Although scientists have only known about radiation since the 1890s, they have developed a wide variety of uses for this natural force. Today, to benefit humankind, radiation is used in medicine, academics, and industry, as well as for generating electricity. In addition, radiation has useful applications in such areas as agriculture, archaeology (carbon dating), space exploration, law enforcement, geology (including mining), and many others. For additional information, see the following topics on this page:
Hospitals, doctors, and dentists use a variety of nuclear materials and procedures to diagnose, monitor, and treat a wide assortment of metabolic processes and medical conditions in humans. In fact, diagnostic x-rays or radiation therapy have been administered to about 7 out of every 10 Americans. As a result, medical procedures using radiation have saved thousands of lives through the detection and treatment of conditions ranging from hyperthyroidism to bone cancer.
The most common of these medical procedures involve the use of x-rays — a type of radiation that can pass through our skin. When x-rayed, our bones and other structures cast shadows because they are denser than our skin, and those shadows can be detected on photographic film. The effect is similar to placing a pencil behind a piece of paper and holding the pencil and paper in front of a light. The shadow of the pencil is revealed because most light has enough energy to pass through the paper, but the denser pencil stops all the light. The difference is that x-rays are invisible, so we need photographic film to "see" them for us. This allows doctors and dentists to spot broken bones and dental problems.
X-rays and other forms of radiation also have a variety of therapeutic uses. When used in this way, they are most often intended to kill cancerous tissue, reduce the size of a tumor, or reduce pain. For example, radioactive iodine (specifically iodine-131) is frequently used to treat thyroid cancer, a disease that strikes about 11,000 Americans every year.
X-ray machines have also been connected to computers in machines called computerized axial tomography (CAT) or computed tomography (CT) scanners. These instruments provide doctors with color images that show the shapes and details of internal organs. This helps physicians locate and identify tumors, size anomalies, or other physiological or functional organ problems.
In addition, hospitals and radiology centers perform approximately 10 million nuclear medicine procedures in the United States each year. In such procedures, doctors administer slightly radioactive substances to patients, which are attracted to certain internal organs such as the pancreas, kidney, thyroid, liver, or brain, to diagnose clinical conditions.
Academic and Scientific Applications
Universities, colleges, high schools, and other academic and scientific institutions use nuclear materials in course work, laboratory demonstrations, experimental research, and a variety of health physics applications. For example, just as doctors can label substances inside people's bodies, scientists can label substances that pass through plants, animals, or our world. This allows researchers to study such things as the paths that different types of air and water pollution take through the environment. Similarly, radiation has helped us learn more about the types of soil that different plants need to grow, the sizes of newly discovered oil fields, and the tracks of ocean currents. In addition, researchers use low-energy radioactive sources in gas chromatography to identify the components of petroleum products, smog and cigarette smoke, and even complex proteins and enzymes used in medical research.
Archaeologists also use radioactive substances to determine the ages of fossils and other objects through a process called carbon dating. For example, in the upper levels of our atmosphere, cosmic rays strike nitrogen atoms and form a naturally radioactive isotope called carbon-14. Carbon is found in all living things, and a small percentage of this is carbon-14. When a plant or animal dies, it no longer takes in new carbon and the carbon-14 that it accumulated throughout its life begins the process of radioactive decay. As a result, after a few years, an old object has a lower percent of radioactivity than a newer object. By measuring this difference, archaeologists are able to determine the object's approximate age.
We could talk all day about the many and varied uses of radiation in industry and not complete the list, but a few examples illustrate the point. In irradiation, for instance, foods, medical equipment, and other substances are exposed to certain types of radiation (such as x-rays) to kill germs without harming the substance that is being disinfected — and without making it radioactive. When treated in this manner, foods take much longer to spoil, and medical equipment (such as bandages, hypodermic syringes, and surgical instruments) are sterilized without being exposed to toxic chemicals or extreme heat. As a result, where we now use chlorine — a chemical that is toxic and difficult-to-handle — we may someday use radiation to disinfect our drinking water and kill the germs in our sewage. In fact, ultraviolet light (a form of radiation) is already used to disinfect drinking water in some homes.
Similarly, radiation is used to help remove toxic pollutants, such as exhaust gases from coal-fired power stations and industry. For example, electron beam radiation can remove dangerous sulphur dioxides and nitrogen oxides from our environment. Closer to home, many of the fabrics used to make our clothing have been irradiated (treated with radiation) before being exposed to a soil-releasing or wrinkle-resistant chemical. This treatment makes the chemicals bind to the fabric, to keep our clothing fresh and wrinkle-free all day, yet our clothing does not become radioactive. Similarly, nonstick cookware is treated with gamma rays to keep food from sticking to the metal surface.
The agricultural industry makes use of radiation to improve food production and packaging. Plant seeds, for example, have been exposed to radiation to bring about new and better types of plants. Besides making plants stronger, radiation can be used to control insect populations, thereby decreasing the use of dangerous pesticides. Radioactive material is also used in gauges that measure the thickness of eggshells to screen out thin, breakable eggs before they are packaged in egg cartons. In addition, many of our foods are packaged in polyethylene shrinkwrap that has been irradiated so that it can be heated above its usual melting point and wrapped around the foods to provide an airtight protective covering.
All around us, we see reflective signs that have been treated with radioactive tritium and phosphorescent paint. Ionizing smoke detectors, using a tiny bit of americium-241, keep watch while we sleep. Gauges containing radioisotopes measure the amount of air whipped into our ice cream, while others prevent spillover as our soda bottles are carefully filled at the factory.
Engineers also use gauges containing radioactive substances to measure the thickness of paper products, fluid levels in oil and chemical tanks, and the moisture and density of soils and material at construction sites. They also use an x-ray process, called radiography, to find otherwise imperceptible defects in metallic castings and welds. Radiography is also used to check the flow of oil in sealed engines and the rate and way that various materials wear out. Well-logging devices use a radioactive source and detection equipment to identify and record formations deep within a bore hole (or well) for oil, gas, mineral, groundwater, or geological exploration. Radioactive materials also power our dreams of outer space, as they fuel our spacecraft and supply electricity to satellites that are sent on missions to the outermost regions of our solar system.
Nuclear Power Plants
Electricity produced by nuclear fission — splitting the atom — is one of the greatest uses of radiation. As our country becomes a nation of electricity users, we need a reliable, abundant, clean, and affordable source of electricity. We depend on it to give us light, to help us groom and feed ourselves, to keep our homes and businesses running, and to power the many machines we use. As a result, we use about one-third of our energy resources to produce electricity.
Electricity can be produced in many ways — using generators powered by the sun, wind, water, coal, oil, gas, or nuclear fission. In America, nuclear power plants are the second largest source of electricity (after coal-fired plants) — producing approximately 21 percent of our Nation's electricity.
The purpose of a nuclear power plant is to boil water to produce steam to power a generator to produce electricity. While nuclear power plants have many similarities to other types of plants that generate electricity, there are some significant differences. With the exception of solar, wind, and hydroelectric plants, power plants (including those that use nuclear fission) boil water to produce steam that spins the propeller-like blades of a turbine that turns the shaft of a generator. Inside the generator, coils of wire and magnetic fields interact to create electricity. In these plants, the energy needed to boil water into steam is produced either by burning coal, oil, or gas (fossil fuels) in a furnace, or by splitting atoms of uranium in a nuclear power plant. Nothing is burned or exploded in a nuclear power plant. Rather, the uranium fuel generates heat through a process called fission.
Nuclear power plants are fueled by uranium, which emits radioactive substances. Most of these substances are trapped in uranium fuel pellets or in sealed metal fuel rods. However, small amounts of these radioactive substances (mostly gases) become mixed with the water that is used to cool the reactor. Other impurities in the water are also made radioactive as they pass through the reactor. The water that passes through a reactor is processed and filtered to remove these radioactive impurities before being returned to the environment. Nonetheless, minute quantities of radioactive gases and liquids are ultimately released to the environment under controlled and monitored conditions.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has established limits for the release of radioactivity from nuclear power plants. Although the effects of very low levels of radiation are difficult to detect, the NRC's limits are based on the assumption that the public's exposure to man-made sources of radiation should be only a small fraction of the exposure that people receive from natural background sources.
Experience has shown that, during normal operations, nuclear power plants typically release only a small fraction of the radiation allowed by the NRC's established limits. In fact, a person who spends a full year at the boundary of a nuclear power plant site would receive an additional radiation exposure of less than 1 percent of the radiation that everyone receives from natural background sources. This additional exposure, totaling about 1 millirem (a unit used in measuring radiation absorption and its effects), has not been shown to cause any harm to human beings.
Page Last Reviewed/Updated Friday, March 20, 2020