Answer to Question #12008 Submitted to "Ask the Experts"

Category: Radiation Basics

The following question was answered by an expert in the appropriate field:

Q

Can you electrocute a radiation-producing material to get it to quit producing radiation—along the lines of a massive amount of electrocution? Have any of these experiments been done? And as a side note, do you have anybody petitioning the government to add currency properly into the economy or obtain funding to get all protected from the harms of radiation? Have there been any experiments done on producing a device that can drain the radiation-producing material (let's say, by touching it with a rod that draws the energy out of the atom and into the rod) to store for later use?

A

People have tried a variety of things to attempt to affect the process of radioactive decay (trying to change the half-lives) with some, but very limited success. The process of passing a large electric discharge through radioactive material would not be successful in affecting the decay process because the discharge is mediated through the electronic structure of atoms. All the electrons are outside of the nucleus of the atom, the effect of the discharge on them does not affect the nucleus, and radioactive decay is governed by nuclear configuration.

Regarding the government providing funding to ensure protection of people from adverse effects of radiation, I should note that there exist a number of agencies, groups, and commissions, including state, national, and international groups that have as a major function the control of the use of radioactivity and radiation-producing machines for the protection of workers and the public and/or the development of specific recommendations to provide guidance in this respect. The combined budgets of these organizations in the United States alone is over $10 billion.

We should also keep in mind that there are two sources of radiation that produce essentially all of the dose to lay people throughout our country and throughout the world. The first of these is natural background radiation, which comes from our sun and other stars and from radioactivity present in the earth, which has been present since the earth was born. The only part of this that we have any significant control over, in terms of our exposure, is radioactive radon gas, which we breathe in and which decays to other radioactive products that produce dose to our lungs. Since much of the exposure to radon occurs in our own homes, we should all have radon measurements made in our homes to evaluate the levels in the air so that we can make a judgment as to whether any remediation is appropriate.

The other major source of exposure to the public is diagnostic x rays, which contribute about an equal average per capita dose to members of the public as does natural background radiation. Both of these sources together contribute more annual dose to a typical member of the public than is received by a typical radiation worker from his/her occupational work.

There are no useful methodologies that we have developed for inducing radioactivity to decay and give up its energy at our whim; the radioactive atoms decay at their own characteristic rates. We have, however, invented some devices that use the radiation energy from the decay process as it occurs to produce energy in a more useful form.

Notable in this regard are devices such as nuclear-powered pacemakers used for many years in patients to control heartbeat. These devices typically used alpha-emitting radionuclides, such as plutonium-238 (238Pu), in proximity to a thermoelectric material. The alpha particles deposited their energy that resulted in heat, which powered the thermoelectric generator. Similar devices on a larger scale have been used to provide power for use in space applications and other applications requiring long-lived, portable sources of electricity.

I expect you are also familiar with nuclear power reactors. These rely on the fissioning of heavy elements, such as uranium, to produce most of their energy that is used to heat water. This, in one sense, is a method for destroying some radioactive species such as uranium-235 (235U), uranium-238 (238U), and plutonium-239 (239Pu), but the fissioning of these radionuclides produces lower-mass fission products that are highly radioactive. As a nuclear reactor continues to operate these fission products build up in the reactor core, and as they decay their radiations lose most of their energy as heat in the core materials. This heat represents a significant fraction, roughly 7%, of the total reactor power.

It would certainly be advantageous if there were a practical method that we could devise to eliminate radioactivity associated with selected atomic species, but we have not developed such a capability.

George Chabot, PhD, CHP

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