The radiation early warning system

For 40 years, Austria has had a country-wide automatic monitoring system for environmental radioactivity.

The Austrian radiation early warning system is available at more than 300 stations at which the external radiation level (local gamma dose rate) is measured automatically and continuously. In addition, 10 air monitoring stations (AMS) have been installed in border-zone regions that constantly determine the concentration of radioactive substances in the air.

The current measured values are transferred on-line to the central unit located in the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management (BMLFUW) in Vienna where they are evaluated and made available to other competent Federal and Provincial institutions, such as the national warning centres.

Purpose of the radiation early warning system

As a rule, the system records the natural radiation to which humans are permanently exposed. Yet if radioactive substances are released into the environment, for example due to a severe accident in a foreign nuclear power plant, the spreading radioactive cloud could lead to an increased radiation level. The sensitive measurement probes of the radiation early warning system can record such increases immediately and would trigger an alarm to the competent units.
After the 1986 Chernobyl reactor accident, the dose rate recorded at the measuring points rose to approximately ten times the normal level. At that time, the Austrian radiation early warning system was the only one in Europe to operate a fully-automatic measurement network and supported the authorities in taking protective measures. Meanwhile, comparable systems have been put in place in most European countries. In many of these countries, the measured values can also be retrieved on the Internet (see e.g. Germany, Switzerland and Slovenia).

External radiation

The stations that are part of the Austrian radiation early warning system record the ionising radiation in the environment – the local gamma dose rate. Average measured values range between 70 and 200 nanosievert per hour.

As long as no extraordinary incidents occur, the major part of external radiation is of a natural origin and comes from the radioactive chemical elements in the environment and from cosmic radiation.

Only a small share of radiation comes from contaminations of the environment with artificial radionuclides (“fall-out”) as a result of nuclear weapons tests performed in the 1960s and of the 1986 Chernobyl reactor accident.
The level of natural background radiation at the measuring points depends on the local geological situation. In the Waldviertel region, for example, a markedly higher local dose rate is measured than in the Province of Burgenland due to granitic soil. The intensity of cosmic radiation rises in proportion to the altitude of the measurement location. This is why radiation early warning system stations in the Alpine area as well as in the Waldviertel and Mühlviertel regions feature the highest measured values.
External radiation is just one of the avenues via which humans are exposed to ionising radiation. On average, it accounts for approximately one fourth of the total dose. For further information on the population’s exposure to radiation, please see the annual report “Radioaktivität und Strahlung in Österreich” (radioactivity and radiation in Austria).

Current measured values

The current measured values determined at 111 stations of the radiation early warning system can be retrieved from this website. The stations indicated here constitute a representative and country-wide selection of locations in all district capitals, towns/villages close to the border as well as in some high-altitude stations. For many years, some of these values have also been published in the teletext (page 623) of Austrian national broadcaster ORF.

Automatic data exchange  

Intergovernmental agreements enable the online exchange of data between the Austrian radiation early warning system and similar networks in neighbouring countries. Thus, the impact on Austria can be assessed at an early stage in the case of release of radioactivity abroad.

Most European countries have set up radiation measurement networks. On the basis of intergovernmental agreements, Austrian experts from the Directorate of Radiation Protection have received online access to the measured data of many neighbouring states’ systems: The Austrian radiation early warning system can indicate current measured values from stations located in Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Slovenia, and thus from all neighbouring countries operating nuclear power plants. In turn, foreign authorities are provided with measured values from Austria. Moreover, measured radiation data from almost all member states of the European Community are meanwhile available via the European data platform EURDEP.

Annual report on radiation early warning system

A comprehensive representation of the Austrian radiation early warning system, its emergence, current developments as well as an analysis of measured data are published by BMLFUW in the form of periodical reports.

published at 11.05.2017, Kommunikation und Service (Abteilung Präs. 5)