As we know, the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan caused the additional damage to nuclear power plants there. The threat of nuclear contamination is a very real danger. With the existence of the Millstone power plant in Connecticut, it is important to be aware that nuclear radiation is certainly a possible danger to residents of Connecticut. What if a nuclear accident or disaster happens here? Many good and well-planned safeguards are in place, in order to minimize nuclear radiation accidents and dangers to Connecticut citizens. But just in case the unimaginable happens, it is good for us to know what nuclear radiation actually is, and what the radiation categories are.
Nuclear radiation occurs when the nucleus of an atom emits subatomic particles and electromagnetic radiation. This happens while the atom is in the process of disintegration or decay. Nuclear radiation, unlike the naturally accruing radiation, has the ability to disrupt atoms and to damage cells.
Three types of nuclear radiation exist: alpha, beta, and gamma. Alpha radiation is the when an unstable nucleus emits two protons and two neutrons. It produces a positive charge. Alpha radiation is so weak, that a piece of paper, thin clothing, a few inches of air, or the outer layer of skin can absorb it. Alpha radiation is easily absorbed, and causes little damage.
The second type of radiation is Beta. Beta radiation occurs when an unstable nucleus gives off an electron. It produces negatively charged electrons. It is stronger than Alpha radiation, is 100 times more penetrating, and can cause injury. However, Beta particles can be absorbed by heavier clothing or somewhat thin shielding. Beta radiation causes localized damage to where it hits. It doesn’t cause widespread damage throughout the body. Beta particles can also appear in water and smoke from nuclear accidents, like the one in Chernobyl.
The third, and most dangerous and deadly type is Gamma radiation. Gamma radiation results when an unstable nucleus emits gamma rays. Gamma radiation is called ionizing radiation. When it encounters an atom, it can rip the electron right off, leaving an ion behind. Gamma rays are electromagnetic. These electromagnetic waves possess extremely high frequencies and energy. Gamma rays are identical to x-rays, with the only difference being that gamma rays are natural, and x-rays are artificially produced. Gamma rays are so energetic, that can pass through living material like you and me. Since these rays are highly penetrating, thick shielding, like lead, is necessary. Gamma radiation causes widespread damage to the body, not just localized. The effect of these rays distribute widely, throughout the body. The body’s atoms that get affected then start to emit their own alpha and beta articles, inflicting even more damage to the body.
Nuclear radiation, when not harnessed, can be damaging and devastating. See my other articles on nuclear radiation; learn about the specific effects of radiation exposure, and about EMT response to a radiation emergency.
Here’s to your health and safety!