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ALMERA Network - Providing Accurate Measurements for Monitoring Radioactivity in the Environment

9 October 2014
The Earth's environment is in constant threat: from climate change, natural catastrophes, pollution, and ecological damage resulting from various man-made activities, including accidental or intentional release of radioactivity. The ability to accurately measure the impact of these adverse environmental effects is crucial not only in determining the extent of damage but also to assist in remediating their effects.To address growing need for reliable and timely measurement of environmental samples, a worldwide network of analytical laboratories was formed under IAEA aegis. This network was named ALMERA, for Analytical Laboratories for the Measurement of Environmental Radioactivity. Its main goal is to pool the resources of participating laboratories to provide reliable and timely determination of radionuclides in samples used for both routine and emergency environmental monitoring.The ALMERA network is the largest environmental network of its kind, with 149 laboratories from 84 countries actively participating. Globally all regions are represented within the network. The network is coordinated by the IAEA Environment Laboratories Division, located in Seibersdorf, Austria, and in Monaco.ALMERA laboratories are involved in a large variety of activities in their respective countries. These may include the regular monitoring of the environment in the vicinity of any nuclear facility present on their territory, such as a nuclear power plant, nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, etc. The laboratories perform sampling and environmental radioactivity measurements on a wide range of environmental matrices, i.e. soil, terrestrial surface water, vegetation and air, to ensure compliance with national regulations.Other activities may also include providing emergency response in case of any radiological or nuclear emergency situation taking place on their territory. Emergency sampling and environmental radioactivity measurements using rapid analytical methods are used to provide to authorities with reliable and timely information on the radionuclide content in environmental samples collected in the vicinity of the emergency. The information provided by the laboratories guides decision-making and steps taken by governments to protect their citizens.Supporting remediation activities in contaminated sites, which may be present on their territory - such as former uranium mining sites - can also form part of the work of these designated laboratories. They are able to provide a full set of environmental data to their authorities in order to examine and perform a full environmental assessment of the site to be remediated before any remediation work is initiated.Monitoring for radioactive contamination of imported food products and environmental materials can also be part of the activities of the ALMERA laboratories. Such monitoring is essential to ensure the protection of the citizens and the environment from harmful ionizing radiation, as well as in the enforcement of national regulations.The IAEA supports the ALMERA laboratories in their routine and emergency response environmental monitoring activities by organizing proficiency tests and inter-laboratory comparison exercises; developing validated analytical procedures for environmental radioactivity measurement; and organizing training courses and workshops. The network also acts as a forum for sharing knowledge and expertise.Proficiency tests and inter-laboratory comparison exercises are organized annually for members of the ALMERA network. These exercises are designed to monitor and demonstrate the performance and analytical capabilities of participating laboratories, and to identify gaps and problem areas for which further development is required.Proficiency test samples cover all environmental compartments, from soil and water to vegetation, unprocessed food products, and aerosols. Laboratories are requested to analyze the supplied sample set and report their measurement results to the IAEA which, in turn, compares their measurement results to the reference values, and issues individual reports, as well as recommendations, to each laboratory.Inter-laboratory comparison exercises are organized to facilitate harmonization between ALMERA laboratories. They are aiming at better understanding the contribution of the different steps in the analytical process including the final analytical result and its uncertainty. A soil sampling inter-laboratory exercise involved comparing the soil sampling strategies for radionuclide measurement within ALMERA laboratories.An inter-laboratory comparison exercise on the analysis of gamma-ray spectrometry spectra for environmental radioactivity measurements was organized in 2014 to help address systematic errors observed in the proficiency test results for radionuclides that are difficult to measure by gamma-ray spectrometry.Finding and choosing the most adequate analytical procedure for routine environmental monitoring or emergency response can be a challenge for laboratories due to a wide variety of technologies available and the rapid developments in this field. Within this context, the IAEA has included within its ALMERA activities the development and validation of a set of procedures for determination of radionuclides in environmental samples, both for routine and emergency environmental monitoring.These procedures cover the determination of a large number of radionuclides from natural and anthropogenic origin in a wide range of environmental matrices. They are published as IAEA publications and are available online on the IAEA website as a service to the international community. Such tested and validated analytical procedures are essential tools for the production of reliable and comparable environmental radioactivity measurements.ALMERA training courses and workshops are regularly organized to give laboratory personnel the opportunity to refresh and update their knowledge, expertise and skills in their relevant work-related areas. These training courses may involve laboratory practical training, field work exercises, and real case studies or lectures, depending on the course content addressed by the training course or workshop. The training courses are tailored to the needs of the ALMERA laboratories.Training courses on rapid assessment methods for environmental radioactivity are regularly organized to reinforce the analytical skills of personnel of the ALMERA laboratories who are interested in enhancing their rapid response capabilities in case of a radiological emergency event. The practice in the laboratory of a rapid analytical procedure validated by the ALMERA laboratories and published by the IAEA is a key element of such training courses.Practical training courses are also carried out directly in the field to train scientists from the ALMERA laboratories on in-situ monitoring of radionuclides in the environment. These training courses are taking place in conditions as close as possible to real-life conditions to ensure maximum benefit to the participants and to facilitate transfer of the acquired knowledge to the participants' laboratories.The ALMERA network holds annual coordination meetings to review ALMERA activities and define a future work plan for developing the network's activities. These activities include proficiency testing; recommended radioanalytical methods; training courses and workshops; methodologies supporting routine and emergency environmental monitoring; and radioecological assessment. These meetings also provide a forum for sharing knowledge and expertise within this large network of expert laboratories.


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