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Radiation Basics

We live in a world surrounded by radiation. About half of the radiation the average person receives is naturally occurring, meaning it comes from materials in the earth, air, food and water.  Radiation has been part of our natural environment since the Earth was formed. The planet is bathed in cosmic radiation from outer space and radioactive materials naturally present in the soil, rocks, air and seawater also emit this type of energy. Radiation has been part of everyday life from the very beginning of human civilization.

The other half of radiation comes from man-made sources, such as in medical and dental procedures in the form of X-Rays or CT scans. Nuclear technologies are used in one out of every three medical and diagnostic tests every year, and patients are protected from the negative impacts of radiation while benefiting from non-invasive procedures. It’s a net benefit to our health.

For instance, in nuclear medicine, medical professionals inject a tiny amount of a radioisotope—a chemical element that produces radiation—into a patient’s body. A specific organ picks up the radioisotope, enabling a special camera to take a detailed picture of how that organ is functioning. For example:

  • Bone scans can detect the spread of cancer six to 18 months earlier than X-rays.
  • Kidney scans are much more sensitive than X-rays or ultrasounds in fully evaluating kidney function.

Hospitals also use radiation to sterilize materials, thus helping to prevent the spread of diseases. Exposing these materials to radiation does not make them radioactive.

It’s important to understand that we live in a radioactive world—even our own bodies are radioactive.

The following examples demonstrate just how we live in a world of low-level radiation for which the possible health consequences are of little concern.

Source: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

NEI’s fact sheet, “Radiation in Perspective,” compares the radiation doses Americans might receive from natural background radiation or from medical procedures, to the types that could be present during an emergency situation at a nuclear energy facility.

Nuclear Energy Institute’s Janet Schlueter, director of fuels and materials licensees, discusses natural, safe forms of nuclear radiation and detection.

Activity ID: 1002943 Activity Name: NEI Remarketing Safety Activity Group Name: Remarketing Safety First