Three unmanned environmental monitoring stations to detect and measure radiation from soil and air were inaugurated in Paraguay last month, with support from the IAEA. The facilities, which are the first of their kind, represent a leap for Paraguay in the protection of people and the environment from the harmful effects of ionizing radiation.
“We want to evaluate the radiation exposure to the public and make sure that control measures are appropriate,” said Mario Gutiérrez, Executive Secretary of the Radiological and Nuclear Regulatory Authority (ARRN) of Paraguay. “Having our own capacity will contribute to reducing any potential radiological risk to the population and the environment.”
This would also give the Paraguayan population peace of mind, he added, particularly because the country shares borders with Argentina and Brazil, both of which operate nuclear power plants.
By monitoring radiation levels in the environment, scientists will be able to develop national baseline data on naturally-occurring radiation — radiation originating from naturally-occurring radioactive materials found in soil, water and air. Based on this data, they will be able to identify any type of alteration in these values that may occur.
One station was installed in the capital, Asunción, and the other two in Pilar and Alberdi, close to the border with Argentina.
Training provided by the IAEA has prepared experts to not only measure radiation levels, but also identify the sources responsible for the radiation. The new systems can significantly increase the ability to differentiate natural radiation from others generated by radiation sources, such as radiation from an accidental release or a lost source, Gutiérrez said.
Growing use of radioactive sources
Many radioactive sources are used widely in industry and in medicine. To see inside a patient’s body, medical staff use diagnostic imaging with radioactive substances. To treat cancer, oncologists use radiation technologies. In recent years, Paraguay has witnessed an increase in the application of radiation sources in medicine.
“Millions of dollars are being invested in health, nuclear medicine and radiotherapy as the country’s economy grows,” Gutiérrez said. “While in 2018 our regulators provided 300 authorizations in the field of ARRN competencies, this year we are reaching 1000. The biggest increase in the use of radioactive sources comes from the medical field.”
The IAEA supports countries like Paraguay in the safe and secure use of radioactive sources. “More applications of nuclear technology should come hand-in-hand with a more systematic control of these, to reduce any related risk to people and the environment and increase their benefits,” said Diego Telleria, radiation protection specialist at the IAEA.
Each of the three environmental radiation monitoring stations consists of a device, housed in a 20-foot container, that monitors the air, detects and measures gamma radiation and transmits that information to the base station.
Each site can measure in a radius of 150 km. The wind forces air into an air sampler and through a filter, which retains 85 % of all particles that pass through it. The filters are replaced automatically every day and used filters are measured in the high-resolution detection device at the station. Resulting from this is a gamma ray spectrum, which is sent to the ARRN for analysis, and the data is made available online.
The IAEA has also provided a laboratory in Paraguay with a liquid scintillation analyser to allow scientists to analyse radiation levels in water, sediments and food samples. This will complement the environmental monitoring stations. Scientists from the Multidisciplinary Centre of Technological Research (CEMIT) at the National University of Asunción have been trained to use the new equipment and interpret the results, which will help widen the scope of their research.
“In addition to gamma radiation, with the new analyser we can now measure and evaluate alpha and beta radiation, which can be harder to detect, and which can represent a risk to human health when in contact with human tissue internally,” said Claudia Ávalos, researcher at CEMIT. “We are looking forward to the important database that the new environmental monitoring stations and the analyser will produce.”
Through the IAEA’s technical cooperation programme, Ávalos and other fellow researchers have undertaken fellowships in nuclear laboratories in Argentina to learn how to use the new equipment, and to analyse and interpret its data.
The upgrade will also enable the team to undertake more sophisticated scientific studies by, for example, measuring baseline radiation throughout the year and observing how it changes according to weather, time, or soil composition.
“We are enthusiastic because this represents a source of knowledge and a push for Paraguay’s scientific development in the nuclear field,” Gutiérrez said, adding that Paraguay’s regulatory authority, ARRN, which already closely collaborates with CEMIT, is expanding partnerships with other relevant institutions in the peaceful uses of nuclear technology.