authority had been obtained from the regulatory body.

Stressing the danger posed by radioactivity in Botswana, Williams stated, “It is a fact that exposure to 20 Grays or more will result in death; that public exposure must not exceed 1 milli-Sievert per year; that an occupationally exposed worker must not exceed an effective dose of 50milli-Sievert in a single year.”

Atomic energy, normally produced by radioactive sources, is used in Botswana in a variety of beneficial applications. In medical facilities, it is used extensively in diagnostic and interventional radiology as well as in radiotherapy to treat life threatening diseases such as cancer. Brachytherapy is one such method which has been found to be effective in the treatment of cervical cancer. Nuclear sources are also used widely in various industries for process control, density measurement, well logging, calibration services, security, fixed nuclear gauges, industrial radiography, industrial irradiation, diamond sorting and numerous other applications. In agriculture, nuclear technology is used in the eradication of certain persistent insects or pests affecting crop or fruit yield.  The technology known as sterile insect technique (SIT) renders the male tsetse fly infertile and thus accelerates extinction of the species. Its application to tsetse fly eradiation is highly advanced in Botswana. It has the potential to be applied to mosquitoes as well. If successful in eradicating the tsetse fly, SIT can permanently eliminate sleeping sickness, which in turn, would not only lead to improved animal health and production but also promote tourism in the affected areas. It is therefore, inevitable that nuclear energy has the potential to expedite technological advancement in health, agriculture, industry, research and development and subsequently facilitate the attainment of Vision 2016 pillars.

The Department of Research Science and Technology is currently assessing the extent of use and identifying areas of concern in relation to compliance with international safety standards governing the use of nuclear technology.
Preliminary inspections of all public and private medical facilities are being carried out by the inspectorate to evaluate and make recommendations where necessary.
The Department of Research Science and Technology last week placed job adverts for Radiation Protection Officers.

READ INDEPTH FOR DETAILS

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper

Sunday Standard September 20 – 26

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 20 - 26, 2020.