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Radioactivity & Radiation

Radioactivity refers to the property of spontaneous emission of particles or electromagnetic radiation exhibited by certain materials.  This radiation is emitted by unstable atoms as they undergo a transition to a more stable state; the transition is called radioactive decay.  Unstable atoms that exist in nature are said to be naturally radioactive.  Examples of radioactive atoms found in nature are carbon-14, potassium-42, radon-222, uranium-235, uranium-238 and thorium-232.  In addition to naturally occurring radioactive materials, radioactive atoms can be produced when the nucleus of an atom is made to interact with a particle or electromagnetic radiation to form an unstable nucleus; this is typically done in nuclear reactors and particle accelerators. As radioactive atoms go through the transition to a stable state they emit radiation in several forms:

  • charged particles (alpha particles, beta particles and positrons)
  • uncharged particles (neutrons)
  • electromagnetic radiation (gamma rays and x-rays)

Radiation is released naturally from the ground and atmosphere in all places on Earth. This ‘natural background’ radiation, which varies considerably from region to region, is part of the environment to which all human beings are conditioned.

Like many things, radiation can be both beneficial and harmful. Large doses are dangerous. Abundant evidence indicates that small doses are harmless.

The radiation produced within the core of nuclear reactors is similar to natural radiation but more intense. At nuclear power plants, protective shielding isolates this radiation, allowing millions of people to live safely nearby.

Typically, the radiation people receive comes 90% from nature and 10% from medical exposures. Radiation exposure from nuclear power is negligible.

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