Natural attenuation processes control groundwater contamination in the Chernobyl exclusion zone: evidence from 35 years of radiological monitoring

Dmitri Bugai, Sergey Kireev, Mo Hoque, Yuri Kubko, Jim Smith

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Abstract

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) contains the vast majority of radionuclides released by the accident in nuclear fuel particle form. We present and analyze groundwater measurements collected from the monitoring network in CEZ covering key aquifers over 35 years since the accident. These new data, together with a comprehensive analysis of historical data shows that 90Sr remains mobile in the subsurface environment, while groundwater concentrations of 137Cs, Pu isotopes and 241Am are relatively low, and are not of radiological concern. During the last two decades, 90Sr and 137Cs levels have declined or remained stable over time in the majority of monitoring locations. This is due to natural attenuation driven by gradual exhaustion of the fuel particle source, geochemical evolution of groundwater downstream from waste dumps and radionuclide retention in surface soil due to absorption and bio-cycling. Decommissioning of the cooling pond and construction of the ‘New safe confinement’ over Unit 4 (damaged reactor) also favored better protection of groundwater close to the Chernobyl plant site. Data from confined and unconfined aquifers, as well as rivers, evidence low radiological risks from groundwater contamination both outside the CEZ and to onsite “self-settlers”. Though several groundwater contamination “hot spots” remain in the vicinity of Unit 4, “Red Forest” waste trenches and surface water bodies with contaminated bottom sediments, the findings of this study support a monitored natural attenuation approach to groundwater management in the CEZ.
Original languageEnglish
Article number18215
Number of pages16
JournalScientific Reports
Volume12
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 29 Oct 2022

Keywords

  • UKRI
  • NERC
  • NE/R009619/1

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