Wildfire near Chernobyl

Two leading academics share their views with the NIA on the risk posed by the reports of wildfires near the Chernobyl plant, concluding there is no radiobiological risk.

There have been a number of reports concerning wildfires close to the Chernobyl plant that in some cases have resulted in alarmist headlines. These fires are some way from the plant itself and therefore present no danger to it.

The concern is therefore only for combustion of contaminated vegetation. It is now 29 years since the accident, and over time there is a considerable reduction in radioactive contamination of the area due to the physical half-lives of the radioisotopes released.

All the radioactive iodine, which was responsible for the increase in thyroid cancer, is eliminated from the environment within three months, due to the short half-life of 8.1 days for 131-I. The other major contaminant Cs-137, has a half-life of 30 years, and it therefore follows that only half of the original release still remains active in the environment today.

There is no evidence thus far for an increase in any form of cancer other than thyroid cancer, which is caused by exposure to 131-I. This suggests that exposure to Cs-137 has not produced a discernible increase in cancer.

It is possible that some of the remaining contamination may become airborne as the result of these fires, but the dose of radiation will be minimal in comparison with that from the original release.

Indeed, there have previously been forest fires in the Chernobyl exclusion zone as well as an experimental fire which was used to determine how much radioactivity would be resuspended. In studies of these real and experimental fires, Ukrainian scientists found that though the air concentration of radionuclides was increased, it remained at very low levels and didn’t present a significant inhalation risk.

The area is still heavily monitored and the data suggest that there has been no increase in the levels of radiation recorded. These fires therefore pose no radiobiological consequences for human health.

Prof. Gerry Thomas
Professor of Molecular Pathology,
Imperial College London

Prof. James Smith
School of Earth & Environmental Sciences
University of Portsmouth

A trip to the East

Life in the NIA is never dull and last week I found myself in Beijing as part of a Government and UKTI Nuclear Outward Mission organised to coincide with the China International Nuclear Exhibition.

This was an extremely interesting few days, not least because it was my first chance personally to see the world’s new economic superpower in action. China’s modernisation is obvious from the moment you arrive in central Beijing. The drab buildings and swarms of bicycles of popular imagination are no more, replaced by ergonomically designed state of the art high rises. If you ignore the appalling traffic, and occasional pollution, this could be any modern (and upmarket) US city.

China’s incredible economic progress extends across all infrastructure, the energy sector included, and it is now the world’s fastest growing nuclear nation. It has an impressive track record in delivering new nuclear programmes, and very ambitious plans for the future.

One of these ambitions is to become involved in our UK nuclear programme, first by contributing to Hinkley Point C as financial partners. This could then pave the way for involvement in future projects by giving them experience that will support their long term objective of becoming nuclear developers here in the UK.

In this context EDF Energy arranged a supply chain event at which the (Chinese) CGN and CNNC representatives spoke about their enthusiasm for collaborating on the project with UK and French companies. This was echoed by the new EDF Chairman Jean-Bernard Levy who looked forward to long term cooperation between the UK, China and French nuclear industries using the industrial skills of all three countries.

Of course both the UK and China have long experience and traditions in nuclear energy – in the UK’s case dating back to the construction of the world’s first commercial reactor at Calder Hall in 1956. We therefore believe that both countries have a great deal to offer each other, and welcome the prospect of the Chinese working with us as the partner of choice. The proviso of course is that this must be an equitable and reciprocal arrangement. We would want to see the Chinese companies partnering with UK companies, and UK companies having the ability to compete fairly in China.

With a view to helping achieve this the NIA signed an agreement with its opposite number in China (CNEA) on future co-operation between our two organisations. One of the initial deliverables will be to provide a forum for reviewing progress on the commitments made at the Sino-UK civil nuclear seminar which immediately followed the signing ceremony. This seminar, which included key Chinese and UK companies including Amec Foster Wheeler, Atkins, Lloyds Register, NNL and some of our leading SMEs, looked at how the companies could access their respective markets, and ultimately third markets, to the benefit of both industries. It resulted in a series of recommendations that will now be followed up in the UKTI China working group.

All in all this was a pretty positive visit, although as with most international agreements the proof will be in the pudding. It was also remarkable as the last hurrah for Hergen Haye, at least as Leader of the UK Government delegation. Having seen him perform at consecutive events I believe there are few better or more committed advocates for UK nuclear, and it must be hoped he remains engaged, albeit in a different guise, in the UK nuclear scene.

Peter Haslam, Public Policy Adviser, NIAPeter Haslam
Head of Policy