Researchers at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) have worked with international scientists to compile a definitive paper on the effects of radiation on the environment, based on investigations at Chernobyl and Fukushima. The document provides solid guidelines to regulators such as the Environment Agency (EA), which sets dose limits in England, on the amount of radioactivity that might harm flora and fauna.
The paper consolidates conclusions from the world’s two largest scientific studies assessing the environment at Chernobyl, named TREE (standing for ‘Transfer, Exposure, Effects’ and which UWE Bristol is a part of), and the EU-funded COMET.
Professor Neil Willey, who is UWE Bristol’s lead author on the paper, said: “This report dispels the exaggerated claims made in some other reports about the effects of radiation on the environment and the doses needed to damage flora and fauna.
“Some claim that minute levels of radiation found in trees today are having an adverse effect on them, but the damage to their cells is the result of the radiation they were exposed to 35 years ago during the nuclear disaster.”
He added that when looking at damage to flora and fauna in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, many such reports have failed to take into account other factors, including human activity, which affect the environment.
The paper is seen as important given that over 50 new nuclear power stations are currently in construction around the globe because of the energy source’s comparatively low carbon emissions. These facilities will increase the need to construct repositories for nuclear waste and understanding radiation’s effects on the environment is likely to determine what kind of waste repository the UK will build.
“After thousands of years such repositories eventually erode and may leak, so you want to build them to last long enough that most of the radio isotopes will have disappeared if they do. The design and regulation of repositories is therefore partly dependent on what radiation levels are harmful to flora and fauna,” said Professor Willey.
The academic explained that the report is enabling the EA to improve the protection of the environment.
He said that work at Chernobyl suggests that current regulations for radioactivity in the environment have a significant safety margin and that we shouldn’t spend a disproportionate amount of time debating them when there are many other significant impacts on the environment to deal with such as pollution from cars.
The report is also helping the work of the International Commission on Radiological Protection – the world body that provides recommendation and guidance on radiological protection – because it provides the organisation with renewed confidence in the limits it uses to control radiation in the environment.
Professor Willey has spent time in the Chernobyl vicinity and in 2015 accompanied 15 PhD students to study the effects of radiation during a field trip in the zone.
He was also involved in an experiment with UWE Bristol students analysing seeds that had been sent up to space during an expedition with British astronaut Tim Peake.