Another Chernobyl?

Implementing a low-cost environmental and aerosol monitoring provision inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone for seasonal and wild-fire event monitoring and risk management.

The challenge

April 2021 marked the 35th Anniversary of catastrophic accident at Reactor 4 of the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant (ChNPP); an incident which, to this day, represents the most significant radiological release event to have ever occurred. This INES Level 7 event (the most severe) contributed an order of magnitude more contamination into the local and global environments than was emitted from Fukushima in March 2011. Renewed interest in the accident and the associated radiation effects, alongside such a high-profile anniversary, has been greatly compounded by the 2019 hit docudrama as well as the increasing magnitude and severity of fires within the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone (ChEZ). Today, the ChEZ comprises the same area of 2,600 km2 (the same size of Luxembourg) and although 35 years have now passed since the accident, the Zone is still regarded as one of the most radiologically contaminated and hazardous locations on Earth. Unlike Fukushima, however, where considerable time and financial investment has been directed to the remediation and management of the contaminated environment, no such decontamination has occurred in the ChEZ – with large land areas left unmanaged and consequently a significant fire hazard from the fuel accumulations.

The extreme hazard that had been left ‘unchecked’, when in April 2020 extensive forest fires (believed on this occasion to be the result of arson) ravaged the ‘Red Forest’ region. This extensive burn remobilised a large inventory of the contamination contained within the various surface organic reservoirs - comprising aerosols, volatile species and particulates. Thankfully, the most contaminated areas escaped the burn, however, this event highlighted the absence of a comprehensive aerosol, particulate and air quality monitoring provision within the ChEZ when Bristol scientists were called upon by the UK Government SAGE and Zone authorities.

To better inform; (i) the future real-time fire response, and more importantly (ii) the airborne/plume modelling scenarios by governments as part of their national radiological protection measures, there exists the critical need for a step-change in the existing monitoring provision – surpassing the handful of aged meteorological and air-quality monitors that are sporadically located across the ChEZ and provide limited data quality upon which to base decisions and input into complex atmospheric models. 

What we're doing

In response to this capability ‘vacuum’ and enabled by advances in miniaturised integrated sensor components, scientists at Bristol have developed advanced, low-cost, rugged, and self-powered networked sensor systems to provide real-time information on the air quality and other meteorological conditions across large spatial extents.

To achieve this – the project will deploy the proven hardware alongside a cloud-based ‘portal’ through which users can access, explore and interrogate results. Not only will this provide a powerful tool to those managing and monitoring the zone, but also to; (i) scientists examining the global environmental hazard presented by the highly mobile contamination, (ii) those responsible for managing the radiological safety of those living in, working inside and visiting the zone, and (iii) serving as an educational tool on environmental radioactivity.

How it helps

With visitor numbers to the ChEZ growing and, more importantly, with such radioactivity remobilising wildland fires becoming increasingly frequent (near annual) and severe, a suitable means of extensive and real-time aerosol, particulate, air quality and meteorological condition monitoring provision across a greater area of the 2,600 km2 ChEZ is urgently required. This system will underpin local radiological safety, allow an enhanced (on the ground) response to fire events – minimising the dose received by emergency responders, deliver crucial inputs into international plume/contaminations modelling, and resultantly protect the environment and its inhabitants from a catastrophic radiation release.

Building upon prior UoB work in the ChEZ to establish a large-scale wirelessly connected static and mobile radiation monitoring provision, alongside numerous partners in Ukraine, we have been developing complementary low-cost pollution, air quality and meteorological sensors for installation at key localities across the region. As such rich data is of low value without proper interpretation, this project will also utilise the AI and ML powered “Overwatch” capability, developed with partners at Amazon Web Services (AWS).

By assimilating the real-time wireless outputs from these devices into a single online portal for interpretation analysis and predictive modelling, it will be possible to assess changes in fire (and seasonal pollen) derived aerosols/particulates to evaluate release severity, radioactivity distributions, variations in environmental residence, and appropriately define local and long-range risk maps resulting from such emission events.

Investigators

  • Dr Peter Martin, Physics
  • Mr Maxim Saveliev, Institute for Safety Problems at Nuclear Power Plants (ISPNPP), Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences (UNAS)
  • Mr Vitaliy Medved, Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant (ChNPP)
  • Dr Oleh Korikov, Ukrainian Central Enterprise for Management of Radioactive Waste (CEMRW)
  • Mr Sergiy Kireev, State Specialized Enterprise (SSE) EcoCentre, Ukraine
  • Dr Sarah Millington, Met Office
  • Ms Lucy Antysz, Amazon Web Services
  • Dr Andriy Sizov, Joint Support Office (JSO), Ukraine

Lead researcher profile

Dr Peter Martin, Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellow

Partner organisations

  • Institute for Safety Problems at Nuclear Power Plants (ISPNPP)
  • Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences (UNAS)
  • Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant (ChNPP)
  • Ukrainian Central Enterprise for Management of Radioactive Waste (CEMRW)
  • State Specialized Enterprise (SSE) EcoCentre, Ukraine
  • UK Meteorological Office (Met Office)
  • Amazon Web Services (AWS)
  • Joint Support Office (JSO), Ukraine
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