Environmental guidance for your business in Northern Ireland & Scotland

Radioactive substances and wastes

Radioactive substances are used in some industries, including the medical industry and some manufacturing activities. There are legal controls on keeping and using radioactive materials and accumulating and disposing of radioactive waste. These aim to protect people and the environment from the harmful effects of radiation.

If your business keeps or uses radioactive material, or accumulates or disposes of radioactive waste you must work out if the materials you use:

  • are out of scope
  • are exempt (conditions apply)
  • require a certificate of registration or a certificate of authorisation.

Many common uses for radioactive substances will be out of scope of the regulations, or will be covered by an exemption.

This guide is intended for users of radioactive substances on non-nuclear sites. It is not intended for radioactive waste disposal sites, underground storage or disposal facilities, or nuclear licensed sites (such as nuclear power stations).

It outlines what radioactive substances are, how to decide if you are out of scope, exempt, or if you need to apply for a certificate of registration or authorisation.  It also outlines the conditions required for an exemption, and what you must do to comply with your certificate of registration or authorisation should you need one.

Radioactive substances include radioactive material and radioactive waste. Different legal controls apply to handling radioactive material and dealing with radioactive waste.

Materials that have very low levels of radioactivity, some naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM), some wastes that contain very low levels of radioactivity and materials with a very short half-life pose such a low risk to human health that they are out of scope of the regulations. This means that no controls from the radioactive substances regulations apply to their use or their disposal.

Materials with higher levels of radioactivity, but which still pose a very low risk to human health or the environment, are exempt from the regulations. This means they can be used and disposed of without informing the regulators, so long as certain conditions are met.

If you keep or use radioactive materials, accumulate and dispose of radioactive wastes and carry out activities that are not out of scope or exempt, then you will require:

  • a certificate of registration, for keeping and using radioactive materials,
  • a certificate of authorisation for the accumulation or disposal of radioactive wastes.

Radioactive material

Radioactive material includes substances or articles that are radioactive, or have become radioactive through non-natural processes, for example at a nuclear reactor.

Radioactive materials are used by many organisations. For example, hospitals, research organisations, radiographers and process industries use radioactive materials for:

  • diagnosing and treating disease
  • controlling industrial processes
  • preventing static electricity
  • industrial radiography
  • scientific research.

Different types of radioactive material, including open and sealed radioactive sources, are used for different activities.

Open radioactive sources are radioactive materials that you can easily divide, disperse or dilute. They can be in a liquid, gaseous or sometimes solid form. Open sources include radioactive laboratory chemicals and radiopharmaceuticals.

Open radioactive sources can potentially contaminate other material through leakage or leaching. You must store all open radioactive sources securely.

Sealed radioactive sources have a structure which prevents radioactive material from leaking during normal use. If you use sealed sources incorrectly you could cause radioactive contamination.

Sealed radioactive sources used to be called 'closed' sources. They are categorised according to their hazard or risk as:

  • high activity sealed sources (HASS)
  • sources of similar potential hazard to HASS
  • low hazard or low risk sealed sources.

A sealed source may take the form of a welded steel capsule, or a homogenous, laminated, electrodeposited or foil source.

HASS present a greater hazard to the environment and human health than other sealed sources. HASS may include sterilisation sources, hospital radiotherapy sources, industrial radiography sources, density and moisture gauges and some industrial process control gauges.

Mobile radioactive apparatus

Mobile radioactive apparatus includes equipment, appliances or other things that are portable and classed as radioactive material. They may be used for:

  • testing, measuring or investigation
  • releasing radioactive material into the environment or introducing it into organisms.

Mobile radioactive apparatus may contain sealed or open radioactive sources.

You must have a certificate of registration if you use or keep mobile radioactive apparatus, unless you are covered by an exemption.

Radioactive waste that is exempt

An exemption only applies if the total amount of radioactive material on your site is below a certain threshold. This total includes the materials that you keep and use as well as the wastes that you accumulate on site for disposal.

The waste you produce will be classed as radioactive waste only if it has certain properties. This depends on:

  • the activities that produce the waste
  • the presence of naturally occurring radionuclides that you have used for their radioactive properties
  • the presence of artificial radionuclides
  • the concentration of the above radionuclides in the waste, with regard to threshold values set out in the regulations.

Details of these conditions and the threshold values can be found in section 3 of the Government guidance document:

GOV.UK: Guidance on the scope and exemptions from radioactive substances regulations in the UK

If the waste you produce is radioactive waste and it is covered by an exemption, there are conditions that apply to the disposal of the waste.

Radioactive waste that is not exempt

If you keep and use radioactive materials, and accumulate radioactive waste, and:

  • the total amount of radioactivity is above the threshold required for an exemption,
  • or the concentration of radionuclides in the materials you use is above the threshold values required for an exemption,

then you will need a certificate of authorisation from your environmental regulator.

Further information

DAERA Northern Ireland: Radioactive substances

Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA): Radioactive substances

The radioactive materials you keep and use, and the waste that you produce may be classed as “out of scope” of the regulations if the risk to the environment and human health is considered to be negligible.

The level of risk is based on international standards and is set out in numerical values for the concentration of radioactive elements, and the total amount of radioactive material present. The level of risk is calculated by assessing the potential dose that members of the public could be exposed to from the way that radioactive substances are used and disposed of.

What you must do

It is your responsibility to satisfy yourself that the radioactive materials you use, and the wastes that you produce are out of scope of the regulations. You must be able to demonstrate the reasons for your decision to your environmental regulator.

The circumstances and the numerical values below which substances are considered out of scope can be found in the new schedule to the radioactive substances legislation that apply to Northern Ireland and Scotland. This applies to radioactive materials that you keep and use, and to radioactive wastes that you accumulate for disposal.

You can find the information you need to decide if the materials you use and the waste you produce are out of scope of the regulations in Section 2 of the Government guidance:

GOV.UK: Guidance on the scope and exemptions from radioactive substances regulations in the UK

If the radioactive materials you keep and use, along with the radioactive waste you accumulate and intend to dispose of are not out of scope then they are the subject of regulation.

It is recognised that the risk associated with a number of common activities, and the use of certain radioactive materials, poses a very low risk to the public if certain conditions are met. These activities are classed as exempt from the need for a certificate of registration or authorisation, meaning there is no need to inform the regulator, or apply for a certificate when working with these materials, so long as the conditions are complied with in full.

Failure to meet the conditions of an exemption could result in a fine or imprisonment.

If the materials you keep or use and the wastes you accumulate and intend to dispose of are not out of scope or exempt, then you will need a certificate of registration or authorisation from your environmental regulator.

What you must do

It is your responsibility to satisfy yourself that the radioactive materials you use, and the radioactive wastes that you produce are exempt from the regulations. You must be able to demonstrate the reasons for your decision to your environmental regulator.

Certain conditions must be met if you intend to carry out activities using radioactive materials that are exempt from regulation.

General conditions for exempt unsealed source materials

  • Keep adequate records of exempt materials held on site and retain these records for 1 year after the materials have been removed.
  • Ensure where practicable that all exempt radioactive materials, or their containers, are clearly labelled.
  • Allow your environmental regulator access to your records to demonstrate that the conditions which apply to the exempt materials are being met.
  • Keep all exempt radioactive materials safe and secure to prevent loss, accidental removal, spillage or theft.
  • Make sure that all containers are fit for purpose and not damaged in a way that could release radioactive materials.
  • If radioactive materials are lost or stolen, report this immediately to your environmental regulator and include details of any other loss or theft, or suspected loss or theft, in the previous 12 months. ( this is only necessary above a certain quantity of radioactivity)

You can find the information you need to decide if your radioactive substances or radioactive waste is exempt from the regulations in Section 3 of the Government guidance:

GOV.UK: Guidance on the scope and exemptions from radioactive substances regulations in the UK

Specific conditions for exempt activities

Very low level radioactive waste

Medical and veterinary uses of radioactive substances

Radioactivity in museums

Waste sealed radioactive sources

Small sealed radioactive sources

Uranium and Thorium

Small amounts of open radioactive sources

Lamps with radioactive substances

Radioactive material and waste “stored in transit”

Interpretation of “relevant liquid”

NORM industrial activities

Further information

DAERA Northern Ireland: Radioactive substances

Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA): Radioactive substances

If your use of radioactive material or the radioactive waste you produce is not “out of scope” and is not covered by an exemption then you must apply for:

  • A certificate of registration to keep and use radioactive material
  • A certificate of authorisation to accumulate or dispose of radioactive waste.

You must comply with the conditions in your certificate of registration or authorisation. Conditions control the impact your radioactive substance activities could have on the environment and human health.

Your environmental regulator will carry out site inspections, conduct audits and review information it receives about your site to make sure you are complying with your certificate of registration or authorisation.

You can be fined, or even sent to prison, if you do not comply with the terms of your certificate of registration or authorisation.

What you must do

Comply with your certificate of registration or authorisation conditions

The conditions in your certificate of registration or authorisation will depend on what radioactive substances you keep and what activities you carry out at your site. Your certificate of registration or authorisation may contain conditions that relate to:

  • managing your site activities
  • what activities are permitted on your site
  • operating your site, such as site security and safe storage
  • high activity sealed radioactive sources (HASS)
  • transferring radioactive sources
  • receiving radioactive waste
  • accumulating radioactive waste, including accumulation limits
  • disposing of radioactive waste safely and securely, including appropriate disposal routes
  • keeping records, reporting and making notifications.

For example, if you store radioactive substances the conditions in your certificate of registration or authorisation might require you to:

  • prevent unauthorised persons from accessing the radioactive substances
  • take measures to prevent loss of, theft of or damage to the radioactive substances
  • maintain the radioactive substances and any associated containers and equipment in good repair
  • ensure the radioactive store is labelled clearly and correctly.

If your business keeps or uses HASS, disposes of HASS or holds sealed sources with a similar level of potential hazard, your certificate of registration or authorisation will contain additional conditions to protect people and the environment. For example, you must comply with additional site security arrangements. There are also special reporting requirements and additional financial requirements for HASS.

You must display a copy of your certificate of registration or authorisation on your business premises, unless it relates to sealed radioactive sources or it is otherwise subject to national security restrictions.

How compliance is enforced

The NIEA and SEPA have a range of enforcement tools to ensure that businesses comply with radioactive substances legislation. They will take enforcement action that is appropriate for the severity of the non-compliance. Enforcement action includes verbal and written warnings, enforcement notices, prohibition notices and prosecution with the possibility of a fine or prison.

An enforcement notice may be issued if you breach the conditions of your certificate of registration or authorisation. A prohibition notice is issued if there is an imminent risk of serious pollution or harm to human health.

If your use of radioactive material or the radioactive waste you produce is not “out of scope” and is not covered by an exemption then you must apply for:

  • A certificate of registration to keep and use radioactive material
  • A certificate of authorisation to accumulate or dispose of radioactive waste.

You must comply with the conditions in your certificate of registration or authorisation. Conditions control the impact your radioactive substance activities could have on the environment and human health.

Your environmental regulator will carry out site inspections, conduct audits and review information it receives about your site to make sure you are complying with your certificate of registration or authorisation.

You can be fined, or even sent to prison, if you do not comply with the terms of your certificate of registration or authorisation.

What you must do

Comply with your certificate of registration or authorisation conditions

The conditions in your certificate of registration or authorisation will depend on what radioactive substances you keep and what activities you carry out at your site. Your certificate of registration or authorisation may contain conditions that relate to:

  • managing your site activities
  • what activities are permitted on your site
  • operating your site, such as site security and safe storage
  • high activity sealed radioactive sources (HASS)
  • transferring radioactive sources
  • receiving radioactive waste
  • accumulating radioactive waste, including accumulation limits
  • disposing of radioactive waste safely and securely, including appropriate disposal routes
  • keeping records, reporting and making notifications.

For example, if you store radioactive substances the conditions in your certificate of registration or authorisation might require you to:

  • prevent unauthorised persons from accessing the radioactive substances
  • take measures to prevent loss of, theft of or damage to the radioactive substances
  • maintain the radioactive substances and any associated containers and equipment in good repair
  • ensure the radioactive store is labelled clearly and correctly.

If your business keeps or uses HASS, disposes of HASS or holds sealed sources with a similar level of potential hazard, your certificate of registration or authorisation will contain additional conditions to protect people and the environment. For example, you must comply with additional site security arrangements. There are also special reporting requirements and additional financial requirements for HASS.

You must display a copy of your certificate of registration or authorisation on your business premises, unless it relates to sealed radioactive sources or it is otherwise subject to national security restrictions.

How compliance is enforced

The NIEA and SEPA have a range of enforcement tools to ensure that businesses comply with radioactive substances legislation. They will take enforcement action that is appropriate for the severity of the non-compliance. Enforcement action includes verbal and written warnings, enforcement notices, prohibition notices and prosecution with the possibility of a fine or prison.

An enforcement notice may be issued if you breach the conditions of your certificate of registration or authorisation. A prohibition notice is issued if there is an imminent risk of serious pollution or harm to human health.

If you handle radioactive substances you may have to comply with other legislation, in addition to complying with the conditions of your exemption, or your certificate of registration or authorisation.

Duty of Care for Waste

If your wastes are considered out of scope or exempt from the requirement for a certificate of authorisation, you must still dispose of this waste in accordance with the Duty of Care. The waste may have additional properties that make it necessary to treat it as hazardous/special waste.

Duty of care for waste

Hazardous/special waste

Importing and exporting radioactive substances

If you are importing or exporting radioactive materials or waste, you must contact your environmental regulator to find out what you need to do.

Contact your environmental regulator

The Export Control Organisation at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) is responsible for legislating, assessing and issuing export and trade licences for specific categories of controlled goods, including certain radioactive sources.

BIS: Export control organisation

Health and safety requirements

If your business uses or keeps radioactive substances you may need to comply with health and safety requirements.

Northern Ireland: HSENI: Radiation guidance

Scotland: HSE: Radiation protection publications

Transport requirements

If your business transports radioactive substances you may need to comply with transport requirements.

GOV.UK: Transporting dangerous goods

SEPA: Guidance on the Shipment of Wastes which contain Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM)

This page provides links to the full text of key pieces of environmental legislation relating to radioactive substances. The websites hosting the legislation may list amendments separately.

If you are setting up an environmental management system (EMS) for your business, you can use this list to start compiling your legal register. Your legal adviser or environmental consultant will be able to tell you if other environmental legislation applies to your specific business.

Environmental management systems and environmental reports

Northern Ireland: Radioactive substances legislation

Radioactive Substances Act 1993. Sets out measures to regulate the use and disposal of radioactive substances including registration, authorisation, enforcement and offences.

Ionising Radiations Regulations (Northern Ireland) SR 2000/375. Requires employers to protect employees and other people against ionising radiation arising from working with radioactive substances and other sources of ionising radiation. Also imposes certain duties on employees.

High-activity Sealed Radioactive Sources and Orphan Sources Regulations SI 2005/2686. Specifies how high-activity sealed radioactive sources should be registered, kept, used or disposed of. Also covers detecting, recovering and dealing with radioactive sources that are not currently regulated ('orphan sources').

Transfrontier Shipment of Radioactive Waste and Spent Fuel Regulations SI 2008/3087. Establishes a system of authorisation and approval for shipping radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel between member states and into and out of the European Union (EU).

EC Regulation (Euratom) on shipment of radioactive substances 1493/93. Regulates the shipment of radioactive substances between EU member states.

Radioactive Substances Act 1993 (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) SR 2011/290. Amends the definition of radioactive material and radioactive waste in the 1993 Act. Removes the exemption relating to clocks and watches.

Radioactive Substances Exemption (Northern Ireland) Order 2011. Revokes and replaces the existing 18 exemption orders made under the Radioactive Substances Act 1993 with a single order.

Scotland: Radioactive substances legislation

Radioactive Substances Act 1993. Sets out measures to regulate the use and disposal of radioactive substances including registration, authorisation, enforcement and offences.

Ionising Radiations Regulations SI 1999/3232. Requires employers to protect employees and other people against ionising radiation arising from working with radioactive substances and other sources of ionising radiation. Also imposes certain duties on employees.

Transfrontier Shipment of Radioactive Waste and Spent Fuel Regulations SI 2008/3087. Establishes a system of authorisation and approval for shipping radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel between member states and into and out of the European Union (EU).

EC Regulation (Euratom) on shipment of radioactive substances 1493/93. Regulates the shipment of radioactive substances between EU member states.

Radioactive Substances Exemption (Scotland) Order 2011. Removes the 21 exemption orders made under the 1993 and 1960 Radioactive Substances Acts and replaces them with a single exemption order. Some types of clocks and watches that contain radium are no longer exempt.

Further information

You can keep up to date with all environmental legislation on NetRegs:

NetRegs environmental legislation

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