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Managing NZ's Risk of Radiation Exposure

Rules Being Updated on Managing New Zealand's Risk of Radiation Exposure

DRAMATIC changes in radiation use in the past half century have meant New Zealand's radiation protection legislation has fallen behind, and the Ministry of Health is seeking input on how best to update it.

A discussion document has been released to review the Radiation Protection Act 1965. Much of this act's content is based upon the original 1949 legislation - making the current rules more than 50 years behind technology. Back then, the use of irradiating machines and radioactive materials was largely the domain of individuals.

"Nowadays, it's mostly large establishments such as modern radiology practices that use radiation technology," said the National Radiation Laboratory's Group Manager Jim Turnbull.

The applications of radiation technology and the numbers using it have increased dramatically, with around 4000 New Zealanders using sources of ionising radiation as a normal part of their work.

"For example cancer treatment uses linear accelerators and short-lived radioisotopes, while many industrial companies use process control gauges containing radioactive material as a routine part of manufacturing," said Mr Turnbull.

"The current legislation doesn't always cover the situations which might arise, particularly when the concept of personal use doesn't fit with the reality of the situation."

Mr Turnbull said one of these issues, since the 1949 Radioactive Substances Act and an amendment the 1965 Radiation Protection Act (RPA) were written, has been deciding who is legally responsible in the unlikely event of something going wrong.

"This occurs for example when a body corporate owns an x-ray machine. The current rules require a "natural person" to own the equipment - but these days that's rarely the case, causing a problem with the RPA even before safety issues are considered."

He said New Zealand also has international obligations to ensure the safe and secure handling of radioactive substances.

"International organisations, of which New Zealand is a member, have agreed to standards which in some cases are fundamentally different from our legislation. The onus would seem to be to honour those standards." said Mr Turnbull.

"Also, the legislation does not cover hazardous non-ionising radiation sources, such as powerful lasers, and it may be that a revised Act might take these issues into consideration".

"Basically the National Radiation Laboratory is having increasing difficulty applying old legislation in today's environment, and as it ideally needs updating, we're asking for submissions from anyone interested in making comments."

Submissions on the discussion document, A Review of the New Zealand Radiation Protection Legislation close on 15 March 2003. The discussion document is available by contacting the Ministry of Health or downloading it from the Ministry's website, http://www.moh.govt.nz, under the publications section.

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