You are here

Protecting Our Ocean: Nuclear Techniques for Marine Emergency Response to Oil Spills


Oil spills can have ripple effects on vulnerable coastal communities. When Mauritius was impacted by an oil spill in 2020, the IAEA provided support to analyse the spill and monitor its long term impact. (Photo: Mauritius Wildlife Foundation)

Marine and coastal ecosystems play a critical role in the health of the ocean and the planet, but their delicate balance must be maintained. One of the major threats to this balance comes from oil spills, which can have devastating impacts on these ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.

When faced with oil spills, countries need as many tools and as much information as possible to help mitigate the environmental impacts, identify the source of spills and evaluate seafood for contamination from toxic substances. Using nuclear and isotopic techniques, the IAEA Marine Environment Laboratories in Monaco support them in achieving these goals.

“Each oil spill is different and requires unique sets of questions to be asked,” said Philippe Bersuder, Head of Marine Environmental Studies Laboratory at the IAEA. “Using nuclear and isotopic techniques to accurately measure and trace oil spills, we provide countries with the tools they need to mitigate the damage and assess the risk to human health.”

Crude oils consist of complex mixtures of hydrocarbons and other substances, and they vary depending on geographical origin and producer. The complexity of these mixtures provides an identifying “fingerprint” that can be used to trace oils spilled into the marine environment to the source of the pollution – which is critical to post-spill mitigation.

When marine oil spills do occur, IAEA scientists use equipment such as gas-chromatography mass-spectrometers to identify the chemical makeup of oil samples. “We use these fingerprinting techniques to determine the origin of the spilled oil, which can provide countries with scientific evidence needed to help identify responsible parties and develop long term monitoring strategies,” said IAEA research scientist Imma Tolosa. Through the IAEA’s technical cooperation programme, the IAEA Marine Environment Laboratories also build capacity in countries affected by oil spills and provide national environmental scientists with equipment to conduct analyses, as well as reference materials for laboratory quality assurance purposes.

Consumer health and safety

An IAEA scientist uses a gas-chromatography mass spectrometer to determine the chemical makeup of crude oil. (Photo: E. McDonald/IAEA) 

Oil spills can also threaten the health and safety of people who consume seafood as a significant part of their diet because contaminants from the oil can bioaccumulate within the marine food chain. This means that as shellfish ingest toxic chemicals from oil spills, larger fish that consume them will have more toxins in their own systems. People who eat contaminated seafood are at increased risk of being exposed to high levels of toxicity.

The IAEA recently provided emergency response support to Mauritius in the wake of the MV Wakashio disaster. When the bulk carrier ran aground off the coast of Mauritius in 2020, over 26 square kilometres were affected by the spillage of almost 1000 tonnes of oil. The spill had drastic and immediate effects on the health of the Mauritian marine environment and the livelihoods of Mauritian fishing communities. It was called the worst environmental disaster to affect Mauritius and declared a national emergency.

In response, IAEA experts trained Mauritian scientists to analyse hydrocarbons released by the spill and provided them with the capabilities to monitor the long term impact of the accident and ecosystem recovery.

Other countries have benefitted from IAEA support in the face of environmental disaster caused by oil spills: Cuba in 2018, Sri Lanka in 2021 and Peru in 2022. Cuba is now using the analytical capacity and emergency preparedness built in collaboration with the IAEA following the 2018 oil spill to effectively assess the environmental impact of a more recent emergency – an explosion at an oil storage facility in Matanzas in 2022. Oil spills and their potential ramifications will continue to pose threats to ocean health. The IAEA is committed to supporting countries in dealing with their aftermath to help preserve and protect marine and coastal ecosystems.

Stay in touch