Tackling legacy contamination

8 June 2017

Dr Horst Monken-Fernandes* explains how the IAEA is working to help with environmental remediation of legacy sites.

What is the extent of the legacy contamination problem and what is being done to tackle this problem?

The extent of the contamination legacy problem is one of the things we want to precisely define. We are putting in efforts to create a global inventory of contaminated sites...and to take note of the causes of the contamination. Contaminated sites include those affected by uranium mining, essentially past practices, as well as major accidents such as Chernobyl, Fukushima, and in the past Kyshtym – the explosion of a liquid waste tank in the Russian Federation. But there are also other sites contaminated with naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM). Our member states are requesting support in how to deal with these sites.

The geographical distribution of this contamination is rooted in history...and should not be confused with issues associated with nuclear power for commercial purposes. On the other hand, the sites with NORM – which has to do, for example, with mining of non-uranium ores, coal and even oil and gas operations – are more disseminated, and not restricted to specific areas.

This is why assessment is really critical. The Agency is working to bring together this information in a validated and authoritative way, so we can...come up with a list of polluted sites that need attention.

Is progress being made in addressing these problems?

The approach now is to develop projects which will not need extensive cleanup at the end of operations. In the past the environment was not seen as part of the project (it was an externality). Today you cannot develop a project without taking into account the environmental dimension and also the social dimensions. In the mining business for example the concept of social licence has gained attention. Communities now have to give a social licence in addition to the developmental licence.

Definitely a lot of progress has been made, and I am comfortable saying that in the nuclear arena activities can be developed with the highest level of safety criteria and without committing the mistakes of the past while contributing to address some of the environmental challenges we face nowadays, like global warming.

What is the IAEA’s role?

The demand on us is increasing, which is why another position is being opened here to allow us to respond.

Last year we had the ‘International Conference on Advancing the Global Implementation of Decommissioning and Environmental Remediation Programmes’ in Madrid. It provided an opportunity to review developments over the last decade, and a lot of recommendations were put forward by the participants. Some of these recommendations were incorporated into IAEA General Conference resolutions, and we are working on a plan of action to respond to those recommendations. This includes strengthening international cooperation, such as supporting some states technically and financially.

Remediation costs money and there was a call for the international community to support those in need. There are different mechanisms for this. There was also a very strong message in terms of developing policies and strategies at a national level so that IAEA member states can show their commitment in dealing with the legacy rather than leaving it for future generations. There was also a request to provide guidance on how to improve the communication and engagement of stakeholders in remediation projects, to bring them into the decision-making process and ensure their participation.

The conference also confirmed the need to continue and enhance the work we are doing in terms of sharing good practices. This is the key role of our networks. There are different networks hosted in a platform called CONNECT (Connecting the Network of Networks for Enhanced Communication and Training). This is a very important mechanism we are putting in place to facilitate collaboration and the sharing of experience, through the use for example of e-learning in order to assist member states that need to increase their capabilities to tackle these tasks.

What new technologies are being developed to deal with environmental problems?

One primary challenge of any remediation work is to understand the type of situation you are dealing with. So there is a need for site characterisation. Previously the way to do this was to collect samples from different places and send them to the lab for analysis. It was expensive and time-consuming. Today it is possible to do in situ measurements coupled with a GPS device which can associate measurement with location. Then geo- analytical software can provide mathematical interpretation of the results. The visualisation capability has also improved a lot, enabling this to be done in real time. We have developed a concept called “The Mobile Unit for Site Characterisation”, which takes advantage of these developments. So we can go to those countries which do not have enough laboratory capabilities and, for example, assemble a group of experts, take the measurements and present the results while we are in the field. We can then discuss the situation and eventually indicate where an additional investigation should take place. We can also train people in the field while we are doing the work.

When we want to understand the distribution of subsurface contamination, we need to be very precise, otherwise we may unnecessarily generate material that needs disposal, and this is translated into cost. I should also mention the computation capabilities for mathematical modelling of the transport of pollutants in the sub-surface environment. It is important to be very sure how the contaminants will behave in future in order to make the appropriate decision now. This is something which has really evolved over the past decades.

One thing that deserves attention is the use of nanotechnology to treat ground water. We are following up results to see if this can be considered a proven technology. This is happening for example in a technical cooperation project in Argentina, in a uranium mining area. It is a capacity building project in cooperation with Bristol University involving exchange visits.

How exactly does this nanotechnology work?

The nanoparticles are able to absorb and fix the contaminant and remove it from the water. The contaminants remain bound to the particles and are not dissolved in the water, improving water quality. We need to understand the effectiveness and also we need to know how long contaminants can be kept immobile.

What support is available for poorer countries faced with legacy contamination?

It is not just about whether the country is rich or poor, but whether it has relevant experience.

If the main barrier is lack of resources, then the key task is to see how the international community can provide those resources. There are mechanisms in place and organisations such as the European Commission (EC) have supported projects in the past and are still doing so today.

One important initiative is the Coordination Group of Uranium Legacy Sites. The role of the Agency is to be a catalyst for other supporting organisations, providing technical support to orientate and coordinate the international efforts that make possible projects in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The EC has already allocated money through the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to address some legacy problems, focusing on Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan initially. It is expected that some kind of donors’ conference will be implemented in the future to see if more countries can come together and provide financial support for the remediation work.

We are not a bank – we don’t finance projects – we don’t have that kind of money – but through our Technical Cooperation mechanisms we can run national, regional and even inter-regional projects aimed at capacity building and even some procurement such as laboratory equipment. There are many other initiatives with similar objectives, such as our radioactive waste management networks. There is also the ARTEMIS project (Integrated Review Service for Radioactive Waste and Spent Fuel Management, Decommissioning and Remediation Programmes). This is not just for low-income countries but also for developed countries. It arranges field reviews to evaluate the overall situation in a country and see how it can move forward.

In some cases, just bringing money on board will not solve the problem because the necessary institutional arrangements might not be in place. You also need a regulatory framework and prioritisation of the sites that require attention. Unless these things are in place, the money might not be well spent and the desired results will not be achieved.

Sometimes a very simple approach can fix the problem. But there is still a need to structure the whole strategy. For example, dig and dump – jargon applied to soil cleanup – might be an effective method of reducing contamination by removing the soil. There are pros and cons, of course. The cons are the need for a disposal site and for agreement at the community level.

In terms of contamination of groundwater, in many cases the best thing to do is to monitor the natural attenuation of the
system contamination. Pumping the water and treating it through some resins or other neutralisation process might be prohibitively costly, diverting resources from more beneficial uses. But again, the key is to understand the processes, and we have been trying to work with member states to enhance this capability, so that people are in a good position to really understand what is going on and to take the optimal decision, which may not be the most expensive but would be the most effective in terms of the costs involved and acceptability.

Could you describe one particular project which illustrates this?

In Azerbaijan we had two sites that were contaminated with charcoal. Why charcoal? Because the area had been used for oil production. Oil comes to the surface along with formation waters. A treatment plant was put in place in the past to remove iodine and bromide from these waters. Subsequently these elements were separated from the water through the use of charcoal. However, the charcoal also retained radium-226 and radium-228 present in the water.

A second process removed the iodine and bromide for industrial use. However, the charcoal, which retained the radium, was just dumped. This material containing radioactive elements was sitting there for a long time, until the government decided to deal with the situation. With our assistance, they drew up a plan of action, and all the waste has been removed. Disposal cells (trenches) were constructed in a secure area which was suitable – low rainfall and a high water table. Contamination of groundwater risk was negligible. This is now a controlled area. We used our mobile unit to survey the original site to see if there was any remaining contamination and concluded that the work was well done.

Can you say something about the CIDER project?

CIDER (Constraints to Implementing Decommissioning and Environmental Remediation) aims at supporting states in overcoming barriers to both decommissioning and remediation. The first phase was dedicated to understanding the constraints, identifying them and proposing suggestions to overcome them. These barriers were divided into three main categories – institutional (regulatory framework, policy and strategies), technological and societal (how to involve people and understand what they want and how it is to be done). This was the first phase.

Now we are in the second phase, which is essentially action oriented. We have four tasks. The first is to assist member states in their request to establish strategies for project implementation; the second is to overcome societal barriers; the third is to enhance capacity building; and the fourth is an inventory to help international organisations prioritise efforts and see where the problems are.

CIDER is not a project with a definite duration because we want to establish a community of practice that will sustain discussions. The vision is that member states will be able to deal with their legacies in a timely, safe and cost effective way. At a consultancy meeting in February we defined approaches which will be discussed in a technical meeting in July. At this meeting, adjustment to the approaches will be made based on discussions between experts and problem holders. After that, we can start engaging with countries in partnership to address these issues.  

*Dr Horst Monken-Fernandes is, since 2006, an environmental remediation specialist at the Waste Technology Section (WTS) of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Prior to this, he worked for the Institute of Radiation Protection and Dosimetry (IRD) where he has been the Head of the Environmental Impact Assessment Section. He was also a researcher at the institute lecturing and advising MSc. and DSc. in the post-graduate programme, and working in cooperation with other programmes at Brazilian Universities.

D&D Remediated uranium mining site in Australia (Credit: Peter Waggit/IAEA)
D&D Dr Horst Monken-Fernandes*
D&D Tailings pond remediation in progress at Wismut, Germany in 2007 (Credit: Peter Waggit/IAEA)

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