How can we protect the environment from radiation?


Those whose job involves protecting the environment from the damaging effects of ionising radiation now have a new tool at their disposal, thanks to the work of the ERICA (Environmental Risk from Ionising Contaminants: Assessment and Management) project.

The initiative brought together 15 partners, including universities, industry and research institutes, from 6 EU Member States plus Norway. Together they developed a procedure, called the ERICA Integrated Approach, which allows users to carry out a detailed assessment of the potential impacts of radiation on the environment in a given situation. The accompanying ERICA Tool guides users through the process, helping them to perform the assessment, evaluate the results and take decisions.

By using a tiered approach, the methodology can be used both in everyday situations by inexperienced users, as well as in complex situations requiring expert judgement.

Studies have shown the ERICA Integrated Approach to be effective in the field, and it is already used in risk assessments worldwide.


Ionising radiation

Background levels of ionising radiation are found naturally in our environment, for example in soil, water, air and living organisms. Man is also capable of creating radioactive matter, for example during the splitting of atoms in a nuclear reactor. In medicine, radiation is routinely used for both diagnostic purposes and in radiation therapy.

Research has shown that exposure can be dangerous for human health, leading to DNA damage that may eventually cause cancer and to some extent can be passed on from generation to generation. Plants and animals also suffer when exposed to ionising radiation, as many studies have shown, in laboratories, in the field and in the after math of accidents.

Towards an integrated assessment tool

A previous EU-funded project called FASSET (‘Framework for Assessment of Environmental Impact’), which ran from 2000 to 2003, laid the foundations for an assessment framework for evaluating the environmental impacts of ionising radiation.

ERICA built on this work, and developed the ‘ERICA Integrated Approach’. This is a methodology which guides users through the assessment process, while ensuring appropriate weight is given to the environmental exposure, effects and risks from ionising radiation with an emphasis on maintaining the structure and function of ecosystems. It integrates information on environmental management, risk characterisation and impact assessment.

Although it is designed primarily for use in planned exposure situations such as the disposal of radioactive waste, or existing exposure situations such as dealing with natural background radiation or exposure after an accident, it can also be used for emergency exposure situations.

Users are guided through the process by the ERICA Tool software, which also keeps records, calculates dose rates and interacts with other databases to provide information on issues such as radioactivity concentrations in the environment and the effects of radiation on different plants and animals.

The procedure was refined with the help of the ERICA End-Users Group. This was made up of national nuclear safety agencies, environmental protection agencies and organisations, environment ministries, researchers and non-governmental organisations, among others.

An easy to use tool

The first stage of the methodology is problem formulation. Here the user is required to identify possible causes or radiation exposure, the type of radiation and the ecosystems likely to be affected, for example.

At the assessment stage, data such as radioactivity levels in the environment (water, soil or air) are analysed and dose rates for the organisms living there are calculated. On the basis of this information, the risk of exposure to wildlife at the site in question can be evaluated.

Finally, the tool helps users evaluate the results of their assessment and take appropriate decisions. These could exclude selecting a different site for a planned facility, or imposing additional controls in cases of existing exposure.

Tried and tested

The methodology was tested at five different sites around Europe. The Drigg Coastal Sand Dunes in the UK, the Irish Sea and the River Loire in France are all contaminated with low levels of radiation by discharges from regulated nuclear facilities. The Komi Republic in Russia has high levels of natural radiation, while the Chernobyl exclusion zone in Ukraine is a highly contaminated site. Feedback from the users was positive and the case studies proved useful for fine-tuning the methodology and software.

The ERICA Tool is freely available online and it is already being used in assessments in different countries. The project partners have agreed to continue to maintain the ERICA Tool beyond the end of the project, and issue updates when new data and functions become available.

The ripple effect

The ERICA project has significantly boosted the ability of a wide range of users to assess the exposure of the environment to ionising radiation and respond accordingly.

The success of the project is underlined by the fact that its outputs have been taken up by more than a hundred registered users and key international initiatives in the field, among them the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), which issues widely recognised recommendations on radiological protection of both human health and the environment.