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Consequences of a nuclear power plant assault
Radioactive contamination, also called radiological contamination, is the uncontrolled distribution of radioactive material in a given environment.
Surface contamination is usually expressed in units of radioactivity per unit of area. For SI, this is becquerels per square meter (or Bq/m²). Surface contamination may either be fixed or removable. In the case of fixed contamination, the radioactive material cannot by definition be spread, but it is still measurable.
In practice there is no such thing as zero radioactivity. Not only is the entire world constantly bombarded by cosmic rays, but every living creature on earth contains significant quantities of carbon-14 and most (including humans) contain significant quantities of potassium-40. These tiny levels of radiation are not any more harmful than sunlight, but just as excessive quantities of sunlight can be dangerous, so too can excessive levels of radiation.
Low level contamination
The hazards to people and the environment from radioactive contamination depend on the nature of the radioactive contaminant, the level of contamination, and the extent of the spread of contamination. Low levels of radioactive contamination pose little risk, but can still be detected by radiation instrumentation. In the case of low-level contamination by isotopes with a short half-life, the best course of action may be to simply allow the material to naturally decay. Longer-lived isotopes should be cleaned up and properly disposed of, because even a very low level of radiation can be life-threatening when in long exposure to it.
High level contamination
High levels of contamination may pose major risks to people and the environment. People can be exposed to potentially lethal radiation levels, both externally and internally, from the spread of contamination following an accident (or a deliberate initiation) involving large quantities of radioactive material.
Radioactive iodine is a common fission product; it was a major component of the radiation released from the Chernobyl disaster, leading to nine fatal cases of pediatric thyroid cancer and hypothyroidism.
The biological effects of radiation are thought of in terms of their effects on living cells. For low levels of radiation, the biological effects are so small they may not be detected in epidemiological studies. The body repairs many types of radiation and chemical damage. Biological effects of radiation on living cells may result in a variety of outcomes, including:
· Cells experience DNA damage and are able to detect and repair the damage.
· Cells experience DNA damage and are unable to repair the damage. These cells may go through the process of programmed cell death, or apoptosis, thus eliminating the potential genetic damage from the larger tissue.
· Cells experience a nonlethal DNA mutation that is passed on to subsequent cell divisions. This mutation may contribute to the formation of a cancer.
· Cells experience "Irreparable DNA Damage." Low level ionizing radiation may induce "Irreparable DNA damage" (leading to replicational and transcriptional errors needed for neoplasia or may trigger viral interactions) leading to pre-mature aging and cancer.
Radioactive decay/half life
It is estimated that 90% of the current exclusion zone can be utilized again within 200 years due to the constant radioactive decay. Radioactive decay is the process in which an unstable atomic nucleus spontaneously loses energy by emitting ionizing particles and radiation. This decay, or loss of energy, results in an atom of one type, called the parent nuclide transforming to an atom of a different type, named the daughter nuclide. For example: a carbon-14 atom (the "parent") emits radiation and transforms to a nitrogen-14 atom (the "daughter"). This is a stochastic process on the atomic level, in that it is impossible to predict when a given atom will decay, but given a large number of similar atoms the decay rate, on average, is predictable.
A more commonly used parameter is the half-life. Given a sample of a particular radionuclide, the half-life is the time taken for half the radionuclide's atoms to decay.
Means of contamination
Radioactive contamination can enter the body through ingestion, inhalation, absorption, or injection. For this reason, it is important to use personal protective equipment when working with radioactive materials. Radioactive contamination may also be ingested as the result of eating contaminated plants and animals or drinking contaminated water or milk from exposed animals. Following a major contamination incident, all potential pathways of internal exposure should be considered.
Long term effects - radiation levels
Ionizing radiation includes both particle radiation and high energy electromagnetic radiation.
The associations between ionizing radiation exposure and the development of cancer are mostly based on populations exposed to relatively high levels of ionizing radiation, such as Japanese atomic bomb survivors, and recipients of selected diagnostic or therapeutic medical procedures.
Cancers associated with high dose exposure include leukemia, thyroid, breast, bladder, colon, liver, lung, esophagus, ovarian, multiple myeloma, and stomach cancers.
It is also suggested a possible association between ionizing radiation exposure and prostate, nasal cavity/sinuses, pharyngeal and laryngeal, and pancreatic cancer.
The period of time between radiation exposure and the detection of cancer is known as the latent period. Those cancers that may develop as a result of radiation exposure are indistinguishable from those that occur naturally or as a result of exposure to other chemical carcinogens.
Although radiation may cause cancer at high doses and high dose rates, public health data regarding lower levels of exposure, below about 1,000 mrem (10 mSv), are harder to interpret. To assess the health impacts of lower radiation doses, researchers rely on models of the process by which radiation causes cancer; several models have emerged which predict differing levels of risk.
There are four standard ways to limit exposure:
Time: For people who are exposed to radiation in addition to natural background radiation, limiting or minimizing the exposure time will reduce the dose from the radiation source.
Distance: Radiation intensity decreases sharply with distance, according to an inverse square law. Air attenuates alpha and beta radiation.
Shielding: Barriers of lead, concrete, or water give effective protection from radiation formed of energetic particles such as gamma rays and neutrons. Some radioactive materials are stored or handled underwater or by remote control in rooms constructed of thick concrete or lined with lead. There are special plastic shields which stop beta particles and air will stop alpha particles. The effectiveness of a material in shielding radiation is determined by its halve value thicknesses, the thickness of material that reduces the radiation by half. This value is a function of the material itself and the energy and type of ionizing radiation.
Containment: Radioactive materials are confined in the smallest possible space and kept out of the environment. Radioactive isotopes for medical use, for example, are dispensed in closed handling facilities, while nuclear reactors operate within closed systems with multiple barriers which keep the radioactive materials contained. Rooms have a reduced air pressure so that any leaks occur into the room and not out of it.
In a nuclear war, an effective fallout shelter reduces human exposure at least 1,000 times. Other civil defence measures can help reduce exposure of populations by reducing ingestion of isotopes and occupational exposure during war time. One of these available measures could be the use of potassium iodide (KI) tablets which effectively block the uptake of radioactive iodine into the human thyroid gland.
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