What is a radiological emergency?

RespondersA radiological emergency is an emergency in which there is, or is perceived to be, a hazard due to radiation exposure from a source. As sources of radiation are used in various fields, including industry, medicine and research, radiological emergencies may occur anywhere.

These are examples of radiological emergency situations and associated conditions that a first responder may face:


Medical symptoms of radiation exposure

Description:

Many radiological emergencies are first identified through medical examinations of persons that have been exposed to radiation. A physician should consider the possibility of radiation induced injures when facing burns without an apparent cause, suspicions expressed by the patient that some 'object' was making them sick, or a patient being in a profession where there is an increased risk of encountering a dangerous source (e.g. scrap metal dealer).

Hazards:

The patient could be suffering from radiation injuries warranting specialized treatment. Furthermore, the discovery of symptoms of radiation exposure could indicate a public radioactive contamination/exposure emergency, and the source of exposure or contamination could continue to represent a severe hazard unknown to those in the vicinity.

There is little or no health hazard to the medical staff treating or transporting exposed or contaminated people provided they protect themselves from inadvertent ingestion of contamination by use of the normal barrier methods (e.g. gloves) used to protect against infectious agents.

Loss or theft of a dangerous source

Description:

Sources containing sufficient radioactive material to qualify as dangerous are used for various purposes, both industrial and medical. Even though safety and security provisions are put in place to prevent such sources from being lost or stolen, such events occur and constitute radiological emergencies.

Hazards:

It must be assumed that the source may be in the possession of people who may not know its nature and hazard, who can handle it, break it and spread contamination. Unknowingly handling unshielded/unconfined dangerous quantities of radioactive material can result in permanent injuries from external exposure or inadvertent ingestion and in localized contamination, requiring cleanup. Unknowingly handling quantities 10-100 times larger than what is considered "dangerous" could be immediately life threatening.

Public radioactive contamination or exposure

Description:

Radioactive contamination of the public or of public places could occur as the result of members of the public, unaware of the hazard, handling a lost or stolen dangerous source. Contamination could also occur as the result of a deliberate act. These emergencies are often discovered, unfortunately, after several people have been exposed and there has been considerable spread of radioactive material.

Hazards:

Contaminated or exposed individuals could suffer radiation injuries warranting specialized treatment. The source of exposure or contamination could represent a severe hazard unsuspected by those in the vicinity. The material could be further dispersed by human activity and could involve widespread contamination of areas and local products. If public and financial institution concerns are not promptly addressed, there can be significant adverse and inappropriate public reaction and economic consequences.

Limited stays (minutes) near the material by response personnel should not be hazardous but holding the material could produce injuries in minutes. The inhalation hazard is probably limited to the plume (e.g. within the smoke) within 100 metres of a source in a fire or explosion. Resuspension of material on the ground should not be hazardous except for Plutonium (Pu) contamination. External contamination is probably not hazardous but inadvertent ingestion (e.g. by putting hands in the mouth) of contamination could be hazardous. Excess radiation-induced cancers should not be detected following these types of emergencies, even those involving large amounts of radioactive material.

Fire fighters are generally equipped with respiratory protection that provides good protection against the inhalation hazard. Common radiation survey instruments can detect significant external exposure hazards but may not be able to detect significant inhalation hazards. There is little or no health hazard to the medical staff treating or transporting exposed or contaminated people provided they protect themselves from inadvertent ingestion of contamination by use of the normal barrier methods (e.g. gloves) used to protect against infectious agents.

Transport emergency involving radioactive material

Description:

Many thousands of transport operations occur daily throughout the world in connection with the use of radioactive materials. All forms of transport are involved, including road, rail, air and sea. A transport accident involving radioactive material can occur anywhere. The transport of radioactive material is subject to strict regulations that for example specify standards for packages and their labelling.

Hazards:

Transport emergencies involving correctly packaged radioactive material, and where the packages have not been damaged in the accident, normally present no significant radiological hazard. Minor traffic accidents are unlikely to damage a package sufficiently to create a significant radiological hazard. Nevertheless, there is a small possibility of a release resulting in an inhalation hazard near the source, contamination that is hazardous if ingested, and hazardous levels of external exposure from being near the accident for an extended time.

Fire fighters are generally equipped with protective clothing and respiratory protection equipment, which provides good protection against radioactive contamination and inhalation of airborne radioactive material. Being in the vicinity of the material for a short period (e.g. to conduct life saving) should not be hazardous.

There have been no reported transport emergencies involving radioactive material that have had serious radiological consequences.

Detection of elevated radiation levels

Description:

A detection of elevated radiation levels of ambient radiation or radioactive contamination in air, food/water or commercial products may raise suspicion of an emergency situation of actual, potential or perceived radiological significance. The origin of the contamination may be a facility where radioactive material is handled, or it may be an 'orphan source' that has ended up in recycled scrap metal, but this is typically not known at the time of discovery.

Hazards:

Elevated radiation levels of unknown origin in air/food/water/products resulting in significant exposure of the public are very unlikely. However, if the elevated radiation levels in air or water are due to a significant release of radioactive material from a facility where radioactive material is handled, contamination in excess of national and international standards for permitted levels is possible.

Allowing contaminated food/water/products in the international or local distribution system could have serious economic consequences. Detection of elevated radiation levels in food or consumer products can indicate an accident at a manufacturing facility, possibly from another State (e.g. accidental incorporation of an 'orphan source' into recycled scrap metal). There can be significant adverse and inappropriate public reaction and economic consequences if public and financial institution’s concerns are not promptly addressed.

Detonation or discovery of an explosive radiological dispersal device (RDD)

Description:

A radiological dispersal device (RDD) is a device constructed by terrorists to spread radioactive materials using conventional explosives or other means. The discovery of an RDD that has been or may be used to spread contamination constitutes a radiological emergency.

Hazards:

The greatest threat of an RDD comes from the direct effects of an explosion rather than from radiation exposure or contamination. The greatest radiological hazard comes from inadvertent inhalation or inadvertent ingestion of the material dispersed by an explosion or fire or from handling radioactive debris or material in an unexploded device. There would only be a negligible radiological threat if less than dangerous quantities are involved.

The inhalation hazard is probably limited to the plume (e.g. within the smoke) within 100 metres of the source of the release. Resuspension of Plutonium (Pu) on the ground could be hazardous near the source. External contamination is probably not hazardous but inadvertent ingestion (e.g. by putting hands in the mouth) of contamination could be hazardous.

Limited stays near the source in an unexploded RDD or large pieces of debris by response personnel should not be hazardous but holding such material could produce injuries in minutes. Fire fighters are generally equipped with respiratory protection that provides good protection against the inhalation hazard. Common radiation survey instruments can detect significant external exposure hazards but cannot detect significant inhalation hazards.

There can be significant adverse and inappropriate public reaction and economic consequences if public and financial institution concerns are not promptly addressed. Excess radiation induced cancers should not be detected following this type of emergency, even for emergencies involving large amounts of radioactive material.

| Last update: Tuesday, 09 December, 2014.