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Vegetable and water samples being collected for analysis

Environment Monitoring around Nuclear Reactors

Today India is self-sufficient in building nuclear power stations and has gained mastery over the entire nuclear fuel cycle. In the course of operation of the various nuclear facilities, the primary safety objective is to protect the plant personnel, the people at large and the environment from radiation. Regular environmental assessment is necessary to ensure this. Measurement of radiation levels and other pollutants constitute the most important constituent of environmental assessment. For this purpose, Environmental Survey Laboratories (ESLs) have been established at each nuclear site to maintain a constant vigil on the environment in and around these facilities. These laboratories collect the base-line environmental data before an activity starts in a new location and thereafter carry out a systematic monitoring of environment for radioactivity levels during operation of the installation and ensure that there is no build up of radioactivity in the environment over and above the pre-operational natural levels.

The primary aim of the environmental monitoring programme is to demonstrate the compliance with the radiation exposure limits set by Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) for the members of the public. The ESLs collect data on the levels of external radiation dose and concentration of radioactivity due to the natural sources present in the environment. These include monitoring of Uranium, thorium and their daughter products formed due to their radioactive decay, Potassium (K-40) etc. Radionuclides released into the environment due to weapon tests conducted by several countries over the years (also called global weapon fall-out) are also measured. These include Sr-90 and Cs-137.

The above mentioned radioactivity measurements are carried out in a number of environmental matrices such as air, water, silt, sediment, soil, vegetation, vegetables, milk, grass, crops, fruits, fish, goat thyroid, meat and other dietary items. These samples can be divided into three categories, namely:

  1. Samples directly relevant for estimation of dose received by the members of the public such as drinking water, air and local dietary items.
  2. Samples which are trend-indicators for build-up of radionuclides such as weeds, sediment, soil, grass etc.
  3. Samples which are sensitive indicator organisms that accumulate specific radionuclides to a great extent.  For example, goat thyroid is sampled for the detection of low levels of fresh radioactive Iodine-131.

About 1000-2500 samples per year are collected and analysed from terrestrial, aquatic and atmospheric environments from public domain in an area upto 30 km of the plant. The samples are selected on the basis of potential pathways of exposure to humans. The number and type of samples and sampling frequency can be site-specific depending on the nature of operations, aspects related to utilisation of the local environment, existence of population clusters and related demographic data.