Protection of the Marine and Terrestrial Environment

Radionuclides in the Marine Environment

Radionuclides in the Marine Environment

The marine environment has been widely affected by nuclear activities, with the result that Member States need information on the present levels of radioactive and stable isotopes to evaluate trends and study oceanographic processes. This requires the quantification of natural and anthropogenic sources of radionuclides in the world's oceans and seas, computer modelling of the dispersion of radionuclides, and water and sediment dynamics studies. Nuclear and isotopic techniques provide tools to investigate oceanographic processes and marine contamination on a quantitative basis, and at the same time address the problems of coastal zone management.

The Agency acts in the framework of the United Nations Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities (GPA) as a clearing house of information on radioactive contamination in the marine environment, and provides advice and assistance on marine radioactivity to Member States, as well as to regional and international bodies, such as the Oslo-Paris Commission for Protection of the Marine Environment of the NE Atlantic (OSPAR), the Helsinki Commission, the Barcelona Convention, and the Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP).

Radioecology to Understand Coastal Contamination

Radioecology to Understand Coastal Contamination

Basic knowledge about the fate of marine contaminants is critical to issues of human health and environmental protection. Monitoring contaminant levels and distributions alone is not sufficient to evaluate the degree of impact that these pollutants have on ecosystems, seafood products and humans. Sound knowledge of radionuclide behaviour and transfer processes is needed to make an accurate assessment of the impacts from local radioactivity releases and from those contaminants transported into territorial waters from distant sources. The use of radiotracers to monitor the transport of analogue stable elements and radiolabelled organic compounds offers a unique ability to discern the behaviour and fate of important conventional pollutants (e.g. heavy metals, PCBs and pesticides) and the fate of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide in the marine environment.

Targeted research on specific marine processes is effective for assisting the management and protection of coastal zones. In response to priorities identified by the United Nations Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA), the WSSD, and various coastal Member States, The Marine Environment programme develops and uses nuclear techniques to obtain information on the transfer and transport of radionuclides, conventional contaminants, toxic substances and other key elements through the coastal marine ecosystems. It also is active in supporting the development of a rapid, radiolabelled toxin assay to mitigate the effect of Harmful Algal Blooms, whose poisons can concentrate in shellfish with lethal affects in the human food chain.

Extracting organic contaminants from sediments

Monitoring Non-radioactive Marine Pollution

Marine pollution can limit access to coastal resources and even pose a threat to public health. Non-radioactive pollutants currently have a higher environmental impact than radioactive contaminants. There are several types of non-radioactive pollutants such as heavy metals, pesticides and oil products, some of which can be very toxic to marine life. These originate from land-based sources, and transboundary issues can arise because of the easy transport of contaminants in marine waters. Understanding the sources, distribution, fate and effects of marine pollutants is central to coastal zone management. The Agency collaborates with Member States, regional bodies and other UN organizations in the assessment and study of marine pollution and is a partner in joint activities helping laboratory networks obtain harmonized data sets. The Agency also undertakes research, including the development of isotopic techniques for tracer studies, with an underlying philosophy to deliver pragmatic methods and protocols that can be readily adopted by laboratories in Member States, especially in developing countries.

The Agency, using marine environmental studies in the Monaco Marine Environment Laboratory has operational capabilities in environmental analytical chemistry and pollution assessment of non-radioactive marine contaminants. At the global level, the Agency has had joint activities with UNESCO-IOC and UNEP for many years and has recently started collaborative Global Environment Fund (GEF) funded work with UNDP. Regionally, it has undertaken joint activities in the Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. At the national level, it works directly with laboratories in Member States and provides expertise implementing international conventions, such as the UNEP ban on the use of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and the IMO convention prohibiting organotin compounds as marine antifoulants.

A Depleted Uranium grain obtained in X-ray absorption mode

Measurement and Assessment of Radionuclides and Non-radioactive Pollutants in the Terrestrial Environment

The protection of the terrestrial environment from a broad range of contaminants released by nuclear and non-nuclear activities requires that their impact be investigated, and effective protection and remediation measures be developed through international co-operation and collaboration. Energy production by fossil fuels and nuclear power plants, as well as industrial and mining activities, often release radionuclides and other pollutants into the environment. Radionuclides have been released into the environment by nuclear activities and nuclear weapons tests. There has also been concern about the environmental impact of nuclear material (Depleted Uranium) used in conventional ammunition.

Proper assessment of the radiological and conventional risk due to environmental pollutants requires the ability to perform accurate measurements of pollutant concentrations in representative samples and an understanding of their environmental fate. Moreover, due to the possible transboundary transport, there is a need to perform these measurements according to internationally agreed and harmonized procedures. Models to predict the environmental fate and the impact on human health of the contaminants have to be developed and/or adapted to specific circumstances.

Member States need information on the present level of radionuclides and other potential pollutants in the terrestrial environment in order to evaluate trends, to study transfer processes and environmental changes, and to predict future conditions. This requires the quantification of natural and anthropogenic sources, and computer modelling of the dispersion of the contaminants in air, soils and water, and their impact studies. Nuclear and isotopic techniques provide tools to investigate release processes and contamination on a quantitative basis and to address the problem of environmental management. Demand driven programmes for assistance to Member States for laboratory quality management, for capacity building and the provision of training, and for the design and implementation of environmental monitoring programmes and remediation strategies will further improve the understanding of environmental processes and the protection of the environment. In addition, the Agency serves as a clearing house of information and provides advice on radioactive contamination in the terrestrial environment to regional and international bodies such as WHO, UNEP, UNDP, IUR and the affected Member States in Asia, Africa, South America and East Europe, as well as the Arctic and Antarctic areas.

The understanding and quantification of the transfer of radionuclides in the terrestrial and freshwater environment and food chains need to take into account site-specific conditions. Based upon this, appropriate remediation strategies can be derived for past, present and future events of radioactive contamination, which may lead to elevated radiation exposures. The concepts developed in radioecology can be combined with data on non-radioactive pollutants and with recorded health effects in the affected area to derive reliable dose effect relationships.

New directions will include the implementation of a geographical information system for environmental decision support and the application of nuclear and isotopic techniques in terrestrial environmental management. These will provide worldwide data on parameters and on the distribution of radioactive and stable isotopes and other pollutants in the terrestrial environment. Assistance to Member States will be offered to improve their capabilities in monitoring and assessing the impact on the terrestrial environment of radioactive and other pollutants.

The Agency also supports a worldwide network of laboratories for environmental radionuclide monitoring, called the ALMERA network. Outputs ensure that laboratories carry out measurements to recognised international standards.


ALMERA is a worldwide network currently consisting of 81 laboratories, drawn from 49 countries. The membership of ALMERA is always open to new candidates who must be officially nominated by their government.