European Commission Joint Research Centre Institute for Transuranium Elements
Measurement of Radioactivity in the Environment
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A variety of systems and processes may introduce radioactivity in the environment. Human activities, for instance, involving nuclear weapons and nuclear fuel cycle (including mining, milling, fuel enrichment, fabrication, reactor operation, spent fuel stores, reprocessing facilities, medical applications and waste storage) are important and may lead to a significant creation and release of radioactivity. Human technology also releases pre-existing natural radionuclides, which would otherwise remain trapped in the earth’s crust. For instance, burning of fossil fuel (oil and coal) dominates direct atmospheric release of pre-existing natural radioactivity.
The distribution pattern of radioactive fallout depends on the weather conditions (i.e. wet or dry) and on the nature of the surface and the physical-chemical form of radionuclides, which may vary depending on release and transport conditions in addition to elements’ properties. A general distinction can be made between gases, aerosol and particulate material. Particles with higher activity concentration, known as "hot particles", may result from atmospheric nuclear weapon tests or nuclear reactor accidents. This activity is diluted as material is transferred to soil and water directly or via vegetation and movement through other biota. Therefore, for monitoring radioactivity in the environment it is necessary to analysis bulk samples from all biosphere compartment as well as single microparticles.