NEC06110 RED FIRE: Radioactive Environment Damaged by fire: a Forest In REcovery

Lead Research Organisation: NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
Department Name: Pollution (Lancaster)

Abstract

Following the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, an area (4-6 km2) of coniferous forest was killed by high levels of radiation. The affected area became known as the 'Red Forest' as the trees' needles turned red in 1986 prior to their death. The Red Forest subsequently regenerated with deciduous trees, which are less sensitive to radiation than coniferous species, and understorey vegetation. This area currently represents the most anthropogenically contaminated radioactive ecosystem on Earth.

From 15-17th July 2016 there was a severe fire in the Red Forest; local contacts report c.80% of the forest was burnt. This fire presents a unique opportunity to study: (i) the effect of fire on radionuclide mobility/bioavailability; and (ii) the impact of radiation on the recovery of forest ecosystems exposed to another stressor (i.e. fire). Contamination in the Red Forest is highly spatially heterogeneous, allowing studies to be conducted across contamination gradients. We are uniquely placed to undertake these studies within RED FIRE as we have samples (and survey results) that we have collected from the Red Forest in 2015 and early in 2016, prior to the fire event.

The objectives of RED FIRE are to:

1) Assess the direct impact of fire on radionuclide behaviour by determining change in radionuclide availability before and after the fire, and also any time trend in fractionation, solubility and mobility (down the soil profile) over circa 12 months following the fire

2) Determine if there is any impact of radiation level on the recovery of the forest ecosystem following damage by the fire

The RED FIRE team, in collaboration with our Norwegian project partner and Ukrainian sub-contractors, will study a range of radionuclides (Cs-137, Sr-90, Pu-isotopes, Am-241) and 'hot' (fuel) particles within the Red Forest. Our research will include the sampling and surveying of a range of wildlife (soil biological activity, plants, invertebrates and vertebrates). We will also use new unmanned aerial vehicle (drone) technology to study the changing vegetation cover following the fire and to derive a novel high resolution contamination map for the Red Forest area.

RED FIRE has highly significant international relevance:

(1) There is an increasing need for improved understanding of the effects of radiation on wildlife/ecosystems as countries begin to implement international recommendations that the environment per se should be protected from authorised releases of radioactivity;

and

(2) Forest ecosystems are not only dominant in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, but also in the area of Japan affected by the Fukushima accident. Forest fires are a major concern for the Japanese local government dealing with the Fukushima accident aftermath and attempts have been made to assess wildfire risk, for which new knowledge of the impact of fire on radionuclide bioavailability is essential.

RED FIRE is highly likely to result in a series of high profile refereed papers and associated on-line datasets. It will also employ a variety of techniques, including a virtual reality experience, to engage the public, industry and regulators with RED FIRE research and to facilitate stakeholder discussion regarding radioactivity in the environment.

Planned Impact

RED FIRE addresses two overall scientific hypotheses and the outputs will be of benefit to different groups over different timescales.

All aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle (from uranium mining, through power production to the long-term disposal of radioactive waste) require rigorous safety assessments to be made of effects on the biosphere and human health to underpin decision making. Such decision making often involves public consultation and the credibility of scientific evidence is open to challenge given the sensitive nature of the use of radioactive materials. The ongoing scientific dispute on the environmental effects of radiation is often conducted in the public arena (e.g. https://t.co/5Tm7r5FXHH) and hinders informed debate on nuclear issues. This will impinge upon the consideration of nuclear power as a low-carbon energy source and decisions on nuclear waste disposal. By providing unbiased scientific findings based on rigorous research, RED FIRE will inform debate and decision-making regarding nuclear power and hence be of direct benefit to the public, regulators and industry.

Post-accident situations result in uncertainties for emergency managers and the public often resulting in psychological stress. Emergency managers need to be able to access and plan for situations which may arise unexpectedly. In both the Fukushima and Chernobyl exclusion zones there is a potential for forest fires and the possible consequences of such fires adds to uncertainties. RED FIRE will support emergency management by providing data on the changes in radionuclide bioavailability hence enabling more robust planning.

Regulators, industry and international organisations (e.g. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP)) will benefit from RED FIRE through increased knowledge and reduced uncertainty. In the UK the regulators which will most directly benefit are the Environment Agency and Scottish Environment Protection Agency; others such as Radioactive Waste Management Limited, Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, and nuclear plant operators will also benefit from increased information on the effects of radiation on ecosystems. Many of these organisations we already interact with through TREE and the RATE programme.

Close engagement of the RED FIRE team with national (via the RATE programme) and international (i.e. IAEA, ICRP) agencies and other beneficiaries (e.g. the European Radioecology ALLIANCE) will ensure that RED FIRE impacts will be realised (e.g. our results are likely to feed into on-going documentation being prepared by the ICRP over the next few years). Benefits will continue to be realised, and project outputs exploited, as international organisations and national regulators develop recommendations, and decisions are made on nuclear-related issues using improved knowledge arising from RED FIRE. Our involvement within the activities of the international organisations and collaborations with national regulators will ensure this.

Through our TREE activities we have developed effective media (including contacts with various print and broadcast organisations) and public engagement strategies and built strong relationships with both institutional and funding-agency press officers which we will exploit to the advantage of RED FIRE. We will continue to develop our media and public engagement activities, maximising the wider communication and impact of our NERC science. Recent events linked to TREE have included science festivals and other events where we have used virtual reality and purpose-built exhibition installations to create novel and informative experiences that engage the public with our research. We intend to create a virtual reality experience based on recovery of the Red Forest which we will use at future festivals/events including after RED FIRE is completed.

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