Six key moments in radiation research during the past 50 years


Peak in atmospheric nuclear tests

The number of atmospheric nuclear weapon tests and the associated radioactive fall-out peaked in 1962.

Two hundred and fifty atmospheric nuclear tests were performed in one and a half years. The largest device exploded was a 50 megaton Soviet hydrogen bomb, with a power equal to more than 3000 times the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The EURATOM Treaty had been signed a few years before, in 1957. This obliged the Member States of the European Economic Community, the precursor of the EU, to measure radiation levels in food and the environment and to pass the data obtained in this way on to their citizens.

The EURATOM monitoring programme that was started up at that time is still running today. Radiation levels in the air did not fall until 1965, two years after the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty (1963), which prohibited atmospheric nuclear testing. Radioactive fall-out persists in the air long after an atmospheric nuclear test has been conducted, leading to contamination of the soil and food for many years thereafter.

The first Dutch radiation map


Chernobyl nuclear disaster

The explosion in the former Soviet Union nuclear power plant at Chernobyl was the worst nuclear disaster to date. The explosion occured during a systems test that went wrong. LSO played an important role in dealing with the consequences of this disaster in the Netherlands.

The Chernobyl disaster led to the formulation of the Dutch National Plan for Nuclear Emergency Preparedness (NPK) in 1989. RIVM was given an important role within the framework of the NPK, in particular in connection with the construction and management of the National Radiation Monitoring Network, the Information and Documentation Centre for Nuclear Emergency Preparedness, and a number of new mobile surveillance units.

ORIVM still plays an important advisory role in connection with possible nuclear accidents. It continues to make use of the necessary monitoring networks, information systems and mobile surveillance units. These technical facilities are constantly updated to ensure that they are always state-of-the-art.

Ronald Smetsers


Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko with polonium-210

The Russian Alexander Litvinenko died in a London hospital in November 2006, three weeks after he had been admitted with symptoms of poisoning by an unknown substance.

The cause of death was initially a mystery, but an autopsy revealed that he had been exposed to the radioactive substance polonium-210. In the weeks that followed, RIVM was called in to investigate whether Dutch guests in the hotel where Litvinenko had been staying at the time of the attack had also been exposed to polonium-210. Traces of this substance were indeed found in a number of persons, but they were fortunately too low to cause any harm.

Fukushima nuclear disaster