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Non-nuclear energy

Radiation protection

Fission and radiation protection

Omnipresent in the environment, radiation and radioactive materials occur naturally or are man-made. The level of radiation to which we are individually exposed (or the amount of radioactive material incorporated within our bodies) depends principally on where we live and work, what we eat, and how often we fly by aeroplane and are exposed to radiation for medical reasons.

Artificial or man-made sources of radiation – as well as natural sources – are used extensively in industry and medicine. In terms of natural sources, the general population’s main source of exposure to radiation comes from radon gas, with smaller amounts from cosmic radiation and radionuclides in food. The largest contributor from artificial sources is the use of radiation in medicine, both for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes.

Radiation is a known – albeit weak – carcinogen. As such, an effective radiation protection strategy is founded on the basic principle that unnecessary exposure should be avoided and, where it is unavoidable, exposure should be justified and optimised.

EU research

EU research underpins radiation protection standards and their application, contributing to the high level of protection achieved in practice. These standards must be maintained and enhanced by research by improving our understanding of the risks of radiation exposure and reducing their uncertainties.

A key objective of the Seventh Euratom Framework Programme (Euratom FP7, 2007–11) is to help resolve the ongoing controversy over the level of risk from exposure to low and protracted doses of radiation. Very divergent views are held by various reputable scientific bodies (e.g. the International Commission on Radiological Protection, ICRP, or the French Academy of Sciences). These views range from the assumption of a linear relationship between dose and risk, to the opinion that there is a threshold dose below which no risk exists. Settling this debate would have significant cost and health implications for industry and medicine.

Radiation protection research is highly multi-disciplinary, covering a diverse range of issues. In most part, focus centres on the following fields:

  • Quantification of risks for low and protracted exposures – research in this area aims to better quantify the health risks for low and protracted exposures. It comprises epidemiological studies of exposed populations, and cellular and molecular biological research targeted at better understanding the fundamental mechanisms.
  • Medical uses of radiation – medical exposures represent the largest source of exposure to artificial radiation for the general public. This area seeks to enhance the safety and efficacy of the use of medical radiation in diagnosis and therapy.
  • Emergency management and rehabilitation – common tools and strategies are needed – together with their demonstration in operational environments – to improve the integration of nuclear emergency management actions in Europe and approaches for rehabilitating areas that may be contaminated in the event of a future incident or accident, whatever its cause.
  • Networking of national research activities in other areas – the goal here is to integrate national research more effectively on, for example, natural radiation, radioecology, protection of the environment, dosimetry, occupational exposure, risk governance, etc.

NB: EU support for research in the field of malevolent uses of radiation or radioactive material is principally channelled through the EU Security Research Programme (part of the EC Framework Programme). Nonetheless, there are close links with the Euratom programme to ensure that the expertise and experience acquired in previous Euratom programmes can be used by researchers addressing security issues.

Quantification of risks for low and protracted exposures

Quantification of the risk from exposing the general population to low and/or protracted doses of radiation – such as from natural sources, in the workplace and diagnostic medical exposures – is a controversial scientific and policy issue. This risk, including variations in individual responses due to differences in genetic make-up, will be better quantified through epidemiological studies and more fundamental research into the mechanisms of how initial radiation damage translates into cancer or other health effects – e.g. circulatory diseases (heart disease and strokes) – in those exposed. In addition, significant effort will be directed at establishing and improving databases and tissue banks – key resources for future research.

Recent efforts have aimed at establishing a more strategic approach to conducting research in this field through more effective integration of Members States’ and EU programmes. The High Level Expert Group on European Low Dose Risk Research (HLEG), comprising the major funding organisations in this area, published a report for public consultation in September 2008 outlining its vision for the future. Future support through the Euratom framework programme will be largely determined by the resulting strategic research agenda in this field.

Medical uses of radiation

Medicine is the earliest and remains the most common application of radiation. Ionising radiation can be employed in two different ways in this field: diagnosis and therapy. In both cases, its use is rapidly increasing in the developed world due to population ageing and the availability of new technologies. Two of the fundamental principles of radiation protection are to ensure that the benefits of any exposure are greater than the potential harm and that any exposure is kept as low as can be reasonably achieved. Research in this area focuses on better quantification of the risks of diagnostic and therapeutic exposures and how these can be reduced through better operational practice or the development of new technologies.

X-ray examinations remain the most frequently used diagnostic technique employing ionising radiation. Dynamic images are increasingly used, in particular the technique known as nuclear medical imaging that allows tissue or organ functions to be viewed with a gamma camera that follows the movement of a radioactive tracer inside the body (PET and SPECT). Another tool is computed tomography (CT), which provides high-quality images of isolated slices of the patient using a thin rotating beam of X-rays. The digital images are then analysed and processed by a computer.

Radiation is also used in cancer treatment: doses are delivered through high-energy X-rays, gamma rays or electrons to the tumour, with the objective of killing the cancerous cells. Another modality is brachytherapy, in which radiation sources are positioned on or introduced into the body so as to deliver very high localised doses to the tumour.

The objective of research is to reduce patient exposure to radiation while optimising the clinical information, and to better assess and reduce the exposure of medical staff. In particular, research promotes:

  • the development of quality criteria (expressed in terms of measurable/controllable quantities) that can be implemented in practice and could be used by standard-setting bodies
  • the acquisition of key information necessary for sound and scientifically based judgements on the use of radiation in medicine for existing and new techniques
  • the assessment and reduction of doses to peripheral tissue
  • the risk of early and late health effects from the use of radiation therapy.

Emergency management and rehabilitation

Comprehensive decision-support systems for emergency management and rehabilitation have been developed with support from previous framework programmes and are increasingly being used in national emergency centres.

The focus within Euratom FP7 shifts from developing broadly applicable decision-support systems to promoting mechanisms to demonstrate their effectiveness in an operational environment and ensuring that they remain state of the art through integrated action by the user community. Support for new developments will be responsive to user demand, in particular in those areas where it can be demonstrated that current approaches are deficient or where substantial improvements in emergency management would result.

Devising a methodology for optimising the design of monitoring systems is one such area. Over the next decade many of the monitoring systems put in place following the Chernobyl accident will need to be replaced or upgraded. This methodology will thus facilitate the design and implementation of cost-effective replacement systems.

Networking of national research activities in other areas

As part of efforts to strengthen the European Research Area, Euratom FP7 will focus on promoting the deeper integration of national research in other areas of radiation protection, such as natural radiation, radioecology, protection of the environment and dosimetry. Fragmentation of skills and capacity and declining competence are increasing problems in Europe and elsewhere in many of these areas. Initiatives to be taken in this area are therefore strategically important for both Member States and the European Commission.

Ongoing research projects in radiation protection