Ohio State University Factsheet

What Processes Use Radioactive Materials?

RER-11

Audeen W. Fentiman
Matthew E. Jorat
Joyce E. Meredith

Radioactive materials are used in many products and processes that affect our daily lives. Their most familiar use is as the fuel in a nuclear power plant. Many consumer products also either contain radioactive materials or are manufactured by processes that use radioactive materials. Radioactive materials are commonly used in both the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Research in agriculture, medicine, environmental science, geology, chemistry, and many other fields is often conducted using radioactive materials. All these activities have the potential to create low-level radioactive waste. This fact sheet describes some of the products and processes that involve radioactive materials.

Power Generation

Nuclear power plants produce approximately 20 percent of the electricity used in the United States. Radioactive materials also generate much smaller amounts of power for use in remote locations. Some remote weather stations, navigational buoys in the oceans, spacecraft that travel beyond our solar system, and heart pacemakers are powered by radioactive materials.

Consumer Products and Industrial Processes

Very small amounts of radioactive materials are components of some consumer products. For example, radioactive Americium-241 is a key component of some types of smoke detectors. Polonium-210 is a radioactive material used to prevent the buildup of static electricity in some photocopiers, thus helping prevent paper jams.

More frequently, radioactive materials are involved in the production of consumer goods. Radiation is used to kill bacteria and sterilize a number of products including baby powder, cosmetics, medical supplies, and contact lens solution. No chemicals are added to products when they are sterilized using radiation. Sterilization by radiation can be performed after products have been sealed in packaging.

Irradiation is an alternative in the processing and sterilization of some foods. Exposing foods like strawberries, onions, potatoes, and spices to radiation destroys molds and other microorganisms that can cause spoilage. Radiation also kills insects in grains. The nutritional value of the food is maintained, and the food does not become radioactive -- just as a person doesn't become radioactive when teeth are x-rayed.

Industry frequently uses radiation for measurement and testing. For example, a source of radiation can be used to measure the thickness of paper during its production. In this process, a radiation source (radioactive material) is located on one side of the paper, and a radiation detection device is located on the other side (see Figure 1). Thick paper blocks more radiation than thin paper. If the detector gets too much radiation, or too little, the operator knows the thickness is not correct and can adjust the paper manufacturing equipment. A similar detection system can be used to check the thickness of other materials such as sheet metal or padding in disposable diapers, or to determine the height of liquids in beverage containers. Radiation also is used for the curing of inks and coatings, and for pipeline, weld, and metal corrosion analysis.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Using Radiation to Control Paper Thickness

Medical Uses

During the past several years, nuclear medicine has played an ever-expanding role in the health care system. Many hospitals in the United States now include nuclear medicine in their radiology sections. Radiology, the science of using radiation and radioactive materials for diagnosis and treatment of disease, makes possible early diagnosis of many diseases, in some cases even before symptoms appear. This can reduce or eliminate the need for exploratory surgery.

Laboratory procedures utilize radioactive chemicals that react with samples of a patient's body fluids, while the patient receives no radiation at all. These procedures are used to determine hormone levels, detect cancer, and analyze blood and urine samples.

Scanning or imaging can be done by injecting the patient with radioactive substances that are then monitored in the body by special radiation detectors. The technique is used to detect abnormalities in bone and body organs. Radioisotope therapy uses radiation to treat disease, primarily cancer. Radiopharmaceuticals, or radioactive drugs, which collect in tumors, are administered to the patient. The radioactivity in the drugs works to destroy the tumor but usually does not damage healthy organs because the drugs do not attach as well to normal tissue.

Research

Research facilities use radioactive materials in the development of new products and in scientific research studies. For example, the use of radioactive materials aids in the development of new medicines. In agricultural research, radiation is used for insect control, development of disease-resistant plants, and the production of fertilizers.

Environmental scientists employ small amounts of radioactive materials to trace the movement of chemical contaminants through water and soil. Geologists use the naturally occurring radioactive materials in the earth to determine the age of rock formations and to study continental drift. Archaeologists can determine the age of some artifacts using carbon dating, a process that uses the naturally occurring radioactive element Carbon-14.

For More Information

If you want to read more about the uses of radioactive materials, some of the references listed below may be helpful.

Edward L. Gershey, Low-Level Radioactive Waste: From Cradle to Grave, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1990.

Michael E. Burns, ed., Low-Level Radioactive Waste Regulation: Science, Politics and Fear, Lewis Publishers, Inc., Chelsea, Michigan, 1988.

Radioactivity in Consumer Products, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Office of Interdisciplinary Programs.

Raymond L. Murray, Understanding Radioactive Waste, Battelle Press, Columbus, Ohio, 1989.

Author Notes:

Dr. Audeen W. Fentiman is an Assistant Professor in Nuclear Engineering at The Ohio State University. Matthew E. Jorat is a Graduate Research Associate in Nuclear Engineering. Joyce E. Meredith is a Graduate Research Associate, Ohio State University Extension


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