Radioactivity in the environment comes from different sources including:
- natural radiation
- residue from the Chernobyl accident and atmospheric weapons testing
- radioactive discharges from nuclear sites
- industry and landfill sites
Radioactive discharges are strictly regulated to make sure they do not harm people or the environment.
Assessing the safety of radiation levels
Nuclear sites must have an environmental permit to operate. The permit requires them to monitor radiation levels from their discharges and any effects on the environment. For example, Sellafield Ltd carry out environmental monitoring around the Sellafield site. The Environment Agency assesses the results and suitability of Sellafield Ltd’s programme, including the company’s monitoring for radioactive objects on west Cumbria beaches.
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The following organisations also carry out monitoring programmes to provide an independent assessment of radiation levels in the environment:
- Environment Agency
- Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)
- Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA)
- Natural Resources Wales (NRW)
- Food Standards Agency (FSA)
These organisations sample air, rainwater and water sources used for public supplies to:
- check whether radiation levels conform to legal limits
- check that radioactivity in food and the environment from authorised releases and discharges does not affect people’s health or the environment
- gather long-term information on concentrations and trends so that they can identify any changes and take action if needed
- assess the public’s total exposure to radiation around nuclear sites
As part of their monitoring they use high volume air samplers which are capable of detecting tiny amounts of radioactive particles in the air.
The results of their monitoring programmes are published annually in Radioactivity in food and the environment reports.
Assessing the public’s exposure to radiation
People who live, work or carry out recreational activities near nuclear sites take part in regular ‘habit surveys’ which look at their habits and consumption patterns. This information helps work out how much radiation members of the public are exposed to from these sites. The FSA website has more information about these habit surveys.
The Practitioner Group on the Impact of Radioactivity in the Environment (PGIRE) was set up in 2017. It takes on some of the roles of the National Dose Assessment Working Group which disbanded in 2013. The Environment Agency, NRW, SEPA, NIEA, FSA, Food Standards Scotland, and the Office for Nuclear Regulation attend the group. Public Health England provide an independent chair.
The PGIRE’s main aim is to share best practice in approaches to assessing the exposure of humans and biota to radioactivity in the environment (from regulated human activities). The group will do this primarily through meeting 2 to 3 times a year. They may need to hold extra meetings when necessary to discuss topics they consider are of particular importance.
Information about radiation is available on the Society for Radiological Protection website.
Radioactivity in the marine environment
The UK reports annually on discharges of radioactive substances which may reach the north east Atlantic marine environment. You can find out more on the OSPAR website. Read the ‘Review of the UK strategy for radioactive discharges’ which shows UK progress against the 2009 strategy outcomes and OSPAR objectives.
Radioactive incident monitoring
After the Chernobyl accident the UK government installed a national radiation monitoring and nuclear emergency response system (RIMNET). It is part of the arrangements for dealing with the effects of overseas nuclear accidents in the UK.
Find out more about radioactive incident monitoring and RIMNET.