Did you know that if you were inside a nuclear reactor you would receive the same level of radiation as drinking a banana smoothie?
Radiation is prevalent in our everyday lives, so much so that we can use a fruit as a comparison for the doses we could receive from living near a nuclear reactor, flying to Europe or even getting an X-ray or a session of radiotherapy (can you imagine eating 20,000,000 bananas at once for the last one?).
With the recent release of potassium iodide (KI) pills to residents in the Durham Region, radiation protection has become a hot topic. However, nuclear power continues to remain extremely safe, thanks to trained nuclear engineers and health physicists, many new ones coming from Ontario Tech’s Faculty of Energy Systems and Nuclear Science (FESNS).
Ontario Tech offers a Health Physics and Radiation Science program which puts a strong emphasis on radiation protection, with applications in nuclear power plants, nuclear research centres, and in health care. Ontario Tech also has a Health Physics Association, which helps to educate other students on radiation protection. It is believed that this discipline arose from the need to protect those who worked on the Manhattan Project, though radiation protection was originally from the need to prevent X-ray injuries in the late 19th century.
At Ontario Tech there are several labs dedicated to the study of radiation in the Energy Systems and Nuclear Science Research Centre, where Sharman Perera (pictured below standing beside a Matrix Environmental Satellite Probe – a radiation threat detection device) is the FESNS laboratory manager. I was lucky enough to follow along on his recent tour of the Environmental Effects of Radiation Lab, Ontario Tech’s radiation protection facility.
Upon entering the room, it looked like an ordinary lab, with several rows of lab benches. What makes this lab impressive is the high level of sophistication of the equipment. To prepare students for the workforce, they are given the opportunity to work with equipment used in industry. Because of the high level technology it's equipped with, this lab is actually used as a backup lab for Ontario Power Generation. Different software used in this lab include Gammavision-32, Maestro-32 and WinREMS.
Much of the work done in this lab is environmental monitoring. Think of it as an archeological dig, but instead of looking for clues about past historical events, you’re looking for the effects of recent events involving radioactivity. The types of radiation you can encounter is alpha radiation, beta radiation, gamma radiation and X-rays. There is also neutron radiation, which you can find in nuclear reactors.
Students collect samples such as vegetation, soil and water from the field, and bring them back to the lab for further analysis. They use a variety of surveying tools and radiation detection tools, as shown below. Students have the opportunity to explore their outdoorsy side through collecting samples at Camp Samac, which is the final lab of the Environmental Effects of Radiation course that Health Physics and Radiation Science and Nuclear Engineering students take, which I'm looking forward to tagging along on!
GPS devices are also used, as they are used in industry to keep track of the exact location where radioactive samples are taken. The real life application of this is to help determine the spread of radiation from accidents like at Fukushima, as well as to evaluate the levels of radiation in areas nearby a nuclear reactor.
Some of the portable radiation detections used in class include:
- Gamma Survey Meter (Thermo FH-40G)
- Beta/gamma meter (E-600 with SHP-360 probe)
- Thermo Electronic Personal Dosimeter (EPD)
The Thermo FH-40G Gamma Survey Meter measures the gamma dose rate, and provides the advantage of distinguishing between radiation released from an artificial source (such as a radiation leak from a nuclear facility) and the naturally occurring background radiation in the environment. The beta/gamma meter, sometimes called a pancake detector because of its shape, measures beta/gamma count rates. These are both used to measure the amount of radiation in the air. The dose rate and count rate are both used to measure radiation, but the count rate measures the number of emissions per second detected, while the dose rate measures the amount of ionizing radiation detected. The Thermo Electronic Personal Dosimeter can be used to detect beta, gamma, neutron and X-ray radiation.
During the Ontario Tech's 2015 Orientation, FESNS students also got to play a game called “Which Rock is Hot?” by using a similar detector to find out which rock was the most radioactive. Can you guess which one below was?
Radiation can also be used to determine the composition of samples, using gamma spectrometers, where energy gamma rays are analyzed to help determine what elements make up the soil sample. There is a highly accurate gamma spectrometer called a High Purity Germanium Detector in the lab, as well as several portable versions for use in the field. Sharman showed how the High Purity Germanium Detector works to determine the composition of a soil sample. Using gamma spectrometry software, an analysis of the soil can be done easily.
I also had the opportunity to use an Exploranium GR-135 Portable Gamma Spectrometer to analyze a granite sample. A strange fast-ticking sound is made when you put the detector close to a radioactive source and it’s hard not to laugh when listening to it for the first time.
Alpha spectrometers can also be found in this lab, for detecting alpha radiation levels. Here Calvin, a faculty lab technician, is showing how samples can be placed in the detector through slots in the machine.
In the next room over is the Aerosol and Radiation Research Lab, where the dispersion of radiation through the air is studied using the chamber shown below. This is especially useful when evaluating the risk of the spread of radiation from nuclear accident.
Though worry not, as there is an extremely low chance of encountering dangerous levels of radiation in Durham Region! If you’re wondering, living near a nuclear power plant is equivalent to eating about only 1 to 100 bananas over a whole year. It’s amazing to see the technology and process that go into ensuring our environment has safe levels of radiation, and reassuring to see that Ontario Tech is training the next batch of radiation protection experts to keep it that way.
Want to see more of our campus? Check out our virtual tour!