Radiation protection for the environment and for people

As public expert in the protection of the environment and people against ionising radiation, the Institute continued to pursue in 2021 an environmental monitoring policy based on the continuous acquisition of in-depth knowledge about the radiological status of the French territory and the geographical zones of which it is composed. Hence, in parallel to the measurements taken nationwide, the Institute produced in 2021 its latest territorial radiological observations, which have made way for the first radiological site survey.

As part of its contribution to major public policies that aim, among other things, to encourage comprehensive consideration of environmental health issues – such as the 4th National Health and Environment Plan – IRSN has also conducted studies in fields such as human and environmental radiotoxicology and, in 2021, published a summary of these studies, entitled “Actualisation des connaissances sur les effets biologiques du tritium” (“Updated knowledge on the biological effects of tritium”). In the same spirit, the Institute has also continued its actions aimed at improving protection of the public against radon.

In the field of healthcare, IRSN has also extensively collaborated with major partners, such as the Gustave Roussy Institute on the national scale, or the WHO, ICRP and UNSCEAR internationally, to which it has offered in particular its expertise on radiological monitoring.

Lastly, it has strengthened its exchanges with society by way of seminars and round tables, at which experts and citizens are able to share information and field questions on major issues, such as the environmental component of radioactive waste management, or the health consequences of a nuclear accident.





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Radiation protection of the environment


In September 2021 the Institute published its latest regional observation – for the Normandy and Hauts-de-France regions – reporting on the baseline environmental radiological status for this territory. This ties in with the seven observations already produced by IRSN for the different regions of France, in order to enhance our knowledge of the natural and artificial radioactivity levels in the various components of the environment, and to provide a great deal of data, often for the first time, of the situation both near to and far from nuclear facilities. By covering large zones, the regional observations have mainly made it possible to characterise the background noise (natural and ancient anthropogenic) of the regions concerned.

As a complement to the continuous monitoring of the environment on a national scale, this approach, first undertaken in the mid-2010s, has now made way for the radiological site surveys. The first of these was conducted in 2021 and involved the Saint-Alban NPP (Isère). It uses resources enabling characterisation of the influence of plant discharges on the surrounding environment. The purpose of the survey is to improve knowledge relating to the impact of a nuclear site on its environment, to estimate more realistically the exposure of the neighbouring populations, to contribute toward informing the authorities and the general public and, lastly, to help populations take a stake in measuring environmental radioactivity. A second survey was run in 2021 in the environment of the ORANO site at Malvési (Aude).

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In May 2021, IRSN published the summary of 10 years of research into human and environmental radiotoxicology in a report entitled “Actualisation des connaissances sur les effets biologiques du tritium” (“Updated knowledge on the biological effects of tritium”). This document complements the Institute’s work on the behaviour of tritium in the environment (2017) and on the radiological quality criteria applied to tritium in water destined for human consumption (2020). It details the experimental studies in the human and environmental radiotoxicology of tritium, conducted since 2010 by IRSN in collaboration with the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL). The results obtained complement the prior understanding and are globally in phase with the scientific literature. For most of the biological parameters studied, the induced modifications are only observed for the highest exposure levels.

To enable the stakeholders in civil society to discuss this report with experts, the Institute organised on 8 July a virtual seminar at which its experts, and those of the ASN, CEA, CNL, SEPIA-Santé and associations, were able to discuss the latest issues linked to the presence of tritium in the environment and its effects on health. More than 300 people took part in this seminar.


In the framework of the technical exchanges with society on the topic of high-level waste and intermediate-level long-lived waste (HLW/ILW-LL), five meetings were organised in 2020 and 2021, more specifically on the alternatives to geological repositories and waste packages. These meetings made it possible to answer many questions raised by society with a view to the upcoming IRSN expert appraisals on the Cigéo project.

In addition, IRSN took part in January 2021 in a European round table dedicated to information and public participation in the field of radioactive waste management, which was organised by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Energy and the Nuclear Transparency Watch association. The objective of this round table was to review the implementation of the Aarhus Convention in the field of radioactive waste management in Europe, and in particular the implementation of the transparency provisions of the Radioactive Waste Directive, as well as public access to research and expertise.

The Institute presented its feedback from the public debate in 2019 dedicated to the National Radioactive Materials and Waste Management Plan at a session dedicated to France and in which participated the Association nationale des comités et commissions locales d’information (National association of local information committees and commissions) and the Ministry of Ecological Transition (MTE).

In Brief
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In the framework of the webinars organised by the European Radioecology Alliance, two mornings were dedicated to PhD students, on 7 and 14 June 2021, to give them the opportunity to share their work with the community on a wide range of topics: (post-) accident exposure situations, resource contamination (agricultural, water…), management and remediation of uranium mining sites; the Chernobyl exclusion zone, uranium mines and the Irish Sea; bacteria, plants, crustaceans, insects, fish, amphibians and birds. Among the 17 presentations from 12 institutes and seven countries, IRSN was represented by two PhD students.

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Measuring tritium in the Loire

At the fourth meeting of the Pluralist monitoring committee of the study of tritium concentrations in the water of the Loire at the Cessart bridge in Saumur, which took place on 28 June 2021, IRSN presented the conclusions of its study launched following publication by a network of citizen samplers of a measurement of 310 Bq/L in January 2019. More than 1,100 samples were taken and measured by IRSN between November 2020 and 2021, at a rate of seven daily samples. In the course of the study, no atypical tritium measurement in the waters of the Loire came to light, with the activity concentrations of tritium varying between the decision threshold (2.5 Bq/L) and approximately 60 Bq/L, including in the period between late November and early December 2020, when the hydraulic conditions of the river and the discharges from the nuclear power plants were similar to those of 21 January 2019.

In addition, this study, which implemented the modelling of tritium concentrations downstream of the Chinon power plant based on field measurements, enabled better characterisation of the conditions conducive to the dispersion of discharges between Chinon and Saumur and of the representativeness of the measurements made at the multi-parameter station of the operator situated downstream of the Chinon power plant.

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Radiation protection for people


In 2021 IRSN published its annual report on the monitoring of occupational exposure to artificial or natural sources of ionising radiation for 2020. Unlike in previous years, this report indicates the monitoring of a cohort down 1.9% compared to 2019, with 387,452 workers. The report also established a 35% reduction in the collective dose for all monitored workers (72.5 H.Sv) and in the average individual dose (0.78 mSv). This reduction concerns all sectors and is mainly linked to the consequences of the health crisis which have required, in particular, the postponement of certain maintenance work in the nuclear industry, and which also caused the drop in air traffic. As far as indoor exposure is concerned, the percentage of positive analyses (0.4%) remained relatively stable compared to 2019. Among the monitored workers, six exceeded the regulatory limit of 20 mSv/year for outdoor exposure and one for indoor exposure. All the detailed results are presented on the Internet, accompanied by a focus on fields concerned by radiation protection such as, for example, decommissioning sites, flight crews, or the monitoring of the eye lenses of workers in the medical field.


As part of radon risk prevention in the occupational environment, IRSN undertook in 2021, at the request of the DGT (Directorate-General for Labour) and the Ministry of Agriculture, a radon measurement campaign in agricultural cavities (cheese, wine and mushroom cellars). Considering the paucity of data on radon concentrations currently available for these workplaces, the objective is to better evaluate the exposure of workers exercising their activities in these places. The measurement campaign conducted by the Institute will be pursued over several years in order to collect a significant volume of data in order to bring to light any specific characteristics particular to these types of underground spaces. The results of the measurements could then help employers to assess the risks for their employees and enable the Ministry of Labour to implement a specific risk prevention policy.


IRSN is a partner in the RADONORM project, launched in 2020 by the European Commission, with the objective of improving protection of the population against exposure to radon and to naturally occurring radioactive materials (“NORMs”), and which are used or discharged as part of miscellaneous industrial activities. Coordinated by the German Federal office for radiation protection, the RADONORM project is a major initiative involving 56 partners from 22 European countries. Moreover, one of the specific features of this project is the particular attention paid to the societal aspects, in particular raising the awareness of the public and supporting stakeholders in managing the risk of exposure to radon and to other NORMs. As part of this five-year project, IRSN is involved in the activities relating to the characterisation of exposure situations, dosimetric calculations, and epidemiological studies. The Institute contributes, to a lesser degree, to the work on remediation methods and on dealing with the social and societal aspects linked to this exposure. The first project follow-up meeting was organised by video conference in September 2021. This provided the opportunity to present the work to the network of 90 stakeholders – industrial, scientific – concerned by the project.

In Brief
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AS PARTNER OF PARIS PUBLIC HOSPITALS (AP-HP – ASSISTANCE PUBLIQUE DES HÔPITAUX DE PARIS), IRSN conducted a measurement campaign involving personnel potentially exposed to radiological contamination by means of anthroporadiametric measurements. For the first time, the mobile laboratory of the Institute took up residence from 8-23 March 2021 with the personnel of the Cochin Hospital and the Georges-Pompidou European hospital. 17 members of staff benefited from this examination.

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With its third four-year mandate renewed in 2018 as a collaborating centre, IRSN supports the WHO in the field of radiation protection and health: technical appraisals in emergency radiological or nuclear situations, dissemination of knowledge related to the consequences of exposure to radon, and the drafting of reference documents relating to radiological risk management in the medical field.

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IN THE FRAMEWORK OF ITS IN-HOUSE UNIVERSITY, IRSN dispenses accreditation training aimed at experts who may be called upon to access data covered by medical confidentiality. This training relates to the regulatory context and framework of accreditation, the legal framework, the general regulations on data protection, and cybersecurity. It also includes a practical case study. Since October 2020, four training sessions have been organised for 49 employees.

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Fukushima, Chernobyl: consequences of a nuclear accident on health

Three years after the seminar entitled “Radioactivité et santé : où en sommes-nous ?” (“Radioactivity and health: the state of play”), ANCCLI and IRSN wished, in line with their commitment, to bring together once again the various stakeholders, in particular the members of the local information commissions, associations and stakeholders in civil society. The objective of this 2021 seminar was to engage in discussions on the particular topic of the effects on health of nuclear accidents and share knowledge on this subject at two complementary meetings held by video conference on 8 April and on 30 September/ 1 October. Among the topics addressed were the lessons learnt from monitoring the populations of the contaminated territories around Chernobyl, the health monitoring programme put in place by the Fukushima Medical University, and health research in post-accident situations.

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Internationally recognised expertise


At the 65th general conference of the IAEA, IRSN was designated a Capacity Building Centre of the IAEA in the field of medical and healthcare management of radiological and nuclear emergencies. This designation marks the recognition of the Institute as a partner of the Agency, to which it regularly provides its operational support. In recent years, more than 10 severely exposed victims from contact with industrial radioactive sources or as a result of overdoses in radiotherapy have been able to benefit from this assistance from the IAEA. The Institute also supports the Agency in its training and standardisation actions. This recognition consolidates the Institute’s position as a leader in the field of medical and healthcare preparation and management for these emergency situations.


IRSN experts recently took up posts on the two main international bodies in the field of radiation protection. The head of the IRSN research department on the biological and health effects of ionising radiation was appointed Chair of Committee 1 (Radiation Effects) of the International Committee on Radiological Protection (ICRP) for the period 2021-2025, and seven other experts from the Institute joined the ranks of the Commission’s four committees. As for the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), the French delegation this year includes seven people from IRSN. These appointments mark the recognition of the Institute experts’ skills on the international stage.

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