Getting isotopes a challenge

Airlines, shipping firms refuse to carry radioactive materials, creating problems

Sep 20, 2004
John Dudley Miller(

As more and more airlines and ocean-going shipping firms refuse to carry radioactive materials, it is becoming more difficult to procure radioisotopes, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Should this problem continue to grow, says the IAEA, researchers and other users in some parts of the world may not be able to obtain them at all.

"Denials are occurring in all parts of the world," members of a committee convened to recommend solutions to the problem wrote in a recent IAEA report. But committee members interviewed by The Scientist said the problem is manageable so far and that the IAEA's concern is for the future.

British Airways and KML Royal Dutch Airlines ban radioactives, airline spokespeople said. Northwest Airlines bans shipments on all its passenger planes, allowing them only on international cargo freighters, according to a spokesperson. Several Asian airlines also refuse nuclear shipments, according to two members of the international IAEA committee—David McInnes, of the Canadian radioisotope manufacturer MDS Nordion, and Ian Gibbs, an official of the Australian government's Nuclear Science and Technology Organization.

Still, McInnes said his company has never had a shipment permanently blocked. Gibbs said his company had one shipment blocked earlier this year for the first time as they were trying to fly materials to Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Rangoon, Burma). David Pstrak, a committee member from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said, "We are not aware of issues of denial here in the United States." Gibbs said most Australian airlines accept radioactive shipments, but the limited number of flights scheduled out of Australia "makes 'denial of uplift' a major issue."

"There is a risk that if more airlines do deny, particularly where few airlines serve key regions, then this does raise a serious issue," said Michael Wangler, the IAEA official in charge of the safety of radioactive shipments.

Some international seaports refuse all radioactive shipments, according to another committee member, David Rogers, spokesman for the British firm Reviss, which manufactures radioactive materials used to sterilize medical supplies. In Singapore, "a great gateway port to the Far East and Australasia," Rogers said, "our experience is that it's always been refused."

Although the IAEA is most concerned about shipments of short-lived radioisotopes needed for clinical purposes, these blanket denials affect researchers and industrial users just the same.

Both Rogers and McInnes report long-standing problems with Italian shipping ports that prevent them from shipping radioactive packages through them to Turkey. "We couldn't ship to Turkey for several years," Rogers said, until one ship finally bypassed Italy on one of its trips. After waiting several months for a ship, McInnes' firm "had to transport the radioisotope overland by truck from Europe to get it there."

Starting with an international conference of 450 officials and scientists from 73 countries in Vienna in July 2003, the IAEA has taken several steps to combat the growing problem of denials of radioactive shipments. It developed an action plan and a list of recommendations that included forming the IAEA committee, which consists of representatives from manufacturers, airlines, shipping companies, various countries' national regulatory agencies, and international nongovernmental organizations involved in shipping.

The main problem, McInnes and Rogers said, is that some carriers decide it's not worth bothering with the special regulations radioactive shipments require. The carriers "just look at it as a cold commercial decision," Rogers said, in a market that makes up only "a small amount of business."

British Airways spokesperson John Lampl agreed. "There just wasn't that much business," he said. "I guess the risk, if you want to call it that, wasn't worth the energy expended."

However, at Northwest Airlines, economics was not the issue. "Passenger safety is the reason we cited 4 years ago after deciding not to carry this kind of cargo on passenger aircraft," said spokesperson Thomas Becher. But Wangler and other committee members interviewed insist that radioactive cargo is safe.

McInnes and Rogers believe the regulations are increasingly burdensome. "But I think part of the blame for carriers walking away from [shipping radioactive materials] must lie with the IAEA itself, in the ramping up of requirements," Rogers said. "It sends a message." For example, Rogers said that the IAEA has reclassified most tantalum ore—a rare element used in electronics circuits—from non-radioactive to radioactive, causing increasing numbers of shippers to refuse its transport.

IAEA's Wangler refused to respond to these comments, but McInnes said that the IAEA only requires regulations that its member countries authorize, so the countries are to blame for any overregulation.

Although fear of terrorism and dirty bombs engendered by the September 11, 2001 attacks may contribute to the increasing number of airlines and shipping companies refusing radioactive cargo, the IAEA hasn't collected enough information to know, Wangler said. "Some denials may be caused by carrier/port needs to restrict radioactive materials from certain areas," he said, "including air cargo holds and port areas." McInnes and Rogers think fear of terrorism is not a large issue, since some carriers' denials began long before September 11.