From X-Rays to Reactors: A Journey into the World of Nuclear Radiation

In this article, we will explore the various aspects of ionizing radiation, from its medical applications to its role in energy production. Join us as we delve into the science behind medical X-rays, the different types of radiation, their measurement techniques, and the benefits they offer. We will also discuss the difference between radioactivity and radiation, types of radioactive decay, and the importance of standards and regulations in ensuring radiation safety.

What are Medical X-Rays?

Medical X-rays are a widely used diagnostic tool in the field of medicine. They are a form of electromagnetic radiation that allows healthcare professionals to visualise the internal structures of the human body. By passing X-rays through the body, an image is created that helps in the detection and diagnosis of various medical conditions.

How do Medical X-Rays Work?

Medical X-rays work on the principle of attenuation, which means that different tissues in the body absorb Xrays to varying degrees. When X-rays pass through the body, they are absorbed by dense structures such as bones, resulting in a reduced amount of X rays reaching the film or detector. This difference in X-ray absorption creates the contrast necessary to generate an image, revealing the internal structures of the body.

Given X-rays can be stopped by dense material such as bone, this same principle is applied to prevent X-rays from going where they shouldn’t be; out of the X-ray room. Lead metal is an effective attenuator given its naturally dense nature whilst remaining easily malleable in thin sheets. For this reason, Raybloc supplies and installs lead-lined plasterboard and plywood to line rooms and prevent Xrays from escaping.

Medical X-Rays

What is Nuclear Radiation?

Nuclear radiation refers to the energy emitted from the nucleus of an atom during various processes such as radioactive decay, nuclear reactions, or nuclear fission. It can take the form of particles or electromagnetic waves such as X-rays and Gamma rays. This radiation is a result of the instability of certain atomic nuclei, which strive to attain a more stable state and is known as ionising radiation due to how it reacts with other molecules.

Types of Ionising Radiation

There are three primary types of ionizing radiation: alpha particles (α), beta particles (β), and gamma rays (γ). Alpha particles consist of two protons and two neutrons and are relatively large and heavy. Beta particles are high-energy electrons or positrons. Gamma rays are electromagnetic waves with high energy and no mass.

Measuring Radiation

Nuclear radiation is measured using various devices such as Geiger-Muller counters, scintillation detectors, and dosimeters. These instruments detect and quantify the amount of radiation present in a given environment.

The unit used to measure radiation exposure is the Sievert (Sv) or the Gray (Gy), which represent the absorbed dose and the equivalent dose, respectively. Radiation Protection Advisors (RPAs) will use tools such as these to ensure that radiation-shielding products are serving their purpose as intended.

What is Nuclear Radiation Good For?

Radiation has numerous applications that benefit society. It plays a crucial role in medical diagnostics and treatment, energy generation through nuclear power plants, industrial applications like radiography and sterilisation, and scientific research.

Medical Uses of Ionizing Radiation

In medicine, radiation is utilised for various purposes. Nuclear medicine involves the use of radioactive substances called radiopharmaceuticals to diagnose and treat diseases. It helps in imaging specific organs and tissues, evaluating organ function, and delivering targeted radiation therapy to treat cancer.

Benefits of Nuclear Medicine

Nuclear medicine offers several advantages over traditional diagnostic techniques. It provides detailed images of organ structure and function, helps diagnose diseases at an early stage, assists in the selection of appropriate treatments, and aids in monitoring treatment effectiveness and disease progression.

What is the difference between radioactivity and radiation?

Radioactivity refers to the spontaneous emission of radiation by unstable atomic nuclei. It is a property of certain elements or isotopes. On the other hand, radiation refers to the emission and propagation of energy in the form of particles or waves, which can arise from various sources, including radioactivity.

Types of Radioactivity

Non-Ionising Radiation

Non-ionizing radiation refers to low-energy radiation that does not have enough energy to remove electrons from atoms or molecules. Examples include radio waves, microwaves, and visible light.

Ionising Radiation

Ionising radiation, on the other hand, possesses enough energy to remove electrons from atoms or molecules, resulting in the formation of ions. This category includes alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma radiation.

Types of Radioactive Decay

Alpha Particles (α)

Alpha particles consist of two protons and two neutrons and are relatively large and heavy. They are positively charged and have limited penetration power. They can be stopped by a sheet of paper or a few centimetres of air. Alpha decay occurs when an atomic nucleus emits an alpha particle, resulting in the reduction of its atomic number by two and mass number by four.

Beta Particles (β)

Beta radiation consists of high-energy electrons or positrons emitted from the nucleus of an atom. They have greater penetration power compared to alpha particles and can be stopped by a few millimetres of aluminium or plastic. Beta decay occurs when an atomic nucleus undergoes a transformation, leading to the emission of a beta particle, resulting in a change in the atomic number.

Gamma-Rays (γ)

Gamma rays are electromagnetic waves with high energy and no mass. They have the highest penetration power and require several centimetres of lead or concrete to attenuate their intensity. Gamma rays are emitted during radioactive decay or nuclear reactions and can be produced through other processes like particle interactions.

Unlike X-rays, Gamma radiation often requires more lead than what can be mounted on plasterboard or plywood due to weight concerns. For this reason, lead chevron bricks are used as an alternative to leaded boards to create a dense wall that attenuates the radiation.

Lead Chevron Bricks

Standards and Regulation of Radiation Exposure

To ensure the safe use of nuclear radiation, standards and regulations are in place. Organisations like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and national regulatory bodies set guidelines and limits on radiation exposure for workers and the general public. These standards include dose limits, safety precautions, and quality assurance measures to minimise the risks associated with radiation.

Final Thoughts

Radiation has revolutionised various fields, including medicine, energy, and scientific research. Its applications have significantly contributed to improving healthcare, generating clean and efficient energy, and advancing our understanding of the universe. However, it is essential to balance the benefits with appropriate safety measures to protect both individuals and the environment.


What exactly does nuclear radiation do?

Nuclear radiation can have different effects depending on the type and dose of radiation. It can ionise atoms and molecules, damage DNA, and cause biological effects such as radiation sickness, cancer, or genetic mutations.

How does nuclear radiation harm humans?

Radiation can harm humans by damaging cells and tissues in the body. High doses of radiation can cause acute radiation syndrome, which may result in symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, hair loss, and even death. Prolonged exposure to radiation can increase the risk of cancer and other long-term health effects.

How long does nuclear radiation last?

The duration of radiation depends on the type of radiation and the specific radioactive material involved. Some radioactive isotopes decay quickly and may no longer be a significant source of radiation within minutes or days, while others may take years or even thousands of years to decay completely. The amount of time it takes for half of the radioactive material to decay is known as the half-life of the atom.

Which part of the body is first to be affected by nuclear radiation?

The part of the body first affected by ionizing radiation depends on the type and dose of radiation received. Highly sensitive organs such as the bone marrow, gastrointestinal tract, and skin are typically the first to be affected by high doses of radiation. However, the specific effects can vary based on the radiation source and exposure circumstances.

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Lead Lined Wall Panelling

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