Kenya retires overused cobalt 60 radiology machine

By Gatonye Gathura

At 34, Kenya’s oldest cancer treatment machine at Kenyatta National Hospital has finally been laid to rest at Oloolua Forest in Ngong.

One of the two Cobalt 60 radiotherapy machines at KNH and possibly the world’s most overworked such device, was bought in 1983 to work for about 15 years and be retired in1998.

However 34 years later the Cobalt 60 having put in 19 years above its lifespan was decommissioned last year.

‘Sometimes I felt like they were drawing blood from a fly,’ if it were to talk the retired machine would say.

“The machine breaks down often but spare parts required for its maintenance are no longer available,” wrote the Auditor General, Edward Ouko in his 2012 KNH report.

Ouko said the hospital’s Cancer Treatment Center and Biomedical Department, had recommended the machine be decommissioned by September 2008.

“But the management ignored the advice as they had no money to buy a new one which would have cost about Sh90 million then.”

‘I must apologize to thousands of my patients who I may have over or under dosed in my old age,’ Cobalt 60 would possibly say.

The 2018 to 2021 Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) of the Ministry of Health confirms the machine has been decommissioned to the Sh520 million nuclear waste laboratory at Oloolua Forest in Ngong.

This is located next to the Institute of Primate Research of the National Museums of Kenya.

“The decommissioned unit, a Category I security risk radioactive Cobalt-60, is currently housed at this facility,” says the MTEF report published in November.

The Oloolua Forest nuclear lab is formally known as the Central Radioactive Waste Processing and temporary storage Facility (CRWPF).

Construction of the facility was started in 2010 at an estimated cost of Sh520 million under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

So far only phase one of the planned three at the facility has been completed which means the remains of the Cobalt 60 machine are not yet fully secured as per IAEA recommendations.

The technology is classified by the IAEA as Category 1 source of nuclear risk, the highest risk level by the agency.

The cobalt 60 will remain a serious radiation threat for at least the next 112 years.

A 2016 report by the US NGO the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) indicates Kenya among several countries facing bioterrorism threat from its possession of Cobalt 60 radiology machines.

Twenty per cent of the Cobalt 60 machines the report says are in seven African countries which also face threats from terror groups including Kenya which is facing off with Al-Shabaab.

“The concern is that some of these radioactive sources could be stolen and used for malicious purposes such as the making of dirty bombs.”

The NGO recommends the replacing of Cobalt 60 with newer radiology technologies such as the LINAC, already installed at the Aga Khan and MP Shah hospitals which poses less radiation threat.

The decommissioned Cobalt 60 machine at KNH has also been replaced by a LINAC technology which also takes a higher workload.

The CNS report which had US, UK and Norwegian governments’ participation wants decommissioned cobalt machines such as that at Oloolua Forest be repatriated to the countries of origin for security reasons.

A 2016 Kenya Government survey reported worrying lose of dangerous materials with potential for use in bioterrorism from local laboratories.

The survey said more than half of the sampled 86 bio-labs were found storing agents of serious bio-security concerns in poorly secured conditions.

While many Kenyans would wish the retired cancer machine to rest in peace this will not happen in their lifetime.

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