Internal Exposure – Internal Contamination

ionizing radiation - hazard symbol
ionizing radiation – hazard symbol

If the source of radiation is inside our body, we say, it is internal exposure. The intake of radioactive material can occur through various pathways such as ingestion of radioactive contamination in food or liquids. Protection from internal exposure is more complicated. Most radionuclides will give you much more radiation dose if they can somehow enter your body, than they would if they remained outside.

As was written, it is crucial, whether we are exposed to radiation from external sources or from internal sources. This is similar as for another dangerous substances. Internal exposure is more dangerous than external exposure, since we are carrying the source of radiation inside our bodies and we cannot use any of radiation protection principles (time, distance, shielding). The intake of radioactive material can occur through various pathways such as ingestion of radioactive contamination in food or liquids, inhalation of radioactive gases, or through intact or wounded skin. On this place, we have to distinguish between radiation and contamination. Radioactive contamination consist of radioactive material, that generate ionizing radiation. It is the source of radiation, not radiation itself. Anytime that radioactive material is not in a sealed radioactive source container and might be spread onto other objects, radioactive contamination is a possibility. For example, radioiodine, iodine-131, is an important radioisotope of iodine. Radioiodine plays a major role as a radioactive isotope present in nuclear fission products, and it is a major contributor to the health hazards when released into the atmosphere during an accident. Iodine-131 has a half-life of 8.02 days. The target tissue for radioiodine exposure is the thyroid gland. The external beta and gamma dose from radioiodine present in the air is quite negligible when compared to the committed dose to the thyroid that would result from breathing this air.

Internal Dose Uptake

If the source of radiation is inside our body, we say, it is internal exposure. The intake of radioactive material can occur through various pathways such as ingestion of radioactive contamination in food or liquids, inhalation of radioactive gases, or through intact or wounded skin. Most radionuclides will give you much more radiation dose if they can somehow enter your body, than they would if they remained outside. For internal doses, we first should distinguish between intake and uptake. Intake means what a person takes in. Uptake means what a person keeps.

When a radioactive compound enters the body, the activity will decrease with time, due both to radioactive decay and to biological clearance. The decrease varies from one radioactive compound to another. For this purpose, the biological half-life is defined in radiation protection.

The biological half-life is the time taken for the amount of a particular element in the body to decrease to half of its initial value due to elimination by biological processes alone, when the rate of removal is roughly exponential. The biological half-life depends on the rate at which the body normally uses a particular compound of an element. Radioactive isotopes that were ingested or taken in through other pathways will gradually be removed from the body via bowels, kidneys, respiration and perspiration. This means that a radioactive substance can be expelled before it has had the chance to decay.

As a result, the biological half-life significantly influences the effective half-life and the overall dose from internal contamination. If a radioactive compound with radioactive half-life (t1/2) is cleared from the body with a biological half-life tb, the effective half-life (te) is given by the expression:

As can be seen, the biological mechanisms always decreases the overall dose from internal contamination.  Moreover, if t1/2 is large in comparison to tb, the effective half-life is approximately the same as tb.

For example, tritium has the biological half-life about 10 days, while the radioactive half-life is about 12 years. On the other hand, radionuclides with very short radioactive half-lives have also very short effective half-lives. These radionuclides will deliver, for all practical purposes, the total radiation dose within the first few days or weeks after intake.

For tritium, the annual limit on intake (ALI) is 1 x 109 Bq. If you take in 1 x 109 Bq of tritium, you will receive a whole-body dose of 20 mSv. The committed effective dose, E(t), is therefore 20 mSv. It does not depend whether a person intakes this amount of activity in a short time or in a long time. In every case, this person gets the same whole-body dose of 20 mSv.

Contamination versus Radiation

Radioactive contamination consist of radioactive material, that generate ionizing radiation. It is the source of radiation, not radiation itself. Anytime that radioactive material is not in a sealed radioactive source container and might be spread onto other objects, radioactive contamination is a possibility. Radioactive contamination may be characterized by following points:

  • Radioactive contamination consist of radioactive material (contaminants), that may be solid, liquid or gaseous. Large contaminants can be even visible, but you cannot see radiation produced.
  • When released, contaminants can be spread by air, water or just by mechanical contact.
  • We cannot shield contamination.
  • We can mitigate contamination by protecting integrity of barriers (source container, fuel cladding, reactor vesselcontainment building)
  • Since contaminants interact chemically, they may be contained within objects such as the human body.
  • We can rid of contamination by many mechanical, chemical (decontaminate surfaces), or biological processes (biological half-life).
  • It is of the highest importance, which material is the radioactive contaminant (half-life, mode of decay, energy).

Ionizing radiation is formed by high-energy particles (photonselectrons, etc.), that can penetrate matter and ionize (to form ion by losing electrons) target atoms to form ions. Radiation exposure is the consequence of the presence nearby the source of radiation. Radiation exposure as a quantity is defined as a measure of the ionization of material due to ionizing radiation. The danger of ionizing radiation lies in the fact that the radiation is invisible and not directly detectable by human senses. People can neither see nor feel radiation, yet it deposits energy to the molecules of the body. The energy is transferred in small quantities for each interaction between radiation and a molecule and there are usually many such interactions. Unlike radioactive contamination, radiation may be characterized by following points:

  • Radiation consist consist of high-energy particles that can penetrate matter and ionize (to form ion by losing electrons) target atoms. Radiation is invisible, and not directly detectable by human senses. It must be noted, beta radiation is indirectly visible due to cherenkov radiation.
  • Unlike contamination, radiation cannot be spread by any medium. It travels through materials until it loses its energy. We can shield radiation (e.g. by standing around the corner).
  • Exposure to ionizing does not necessary mean, that the object becomes radioactive (except very rare neutron radiation).
  • Radiation can penetrate barriers, but sufficiently thick barrier can minimize all effects.
  • Unlike contaminants, radiation cannot interact chemically with matter and cannot be bound inside body.
  • It is not important, which material is the source of certain radiation. Only type of radiation and energy matters.

Airborne Contamination

Airborne contamination is of particular importance in nuclear power plants, where it must be monitored. Contaminants can become airborne especially during reactor top head remove, reactor refueling, and during manipulations within spent fuel pool. The air can be contaminated with radioactive isotopes especially in particulate form, which poses a particular inhalation hazard. This contamination consists of various fission and activation products that enter the air in gaseous, vapour or particulate form. There are four types of airborne contamination in nuclear power plants, namely:

  • Particulates. Particulate activity is an internal hazard, because it can be inhaled. Transportable particulate material taken into the respiratory system will enter the blood stream and be carried to all parts of the body. Non-transportable particulates will stay in the lungs with a certain biological half-life. For example, Sr-90, Ra-226 and Pu-239 are radionuclides known as bone-seeking radionuclides. These radionuclides have long biological half-lives and are serious internal hazards. Once deposited in bone, they remain there essentially unchanged in amount during the lifetime of the individual. The continued action of the emitted alpha particles can cause significant injury: over many years they deposit all their energy in a tiny volume of tissue, because the range of the alpha particles is very short.
  • Noble gases. Radioactive noble gases, such as xenon-133, xenon-135 and  krypton-85 are present in reactor coolant especially when fuel leakages are present. As they appear in coolant, they become airborne and they can be inhaled. They are exhaled right after they are inhaled, because the body does not react chemically with them. If workers are working in a noble gas cloud, the external dose they will receive is about 1000 times greater than the internal dose. Because of this, we are only concerned about the external beta and gamma dose rates.
  • Iodine 131 - decay schemeRadioiodineRadioiodineiodine-131, is an important radioisotope of iodine. Radioiodine plays a major role as a radioactive isotope present in nuclear fission products, and it is a major contributor to the health hazards when released into the atmosphere during an accident. Iodine-131 has a half-life of 8.02 days. The target tissue for radioiodine exposure is the thyroid gland. The external beta and gamma dose from radioiodine present in the air is quite negligible when compared to the committed dose to the thyroid that would result from breathing this air. The biological half-life for iodine inside the human body is about 80 days (according to ICRP). Iodine in food is absorbed by the body and preferentially concentrated in the thyroid where it is needed for the functioning of that gland. When 131I is present in high levels in the environment from radioactive fallout, it can be absorbed through contaminated food, and will also accumulate in the thyroid. 131I decays with a half-life of 8.02 days with beta particle and gamma emissions. As it decays, it may cause damage to the thyroid. The primary risk from exposure to high levels of 131I is the chance occurrence of radiogenic thyroid cancer in later life. For 131I, ICRP has calculated that if you inhale 1 x 106 Bq, you will receive a thyroid dose of HT = 400 mSv (and weighted whole-body dose of 20 mSv).
  • Tritium. Tritium is a byproduct in nuclear reactors. Most important source (due to releases of tritiated water) of tritium in nuclear power plants stems from the boric acid, which is commonly used as a chemical shim to compensate an excess of initial reactivity. Note that, tritium emits low-energy beta particles with a short range in body tissues and, therefore, poses a risk to health as a result of internal exposure only following ingestion in drinking water or food, or inhalation or absorption through the skin. The tritium taken into the body is uniformly distributed among all soft tissues. According to the ICRP, a biological half-time of tritium is 10 days for HTO and 40 days for OBT (organically bound tritium) formed from HTO in the body of adults. As a result, for an intake of 1 x 109 Bq of tritium (HTO), an individual will get a whole-body dose of 20 mSv (equal to the intake of 1 x 106 Bq of 131I). While for PWRs tritium poses a minor risk to health, for heavy water reactors, it contributes significantly to collective dose of plant workers. Note that, “Air that is saturated with moderator water at 35°C can give 3 000 mSv/h of tritium to an unprotected worker (See also: J.U.Burnham. Radiation Protection). The best protection from tritium can be achieved using an air-supplied respirator. Tritium cartridge respirators protects workers only by a factor of 3. The only way to reduce the skin absorption is by wearing plastics. In PHWR power plants, workers must wear plastics for work in atmospheres containing more than 500 μSv/h.

 

References:

Radiation Protection:

  1. Knoll, Glenn F., Radiation Detection and Measurement 4th Edition, Wiley, 8/2010. ISBN-13: 978-0470131480.
  2. Stabin, Michael G., Radiation Protection and Dosimetry: An Introduction to Health Physics, Springer, 10/2010. ISBN-13: 978-1441923912.
  3. Martin, James E., Physics for Radiation Protection 3rd Edition, Wiley-VCH, 4/2013. ISBN-13: 978-3527411764.
  4. U.S.NRC, NUCLEAR REACTOR CONCEPTS
  5. U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.

Nuclear and Reactor Physics:

  1. J. R. Lamarsh, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Theory, 2nd ed., Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA (1983).
  2. J. R. Lamarsh, A. J. Baratta, Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, 3d ed., Prentice-Hall, 2001, ISBN: 0-201-82498-1.
  3. W. M. Stacey, Nuclear Reactor Physics, John Wiley & Sons, 2001, ISBN: 0- 471-39127-1.
  4. Glasstone, Sesonske. Nuclear Reactor Engineering: Reactor Systems Engineering, Springer; 4th edition, 1994, ISBN: 978-0412985317
  5. W.S.C. Williams. Nuclear and Particle Physics. Clarendon Press; 1 edition, 1991, ISBN: 978-0198520467
  6. G.R.Keepin. Physics of Nuclear Kinetics. Addison-Wesley Pub. Co; 1st edition, 1965
  7. Robert Reed Burn, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Operation, 1988.
  8. U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.
  9. Paul Reuss, Neutron Physics. EDP Sciences, 2008. ISBN: 978-2759800414.

See above:

Radiation Protection