Critique of UK Government sampling for marine radioactivity reveals serious shortcomings

The Ecologist has published a study by pollution consultant, Tim Deere-Jones, which examines the adequacy of the UK Government’s monitoring regime for the presence of radionuclides in marine foods, and the marine and coastal environment.

Annual reports, such as “Radioactivity in Food and the Environment” (RIFE) published by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the Environment Agency (EA), state that most of the monitoring investigates the “local effects of discharges from nuclear licensed sites”, while there is “some ongoing monitoring of Chernobyl impacts”.

As the basis of the monitoring regime, it has generally been hypothesised that soluble radio-nuclides, such as Caesium or Tritium, will disperse and dilute through the water column and present no threat to human populations. Insoluble nuclides, such as Plutonium, Americium or Cobalt 60, will adsorb to the outer surface of particles suspended in the marine water column, sink to the sea bed close to the point of discharge and remain immobilised in sub-tidal sedimentary deposits, sequestered from human populations and their immediate environment.

For many years this hypothesis has served as the basis for the UK monitoring regime, and the nuclear industry and the UK Government has focused its research on “near field” impacts close to the points of discharge where the hypothesis proposes that radioactivity concentrations are higher and doses to the public greater.

Historically, a small programme of monitoring food and the environment “remote from nuclear licensed sites” has also been carried out to give “information on background concentrations of radio nuclides”. The FSA is now proposing to abandon this in order to “optimise” monitoring.

With respect to seafood monitoring, T. Deere-Jones observes that RIFE’s statement that their sampled fish are “indicator species” — which spend most of their time in local water — has poor evidential support. “In fact,” he observes “the majority of the marine fin-fish sampled at UK nuclear sites are migratory species (e.g. cod, mackerel) and no evidence is supplied to prove that the sampled individuals had been resident in the area for any relevant period. Monitoring of less migratory species, or those living in close proximity to seabed sediments (e.g. grey mullet or flatfish) is not common.”

He notes that seafood “sampling observations” occur once a year and generally consist of less than 4 — most often 1 or 2 — samples of each species. “Such a low number of observations,” he asserts “cannot provide data on the frequent “pulses” of discharge of certain radionuclides that “new build” operators have been granted by the regulating agencies. No details are provided of time of year, state of tide, ambient weather and water column parameters (all factors having close relevance to ambient radioactivity concentrations in the marine environment being sampled). Thus the seafood monitoring programme lacks scientific rigour.”

With regard to the monitoring of marine sediment on the seabed, T. Deere-Jones explains that it is a basic principle of marine pollution science that fine sediments adsorb pollutants (like radioactivity) onto their outer surfaces and, because a given volume of fine particles have a relatively greater surface area than the same volume of large particles, they hold far higher concentrations of radioactivity than coarse particles such as sand or gravel or cobbles.

“However,” he explains “during heavy seas or storm surges, fine sediments are remobilised, transported long distances through the marine environment and subjected to a range of mechanisms delivering doses of sea borne radioactivity to “distant” human populations by pathways other than seafood consumption. UK marine radioactivity transfers to the land and contaminates coastal pastures and coastal towns in episodes of coastal inundation.”

“In onshore winds, in aerosols and sea spray generated by breaking waves, sea-borne radioactivity transfers from the surf-line to the land. Thus coastal zone populations are exposed to potential doses, via both ingestion and inhalation, of marine radioactivity, even if they have no direct contact with the sea or with sea-foods.”

Mr. Deere-Jones also has reservations about the UK Government’s sampling regime with respect to the low numbers of radionuclides that are analysed by the monitoring programme

“UK nuclear sites,” he states “routinely discharge a complex cocktail of up to 80 nuclides (depending on the type and performance of reactors). However, my analysis reveals that at no identified site is monitoring for all, or even the majority, of the nuclides in the discharge stream carried out.”

He further observes that “the RIFE reports demonstrate that monitoring at UK nuclear sites generally fails to investigate the concentration of between 60% to 80% of the radio-nuclides discharged. This is justified on the basis that un-analysed nuclides are not thought to pose a threat to human or wildlife health or are discharged at only low levels. However, the adoption of such a position displays a lack of scientific rigour because there has been no major research effort to confirm that unlisted nuclides have no detrimental health effect, and much evidence to demonstrate that some of them decay to produce much more dangerous “decay products”.

“Given the complexity of multi nuclide discharges, the absence of investigations of toxicological issues such as synergistic, antagonistic and cumulative effects (between discrete radio nuclides and between radio nuclides and non-radioactive subjects) is a further cause of concern.”

Source: The Ecologist, Summer 2013, see

Note: Since the 1980’s, Tim Deere-Jones has worked as an independent marine pollution consultant on some of Europe’s major marine environmental incidents. Over the last three years he has been representing the UK and Northern Ireland Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) on marine issues related to the UK Nuclear New Build programme. You can view here the full text of Mr. Deere-Jones report.

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