Orphan source

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An orphan source is a self-contained radioactive source that is no longer under proper regulatory control.

The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission defines an orphan source more exactly as:[1]

...a sealed source of radioactive material contained in a small volume—but not radioactively contaminated soils and bulk metals—in any one or more of the following conditions

  • In an uncontrolled condition that requires removal to protect public health and safety from a radiological threat
  • Controlled or uncontrolled, but for which a responsible party cannot be readily identified
  • Controlled, but the material's continued security cannot be assured. If held by a licensee, the licensee has few or no options for, or is incapable of providing for, the safe disposition of the material
  • In the possession of a person, not licensed to possess the material, who did not seek to possess the material
  • In the possession of a State radiological protection program for the sole purpose of mitigating a radiological threat because the orphan source is in one of the conditions described in one of the first four bullets and for which the State does not have a means to provide for the material's appropriate disposition

Orphan source incidents[edit]

Most known orphan sources were, generally, small radioactive sources produced legitimately under governmental regulation and put into service for radiography, generating electricity in radioisotope thermoelectric generators, medical radiotherapy or irradiation.[citation needed] These sources were then "abandoned, lost, misplaced or stolen" and so no longer subject to proper regulation.[2]

For example, in different incidents, various orphan sources have been:

  • 1984 - Morocco - A source was lost during radiography and taken home by other people who initially failed to recognize the source.[3]
  • 1987 - Praça Cívica, Brazil - A caesium-137 based teletherapy unit left behind at Goiânia’s Instituto Goiano de Radioterapia (IGR)[3]. This is one of the most disastrous orphan source incidents, the event is known as the Goiânia accident.
  • 1996 - Gilan, Iran - A source was temporarily lost during radiography at a power plant and found by an unsuspecting worker who put the source in his chest pocket for about 90 minutes. 1 person was severely injured.[4]
  • 1997 - Tbilisi, Georgia - The Lilo Training Center had multiple sources dating back to Soviet era military activity; 11 were injured.[5]
  • 1999 - Kingisepp, Leningrad Oblast, Russia - Stolen from an RTG in a Russian lighthouse and then recovered 50 kilometres away at a bus station [6]
  • 1999 - Istanbul, Turkey - A source was sold to a junkyard for its lead container in the city of İkitelli [7]
  • 2000 - Thailand - A defunct cobalt therapy machine was sold to a metal junkyard in Samut Prakan, leading to three deaths.[8]
  • 2000 - Egypt - A source was taken home by an unsuspecting person near Mit Halfa, 15 km north of Cairo Qaluobiya,[9]
  • 2001 - Georgia - Three woodcutters in northern Georgia found two Soviet-era RTG elements near the Inguri River containing Strontium-90 and became sick from the high levels of radiation.[10] As many as 300 orphan sources had been discovered in the country by 2006,[11] when a team from the IAEA and Georgian government found two containing Caesium-137 in the Racha region. One of the sources had been kept in a home, and another in an abandoned factory used as storage by farmers.
  • 2008 - Karachi, Pakistan - An orphan source was discovered within the vicinity of the OGDCL (Oil & Gas Development Company Limited). Two containers were found buried which were suspected to be left over from Soviet oil drilling operations before the OGDCL took over in late 1960s.[12]
  • 2010 - Mayapuri, India - An orphan source caused the death of one worker and irradiated seven others in a scrap yard in the Mayapuri radiological accident
  • 2011 - Prague, Czech Republic - A brachytherapy source was found buried in a Prague playground, radiating 500 µSv/h from one metre away.[13][14][15]
  • 2013 - Hueypoxtla, Mexico - A defunct cobalt therapy machine en route to proper disposal was stolen, apparently inadvertently, when the heavy truck transporting it was hijacked.[16]


  1. ^ "NRC: Orphan Sources". Nrc.gov. Retrieved 2014-03-05. 
  2. ^ [1] Archived October 1, 2004, at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ "Casablanca orphaned source, 1984". Johnstonsarchive.net. Retrieved 2014-03-05. 
  4. ^ "Gilan orphaned source, 1996". Johnstonsarchive.net. Retrieved 2014-03-05. 
  5. ^ "Lilo orphaned sources, 1996-1997". Johnstonsarchive.net. Retrieved 2014-03-05. 
  6. ^ "Kingisepp orphaned source, 1999". Johnstonsarchive.net. Retrieved 2014-03-05. 
  7. ^ "Nükleer ihmal". Milliyet.com.tr. Retrieved 2014-03-05. 
  8. ^ "IAEA Bulletin Volume 47, No.2 - Reducing the Risk from Radioactive Sources" (PDF). Iaea.org. Retrieved 2015-01-14. 
  9. ^ "Meet Halfa orphaned source, 2000". Johnstonsarchive.net. Retrieved 2014-03-05. 
  10. ^ "The Hunt for Hot Stuff". Smithsonianmag.com. March 2003. Retrieved 2014-12-06. 
  11. ^ "Radioactive Sources Recovered in Georgia". IAEA.org. 2006-07-27. Retrieved 2014-12-06. 
  12. ^ Baqir Sajjad Syed (2008-07-11). "Containers found with radioactive material". Dawn.Com. Retrieved 2014-03-05. 
  13. ^ ""Radioactive" little cylinder found underground in a park in Podolí". iDNES.cz. 29 September 2011. Retrieved 12 November 2012. 
  14. ^ Motl, Luboš. "Why a small cylinder buried in Prague radiates 500 μSv/h?". Retrieved 12 November 2012. 
  15. ^ Falvey, Christian (29 September 2011). "Passerby stumbles upon radioactive playground thanks to wristwatch". Radio Prague. Retrieved 21 November 2012. 
  16. ^ Will Grant (2013-12-05). "BBC News - Mexico radioactive material found, thieves' lives 'in danger'". Bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2014-03-05.