The last time radiation garnered such public attention was in the 1950’s. The Cold War was in full swing, and many today still remember the ‘Duck & Cover’ drills. The Cold War has ended, but the legacy of radiation lives on. Horribly skewed by movies featuring giant ants, misled media, and activists bent on the impossible task of banishing all radioactive products, the basic science of radiation has been changed into part evil fairy tale, part urban legend.
Legends and fairy tales are perfectly acceptable when you are tucking children in at night; when you rely on them to formulate how best to save lives, it is negligent at best, malfeasant and unnecessarily life-threatening at worst.
Because there is so much misinformation floating around, some of it finding its way into Policy and Procedure, I am writing this for you, the Police Officer. I promise to keep it as untechnical as possible, because you don’t need to know advanced nuclear physics to keep yourself safe. I promise to keep it as straightforward as possible, because complicated is for Federal policymakers. ;) And, lastly, I promise to make this as accurate as possible, because it's you, the point of the Homeland Security spear, that will be the first one to arrive. You deserve to know the truth.
I don’t expect everyone to accept every word I say. For that reason, I will give you at the end several sources that you can use to check my work. And, so that you understand why I can tell you what I’m telling you with any sort of authority, I’ll begin by giving you a little of my history.
I have held an interest in radiological operations nearly as long as my interest in Law Enforcement. I began at age twelve or so, giving lectures and demonstrations involving nuclear theory, reactor operation, and atomic physics at the AmericanMuseum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. From there, I have taken nearly every course available at the State and Federal Emergency Management level on radiological emergency response. I was one of the last shelter monitors, and one of the last Aerial Radiological Monitors. I currently am DoE certified as a Radiation Controls Technician, and Tennessee State-recognized as a Hazardous Materials Technician. And, since leaving Law Enforcement and becoming a LEO consultant, author, and instructor, I am bidding on work at the Oak Ridge Reservation regarding characterization and safety in radiologically contaminated areas. I will shortly be putting my training and opinions where my mouth is. In return for this series of articles, I have not accepted, nor requested, any compensation from any entity remotely related to radiation, pro or con. These thoughts are my own, but you will find them shared by a great many others.
Having tooted my horn enough, let's begin.
The biggest hurdle I always have when talking about radiation to anyone is convincing them that radiation isn’t necessarily harmful. This flies contrary to what everyone knows or "should" know from the time they are little. Yes, I have seen the movies. Yes, I know people who’ve died that worked at nuclear facilities. No, I still don’t buy that anything but the smallest minority of incidents involving radiological products will kill you or me.
The question is simple, but the answer is complicated. To understand it, let me give you some of the real deal on radiation.
Radiation is basically nothing more than a kind of energy, and there are two major forms of it; non-ionizing and ionizing. Both are radiation, but only one has the true potential to directly kill you. You are surrounded by non-ionizing radiation every day: Your portable radio emits Radio Frequency radiation. Your heater emits thermal radiation. The sun gives off solar radiation. Your microwave oven uses a form of radio frequency (RF) radiation called microwaves to heat your food. All of these could eventually kill you, but over a long period of time and only by the secondary effects they would cause.
The only type of radiation that can kill you by direct effect is called ionizing radiation. There are only a few forms of ionizing radiation, basically: alpha, beta, gamma, neutron, and X-ray.
With the exception of X-rays and neutrons, which can equally be made both by man and nature, alpha, beta and gamma radiation are overwhelmingly made from natural sources. That’s right; radiation existed long before the time of our nuclear weapons program, or even Madame Curie.
Prior to any human development of radiological products, you could take a sensor and find tiny amounts of ionizing radiation coming from just about everything. Like today, there are radioactive products naturally in the soil, in building materials, even food. The truth is, since the world began its’ journey into the Nuclear Age, the amount of man-made contamination (which is radioactive products where we don’t want them) hasn’t significantly contributed to the amount of background (which is naturally occurring) radiation.
In fact, independent authorities have concluded that of the total amount of radiation we are all exposed to each year, only about 1% is the result of man-made contamination. I believe this, because if it were higher, other independent authorities would have already also determined it, and there would be a well-publicized outcry over the difference in the numbers. There’s not. Besides, the totalled output of every nations’ nuclear program pales in size to the size of the Earth and the stars, which is where most radioactive products originate.
So, as you patrol with a radiation detector, if you hear clicks or beeps, be reassured. If you don’t occasionally hear a click or beep, there is something wrong with your detector.
The reason that no one can give a national, standardized definition for a background radiation rate is that it varies widely by location. High – altitude locations generally have higher background rates, due to cosmic radiation. Locations with large deposits of minerals will also have higher readings.
The same reasoning applies to locations within the location. Let's say that on one wintery morning, you wave your detector around the parking lot of your police station, and get a base reading of a click or two a minute. You respond to a call at your judicial center. Inside the building, you are getting several clicks a minute. Trouble?
Not necessarily. The salt used to melt the snow from the steps, and subsequently carried inside, has naturally radioactive products in it. The pretty stonework, the statue of Justice, all naturally have radioactive products emitting radiation from them. The guy watching you quizzically may have had an internal Nuclear Medicine procedure a few days ago.
So, while I’m not telling you to disregard all fluctuations of your detector, I am telling you that there are many, many reasons besides a WMD for the change. I’m also telling you that you should familiarize yourself with areas you may respond to, so that you know beforehand what kinds of changes in background to expect.
Now that we’ve talked about where ionizing radiation comes from, let's talk about the damage it can do. There are strong parallels between the types of radiation and ammunition, so I’ll use them for an analogy.
Alpha radiation is the .25 auto of the ionizing radiation world. While there are specific circumstances where both can be eventually deadly, in general, neither should be a priority in your threat matrix.
Beta is akin to the old round nose lead .38 bank guard bullet. While Alpha radiation doesn’t have the ‘oomph’ to penetrate a single sheet of paper, most beta radiation won’t penetrate further than the outer layer of your skin.
Gamma and X-rays are like the .223 Ball round. They are very fast and energetic, and penetrate very deeply.
Neutrons are very much the 00 buck round of the radiation field. Where Alpha and Beta barely make it into the backstop, and Gamma and X-rays make neat little pinpoints, Neutrons make ugly, ragged holes.
Well, if Alpha and Beta don’t penetrate well at all, why are they listed as potentially injurious to us? The issue is called internal versus external exposure. Gamma, X-ray and Neutron exposure can be cause for pause no matter where its’ found. Alpha and Beta, on the other hand, only are an issue when we get them inside us. (Beta can also sometimes be an issue to your eyes, but you should be wearing eye protection, which will stop Beta, anyway.)
There are a lot if ifs here, but if Alpha or Beta – producing radioactive products get inside us, if they then lodge in certain places, and if they stay permanently in a large enough amount, THEN, they can damage our newly-forming cells. Over a period of years, this can add up in the form of a cancer or immune disease.
The flip side of this is in cancer therapy. Small pellets of radiological products called ‘seeds´ are often implanted in the cancerous areas to provide a constant source of radiation that kills off the cancerous tissue, but leaves tissue just an inch or two away unharmed.
So, there you have it. Most radiation is natural, and can be found all around us. We eat, drink, and play in it every day without ill effect. There are different types of radiation, but only a slim few can directly injure us. Of the ones that can cause injury, only one or two can cause injury externally.
In the next installment, we’ll take this a step further, and explore what yardsticks are used in measuring radiation.
In the last two installments, we’ll take this knowledge, and learn how to apply them to incidents we may run across.