Ionizing radiation safety, i.e. radiation protection, is the science and practice of protecting people and the environment from the harmful effects of ionizing radiation. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) defines radiation protection as:
“The protection of people from harmful effects of exposure to ionizing radiation, and the means for achieving this”
It is a serious topic not only in nuclear power plants, but also in industry or in medical centres. According to the IAEA, radiation protection can be divided into three groups:
- occupational radiation protection, which is the protection of workers in situations where their exposure is directly related to or required by their work
- medical radiation protection, which is the protection of patients exposed to radiation as part of their diagnosis or treatment
- public radiation protection, which is the protection of individual members of the public and of the population in general
According to the ICRP (Publication 103), the System of Radiological Protection is based on the following three principles:
- Justification. “Any decision that alters the radiation exposure situation should do more good than harm.”
- Optimisation of Protection. “Doses should all be kept as low as reasonably achievable, taking into account economic and societal factors.” (known as ALARA or ALARP)
- Dose Limitation. “The total dose to any individual … should not exceed the appropriate limits.”
See also: ICRP, 2007. The 2007 Recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection. ICRP Publication 103. Ann. ICRP 37 (2-4).
Ionizing radiation is any radiation (particles or electromagnetic waves) that carries enough energy to knock electrons from atoms or molecules, thereby ionizing them. For ionizing radiation, the kinetic energy of particles (photons, electrons, etc.) is sufficient and the particle can ionize (to form ion by losing electrons) target atoms to form ions.
The boundary between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation is not sharply defined, since different molecules and atoms ionize at different energies. This is typical for electromagnetic waves. Among electromagnetic waves belong, in order of increasing frequency (energy) and decreasing wavelength: radio waves, microwaves, infrared radiation, visible light, ultraviolet radiation, X-rays and gamma rays. Gamma rays, X-rays, and the higher ultraviolet part of the spectrum are ionizing, whereas the lower ultraviolet, visible light (including laser light), infrared, microwaves, and radio waves are considered non-ionizing radiation.
All biological damage effects begin with the consequence of radiation interactions with the atoms forming the cells. All living things are composed of one or more cells. Every part of your body consists of cells or was built by them. Although we tend to think of biological effects in terms of the effect of radiation on living cells, in actuality, ionizing radiation, by definition, interacts only with atoms by a process called ionization.
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 the radiation and a molecule and there are usually many such interactions.