Answer given by Mr Piebalgs on behalf of the Commission
1. The Commission was immediately informed through several channels about Cs-137 contamination in wood pellets: via the Ecurie-system (European Community Urgent Radiological Information Exchange) on 17 June 2009, via the the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) information exchange system (NEWS) on 18 June 2009, and on 19 June 2009 through the Community Rapid Information System for Non-food Consumer Products sent by the Italian market surveillance authorities (RAPEX notification 0857/09, website publication: http://ec.europa.eu/consumers/dyna/rapex/create_rapex.cfm?rx_id=241).
These notifications were issued following nationwide measures adopted by the Aosta Prosecutor on 13 June 2009. A gamma spectrometric analysis of the radioactive content of the wood pellets and ashes from burning the pellets was carried out by the Area operative radioattatività ambientale of the Agenzia Regionale per la Protezione dell'Ambiente (ARPA) regione autonoma Valle d'Aosta. The wood pellets were collected by the Fire Brigade Services of Valdostano (Corpo Valdostano dei Vigili del Fuoco) on the 13 and 15 June 2009.
2. In the light of all subsequent evidence, the Commission can confirm that the pellets are not externally contaminated.
3. The Cs-137 content of the pellets measured between around 10 and 320 becquerel per kg (Bq/kg). An ash sample showed a concentration of around 46 000 Bq/kg.
4. Italy has implemented Council Directive 96/29/Euratom laying down basic safety standards for the protection of the health of workers and the general public against the dangers arising from ionizing radiation in its national legislation, including levels below which a practice may be exempted from the reporting requirements of the directive. While the exempt concentration value in the directive for Cs‑134 and Cs‑137 is 10 000 Bq/kg, the Italian legislation (Gazzetta Ufficiale N° 203 of 31.8.2000) has laid down a single lower value for all radionuclides of 1Bq/g (or 1 000 Bq/kg). It should be noted that the activity concentrations detected by the Italian authorities in the wood pellets are well below the national exemption level. However, the activity concentration in the ashes exceeds this value. It should be borne in mind that the exempt concentration values have been established for large quantities of material (of the order of one tonne). It is for the Italian authorities to assess the exposure pathways resulting from the higher concentrations in the ashes, for the relevant management options, and to decide whether further use of such pellets is permitted either without restrictions or subject to appropriate conditions.
5. The cause of the radioactivity was initially not specified, however it soon became very clear that the wood pellets contain radioactivity due to Chernobyl fall-out. The Chernobyl accident caused contamination of Cs‑134/137 in several European countries. When forest areas are contaminated with Caesium, the radioactivity is absorbed by the vegetation, including trees. The levels of Caesium in wood products are in general not significant from a radiation protection point of view, however when burning such products the Caesium accumulates in the ashes and this may warrant regulatory concern.
The RAPEX notification referred to ‘Naturkraft Premium’ wood pellets sold on the Italian market. The name of the Lithuanian producer and the Italian importer and distributors are known. It is not yet clear if the wood used to produce the pellets actually came from Lithuania or from areas in non-EU countries with a higher contamination of Caesium.
6. According to the RAPEX information, the pellets were distributed for general sale.
7. As regards examples of how another country addresses the issue of Caesium in wood products, the Commission would like to mention Sweden, which is also importing wood pellets from the Baltic countries, although on a small scale. According to information from the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority, their assessment so far is that the level of Caesium fallout in the Baltic countries after Chernobyl would not warrant particular restrictions on wood pellets from those countries. However, there are general recommendations for private households using wood pellets for heating on how to treat the ashes. For furnaces used for large-scale energy production there is national legislation in force, irrespective of the origin of the wood.
As to follow-up measures, according to the rules applying to the RAPEX system, the national market surveillance authorities have the obligation to check whether the notified product was sold on their market and, if this is the case, they must inform the Commission about the measures taken in order to prevent the supply of this product to consumers. So far, the Commission has not been informed about the marketing of these radioactive wood pellets in another Member State, nor are there any previous notifications of similar issues.
-  OJ L 159, 29.6.1996.