United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission - Protecting People and the Environment

The Regulation and Use of Radioisotopes in Today's World (NUREG/BR-0217, Revision 1)

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Publication Information

Date Published: April 2000

Office of Public Affairs
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Washington, DC 20555-0001

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Introduction

More than 100 years ago, scientists discovered that many elements commonly found on Earth occur in different atomic configurations. These varying configurations, called isotopes, were found to have identical electronically charged particles and identical chemical properties but different atomic weights and physical properties.

It was soon discovered that some isotopes of elements were radioactive. The dense central portion (called the nucleus) of an atom of the element emits energy in several different forms. Radioisotopes are simply atoms with nuclei that are seeking a more stable nuclear configuration by emitting radiation. Scientists have learned that more radioisotopes could be created by subjecting certain elements to radiation inside a nuclear reactor or bombarding them using a particle accelerator.

Gradually we have learned to harness these radioisotopes for use in our modern, high-tech world. In this brochure are described some of the most common uses for radioisotopes, as well as the relative benefits and hazards involved in their applications. The appendix at the end of this brochure describes various uses of radioisotopes in this country.

Also explained are the properties of radiation that enable it to change the physical characteristics of certain materials. Because they emit tell-tale ionizing radiation, extremely small quantities of radioisotopes can be traced and measured using special equipment. This property makes them a useful diagnostic tool in medicine. The radiation from some radioisotopes can penetrate thick metal parts and provide a way to “see” inside objects that are impenetrable to light. Radiation deposits sufficient energy in human tissue to disrupt normal cell function as it passes through, thus providing a unique method of attacking and destroying cancerous cells and tumors. Radiation can also be used to kill bacteria and germs that contaminate medical instruments and some foodstuffs.

Finally, this brochure describes the responsibilities of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), some other Federal agencies, and the States, in regulating the manufacture, use, and possession of radioactive materials.

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