Ionizing Radiation

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Unlike fossil fuel combustion that produces toxic air pollutants, carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases, nuclear energy is clean and produces no such contaminants. Nuclear energy, however, generates other products that pose far greater threats to the environment if not handled properly. The radiation released during the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, and the much greater catastrophic Chernobyl accident in 1986, catalyzed a major debate about the safety of nuclear reactors. The buildup of nuclear arsenals (primarily by the United States and Russia and, to a lesser extent, by China, France, England, Pakistan, India, Israel, and now North Korea), the threat of terrorism on nuclear stockpiles, and the issues related to storage of nuclear wastes have all raised concerns about the environmental aspects of nuclear energy and radiation. In this chapter, we will examine various sources of radiation, their effect on health, and the consequences of nuclear energy in times of war and peace.


Ionizing Radiation

All forms of radiation can be categorized into two types: ionizing and non-ionizing. Ionizing radiation has enough energy to eject electrons from atoms and produce positively charged ions. Materials capable of emitting ionizing radiation are radioactive. Cosmic rays, gamma rays, x-rays, and high-energy UV lights are examples of ionizing radiation. Visible, infrared (heat), microwave, and radio waves do not have sufficient energy to cause ionization and thus are called non-ionizing radiation. Non-ionizing radiation was covered earlier and will not be discussed any further.

Our body is largely transparent to both low-energy radar and high-energy x-rays and gamma radiations, but readily absorbs visible and infrared. Although visible and infrared absorptions are quite harmless, even small amounts of x-ray and gamma ray absorption can harm our bodies.


(1) Toossi Reza, "Energy and the Environment:Sources, technologies, and impacts", Verve Publishers, 2005

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