Modern nuclear techniques are giving the world's scientists and regulators better tools to fight pollution and other environmental threats – even those that may be lurking naturally at the beach or near your backyard. Many of the world's top "radioecologists" are in Morocco this week to assess a dynamic picture.
Environmental protection is drawing more attention in countries at all stages of development. A special area is monitoring the presence and movement of radionuclides in nature -- many of which are associated with societal activities -- to track and prevent contamination of soils, water, air, and food.
Studies reported this week, for example, cover mining in Romania and Kenya, electricity generation in Spain and Serbia, waste disposal in Lithuania, well water pumping in the USA, coastal climate changes in Sweden, ocean studies in Turkey, air pollution monitoring in Morocco, and phosphate fertilizer use in Cuba. Associated environmental and radioactive elements include isotopes of radon, potassium, polonium, thorium, carbon, uranium, and lead.
Reports were presented at the 4th International Symposium on Nuclear Metrology as a Tool for Radioecology, being hosted in Rabat by Morocco's National Centre for Energy, Sciences and Nuclear Techniques (CNESTEN) with the support of the IAEA and other regional and global partners.
Many activities are outside the nuclear industry, and involve what are known as "naturally occurring radioactive materials" or NORM for short. The activities pose different levels of risk, and are regulated in different ways, sometimes not at all. Through its programmes, the IAEA is reviewing issues related to the management and regulation of NORM industries, with a view to developing additional guidance documents on specific activities.
"Human activities are increasingly having an impact on the environment," noted Francois Brechignac of the International Union of Radioecology in Morocco this week. "But we are too often reacting once the impacts are already there, sometimes too late to counteract environmental detriment."
The goal is to respond earlier to potential problems, by using advanced tools and improving expertise and infrastructures. One important step is to build up scientific and technical capacities in countries and institutions, through training and collaboration. Another is to help countries establish stronger regulatory frameworks that protect the environment, and public health and safety.