Monitoring radioactivity

Sources of radioactivity in the environment and how levels of radioactivity are monitored and assessed.

Radioactivity in the environment comes from different sources including:

  • natural radiation
  • residue from the Chernobyl accident and atmospheric weapons testing
  • radioactive discharges from nuclear sites
  • industry and landfill sites

Radioactive discharges are strictly regulated to make sure they do not harm people or the environment.

Assessing the safety of radiation levels

Nuclear sites must have an environmental permit to operate. The permit requires them to monitor radiation levels from their discharges and any effects on the environment. For example, Sellafield Ltd carry out environmental monitoring around the Sellafield site. The Environment Agency assesses the results and suitability of Sellafield Ltd’s programme, including the company’s monitoring for radioactive objects on west Cumbria beaches.

Find out more about:

The following organisations also carry out monitoring programmes to provide an independent assessment of radiation levels in the environment:

  • Environment Agency
  • Scottish Environment Protection Agency
  • Northern Ireland Environment Agency
  • Natural Resources Wales
  • Food Standards Agency (FSA)

These organisations sample air, rainwater and water sources used for public supplies to:

  • check whether radiation levels conform to legal limits
  • check that radioactivity in food and the environment from authorised releases and discharges does not affect people’s health or the environment
  • gather long-term information on concentrations and trends so that they can identify any changes and take action if needed
  • assess the public’s total exposure to radiation around nuclear sites

As part of their monitoring they use high volume air samplers which are capable of detecting tiny amounts of radioactive particles in the air.

The results of their monitoring programmes are published annually in Radioactivity in food and the environment reports.

Assessing the public’s exposure to radiation

People who live, work or carry out recreational activities near nuclear sites take part in regular ‘habit surveys’ which look at their habits and consumption patterns. This information helps work out how much radiation members of the public are exposed to from these sites. The FSA website has more information about these habit surveys.

The National Dose Assessment Working Group (NDAWG) brings together organisations that assess the public’s exposure to radiation from:

  • the nuclear industry
  • other users of radioactive material, such as hospitals or universities

NDAWG was set up to:

  • share information on assessment methods
  • develop methods of assessing radiation doses to the public
  • identify and evaluate research that will progress dose assessment methods

The group last met in November 2013. The guidance notes and reports from this group are available on the Society for Radiological Protection website where you can also find other information about radiation.

Radioactivity in the marine environment

The UK reports annually on discharges of radioactive substances which may reach the north east Atlantic marine environment. You can find out more on the OSPAR website.

Radioactive incident monitoring

After the Chernobyl accident the UK government installed a national radiation monitoring and nuclear emergency response system (RIMNET). It is part of the arrangements for dealing with the effects of overseas nuclear accidents in the UK.

Find out more about radioactive incident monitoring and RIMNET.

Published 1 December 2013
Last updated 27 October 2016 + show all updates
  1. Link to new report: Radioactivity in food and the environment 2015, RIFE 21.
  2. New report added: Radioactivity in food and the environment 2014, RIFE 20.
  3. New report - Radioactivity in food and the environment 2013: RIFE 19
  4. First published.