What to know - Radiological and nuclear

What to know?

In Italy, there are no operating nuclear plants. Still, our country is equipped with a National Plan for the management of radiological and nuclear emergencies to face accidents that may occur at nuclear plants located outside the national territory. There are nuclear plants for energy production in France, Switzerland, Germany, and Slovenia, located less than 200 kilometers from the Italian border. 

The matter is made up of atoms. By nature, most atoms do not transform over time; these are stable atoms. Other atoms, however, tend to transform (unstable atoms), and while doing so, they release charged particles and energy, a phenomenon known as 'radioactivity.' The energy released is called 'ionizing'.
All types of ionizing radiation interact with matter, including the human body, transferring all or part of its energy to it. The transfer of energy in the human body can cause damage to organs and tissues, depending on the type and amount of radiation dose received.  

Radioactivity can be of natural or artificial source. Natural radioactivity relates to phenomena such as cosmic rays coming from space or in the earth's crust. Artificial radioactivity is generated for medical purposes (e.g., in radiotherapy and radiodiagnostics), industrial and research purposes (e.g., in petrochemical industries, food sterilization and preservation facilities, laboratory equipment), and power generation from nuclear plants.

Italy is equipped with tools for monitoring radioactivity in the air, aimed at warning and providing support to the authorities in charge of making decisions to protect the population in case of radioactive releases on the national territory. These tools are:  

  • Early warning networks, which consist of stations located at places where a radioactive cloud is most likely to arrive from a major accident at a nuclear plant near the national border, with the function of reporting potential abnormal radioactivity conditions.    
  • Regional and national surveillance networks, formed by laboratories that monitor the radioactivity of the environment, with the function of preventing the public from being exposed to radiation or ingesting contaminated food through the analysis of air, drinking water, and food products such as milk and edible leafy vegetables, or pasture grass and hay for cattle.   
  • Local networks, with the function of monitoring the radioactivity of a specific nuclear installation or research facility in the territory.  

National Plan for the management of radiological and nuclear emergencies identifies and regulates the measures to cope with the consequences of accidents or incidents in nuclear plants located outside the national borders, according to three different scenarios: accidents in plants within 200 kilometers from the national border; accidents at plants beyond 200 kilometers of the national border; and accidents at plants in non-European countries.  

The Plan defines the procedures for managing information flow and for the activation and coordination of the National Civil Protection Service. It also lays out the organizational model for emergency management, specifying primary interventions and measures to reduce and limit the consequences of the accident in the country. The Plan provides specific protective measures for the three scenarios covered.   

In the case of a major accident at a nuclear plant less than 200 kilometers from the national border with potential passage of a radioactive cloud on the Italian territory, the Plan foresees the following protective measures:  

 •  Direct protective measures, such as providing indoor shelter and iodoprophylaxis (potassium iodide tablets intake for specific groups of people) in regions affected by the cloud;   
 •  Indirect protective measures, such as controlling the food chain, restricting food distribution and consumption, and protecting farm animals and farmland across large areas of the country.  

On the other hand, in the case of a major accident at a nuclear plant located beyond 200 kilometers from the national border, exclusively indirect measures are planned for large areas of the national territory.   

In case of an accident at a nuclear plant in non-European countries, considering the long distance of our country from the site of the event, the Plan mainly envisages measures for assisting fellow nationals who are in the territory affected by the event, for the restriction of the import of food and other products, and for the control of people returning from the risk areas to examine them for possible contamination.   

These same measures are provided for all three scenarios.  

The IT-alert public warning system will be activated in the event of an accident at a nuclear plant within 200 kilometers from the national border, and when the authorities of the affected country declare a state of "General Emergency."  

Considering this risk scenario and the possible passage of the radioactive cloud on the Italian territory, the Civil Protection Department activates the "alarm" operational phase. This means one or more IT-alert messages are sent to the cell phone of the potentially affected population to provide information about the event. 

  • Accidents in nuclear plants can have different patterns and, in some cases, result in the emission of radiation outside the facility.
  • Depending on the type of accident, the substances released, the distance of the facility from the national borders, and the weather and climate conditions, the authorities may order different health and environmental protection measures, which also consider the data collected by monitoring networks for radioactivity and possible effects on the population.     
  • We cannot perceive radiation, which can be detected and measured with specific equipment. Therefore, in case of an emergency, it is essential to follow the directions of the authorities.  
  • Italy has equipped itself with a national public warning system, It-alert, for direct information to the population, which broadcasts useful messages to cell phones in a given geographical area in case of upcoming or ongoing major emergencies or disasters, including accidents in nuclear plants within 200 kilometers from the Italian border. Remember that the IT-alert system has some limitations. For more information go to www.it-alert.gov.it/en.
  • In Italy, there are other sources of radiological and nuclear risk linked to potential accidents during the transportation of radioactive material or irradiated fuel, to accidents in the medical field, in industrial and research facilities where radioactive and nuclear substances are stored or used, and to the docking in some Italian ports of foreign nuclear-powered ships or submarines. These risks are addressed by local emergency plans prepared by the competent Prefectures.