Pathways of radioactive substances in the environment

Renshaw, Joanna and Handley-Sidhu, Stephanie and Brookshaw, Diana R (2011) Pathways of radioactive substances in the environment. In: Nuclear Power and the Environment. RSC Publishing Ltd, London, pp. 152-176. ISBN 9781849731942

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The release and transport of radionuclides in the environment is a subject of great public concern. The primary sources of radionuclides in the environment are nuclear weapons testing and production, and the processes associated with the nuclear fuel cycle. Whilst nuclear weapons tests have been the main source of atmospheric contamination, resulting in global, low-level contamination, sites associated with weapon production and the nuclear fuel cycle can have localised high levels of contamination, and the spread of this contamination via aquatic pathways represents a significant environmental problem. Migration in the atmosphere will depend on the nature of the radioactive material and the prevailing meteorological conditions. Within surface water and groundwater environments, transport will be controlled by physical processes such as advection and the biogeochemical conditions in the system. In systems with significant flow, advection will be the dominant transport process, but as hydraulic conductivity decreases, chemical processes and conditions become increasingly important in controlling radionuclide migration. Factors such as solution phase chemistry (e.g. ionic strength and ligand concentrations), Eh and the nature of mineral phases in the system have a critical effect on radionuclide speciation, controlling partitioning between solution and solid phases and hence migration. Understanding the complex interplay between these parameters is essential for predicting radionuclide behaviour and migration in the environment.