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Non-nuclear energy

Medical and Natural Exposures

Fission and radiation protection
Fusion
   

Extensive use is made of radiation and radioactive materials in medicine with major benefits for public health in terms of the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Medical uses of radiation are by far the largest contributor to the exposure of the general population from artificial sources of radiation accounting for more than 95%. This represents 14% of the total radiation exposure experienced on average from all sources artificial and natural.

This exposure is likely to increase in future due to the ageing character of the European population, the availability of new diagnostic techniques and the increasing resources being put into healthcare. Currently around 100 million medical x-rays image will be made in a large European country such as France.

Over the last decade European research has focused on the optimization of protection in the use of radiation for diagnostic purposes, in particular the procedures that result in larger doses or are used more extensively. All exposures must be justified in terms of a risk/ benefit analysis and should be As Low As Reasonably Achievable – the ALARA principle.

This remains the principle focus but attention may also be given to radiation therapy, in particular the reduction of accidents and optimization of exposures in relation to the individual sensitivity of a patient to radiation.

In the diagnostic area X-rays are still the most common tool and significant reductions in radiation dose have been achieved by placing a rare earth image intensifying screen in front of the x-ray film prior to exposure. This technique is now standard practice. For dynamic images required for some techniques an image intensifying screen is able to reduce exposure.

Attention will focus on the optimisation of imaging techniques using computed tomography (CT) scanners which are finding ever increasing use in all areas of medicine as a diagnostic tool and deliver a much higher dose than conventional x-ray devices. In some European countries CT imaging accounts for 5% or more of all x-ray examinations and 30 -40 % of the collective dose. Developments to reduce or control the dose include introducing helical scanning and CT real-time image enhancement.

Other techniques used in diagnosis rely on the administration of radiopharmaceuticals to patients. This technique, otherwise known as Nuclear Medicine, uses radionuclides as an effective biological tracer. Other applications in cancer treatment include delivery of high doses of radiation to a tumour with the objective of killing it whilst minimizing damage to surrounding healthy tissue. New methods to optimize activity levels and dosage are being introduced to medical practice continuously.

Natural radiation is the major source of radiation exposure to the population and is also covered under this section. Historically these sources of radiation fell outside regulatory controls applied to artificial sources, but they are being now being incorporated within the regulatory system.

Research has moved from more fundamental studies to addressing practical issues connected to exposure from natural sources and managing those sources within the regulatory control system. This includes topics such as monitoring and reduction of radon gas in the home and the exposure of air crew to cosmic radiation. Radiation due to cosmic rays triples as a person moves from sea level to 2000 metres altitude and increases by a factor of 1500 at an altitude of 10000 metres the cruising altitude of most commercial air flight.

The main objective now is to better inform and promote common policies and practices in Europe for the management and control of natural sources of radiation exposure. The emphasis is on exposures to naturally occurring radioactive materials in a diverse range of industries including coal and metal ore mining, gas and oil extraction, phospho-gypsum and fertilizer production.

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