Cobalt sources removed from Guatemalan hospital in multi-year modernization effort; joint mission facilitated delivery of backlogged aid for orphanages, schools, and cancer centers

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration successfully removed two U.S.-origin radioactive sources from retired cancer therapy machines at Liga Nacional Contra el Cáncer/Instituto de Cancerología (LIGA/INCAN) in Guatemala City, Guatemala in April. NNSA conducted this removal in partnership with the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and Guatemala’s Ministry of Energy and Mines.

INCAN is Guatemala’s only comprehensive cancer center, with a focus on providing low-cost and cost-free care to patients in need. In 2019, INCAN received a Halcyon linear accelerator from a joint USAID/Washington University in St. Louis project to replace its aging Cobalt-based cancer treatment equipment. NNSA removed the disused units at no cost to the hospital or government of Guatemala. The sources departed Guatemala via military aircraft operated by DTRA for disposal in the United States. Adequate protection and disposition of radioactive sources are imperative, as radioisotopes such as the Cobalt-60 in these machines could cause serious damage to people and the environment if weaponized or improperly handled. They also require significant and costly security arrangements in public facilities.

The effort also facilitated the delivery of eight pallets of backlogged humanitarian aid to Guatemala via unused space on the two U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command flights that brought in the equipment required for the Cobalt-60 removal. The humanitarian delivery was coordinated through the Denton Program, a Department of Defense transportation program that moves cargo, donated by U.S. non-governmental organizations for developing nations. Mission of Love, the international humanitarian organization that organized the aid, estimates that approximately 20,000 people, mostly indigenous Maya, will directly benefit from this shipment. The aid will be distributed between orphanages, schools for students with disabilities, and a place that houses children with cancer.

“The safety for society and the environment is a cornerstone that we strive to maintain in our radiation therapy center,” said representatives from INCAN. “We emphasize responsible use and disposal of the therapy materials for Guatemalan cancer patients.”

“Today’s announcement marks a significant achievement with our Guatemalan partners to improve global nuclear and radiological security,” said NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Corey Hinderstein. “This work is a reflection of our shared threat reduction and nuclear security goals.”

In Guatemala, the Ministry of Energy and Mines oversees the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and, through the General Direction of Energy, authorizes and coordinates activities carried out with other related government entities related to physical security, customs, and emergency preparedness.

DTRA’s Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program actively partners with NNSA in nuclear security and removal missions around the world. Previous work has taken place across the former Soviet Union, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Mexico; this is the program's first activity in Guatemala. “CTR partners with NNSA on multiple programs across the globe, all of which are at the heart of making the world a safer place through cooperative efforts like these,” said CTR Director Robert Pope, PhD. “We are especially proud of this initial CTR mission in the US Southern Command Area of Responsibility, which demonstrates our agility and flexibility in nuclear and high-threat radiological material movements.”

NNSA’s Office of Radiological Security (ORS) mission is to enhance global security by preventing radioactive materials from use in acts of terrorism. To achieve the mission, ORS has developed a holistic and sustainable security approach that protects radioactive sources in vital medical, research, and commercial settings; removes and disposes of disused radioactive sources; and reduces the global reliance on radioactive sources through the promotion of non-radioisotopic alternative technologies.

Learn more about NNSA’s Office of Radiological Security.