Humans have always been exposed to ionising radiation. Naturally occurring radiation comes from space and natural radioactive materials in the environment, primarily in the soil and rocks of the earth's crust.
With technical progress, we have increasingly made use of ionising radiation in a targeted manner. This radiation can also, however, have a negative effect on humans and the environment, which is why strict legal regulations apply globally. To prevent detectable damage, limits for the dose were set. The basic principle of radiation protection is always that the use of ionising radiation must be justified and the radiation exposure is to be kept as low as possible.
The ministry is taking precautions
For more than 25 years, Austria has been pursuing a policy against the use of nuclear energy and is firmly committed to improving nuclear safety. Even if it is possible to reduce the risk, the authorities must be prepared for an emergency.
Although there are no nuclear power plants in Austria, there are 14 plants at a distance of less than 200 kilometres from the national borders. Serious accidents with far-reaching effects cannot be excluded. The Federal Ministry for Climate Action, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology (BMK) has the task of taking precautions to protect the Austrian population in the event of a radiological emergency.
Special decision support systems make it possible to rapidly calculate the effects of radiological emergencies on the basis of weather forecast data. Additionally, assessments can be made and the potentially affected regions can be defined before the first measurement results are available. Systems like this enable the BMK to gain valuable time to prepare and implement measures to protect the population.
- Due to international agreements and automatic alarm systems, the BMK is alerted early on in the event of a radiological incident via the International Atomic Energy Agency and the European Commission. In addition, Austria has concluded bilateral information agreements with its neighbouring countries. As a result, in the event of a radiological incident, Austria is alerted before any radioactive material is released into the environment.
- The BMK operates forecasting systems that make it possible to estimate the effects of radiological emergencies on Austria at an early stage and to narrow down the regions that may be affected. By operating such systems, the BMK gains valuable time for taking measures to protect the population.
- The BMK operates monitoring systems such as the Austrian radiation early warning system, which permanently monitors the environment for radioactive contamination. In the event of a radiological emergency, more samples would be taken from the environment, as well as from food- and feed stuff, in order to be examined for radioactivity in the laboratory.
- Emergency plans for radiological emergencies at federal and state level specify the specific procedures for implementing the planned protective measures in an emergency. The emergency plans are being verified and optimized during regular emergency exercises.
- The BMK provides the legal basis for efficient planning, preparation and implementation of measures to protect the population. Examples of this are the Radiation Protection Act 2020 (→ RIS) and the Intervention Ordinance 2020 (→ RIS).
Radiological emergencies can arise not only from accidents in nuclear power plants and other nuclear facilities, but also from transport accidents involving radioactive material or from a terrorist attack (“dirty bomb”). Austria is also prepared for such scenarios.
In the case of a radiological emergency, the ministry keeps the public informed via its website → notfallschutz.gv.at.
International reporting systems
To alert affected states quickly in the event of a radiological emergency, international information agreements and alarm systems have been developed. As a direct reaction to the serious reactor accident at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union, agreements were reached within the framework of the International Atomic Energy Agency and within the European Commission. These state that if a radiological event occurs, the country of the accident is obligated to alert the international bodies and the affected states as quickly as possible.
The Austrian radiation early warning system can display the current measured values from the stations in Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia, and therefore from all the neighbouring states that operate nuclear power plants. Austria has also erected its own monitoring stations in the area near to nuclear power plants close to the border and integrated them into the Austrian radiation early warning system.
The Department of Radiation Protection at the Federal Ministry first assesses the situation using the information available from the country of the accident and estimates possible impacts on Austria. With the information from the neighbouring states and various emergency systems, the extent can be estimated before the radioactive cloud arrives.
The authorities therefore have sufficient information available to be able to assess the extent of the impact. Necessary measures to protect the population can therefore be taken and prepared at an early stage. Depending on the expected radiation exposure, the BMK establishes measures to protect the population, with the assistance of the Federal Ministry of Health. In this regard, the federal states are responsible for implementing the protective measures established by the Federal Government. Additionally, the state Crisis and Disaster Management at the Ministry of the Interior supports the implementation of the protective measures and coordinates the approach. The situation is re-evaluated regularly to adapt the measures accordingly.
If a radiological event occurs in Austria itself, for example as a result of a transport accident with radiological sources, the Department of Radiation Protection at the BMK is alerted immediately by the district administrative authorities or the national warning centres.
Alerting the population
So that the information reaches the public quickly and regularly if the occasion arises, the media is closely integrated in the crisis management. The information is primarily provided through television and radio. In addition, a call centre is activated if required, for which the telephone numbers are announced via radio and television. Information is also provided on the website of the BMK. In the case of serious nuclear power plant accidents close to the border, a nationwide warning and alarm system is available in Austria, which is operated by the Ministry of the Interior.