x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Trial run of nuclear regulatory agency

When the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation was created two years ago, over a half-dozen agencies were responsible for radiological material in the UAE. Now there is just one, and as The National reported yesterday, FANR is coming of age.

The disappearance of an industrial camera used to measure the density of metal - with the aid of a thumb-sized piece of radioactive iridium 192 - is reason to raise a concern. It is not, however, a cause for alarm. By all accounts, the UAE's nuclear watchdog is doing exactly what a watchdog should do: warn the public, hunt for the missing material and work to keep exposure to a minimum.

In this specific case it was the company using the gauge that reported the device missing. That in itself is a sign that the regulator's authority is increasing. The next step will be to see whether FANR has the ability - and the political support - to enforce penalties if necessary. To ensure that self-reporting continues, companies must believe that failure to report would be more costly than silence.

There are security concerns that nuclear material could fall into the wrong hands. The far more likely scenario, however, is that it poses a hazard to environmental safety and health. Should sealed containers be forced open - say crushed in a landfill, for instance - people who come in close contact could become sick.

A thumb-sized piece of iridium is a fairly minor threat. In the US, more than 300 sealed sources of radioactive material - from small medical devices to industrial gauges - go missing every year. And the International Atomic Energy Agency counts hundreds of cases around the world annually. Many are never recovered.

This case should be seen as a litmus test for the UAE regulator and the industry - of course, we hope the iridium is recovered, but more important than a single case is FANR's transparent, comprehensive response. In coming years its portfolio will grow more complex as the nation's civilian nuclear programme moves towards commissioning.

About 80 per cent of companies in the UAE that use radiological devices have applied for licences; clearly, registration should be 100 per cent. We will rely on FANR to accomplish that, among its growing number of tasks.