Bristol researchers venture to the Chernobyl red forest

A multidisciplinary group of researchers from the University of Bristol, as part of the National Centre for Nuclear Robotics (NCNR), recently travelled to Chernobyl exclusion zone, 33 years after the nuclear accident at the power plant in Ukraine.

The team carried out a series of radiation mapping surveys using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) including the first-ever UAV to map both gamma and neutrons as well as a first ever fixed-wing (aeroplane style) UAV-based radiation mapping survey. This has led to radioactive hotspots being identified that were previously unknown to local authorities in the most comprehensive surveys of one of the most radioactive sites on Earth.

An abandoned bus belonging to the Chernobyl Road Repairing and Building Service. Credit: Tom Scott

Aerial Radiation Mapping Surveys

Professor Tom Scott from the School of Physics led the group who conducted surveys of numerous interest areas, including Buriakivika village. This settlement was abandoned following contamination from the power plant accident as it sat in the centre of the fallout plume west of the power plant.

Working alongside colleagues from Ukraine’s SSE “Eco Centre”, the body responsible for gathering survey and research data within the 2600km2 Exclusion Zone around the failed reactor, the NCNR team flew 50 sorties over 10 days, spending 24 hours in the air to map an area of 15km2 .

Starting at the lowest risk site first, the village of Buriakivka, located 13km from the accident epicentre, researchers moved on to the partially-demolished settlement of Kopachi before tackling the Red Forest – one of the most highly-contaminated natural sites on Earth.

Speaking about the trip, Professor Scott said: “This trip has provided a great training opportunity for my PhD students and is an excellent demonstration of capability for UK robotics and sensor technologies.” This trip was the first of several survey missions NCNR will undertake in Ukraine over the coming 12 months


South West Nuclear Hub Research into the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident

An information centre in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Credit: Tom Scott

The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant occurred during the early hours of Friday 25th April 1986 during a test on the Chernobyl 4 reactor prior to a routine shutdown. Unknown to the operators, the reactor core was in an extremely stable condition when they went to insert the control rods to shut down the reactor. As a result, there was a dramatic power surge that caused explosions of steam that ultimately exposed the reactor core to the atmosphere.

Previous University of Bristol research into the accident includes the J-Value Rating Service For Assessing Nuclear Safety Systems, which assessed that only 10-20% of the 335,000 people evacuated from the Chernobyl area needed to be relocated.

The gamma-ray technology developed by the University of Bristol has previously been used in the first-ever UAV mapping of the Sellafield site in the UK and has also been deployed numerous times across the Fukushima Prefecture in Japan.

Further Information

The National Centre for Nuclear Robotics  is an EPSRC-funded venture between academia and industry. The University of Birmingham is the lead academic institution and its key research themes are: Characterisation, Waste handling, cell decommissioning, underwater interventions and UAV-based site monitoring.

NCNR was created to accelerate and reduce the cost of Britain’s nuclear cleanup task by developing state of the art automation able to work in complex and hazardous environments.

News coverage

Whilst in Chernobyl the researchers were joined by ITV News. See the feature that broadcast on UK news on Friday 26th April below and read more here.

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