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Elements that Make Up Our World

Atoms make up everything in our world. The basic parts of an atom are protons, neutrons, and electrons (Figure 1).  Different atoms may have different numbers of each of these parts. An element is a substance that is made up of only atoms with the same number of protons. Elements with different numbers of neutrons are referred to as isotopes of that element. Elements are sometimes expressed with the one- or two-letter chemical symbol for that element. The atomic weight, shown as a superscript number, is equal to the number of protons and neutrons in its nucleus and is used to identify the isotope of that element. Some isotopes of some elements are radioactive, including many naturally occurring elements. Radioactive isotopes, when taken as a whole for more than one element, are collectively referred to as radionuclides. All human-made radionuclides detected during this quarter are listed in this report. Common human-made radionuclides, along with their chemical symbol, are listed below.

Helium
Figure 1.  An atom of the element Helium. An element is a substance that is made up of only atoms with the same number of protons.
Symbol Radionuclide
3H Tritium
90Sr Strontium-90
131I Iodine-131
137Cs Cesium-137
238Pu Plutonium-238
239/240Pu Plutonium-239/240
241Am Americium-241

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Radiation

Radioactive atoms are unstable and, in an effort to become stable, release energy. This release of energy comes from the release of particles or electromagnetic waves as the radioactive atom “decays,” or “disintegrates.” The three main types of radiation are alpha, beta, and gamma radiation (Figure 2). Alpha and beta radiation are particles emitted from an atom. Alpha particles consist of two protons and two neutrons (equal to the nucleus of a helium atom). Alpha particles do not travel very far (only centimeters in air) and are easily stopped. They will not penetrate paper or the outer layer of your skin so they are not an external hazard to the body. Internally, however, they are of more concern.

Beta particles are electrons emitted from the nucleus of an atom. Beta particles can have enough energy to penetrate paper or skin but not materials like wood or plastic. Gamma rays are short-wavelength electromagnetic waves (photons) emitted from the nucleus of an atom following radioactive decay. Gamma-ray radiation has a penetration ability greater than alpha or beta radiation. X-rays are the same as gamma radiation except they are produced from the orbital electrons of atoms rather than the nucleus. All three types of radiation can come from either natural or human-made sources. The rate at which a given amount of a particular radioactive isotope decays is measured by its half-life. The half-life is the time required for half of the amount present to decay

Radiation Penetration

Figure 2.  Three main types of radiation are alpha, beta, and gamma.  Alpha and beta are particles emitted from an atom.  Gamma radiation is short-wavelength electromagnetic waves (photons) emitted from atoms.

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Units Used to Express the Amount of Radioactivity

Radioactivity is measured by the number of atoms that disintegrate per unit time. One common unit for activity is the curie (Ci). A curie is defined as the activity in one gram of naturally occurring Radium-226 and equals 37,000,000,000 disintegrations per second (Figure 3). The Systeme International d'Unites (SI) is the recognized international standard for describing measurable quantities and their units. The standard SI unit for radioactivity is the becquerel (Bq). A becquerel is equal to one disintegration per second (Figure 3).

Radiation Units

Figure 3.  Units used to express the amount of radioactivity.

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Radiation Exposure and Dose

The primary concern regarding radioactivity is the amount of energy deposited by particles or gamma radiation to the surrounding environment. It is possible that the energy from radiation may damage living tissue. When radiation interacts with the atoms of a given substance, it can alter the number of electrons associated with those atoms (usually removing orbital electrons). This is called ionization.

The term “exposure” is used to express the amount of ionization produced in air by electromagnetic (gamma and X-ray) radiation. The unit of exposure from gamma or X-ray radiation is the roentgen (R). The average exposure rate from natural radioactivity in southeast Idaho is about 0.130 R per year.

Radiation absorbed dose describes the amount of energy from ionizing radiation absorbed by any kind of matter. When absorbed dose is adjusted to account for the amount of biological damage a particular type of radiation causes, it is known as dose equivalent. The unit for dose equivalence is called the rem (“roentgen-equivalent-man”). The SI unit for dose equivalent is called the seivert (Sv). One seivert is equivalent to 100 rem.

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Unit Prefixes

The range of numbers experienced in many scientific fields, like that of environmental monitoring for radioactivity, is huge and scientists commonly express units for very small and very large numbers as a prefix that modifies the unit of measure. One example is the prefix kilo, abbreviated k, which means 1,000 of a given unit. A kilometer is therefore equal to 1,000 meters. Prefixes used in this report include:

Prefix

 

Abbreviation

Meaning

Mega

M

1,000,000 (= 1 x 106)

milli

m

0.001 (= 1 x 10-3)

micro

µ

0.000001 (1 x 10-6)

pico

p

0.000000000001 (= 1 x 10-12)


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Radiation in Our World

Radiation has always been a part of the natural environment in the form of cosmic radiation, cosmogenic radionuclides [carbon-14 (14C), Beryllium-7 (7Be), and tritium (3H)], and naturally occurring radionuclides, such as potassium-40 (40K), and the thorium, uranium, and actinium series radionuclides which have very long half lives. Additionally, human-made radionuclides were distributed throughout the world beginning in the early 1940s. Atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons from 1945 through 1980 and nuclear power plant accidents, such as the Chernobyl accident in the former Soviet Union during 1986, have resulted in fallout of detectable radionuclides around the world. This natural and manmade global fallout radioactivity is referred to as background radiation. MORE

Radiation Exposure and Dose

The primary concern regarding radioactivity is the amount of energy deposited by particles or gamma radiation to the surrounding environment. It is possible that the energy from radiation may damage living tissue. When radiation interacts with the atoms of a given substance, it can alter the number of electrons associated with those atoms (usually removing orbital electrons). This is called ionization. MORE