Biosphere Impact Studies

Introduction

Radioactive environmental contamination may result from the use of nuclear energy for electricity production, industrial purposes, medical and research applications or the exploitation and treatment of materials containing natural radionuclides. To estimate the radiological impact on man and environment, in depth knowledge on the environmental behaviour of radionuclides and their effects induced is required.

Major objectives

  • Enhance competence in the understanding and process-based modelling of the behaviour of radionuclides in the biosphere.
  • Develop a groundwater-soil-vegetation interaction model to assess the long-term impact of perennial vegetation systems on the dispersion of radionuclides and contamination of the food chain.
  • Study biological effects induced in plants by radiation, radionuclide uptake and mixed contaminant conditions at different levels of biological organization.
  • Develop and improve our tools and models for assessing the radiological impact on man and environment.

Main activities

Study of the behaviour of radionuclides in the biosphere

  • To study mechanisms and processes to better understand and predict radionuclide behaviour in the terrestrial, freshwater and marine environment.
  • By using dedicated laboratory set-ups, greenhouse experiments and field studies as well as developing modelling tools calibrated and validated with the data sets thus developed.

Development of a groundwater-soil-vegetation-atmosphere (SVAT) interaction model

  • To assess the transport and accumulation of bio-available contaminants in a terrestrial ecosystem which can be applicable e.g. for long-term assessment of radioactive waste entering the surface biosphere from below-ground.
  • To link radionuclides to water, carbon and nutrient fluxes in vegetation in order to represent cycling by trees experiencing climate variation.
  • Apply approach to perennial forests, then pasture and food crops.

Biological effects induced in plants after exposure to external radiation, uptake of radionuclides or mixed stressor conditions

  • To study dose response relationships and to identify mechanisms that can explain the effects observed.
  • By studying endpoints of different levels of biological complexity: molecular (gene expression, epigenetic mechanisms), cellular (enzymes and metabolites), individual (mortality, morbidity, reproduction, mutation) and population (mortality, reproduction).

Human and environmental risk assessment

  • To assess the human and environmental impact of routine and accidental releases of radioactivity.
  • By developing mathematical models to predict the distribution and transport of radionuclides in the terrestrial and aquatic environments and the resulting health impact on man and environment.

Applications

  • Assess long-term impact of vegetation on radionuclide dispersion & food chain contamination.
  • Biological effect studies to identify sensitive biomarkers to radiation stress and establish well-founded wildlife protection values.
  • Specialist human and environmental (non-human biota) risk assessments for industry and regulators - licensing, compliance and waste management.
  • The applications of the human and environmental risk models are diverse, e.g. to evaluate if nuclear facilities operate in compliance with regulatory requirements, to assess the health and environmental impact of past and potential future releases from accidents, new facilities or legacy sites, to determine the need for and way towards remediation of contaminated sites.
  • Biosphere impact modelling and development of associated parameter databases.
  • Marine radioecology studies on the fate, transport and bioavailability of radionuclides in the marine environment of Fukushima.

Projects

  • COMET
  • ECORISK
  • PHYDECON
  • Belgo-Process
  • NIRAS + OPERA

Services & Consultancy

  • Environmental and human impact assessment for waste management companies, nuclear industry, NORM industry.
  • Tailored model development (development of user interfaces) for users.
  • Development and application of state-of-the art assessment models for non-human biota to perform environmental impact assessments for industry and the regulators. Expert peer review of methodologies for biosphere impact assessment of geological disposals of radionuclides for international RWMD organisations.
  • Expert peer review of methodologies for biosphere impact assessment of geological disposals of radionuclides.
  • Studies of the impact of discharges from Fukushima to the marine environment (non-human biota assessment).
  • Involvement in international expertise groups (BIOPROTA, IAEA, ICRP, UNSCEAR).

Head of Unit: Nele Horemans