Ecotoxicology lab photo

The impact of nuclear power

The use of nuclear power is set to increase which will lead to an increased volume of the radioactive isotope of hydrogen – tritium (3H) that is produced in nuclear fuel processing plants. A mobile isotope with a physical life of over 12 years, it can be released as tritiated water into the environment directly or from tritiated water storage and treatment.

There is still little knowledge about how tritium reacts with our environment and other elements and therefore how this impacts human health and environmental health. There is a global recognition that further knowledge of this with the addition of mitigation strategies are needed.

The project

A four-year project due to end in2022, TRANSAT is a European Horizon 2020 project that explores the potential dangers posed by tritium. The project is led by the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), which allows academics from the University of Plymouth to build on their previous work, while collaborating with partners in Belgium, France, Germany, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Spain.

The project focuses on ITER (formerly known as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), a multi-billion pound research and engineering megaproject being built in southern France. Here, the behaviour of tritium particles are assessed in dedicated rigs, made of both steel and concrete, and scientists then use those to monitor the amount of tritium released into the environment.

The project seeks to determine ways to enhance waste management around nuclear facilities in the future, and examine how best to minimise tritium release during future dismantling.

The three strategic objectives are:

  • reduce tritium permeation during the conceptual phase of nuclear reactors/devices through the use of technologies
  • improve tritiated waste management through innovative measurements that assess both tritium inventory and profile, and through improved mitigation concepts in the case of tritium release above the acceptance criteria of the storage facility
  • improve the knowledge in radiobiology, dosimetry, radiotoxicology, genotoxicology and ecotoxicology, and of the environmental consequences in the case of contamination by tritiated products.

Exposing toxicity to protect our environment

The University is the only organisations in the UK that has been researching the potential effects of tritium on the environment for several years. It has previously worked with the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), UK and Institut de Radioprotection et de Surete Nucleaire (IRSN), France, funded by EU’s European Regional Development Fund, INTERREG IVA. The research team published several important studies. This included demonstration that rising sea water temperatures – coupled with the increased presence of tritium – could dramatically enhance and accelerate radiation-induced DNA effects in marine invertebrates. It also studied how to accurately determine the radiation dose imparted by tritium in marine mussels.

Professor Awadhesh Jha is a leading voice in exposing the effects chemicals have on the environment, particularly form radiation, and in reducing the number of live fish used in toxicity experiments. He was one of the first to adopt a multidisciplinary approach and combine his eco-toxicological experience with that of chemists.

Press release: University receives funding as part of multi-million pound nuclear project

Partners and collaborators

The TRANSAT project involves 18 partners from eight countries. 

The University is one of three UK-based institutions involved, the others being Public Health England and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). 

Further extension of the work beyond 2022 is being explored through EU research call.

Find out more information about TRANSAT

Genetic Toxicology and Ecotoxicology Research Group

We work across a wide range of themes including cancer biology, radioecology, molecular and in vitro toxicology, ecotoxicology and aquatic biology

Using cutting edge technologies and a range of models, members of GTE carry out research across a wide range of themes in the field of environmental toxicology and genetic toxicology.

Find out more about the Genetic Toxicology and Ecotoxicology Research Group

Mussels in ecotoxicology lab photo