Investigating radioactivity in Chernobyl exclusion zone
It is now 35 years since news of the catastrophic reactor accident in Chernobyl spread around the globe. While the impact on Germany is barely perceptible nowadays, Ukraine continues to suffer serious consequences as a result of the accident: there are still areas around the reactor that are so contaminated that they necessitate an exclusion zone that can only be entered with special permission.
Remapping 35 years after the accident
Now, plans are underway to ascertain how this contamination has changed in the past 35 years. At the invitation of the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) will be working with the Federal Police to carry out radiation measurements aimed at remapping the radiological situation in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
Measurements on the ground and from a helicopter
Measurements will be taken from 3 to 19 September 2021 both on the ground and from helicopters. These readings will be used to determine and map the levels of radiation present, as well as the type and quantity of substances deposited on the ground that are responsible for this radiation.
Jochen Flasbarth, State Secretary at the Federal Environment Ministry, says: "For a long time, the Federal Environment Ministry has supported and monitored efforts to make the damaged reactor and the core material it contains safe. This measurement operation by the Federal Office for Radiation Protection represents another part of this commitment.
Although the last nuclear power plants in Germany will be shut down next year, the Federal Environment Ministry remains committed to international cooperation in radiological emergency preparedness and the monitoring of environmental radioactivity. As we look to the future, we must ensure that we remain in a position to respond quickly, competently and purposefully to dangers arising from the use of nuclear power, and especially to potential accidents at nuclear power plants abroad."
Paulini: "Radioactivity doesn't stop at national borders"
Inge Paulini, BfS President, says: "Radioactivity doesn't stop at national borders. With that in mind, we must also be prepared for accidents in other European countries and work together across borders when dealing with an accident. We believe it's important that we use our expertise to support international partner organisations.
This is also beneficial for emergency preparedness in Germany: as the measurements in the exclusion zone are an opportunity for us to expand our own capabilities in collaboration with our partners from the Federal Police, emergency preparedness in Germany also benefits directly from this work."
The measurements in detail
The radiation measurements will be carried out in close collaboration with the State Specialized Enterprise (SSE) Ecocentre, which is tasked with environmental monitoring in the exclusion zone. Analyses are only being carried out in the Ukrainian section of the exclusion zone and do not involve flying over or entering the Belarusian section. The measurement results will be handed over to the BfS's partner institutions in Ukraine for further use.
The measurements will involve the deployment of two helicopters from the Federal Police Air Squadron, with pilots from the Federal Police and experts from the BfS on board, as well as up to four ground measurement teams made up of experts from the BfS and Ukraine working in collaboration with one another. The helicopters will be used to conduct a large-scale examination of the radiological situation within the exclusion zone. To this end, the zone will be broken down into smaller areas that will then be systematically overflown in multiple stages.
All unnecessary exposure to radiation will be avoided
For the ground measurement teams, the operational areas will be specified by the operations management on a daily basis using the results of the helicopter measurements obtained so far. Ground measurements will serve to ensure the quality of the helicopter measurements and to carry out smaller-scale examinations of areas that are identified as conspicuous from the helicopter.
During measurement operations, the safety of the measurement teams will be the top priority. All unnecessary exposure to radiation will be avoided. The additional radiation exposure is expected to be less than that experienced on a long-haul flight to New York and back. A comprehensive hygiene concept has also been drawn up to protect staff against the coronavirus.
Cooperation between the Federal Office for Radiation Protection and the Federal Police
Radioactivity measurements taken from helicopters allow large areas to be examined for radioactive contamination within a short space of time. In addition to speed, the advantage of these measurements is that they also allow the examination of areas that are inaccessible from the ground.
The BfS and the Federal Police have been working closely together for many years on the airborne detection of radioactive substances deposited on the ground: the Federal Police Air Squadron provides helicopters and crews, while experts from the BfS carry out the measurements and ensure the radiation protection of all participants. Regular exercises are carried out in order to maintain operational readiness. In a radiological emergency, an area of around 100 square kilometres can be overflown and mapped in the space of about three hours. The measurement results are available shortly after landing.