Radiation emergency exercise at Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation Centre, Russia
Radiation emergency exercise at Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation Centre, Russia
© ERC Rosatom
A look into the Radiation Expert Group and its collaborative approach to radiation risks and incidents

Radiation contamination and emergencies can be devastating no matter where they take place. Considering the Arctic’s extreme temperature, ice, permafrost, winter darkness and sparse and limited infrastructure, protecting the Arctic’s peoples and environment in emergency situations poses challenges not faced in other parts of the world.

The Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group (EPPR) addresses Arctic emergencies including radiological and nuclear incidents. Its ARCSAFE project, which promoted cooperation in maritime emergencies potentially releasing radioactive substances, identified the need to enhance work and cooperation around radiation. In 2019, EPPR’s Radiation Expert Group came to life.

Radiation is a concern in the Arctic because the region has served as a dumping ground for radioactive materials, was a testing site for nuclear weapons during the Cold War and houses actual and potential sources of radioactive contamination. Whereas Arctic pollution levels are regularly assessed through important monitoring work by the Arctic Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, EPPR’s Radiation Expert Group addresses the risk for serious incidents or accidents that may affect Arctic inhabitants and their communities, local food sources, the Arctic environment and Arctic industries including traditional livelihoods such as fisheries.

Responding to radiation emergencies, particularly at sea, can be complex and challenging as emergency response requires close cooperation between several authorities, and its organization differs considerably for each Arctic State.

“If there’s a radiation emergency, cross-cutting cooperation between emergency response actors and Arctic States would be very, very important,” said Øyvind Aas-Hansen, Chair of the Radiation Expert Group and Senior Adviser for the Norwegian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority.

Cross-cutting cooperation is central to the Radiation Expert Group’s work. It was recently involved in a joint project called RADSAR, along with EPPR’s Search and Rescue Expert Group, where all Arctic States shared their expertise on search and rescue operations in a radiological event at sea. In 2019, EPPR conducted a tabletop exercise on this topic, which allowed Arctic States to coordinate on a hypothetical emergency scenario. This allowed all parties to exchange experiences and identify challenges and best practices.

Identifying radiation risks in the first place is also a cooperative effort. The Radiation Expert Group’s new report, Radiological/Nuclear Risk Assessment in the Arctic, is an overview of scenarios that could initiate a radiation emergency in the Arctic along with associated risks using qualitative methods. Emergency scenarios rated as moderate or increasing risks in the Arctic are emergencies involving nuclear-powered vessels and the transit of floating nuclear power plants, sea transport of nuclear materials and future use of small modular reactors. One example of a low-risk scenario that continues to decrease is unintentional contamination accidents due to efforts to secure radioactive materials.

The public’s rising awareness of radiation plays into another aspect of the Radiation Expert Group’s work.

“A very important part of our work isn’t only the emergency prevention, preparedness and response, but also the concerns and risk perception of people living in the Arctic,” said Øyvind Aas-Hansen. “We’re mostly government authorities from the Arctic States in the Radiation Expert Group. We can say that some worries aren’t actually a problem, but if people feel a risk, then it’s real. We would like to address concerns from Arctic inhabitants from their perspective and cooperate to make sure that we’re not only experts sitting on top.”

According to Øyvind Aas-Hansen, radiation has been a common concern by people in the Arctic for many years. “Indigenous Permanent Participants have voiced concern over radiation in our Expert Group. Arctic Indigenous lands have been used for nuclear testing in the past, so they take radiation seriously.” In the future, these concerns may be addressed through a project that focuses on radiation on the local community level and in cooperation with Permanent Participants in EPPR.

In the near-term, the Radiation Expert Group will focus on two new projects during the 2021-2022 period: determining quantitative levels of radiation risks and analyzing existing capabilities and gaps within Arctic States to mitigate radiation risks. As work continues in EPPR’s Radiation Expert Group, one theme remains strong: emergency prevention, preparedness and response are only as good as the cooperation developed in the region.