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Radioactive contamination in ash waste

The ‘Assessment of environmental risk for use of radioactively contaminated industrial tailings’ (Intailrisk) project investigated industrial dumps for tailings from the power and aluminium processing industries. Researchers developed methods for treatment of the waste, which contained radionuclides, and determined the risk it posed to both the general public and the environment.
Radioactive contamination in ash waste
Large volumes of natural coal are required for energy production, but whatever the type or origin of coal burned it always contains some level of naturally occurring radionuclides. The burning process concentrates radioactive material in both fly ash and bottom ash residues.

Fly ash is generated during combustion and consists of the fine particles that rise with the flue gases. Bottom ash is made up of the non-combustible residue of combustion in a furnace or incinerator. Fly ash is used in building materials such as cement and breeze blocks, whereas bottom ash is dumped as waste in confined tailing ponds or used as landfill on construction sites.

Aluminium ore also contains some amount of natural radioactive material and the production of aluminium oxide can result in significant enrichment of naturally occurring radioactive material in the waste (principally red mud). This waste is disposed of in the environment, usually in tailing ponds close to the production plant, or used as landfill.

Scientists from the EU-funded Intailrisk project assessed the threat to public health and the environment from radionuclides contained in waste, known as tailings, from coal-fired power stations and aluminium works in Western Balkan Countries (WBCs). Researchers investigated the risk posed by the waste and the best use for the recycled material, bearing in mind the risk factor. The direct risks from waste in the immediate neighbourhood due to erosion and dust resuspension were considered, as well as the risk to surface water and ground water following dispersal of waste in the environment.

The impact of radionuclides on the health of the local population was also assessed. Possible pathways included the inhalation of gas emissions and the use of contaminated material such as fly ash in building materials, industrial products or as landfill. The Intailrisk project examined existing monitoring techniques and made recommendations for optimising radiation protection and monitoring management for the test sites investigated so that they are aligned with EU directives.

Intailrisk successfully investigated radiation protection management and monitoring practices in test sites in the Western Balkans. It also developed recommendations for tailings dumps and promoted the adoption of existing legislation, thereby protecting both the health and environment of local people.

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