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Belarus Receives IAEA Equipment to Assess Radiological Threats Associated with Forest Fires

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Crew of the new mobile laboratory on a practical training exercise for soil and air sampling in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in May 2020. (Roman Nenashev, Polessie State Radio-Ecological Reserve, Republic of Belarus​​)

When forest fires occur on sites with significantly elevated radiation levels, as in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone straddling Ukraine and Belarus last month, officials and the public want to know whether there is an elevated level of radiation risk. While there was no such risk in the series of wildfires in northern Ukraine in the zone, just 16 kilometres from the Belarusian border, new equipment sent by the IAEA will better prepare for radiation monitoring in the future.

Forest fires are recurring events in the abandoned areas of the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone, a 4760 square-kilometre area surrounding the nuclear power plant, mainly uninhabited since the Chornobyl nuclear accident in 1986. In such circumstances, sound scientific data is needed to ensure the appropriate response and protect the health of the public and of directly affected personnel, such as firefighters, forest workers, border guards, scientists and technicians working in the zone.

Responding to the country’s request, the IAEA helped to design and procure a mobile laboratory to Belarus, complete with instruments and tools for the radiation monitoring of air and the environment.

“The dedicated work of IAEA specialists and Belarusian counterparts allowed the design and delivery of a well-equipped and fit-for-purpose mobile laboratory to support Belarus in prompt response to contemporary radiological threats due to forest fires in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone,” said Peter Swarzenski, Acting Director of the IAEA Environment Laboratories.

The mobile laboratory is capable of off-road operations and serves as a work platform for a crew of four in the field. It is equipped with a portable air sampling device, a handheld gamma-spectrometer, a radiation monitor for environmental sample measurements, a soil sampling kit, personal protection garments, navigation and communication tools, an electric generator and a workplace with a computer and other appliances.

The air samples collected at forest fire sites need to be analysed to accurately determine the activity of the radioactive isotopes of caesium, strontium and transuranium elements. 

These activities are taking place as part of a technical cooperation project, launched in 2018, which was primarily focused on helping the scientific and technical staff of the Polessie State Radio-Ecological Reserve to advance their professional knowledge and skills, particularly in relation to the dosimetry of inhalation intake of radionuclides, and to the identification and procurement of appropriate instruments, tools and consumables for radiation monitoring, air and soil sampling, sample processing and measurements.

“Training activities, scientific visits, procurement of necessary equipment, supplies, as well as a mobile radiological laboratory were a significant contribution of the IAEA to strengthening our activities in the fields of research and radioactive pollution monitoring. This is just what we need in this period,” said Mikhail Patsiomkin, Chief Specialist at Belarus’ Ministry for Emergency Situations.

Scientific data supporting better communication with local populations

Along with the collection and analysis of data, communication to the local population is a crucial component of emergency response, when forests are burning a few kilometres away from their home. “When assessing radiological challenges and threats during the last fires in the exclusion zone of Ukraine, the media took into account the opinion of the Polessie Reserve, which was strengthened by the IAEA technical and scientific support. As a result, information published in the Belarusian mass media were mostly reliable and based on an authoritative opinion,” said Patsiomkin.

The IAEA technical cooperation project is now approaching completion and Belarus is now well equipped to assess radiological threats that may arise from forest fires in the future.

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