Australian Clinical Guidelines for Radiological Emergencies - September 2012

Laboratory Capacity

Page last updated: 07 December 2012

Australia has approximately ten laboratories able to measure fission products in samples following a nuclear detonation. Laboratory radiation measurements fall into two types:

  • Detailed measurements of radionuclide content for detailed dose assessment. This would use gamma counting systems.
  • Alpha/beta screening of samples to assess compliance with radiation limits.
The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) are the only Australian laboratories with a routine and traceable capability to measure fission products. Between them they have maximum of 60 gamma counting systems. Not all of these would be available for use. Initial gamma counting capacity of 500 to 3000 samples per day, could increase to a maximum of 1000 to 5000 samples per day as other laboratories are brought on-line.

The other laboratories between them have a further 30 gamma counting systems which could be brought on-line for fission product measurement by providing the appropriate calibration standards to each of the laboratories.

Additionally, ANSTO and ARPANSA have up to 50 alpha/beta counting systems, out of a total of approximately 110 systems within Australia.

While it is certainly the case that while ARPANSA and ANSTO have a large proportion of Australia’s radioanalytical capacity, there are other Australian Government (ERISS for example), State and Territory (QLD FSS for example) and commercial laboratories that could support an Australian response to a radiation emergency. The experience with Fukushima demonstrates that the need for radioanalytical capacity for assessment of medical, environmental, and food samples would be overwhelming and there would be a need to make use of all available resources. Both ARPANSA and ANSTO have links to international networks to develop methods and standards programmes. ARPANSA is working on its own methods for radiation emergency response with the understanding that these could form the basis for establishing consistent methods across other laboratories

Sample collection and preparation may be a limiting factor. A sample with environmental levels of radioactivity requires around 2 hours of counting time. Contaminated samples might require a fraction of this counting time. Throughput would 10 to 60 samples per day per measurement system (assumes minimal sample preparation required).

Dry samples (such as soil, powder, grain, etc.) requiring minimum sample preparation can be screened in approximately 10 minutes per sample. Liquid samples require specialised sample preparation which would limit throughput. It may be possible for sample preparation to be out sourced to increase throughput.

Laboratory Requirements

Immediate (several days)

Laboratory-based radiation-related testing would be relatively limited in the initial days as most decisions would be made on field-based testing (say 100 samples and 200 tests to calibrate field instruments). Blast/radiation victims admitted to hospitals would require diagnostic pathology workup and would quickly overwhelm the system (say 5% of total injured, 10,000 samples and 40,000 tests). Thousands of ‘worried well’ will present for investigation and/or treatment (say 5% would be processed, 1,000 samples and 4,000 analyses).

Short-term (remainder of first week)

Additional laboratory calibration of field-based radiation monitors would be required (say 100 samples and 200 tests). There would be an increasing backlog of diagnostic pathology because of delayed testing as well as additional hospitalisations and out-patients patients (say 40,000 samples from former and 10,000 from the latter, making 200,000 tests). Whole-body radiation testing would begin as part of the secondary treatment phase (say 500 samples). Forensic investigations would be ongoing but limited (10 samples, 40 tests) and disaster victim identification (DVI) would begin (100 samples and 200 tests). The initial batch of soil, water, pasture, milk, sediment and other materials would be collected and analysed as a means of determining the extent of contamination (say 100 samples and 200 tests).

Medium term (second week)

Laboratory calibration of radiation monitors would continue (say 100 samples and 200 tests). Additional facilities brought on board would begin to deal with the diagnostic pathology workload associated with the backlog and new patients (say 50,000 samples from the former and 5,000 from the latter, making 220,000 tests). Whole-body radiation testing would be ongoing (say 1,000 samples). Forensic investigations would be ongoing (25 samples, 100 analyses) and DVI would be ramping up (250 samples and 1,000 tests). Additional soil, water, pasture, milk, sediment and other materials would be collected and analysed (say 100 samples and 200 tests)

Medium to long term (third to sixth weeks)

Laboratory calibration of radiation monitors would continue (say 200 samples and 400 tests). Diagnostic testing would be performed on samples from “old” and “new” patients, including return testing (say 100,000 samples and 400,000 tests). Whole-body radiation testing would be ongoing (say 1,000 samples) as would forensic investigations (say 10 samples, 40 tests). DVI capacity would be stretched and other countries’ capabilities would be brought on stream (say 1500 samples and 3,000 tests). Collection and analysis of soil, water, pasture, milk, sediment and other materials would be ongoing (say 100 samples and 200 tests).

Long term (greater than six weeks)

Laboratory calibration of radiation monitors would be an ongoing commitment (say 400 samples and 800 tests). Diagnostic testing would be continuing (say 200,000 samples and 800,000 tests). Whole-body radiation testing continues (say 20,000 samples) as would forensic investigations (say 25 samples, 100 analyses). DVI would be dealing with a backlog as more bodies are recovered from highly contaminated areas (10,000 samples and 20,000 tests). Large scale collection and analysis of soil, water, pasture, milk, sediment and other materials would be implemented in order to refine the radiation dose assessments and for use as part of the remediation and recovery process. (say 5,000 samples and 10,000 tests). This scenario is assumed to end at six months (26 weeks) although the impact will be felt for years and even decades