Time to grasp the difficult issues of radon and radioactive waste

Date released: Dec 21 2009

In publishing its annual report for 2008, the RPII has called on Government for national strategies to tackle radon and the storage of disused radioactive sources.

The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland (RPII) has called on the Government to establish a national storage facility for disused radioactive sources. The current situation whereby unwanted radioactive sources are stored at 80 different locations has for many years been out of step with international best practice, according to the Institute.
The call was made in the RPII’s annual report for 2008, which is published today.
The report also calls for a national strategy to address high radon levels in homes. It notes that to date just 5 per cent of the 91,000 homes estimated to have radon levels above the National Reference Level have been identified.
Urging the development of a national storage facility for radioactive waste, the report says that more than 3000 unwanted radioactive sources are currently stored in approximately 80 locations around Ireland. The RPII is concerned for the long-term safety and security of these sources, some of which have a very high radioactive content. These sources can be disused industrial, educational and medical equipment and other pieces of equipment that have radioactive content.
The RPII has welcomed the establishment of an interdepartmental High Level Group on radioactive waste which will report to Government on best policy and practice in this area. Dr Ann McGarry, Chief Executive of the RPII said: “A properly managed national store is required now and we are actively working with the Department of the Environment Heritage and Local Government in supporting and developing a sustainable solution for disused radioactive sources”.
The RPII have also called for a national strategy to address high radon levels in homes and workplaces. Radon is responsible for up to 200 lung cancer deaths in Ireland every year, however persuading individual homeowners and employers to measure radon remains slow and difficult. By the end of 2008 just five per cent of the estimated 91,000 homes with radon levels above the reference level had actually been identified. At the present rate of measurement, it could take 400 years to identify all the homes above the acceptable level.
The RPII recognises that it cannot deal with all aspects of the radon issue on its own and that other agencies and the Government have important contributions to make if an effective solution to this problem is to be found. A multi-agency approach to dealing with radon is required which deals with radiation protection, public health and building construction.
According to RPII Chief Executive, Dr Ann McGarry: “Radon is responsible for over half the radiation dose to the average Irish person and it is a source of exposure that can readily be controlled. What is required is a strategy, supported by Government, which pulls all the agencies together into a cohesive and cost effective approach to deal with this issue”.

Other Highlights:

  • During 2008, high radon levels were found in 322 homes and 30 workplaces;
  • During the year, 113 licences were issued to new licensees with over 50 per cent of these in the dental sector. The total number of licensees by the end of 2008 was 1704.
  • Two prosecutions for unlicensed custody of nuclear devices were brought during the year – in one case the company was convicted while in the other the judge applied the Probation Act.
  • The RPII’s programme of monitoring radioactivity in the environment from man-made sources such as Sellafield, the remnants of the Chernobyl accident and weapons testing in the 1950s and 1960s shows that the doses do not constitute a health risk and are very small compared with the dose received from natural radiation.

Download our annual report and accounts for 2008
Notes to Editor:
A High-level Interdepartmental Working Group was established in September 2008 to consider and advise Government on the management of radioactive waste materials and sources. The Group brings together senior officials from Government Departments and agencies with a shared responsibility for developing a sound and safe policy in this area and it is due to report to Government in 2010.
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas produced in all rocks and soils and because it is a gas it can move relatively freely through the ground entering buildings through any cracks or gaps that exist in floors. In certain circumstances radon can build up to unacceptable high concentrations becoming a health risk to the occupants of a building.
Radon is a Class-1 carcinogen. Long-term exposure to radon increases the risk of lung cancer. Based on current knowledge it is estimated that in Ireland, for the population as a whole, a lifetime exposure (i.e. 70 yrs) to radon in the home at the Reference Level of 200 Bq/m3 carries a risk of about 1 in 50 of contracting fatal lung cancer. This is approximately twice the risk of death in a road accident. Radon is linked to approximately 200 lung cancer deaths in Ireland every year. For people who smoke, or who have smoked, the risk from radon is considerably greater than for people who never smoked.
The RPII has redeveloped its website so that anyone can now search for their address on an interactive radon map to see whether their home or workplace is in an area predicted to have high radon levels. They can find out what they need to know about radon – what it is, why it is a problem and how they can have a measurement made. Information can also be obtained on freefone 1800 300 600.
Download our annual report for 2008