© Crown copyright 2017
This publication is licensed under the terms of the Open Government Licence v3.0 except where otherwise stated. To view this licence, visit nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/3 or write to the Information Policy Team, The National Archives, Kew, London TW9 4DU, or email: email@example.com.
Where we have identified any third party copyright information you will need to obtain permission from the copyright holders concerned.
This publication is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/monitoring-beaches-near-sellafield-for-radioactive-material/monitoring-beaches-near-sellafield-for-radioactive-material
Nuclear site operators with environmental permits must monitor radioactivity in the environment. This is a condition the Environment Agency imposes on the operator when it issues them with a permit.
The monitoring is important to confirm that:
- discharges of radioactive waste from nuclear sites are being properly controlled
- the impacts of discharges on people and the environment are being minimised
Operators must use the ‘best available techniques’ when monitoring and also use any improved techniques that may become available. The Environment Agency assesses the suitability of monitoring programmes and their results.
In 2006, Sellafield Ltd tested a new vehicle-mounted detector system to monitor local beaches for radioactive objects. This equipment has since been improved and is used to routinely monitor beaches near the Sellafield site. Any radioactive objects found are taken from the beach and sent for laboratory analysis.
Smaller objects, the size of a grain of sand or smaller (less than 2mm in diameter) are known as particles. Larger objects include grit, pebbles, stones and other non-natural items such as slivers of plastic or metal.
The beach monitoring programme carried out by Sellafield Ltd has focused on areas between St Bees and Drigg. It has also included areas as far south as Silecroft, and the Solway Firth to the north.
Please note that:
- there are no on-going discharges of radioactive particles or objects into the environment
- the objects found relate to past events and incidents that took place at Sellafield 25 to 40 years ago
- public health advice is that the health risks from radioactive objects is very low and no action is needed to prevent or limit access to beaches affected by contamination
Results of monitoring
From 2006 to the end of 2016, Sellafield Ltd have:
- monitored a total beach area of almost 1,900 hectares
- found and removed 2,139 radioactive particles and 635 radioactive larger objects from the beaches
The number of particles and larger objects found in each of the areas monitored between 2006 and 2016 is shown in this table:
Number of particles and larger objects found in monitored areas between 2006 and 2016
|Beach location||Area covered (hectares)||Total particles found||Total larger objects found|
Most of the particles have been found on the stretch of beach around 3km north from the Sellafield site, up to and including Braystones. Nearly all of the larger objects have been found on the Sellafield beach, close to the site itself.
At most beaches, Sellafield Ltd have carried out repeat surveys on areas that have already been monitored. These repeat surveys have found new radioactive particles. This is to be expected because normal coastal processes like tides and waves move sand and sediment around in the area. So once in the environment, the radioactive particles can move up and down the coast and between beaches.
Between 2011 and 2014, Sellafield Ltd carried out offshore monitoring of the seabed as part of work to understand the extent of contamination. It detected one particle but, due to the practical difficulties of trying to detect radioactive material underwater, the monitoring only covered a small area of seabed.
Types of objects found
Particles and larger objects are classified according to the type of radioactivity they emit. Objects contaminated mainly with:
- caesium-137, cobalt-60 or strontium-90, are classified as ‘beta-rich’
- americium-241 and plutonium are classified as ‘alpha-rich’
The monitoring results indicate that find rates for beta-rich particles and larger objects are reducing with time. This suggests that the monitoring and retrieval programme is making good progress in removing these objects from the environment.
Find rates for alpha-rich particles fell between 2006 and 2009, but increased in 2009 and 2014. Each increase coincided with the introduction of an improved detection system. Increases in find rates have then fallen in subsequent years. The 2009 and 2014 increases mean we cannot yet show conclusively that the monitoring and retrieval programme is significantly reducing the number of alpha-rich particles in the environment.
Find rates throughout the 10 years of monitoring have been low. Levels are much lower than those that would trigger the need for action to protect the public. This action (called intervention) could include things like introducing signage or closing the beaches.
Risks to the public
The chance of coming into contact with any radioactive object is very low. If you do come across one, then the hazard it poses depends on the size and type of radiation it emits.
Alpha-rich particles or larger objects
The health risks from these types of object are small if they remain outside the body. Accidentally swallowing or inhaling a small number of particles with the highest alpha radioactivity content could possibly give a significant radiation dose over the long term. This could cause an increased risk of cancer. However, the chances of finding and then swallowing or inhaling such a particle are very low.
The risk from larger objects is very low as they are too large to be easily inhaled or swallowed.
Beta-rich particles or stones
A potential hazard from these types of object is temporary skin reddening, or minor ulceration. This would only happen if the object were kept in prolonged (at least a few hours) contact with exactly the same area of skin. However, the chance of finding such a particle, and then for it to remain in prolonged contact with the skin, is very low.
The health effects and risk from inhaling or swallowing these types of objects are lower than that for alpha-rich objects because beta radiation is less damaging to tissues and organs than alpha radiation.
Public health advice
Public Health England (PHE) is the main UK body that advises on the health risks from contact with radioactive objects. The Environment Agency commissioned PHE to carry out and publish a detailed assessment of the health risks from radioactive objects on the beaches near Sellafield.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) advises on the health risks from swallowing radioactive objects through food consumption, for example in seafood.
The advice from PHE and FSA is that the overall health risks from the radioactive objects are very low and significantly lower than other risks people accept when using beaches.
PHE also advises that:
- no specific measures (for example, signage, advice or a remediation programme) are needed to protect people from the radioactive objects
- Sellafield Ltd should continue monitoring Sellafield beach, and 1 or 2 other west Cumbria beaches, to check that the risks to the public remain low
The Environment Agency will keep PHE and the FSA informed as new information emerges. They have agreed to keep their advice under review.
How the organisations work together
To make sure the public and environment are protected, the Environment Agency works and consults with a number of partner agencies and organisations.
Organisations with a role in protecting the public from radioactive objects have formed a Sellafield particles working group. This group meets periodically to review the findings of the monitoring programme and confirm the future programme. Plans are being developed for a routine monitoring programme which will be put in place from 2019.
The group includes:
- Environment Agency
- Nuclear Decommissioning Authority
- Sellafield Ltd
- Copeland Borough Council and Allerdale Borough Council (as corresponding members)
The work of this group is overseen by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE). COMARE is a Department of Health expert committee that provides independent advice to government departments and agencies.
The Environment Agency has developed an intervention plan with the other organisations involved in protecting the public from radioactive objects. This plan sets out how new objects found will continue to be assessed in future. It also explains how the different organisations will work together to:
- protect the public and environment from any harm that could be caused by radioactive objects on west Cumbria beaches
- respond to a discovery of radioactive material – a single find or to an overall change in the find rate, activity or trends
The Environment Agency will continue to make sure that Sellafield Ltd carry out appropriate beach monitoring. This will ensure that the risks to beach users from radioactive particles remain low.
The Environment Agency will also continue to inspect and regulate Sellafield Ltd’s arrangements for preventing and minimising any potential release of particles.
For more information please email the Environment Agency’s Nuclear Regulation Group: firstname.lastname@example.org.