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In a nuclear emergency, the rapid collection and analysis of information is vital. As part of the National Emergency Plan for Nuclear Accidents, the EPA, with support from Met Éireann, local authorities and the Defence Forces operates a national network of round-the-clock radiation monitoring stations.
In the event of nuclear incident abroad, the alert would first be raised through the EU and IAEA international notification systems. The Irish radiation monitoring network would then provide the first measurements of any radioactive cloud that reached Ireland. In addition, Ireland has a bilateral agreement with the UK so that Ireland will be informed directly in the event of a nuclear accident in the UK.
As soon as any radiation monitoring station detects an unusually high level of radiation, an alarm is automatically activated.
Ireland has 15 permanent radiation monitoring stations distributed across the country. Most are located near the east and south coasts, where any radioactive plume drifting over the sea from the UK or Europe would most likely make its first contact with Ireland.
The monitoring stations continuously measure the gamma dose rate. Data from the gamma dose rate monitors is continuously fed back to a central computer at the EPA. If elevated radiation levels are detected, an alarm system is automatically triggered.
In addition, the EPA operates a network of air sampling systems to supplement the gamma dose rate measurements. These systems continuously sample particles suspended in the air. In the case of a nuclear emergency these air filters will be analysed to ascertain the quantity and type of radionuclides present in the plume.
Occasionally, gamma radiation levels can increase temporarily due to a phenomenon called radon washout. This occurs when rain collects radon from the air and deposits it on the ground.
It results in a small - but detectable - increase in the gamma dose rate measurement, which usually lasts no more than few hours. This increase poses no health risk, but may trigger the EPA alarm system – if this happens, the EPA Office of Radiological Protection duty officer examines the data to confirm whether or not the gamma dose rate has been caused by radon washout.
In the event of a nuclear emergency, foodstuffs, livestock, soil, vegetation, water and other environmental samples will be monitored and analysed in the days and weeks after the accident.
For more information on post-emergency monitoring, see The Plan.
Various other agencies help operate the continuous monitoring network:
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