Cosmogenic Radionuclides

Cosmogenic radionuclides are radionuclides generated by the nuclear reactions during the interaction between high-energy cosmic rays and stable nuclei from the atmosphere. One of the well-known cosmogenic radionuclides is carbon-14, which is generated by the reaction 14N(n,p)14C. The other isotopes generated are as follows: 3H, 7Be, 22Na. Most of cosmogenic radionuclides are products of (n,p), (p,n) and especially spallation reactions. These nuclear reactions are very fast and occur in a time comparable to the time of transit of an incident particle across the nucleus (~10-22 s). The very short interaction time allows for an interaction of a single nucleon only (in extreme cases). These reactions are known as direct nuclear reactions.


The only cosmogenic radionuclide to make a significant contribution to internal exposure of human is carbon-14. Radioactive carbon-14 has a half-life of 5730 years and undergoes β− decay, where the neutron is converted into a proton, an electron, and an electron antineutrino:

beta decay
Beta decay of C-14 nucleus.

In spite of this short half-life compared to the age of the earth, carbon-14 is a naturally occurring isotope. Its presence can be explained by the following simple observation. Our atmosphere contains many gases, including nitrogen-14. Besides, the atmosphere is constantly bombarded with high energy cosmic rays, consisting of protons, heavier nuclei, or gamma rays. These cosmic rays interact with nuclei in the atmosphere, and produce also high-energy neutrons. These neutrons produced in these collisions can be absorbed by nitrogen-14 to produce an isotope of carbon-14:

carbon-14 dating - formation

Carbon-14 can also be produced in the atmosphere by other neutron reactions, including in particular 13C(n,γ)14C and 17O(n,α)14C. As a result, carbon-14 is continuously formed in the upper atmosphere by the interaction of cosmic rays with atmospheric nitrogen. On average just one out of every 1.3 x 1012 carbon atoms in the atmosphere is a radioactive carbon-14 atom. As a result, all living biological substances contain the same amount of C-14 per gram of carbon, that is 0.3 Bq of carbon-14 activity per gram of carbon. Carbon-14 is present in the human body (13kg of carbon in 70kg human) at a level of about 3700 Bq (0.1 μCi) with a biological half-life of 40 days. Note that, 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.  However, a carbon atom is in the genetic information of about half the cells, while potassium is not a component of DNA. The decay of a carbon-14 atom inside DNA in one person happens about 50 times per second, changing a carbon atom to one of nitrogen.

The annual dose from carbon-14 is estimated to be about 12 μSv/year.

As long as the biological system is alive the level is constant due to constant intake of all isotopes of carbon. When the biological system dies, it stops exchanging carbon with its environment, and from that point onwards the amount of carbon-14 it contains begins to decrease as the carbon-14 undergoes radioactive decay.

See also: Carbon-14 Dating


Tritium is the only naturally-occurring radioisotope of hydrogen. Its atomic number is naturally 1 which means there is 1 proton and 1 electron in the atomic structure. Unlike the hydrogen nucleus and deuterium nucleus, tritium has 2 neutrons in the nucleus. Tritium is naturally-occurring, but it is extremely rare.

Tritium is produced in the atmosphere when cosmic rays collide with air molecules. In the most important reaction for natural production, a fast neutron (which must have energy greater than 4.0 MeV) interacts with atmospheric nitrogen:

Worldwide, the production of tritium from natural sources is 148 petabecquerels per year. In result, the tritiated water produced participates in the water cycle.

  • about 400 Bq/m3 in continental water
  • about 100 Bq/m3 in oceans

Tritium is a radioactive isotope, but it emits a very weak form of radiation, a low-energy beta particle that is similar to an electron. It is a pure beta emitter (i.e. beta emitter without an accompanying gamma radiation). The electron’s kinetic energy varies, with an average of 5.7 keV, while the remaining energy is carried off by the nearly undetectable electron antineutrino. Such a very low energy of electron causes, that the electron cannot penetrate the skin or even does not travel very far in air. Beta particles from tritium can penetrate only about 6.0 mm of air. Tritium decays via negative beta decay into helium-3 with half-life of 12.3 years.

Decay of TritiumTherefore, tritium 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. An average annual dose from natural tritium intake is 0.01 μSv.

In case of artificial tritium ingestion or inhalation, 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. It was also shown that the biological half-time of HTO depends strongly on many variables and varies from about 4 to 18 days. During the warmer months, the average half-life is lower, which is attributed to increased water intake. As well as, drinking larger amounts of alcohol will reduce the biological half-life of water in the body.


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.
  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: