It has been over 20 years since the radiological accident in Goiania, Brazil. Lessons drawn from the 1987 accident are still helping shape actions on radiation safety and security decades later. It was the worst accident involving a radioactive source that the world has seen. Cesium chloride from a dumped source that had ended up in a scrap yard spread undetected for over two weeks. Some 250 people were contaminated and four died in the first month. The event focused international attention on the issue of safety standards for radioactive sources.
"Before the 1987 accident the regulations were weak when it came to controlling radiation used in medicine and industry worldwide," says Eliana Amaral, IAEA Director of Radiation, Transport and Waste Safety. "There was no awareness that sources must be controlled from "cradle to grave"; and to prevent the public accessing them. After the accident these concepts were fostered," Ms. Amaral says.
The IAEA introduced rigorous safety standards for radioactive sources, namely the International Basic Safety Standards No. 115, co-sponsored by several international organizations.
Brazil's request that the IAEA draw "lessons learned" from Goiania paved the way for more open, transparent reporting of radiological accidents. Since the accident, the gradual replacement of sealed sources containing the soluble, powdery form of cesium chloride has been considered. In the USA, a 2008 report from the National Research Council has recommended that the US Government take steps to promote the replacement of cesium chloride radiation sources, used in some medical and research equipment, with lower-risk alternatives.
Goiania's legacy of a handful of cesium chloride is 3,000 cubic metres of contaminated waste. It is now buried in a near surface repository on the outskirts of the city, where it must be isolated for the next 300 years.