The University of Southampton

SOES6023 Environmental radioactivity and radiochemistry

Module Overview

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

• The applications of radioactivity to environmental studies (mostly terrestrial and coastal/estuarine). In particular the use of natural and anthropogenic radionuclides as tracers of natural processes, such as rates of sediment mixing, transport and accumulation. • The dating of recent sediments – particularly using 137Cs and 210Pb. • The capabilities and limitations of a selection of methods in environmental science research will be presented such as radiometric methods (instrumental and radiochemical) and non-radiometric methods (mass spectrometry). • Modern radiochemical separations procedures for a selection of environmentally useful radionuclides (e.g. 14C, 99Tc, 210Pb, U and Pu isotopes, 230Th). Practical experience will be gained. • The past, present and future aspects and consequences of civil and non-civil nuclear technology.

Learning Outcomes

Learning Outcomes

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Understand the principles of research techniques in a variety of environmental radioactivity studies.
  • IT, presentational and communication skills.
  • Understand the capabilities and limitations of the different radiometric and non-radiometric techniques for radionuclide determinations.
  • Understand the basics of accuracy, precision and uncertainty in radioactivity data.
  • Select appropriate radionuclide techniques for particular research problems.
  • Work safely in a radiochemical laboratory, write risk assessments, understand the need for QA and QC systems, record radiochemical usage for statutory purposes.
  • Understand issues relating to the UK nuclear decommissioning programme and the arguments associated with 'nuclear new-build'.
  • Apply a range of key skills at level 4 (e.g. numerical manipulations, develop polished technical presentations, keep good quality laboratory records).
  • Working on multifactorial problems.
  • Group working in a laboratory environment (safety, planning, etc.).


Lectures and practicals will cover: • Radioactivity: chart of the nuclides, modes of radioactive decay, decay energy diagrams, radioactivity units, decay laws, mass to activity relationship. • Origin of radionuclides through nucleosynthesis and cosmic processes and of non-primordial radionuclides. • Nuclear fission and fusion • Civil and military nuclear cycles (anthropogenic radionuclides) • Reprocessing of nuclear fuel and nuclear waste disposal strategies. • The Oklo fossil natural nuclear reactor. • Natural radiological hazards • Nuclear accidents, incidents and environmental leaks. • Radiochemistry for environmental scientists. • Methods of determination (radiometric, mass spectrometric). • Radionuclide behaviour in the environment (atmosphere, land and sea), interaction of radionuclides with marine biota). • Radiocarbon applications (dating and sediment mixing). • U-series disequilibria and dating (snow, sediment). • Impulse radiometric dating methods (weapons fallout, Chernobyl). • Radionuclides as tools in oceanography (case studies). • Radionuclides as tools in terrestrial environmental studies (case studies).

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Formal lectures: These provide the theoretical basis underlying radioactive and radiochemical processes in environmental studies. Each lecture systematically covers the main concepts and topics by the use of PowerPoint presentations. Where relevant, the course contributor’s own research experience is brought into the lecturing sessions via Case Studies. There are normally two specialist outside speakers invited to make contributions. Demonstrations: These provide examples of modern radiochemical separations using a variety of chromatographic procedures. Practical classes: These develop skills in manipulating a broad range of data to convert from activity to mass and vice versa, to determine decay adjusted radionuclide inventories, to determine sediment accumulation rates using Pb-210 and Cs-137 methods. Keeping a well-ordered laboratory/exercise book. Presentations: High quality student presentations (evaluated) at the end of the course contribute to the learning experience. Field excursions: Visits to nuclear and related establishments (e.g. AWE Aldermaston, JET fusion reactor at Culham and DIAMOND); these allow students to gain an insight into practical applications of radioactivity and decommissioning and work possibilities. A wide range of support can be provided for those students who have further or specific learning and teaching needs.

Independent Study85
Total study time150


Assessment Strategy

Open-book test (45%): This 5 hour test takes place in a Computer Cluster area on the last day. It takes the form of 3 main questions, with sub-divisions, that test the knowledge and understanding gained during the course in terms of short written responses and numerical calculations (e.g. sediment dating, radioactive decay, radiation dosimetry in an environmental context). Students have full access to all course material and supporting information during the test. Tests Learning Outcomes 1,2,3,6 Powerpoint presentation (25%): A 30 minute Group PowerPoint Presentation (groups of 3), selected from a range of environmental radioactivity topics, that is presented at the end of the course. Tests Learning Outcomes 1,2,3,5,6 Laboratory workbook (30%): The Laboratory Book used to record all practical work and numerical exercise problems (with inferences) and site visits is assessed at the end of the course. Tests Learning Outcomes 1-6


MethodPercentage contribution
Examination  (5 hours) 45%
Laboratory notebooks 30%
Presentation  (30 minutes) 25%
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