Health risks from radioactive particles on Cumbrian beaches near the Sellafield nuclear site

John D. Harrison*, Wayne B. Oatway, Iain K. Brown, John W. Hopewell

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A monitoring programme, in place since 2006, continues to recover radioactive particles (<2 mm diameter) and larger objects from the beaches of West Cumbria. The potential risks to members of the public using the beaches are mainly related to prolonged skin contact with or the inadvertent ingestion of small particles. Most particles are classified as either ‘beta-rich’ or ‘alpha-rich’ and are detected as a result of their caesium-137 or americium-241 content. Beta-rich particles generally also contain strontium-90, with 90Sr:137Cs ratios of up to about 1:1, but typically <0.1:1. Alpha-rich particles contain plutonium isotopes, with Pu:241Am α ratios usually around 0.5-0.6:1. ‘Beta-rich’ particles have the greatest potential to cause localised skin damage if held in stationary contact with the skin for prolonged periods. However, it is concluded that only particles of >106Bq of 137Cs, with high 90Sr:137Cs ratios, would pose a significant risk of causing acute skin ulceration. No particles of this level of activity have been found. Inadvertent ingestion of a particle will result in the absorption to blood of a small proportion of the radionuclide content of the particle. The subsequent retention of radionuclides in body organs and tissues presents a potential risk of the development of cancer. For ‘beta-rich’ particles with typical activities (mean 2 × 104 Bq 137Cs, Sr:Cs ratio of 0.1:1), the estimated committed effective doses are about 30 µSv for adults and about 40 µSv for 1 year old infants, with lower values for ‘alpha-rich’ particles of typical activities. The corresponding estimates of lifetime cancer incidence following ingestion for both particle types are of the order of 10−6 for adults and up to 10−5 for infants. These estimates are subject to substantial uncertainties but provide an indication of the low risks to members of the public.

Original languageEnglish
Article number031504
JournalJournal of Radiological Protection
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The help of the following members of UKHSA staff is gratefully acknowledged: Richard Haylock, Tracy Smith, Rick Tanner, and Wei Zhang. The work received financial support from the Environment Agency.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 Crown Copyright, UK Health Security Agency.


  • Sellafield particles
  • plutonium americium
  • risks of skin ulceration, cancer
  • strontium caesium


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