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Monitoring Tap Water For Radioactivity
April 29, 2014   
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Poland’s National Center for Nuclear Research (NCBJ), in conjunction with the Municipal Water and Sewerage Company (MPWiK) in Warsaw, is working to design, build and test a new system for monitoring tap water for radioactive contamination. The project is called TAp WAter RAdioactivity Real Time Monitor (TaWaRa RTM) and has a budget of 3.6 million euros.

The new system will consist of measurement devices, equipment for the spectroscopic identification of contamination and an alarm unit. The system will make it possible to monitor, in real time, the level of radioactive contamination of tap water supplied to households.

There is a several-hour delay in the supply of water through the water supply system to end users in relation to when the water is tested. That leaves time for action to be taken if pre-defined radioactivity thresholds are exceeded. In such cases the system will alert staff on duty and automatically halt the distribution of contaminated water. In the meantime the detected radioactive contaminants will be identified by the spectrometric part of the system, which will measure the intensity of emitted gamma rays. The results of the analysis will help experts make informed decisions about how to cope with the situation and what countermeasures should be taken.

“The system will be based on two detectors,” says Łukasz Świderski, Ph.D., head of the Detector Physics Division at the National Center for Nuclear Research, which is based in Świerk near Warsaw. “The first one, continually immersed in the flowing water, will be monitoring alpha and beta activity in real time, looking for radioactive contaminants. If some pre-defined thresholds are exceeded, or in other words if the water is contaminated, the system will trigger an alert and will direct water samples to the other detector in the system—the gamma radiation spectrometer, whose task is to identify the contaminants. The NCBJ team is responsible for the development of the gamma radiation spectrometer.”

A prototype of the system will be installed at the Municipal Water and Sewerage Company’s North Water System Facility in Zegrze, about 20 km north of Warsaw.

The total value of the TaWaRa RTM project is 3.6 million euros; 75 percent of the funds will come from the EU’s FP7 Security program.

Prof. Marek Moszyński, head of the NCBJ team involved in the project, said the partnership with Warsaw’s Municipal Water and Sewerage Company is expected to yield “the world’s first system with such a level of innovation to monitor the level of radioactive contaminants in municipal tap water in real time.”

The TaWaRa RTM project will run until mid-2016. If all goes well, the system tested in Warsaw will be introduced in many cities across Europe. The monitoring system is designed in such a way that it can be extended in the future to identify chemical and biological threats as well.

Prof. Grzegorz Wrochna, director-general of the NCBJ, said, “Because of our many years of pure and applied research in the field of ionizing radiation detection techniques, we are perfectly suited to design a system to protect consumers against threats posed by radioactive contaminants in tap water. Continual monitoring and the capability to react promptly to threats is a key factor in any water contamination monitoring system. Apart from natural disasters such as earthquakes, these days it is easy to imagine threats coming from attacks by terrorists trying to poison water with some toxic materials. The new system will be our watchdog.”

In addition to Poland’s NCBJ, the TaWaRa RTM project consortium includes two Italian universities, in Padua and Pisa, an Italian government R&D agency called ENEA, two companies manufacturing nuclear radiation detectors and electronics, and a law firm.
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