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New Centre of Excellence – Environmental radioactivity:

Radiant research to protect human life

The more we know about radioactivity, the more we can curb fear and uncertainty among the population, and the better prepared we can be to deal effectively with a nuclear disaster. This is the point of departure for the activities of a new Norwegian Centre of Excellence.

In the midst of the rural environs of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB) in Ås in the county of Akershus lies an ultramodern isotope laboratory. The lab is the heart of the Centre for Environmental Radioactivity (CERAD). Over the next few years, researchers at the centre are going to study the basic mechanisms behind radiation damage and examine the effects of radiation on humans, animals and the environment.

Illustration: Shutterstock NUCLEAR ACCIDENT: The aftermath of the 2011 earthquake on Fukushima left the entire world holding its breath as waters flooded the reactors in the basement of the nuclear facility there. The radioactive releases would probably never have happened if the generators had been located higher up in the nuclear power station. (Illustration: Shutterstock) Protection against radiation

The primary objective of this research is to enable us to better protect human life and the environment against radiation. “Uranium and other radioactive materials are a part of our day-to-day lives. In fact, certain areas of Norway have very high concentrations of radioactivity from sources such as granite shale and alum shale,” says centre director Brit Salbu.

While it is clear that radiation can be hazardous, too little is known about the basic mechanisms that cause the damage. The reason may be that radiation is not the only factor involved in this multiple stressor concept; other factors such as UV radiation or heavy metals also play a role.

Looking to Norway

The European research community is now looking to Norway for answers.

“The very fact that we are examining radiation in combination with other factors is what has drawn a lot of attention from abroad,” explains Brit Salbu.

The UMB houses the only low-dose gamma radiation facility in Europe. UV-radiation sources are going to be installed in this location and the UMB will subsequently become the sole gamma-UV facility in the world.

Researchers at the centre will also work to shed light on how different nuclear sources emit radioactivity under a variety of conditions and on radionuclide transfer in air and water in relation to the physical and chemical properties of the source elements. They are also seeking to come up with a reliable measure of the effect of radioactivity on plants and animals.

At present, researchers are able to measure how radiation is absorbed by the body (gray), the effect of radiation absorbed in humans (sievert) and the amount of radiation from a radioactive source (becquerel or curie), all units named after prominent physicists. Yet there is no measure of radioactive effects on organisms such as plants or animals. Is somebody at some stage going to recommend salbu?

Photo: UMB Brit Salbu (Photo: UMB) Risk assessment and preparedness

Large doses of radiation can cause severe injury and radiation sickness. Low chronic doses can lead to cancer. Nuclear accidents and emissions of radioactive substances from industry can result in the loss of human as well as animal lives and have ramifications for nature and the ecosystem. Brit Salbu is well versed in this area. She was among the first scientists allowed to visit Chernobyl after the nuclear accident. She has been to the old Russian nuclear facilities at the Kola Peninsula, in Mayak and in Central Asia several times. She served for many years as a central adviser to the Government’s emergency preparedness committee.

“To prevent accidents and ensure adequate preparedness, it is essential to have sufficient knowledge to decide whether a threat is real,” Professor Salbu states.

In the wake of Chernobyl, the worst nuclear accident the world has witnessed, 85 people were reported to have died due to radiation. Several thousand developed thyroid cancer (particularly children), however all but 15 recovered following medical care, according to the Chernobyl Forum. Thus the direct health impact of the accident was less extensive than expected, while the psycho-social impacts ended up being much worse. Damage to the environment, on the other hand, was milder than anticipated. Today – 27 years after the accident – the biological diversity of the area is greater than ever. This may in part be due to the relocation of 340 000 people.

Risk assessments and impact analyses are important keywords for research at the CERAD centre. Combined with insight into source terms (the amount and isotopic composition of material released from a facility), weather and climate conditions, knowledge about how particles are spread from radioactive sources, transported by air, deposited due to precipitation, and transferred within ecosystems will enable us to provide better predictions in the case of an emergency – in collaboration with the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, a CERAD partner.

Ensuring sufficient emergency preparedness requires keeping up with advances in the subject field and increasing our knowledge about radioactivity and how it can affect both people and nature, Dr Salbu emphasises. The centre will attach great importance to recruitment of new researchers. A total of 25–30 doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows will be employed at the centre during its period as an SFF.

Centre for Environmental Radioactivity (CERAD)
  • Objective: To establish a scientific basis for improved risk analyses and impact assessments of radiation from man-made and natural sources
  • Centre director: Brit Salbu
  • Partners: Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority, Norwegian Meteorological Institute, Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Norwegian Institute for Water Research, Norwegian School of Veterinary Science
  • Annual allocation from the Research Council of Norway: NOK 15.5 million
  • Total person-years: 31
  • Number of doctoral degrees planned: 14


Written by:
Synnøve Bolstad/Else Lie. Translation: Glenn Wells/Carol B. Eckmann
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