Radiological / Nuclear

What Is Radiation?

Radiation is a form of energy that is present all around us.

Different types of radiation exist, some of which have more energy than others.

Amounts of radiation released into the environment are measured in units called curies. However, the dose of radiation that a person receives is measured in units called rem.

How Can Exposure Occur?

  • People are exposed to small amounts of radiation every day, both from naturally occurring sources (such as elements in the soil or cosmic rays from the sun), and man-made sources. Man-made sources include some electronic equipment (such as microwave ovens and television sets), medical sources (such as x-rays, certain diagnostic tests, and treatments), and from nuclear weapons testing.
  • The amount of radiation from natural or artificial sources to which people are exposed is usually small; a radiation emergency (such as a nuclear power plant accident or attack with a nuclear weapon or “dirty bomb” could expose people to small or large doses of radiation, depending on the situation.
  • Scientists estimate that the average person in the United States receives a dose of about one-third of a rem per year. About 80% of human exposure comes from natural sources and the remaining 20% comes from man-made radiation sources – mainly medical x-rays.
  • Contamination refers to particles of radioactive material that are deposited anywhere that they are not supposed to be, such as on an object or on a person’s skin.
  • Internal contamination refers to radioactive material that is taken into the body through breathing, eating, or drinking.
  • Exposure occurs when radiation energy penetrates the body. For example, when a person has an x-ray, he or she is exposed to radiation.

What Happens When People Are Exposed to Radiation?

  • Radiation can affect the body in a number of ways, and the adverse health effects of exposure may not be apparent for many years.
  • These adverse health effects can range from mild effects, such as skin reddening, to serious effects such as cancer and death, depending on the amount of radiation absorbed by the body (the dose), the type of radiation, the route of exposure, and the length of time a person was exposed.
  • Exposure to very large doses of radiation may cause death within a few days or months.
  • Exposure to lower doses of radiation may lead to an increased risk of developing cancer or other adverse health effects later in life.

What Types of Disasters Might Involve Radiation?

  • Possible terrorist events could involve introducing radioactive material into the food or water supply, using explosives (like dynamite) to scatter radioactive materials (called a “dirty bomb”), bombing or destroying a nuclear facility, or exploding a small nuclear device.
  • Although introducing radioactive material into the food or water supply most likely would cause great concern or fear, it probably would not cause much contamination or increase the danger of adverse health effects.
  • Although a dirty bomb could cause serious injuries from the explosion, it most likely would not have enough radioactive material in a form that would cause serious radiation sickness among large numbers of people. However, people who were exposed to radiation scattered by the bomb could have a greater risk of developing cancer later in life, depending on their dose.
  • A meltdown or explosion at a nuclear facility could cause a large amount of radioactive material to be released. People at the facility would probably be contaminated with radioactive material and possibly be injured if there were an explosion. Those people who received a large dose might develop acute radiation syndrome. People in the surrounding area could be exposed or contaminated.
  • Clearly, an exploded nuclear device could result in a lot of property damage. People would be killed or injured from the blast and might be contaminated by radioactive material. Many people could have symptoms of acute radiation syndrome. After a nuclear explosion, radioactive fallout would extend over a large region far from the point of impact, potentially increasing people’s risk of developing cancer over time.

These Web sites give you some information about preventing, preparing for, and responding to nuclear/radiological incidents:

Note: The following links are provided as a resource only. The content provided was not prepared by the Pittsburgh Regional Business Coalition for Homeland Security (PRBCHS), and is not necessarily endorsed by PRBCHS.


Department of Energy (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)

NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency within the U.S. Department of Energy responsible for enhancing national security through the military application of nuclear energy. NNSA maintains and enhances the safety, security, reliability and performance of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile without nuclear testing; works to reduce global danger from weapons of mass destruction; provides the U.S. Navy with safe and effective nuclear propulsion; and responds to nuclear and radiological emergencies in the U.S. and abroad.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

The IAEA is the world’s center of cooperation in the nuclear field. It was set up as the world’s “Atoms for Peace” organization in 1957 within the United Nations family. The Agency works with its Member States and multiple partners worldwide to promote safe, secure and peaceful nuclear technologies.

Nuclear Emergency Suppport Team (NEST)

The Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST) is the National Nuclear Security Administration’s program for preparing and equipping specialized response teams to deal with the technical aspects of nuclear or radiological terrorism. NEST capabilities include search and identification of nuclear materials; diagnostics and assessment of suspected nuclear devices, technical operations in support of render safe procedures, and packaging for transport to final disposition. The NEST Fact Sheet offers more details.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)

The NRC’s mission is to regulate the Nation’s civilian use of byproduct, source, and special nuclear materials to ensure adequate protection of public health and safety, to promote the common defense and security, and to protect the environment.

Radiation Emergency Assistance Center/Training Site (REAC/TS)

REAC/TS is a 24-hour emergency response program at the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) that trains, consults, and assists in the response to all types of radiation accidents or incidents. The Center’s specially trained team of physicians, nurses, health physicists, radiobiologists, and emergency coordinators is prepared around-the-clock to provide assistance on either the local, national, or international level.

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