We Live in a Radioactive World

  The uses of radioactive materials, many of which generate
low-level radioactive waste, have become an integral part
of modern life. We do live in a radioactive world.

Radioactivity is all around us.

It is in rocks, in soil, in water. In the air we breathe and the food we eat. It is in us.

We don't have to sit on the beach to get exposed to radiation. The fact is, all of us are exposed to radiation every day.

Radiation, of course, can be harmful. It is also beneficial.

To some people,

"radioactivity" connotes only weapons of destruction and nuclear power plants. The use of radioactive materials, however, pervades our lives, often in ways many people might find surprising.

Radioactive materials generate electricity.

Radioactive materials save lives: They power pacemakers and help doctors diagnose and treat disease; they play a prominent role in the search for new, more effective medicines.

They make our lives safer: One radionuclide is used in a smoke detector; another detects explosives in luggage at airports.

And radionuclides are used to produce a wide variety of goods and services: cosmetics and disposable diapers, photocopiers and photographic film, non-stick cookware and radial tires.

Not all of these uses produce waste that requires special disposal. Much of this waste decays away quickly, and is disposed of with other trash.


The fission of Uranium-235 fuels nuclear power plants (as well as naval propulsion systems). In the United States, 20% of electricity is generated by nuclear power; in New Jersey, nuclear power produces over 60% of the electricity we use.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Disease

Radionuclides are used to diagnose and treat diseases. Each year in the United States, some 10,000,000 nuclear imaging procedures and 100,000,000 laboratory tests on bodily fluids and tissue specimens are performed using radionuclides.

Cardiac problems can be detected by measuring the flow of blood from the heart after a solution containing a short-lived radionuclide is introduced into the circulatory system.

Thyroid disorders and other diseases are diagnosed using radionuclides - faster and less invasively than with other techniques. Bone scans using Technetium-99m, for example, can detect the spread of cancer six to 18 months sooner than x-rays can. This helps reduce, or eliminate, the need for exploratory surgery.

Cancers, leukemia and hyperthyroidism are treated with radioactive materials. Fast-growing cancer cells absorb the radiation and are destroyed.

Medical Research

Thirty percent of all biomedical research involves the use of radionuclides. At least 80% of all new drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration result from research with radionuclides.

Scientists are now using radioactive materials in the search for cures for ParkinsonŐs disease, diabetes, cancer and AIDS.


Radioactive materials have many uses in industry, including production, quality control and product testing and manufacture.

Radioactive materials are used to:

find defects in a casting or weld in underground pipes and gas lines, jet engines, bridges, and high-rise buildings;
locate buried utility conduits;
measure and control the flow of oil in pipelines;
detect explosives in luggage at airports.

Radioactive materials are used to:

toughen the rubber and ensure that the steel belts in radial tires are properly aligned;
make computer discs "remember" data better;
bind the coating on non-stick pots and pans;
give garments the ability to repel water;
sterilize medical instruments and bandages, cosmetics and baby powder, contact lens solutions and the silicone in computer chips.

Radioactive materials are contained
in many products to help them work better.

Smoke detectors use small amounts of Americium-241 to detect the presence of smoke and initiate an alarm.
Static eliminators use Polonium-210 to treat bottles before they are filled, and to reduce the static charge in the production of photographic film.
Photocopiers use small amounts of radioactive materials to eliminate static and prevent paper from sticking.
Self-illuminating EXIT signs and some airport landing lights are powered by radioactive materials.
Electric arc welding rods used in the construction, aircraft and petrochemical industries use thorium for easier starting, greater stability and less metal contamination.
Fluorescent lights last longer because of Thorium-229.
Indicator lights in appliances such as washers and dryers, coffee makers and audio equipment use Krypton-85.


Radioactive materials are used by farmers and scientists to:

develop new varieties of hardier, more disease-resistant crops, including peanuts, tomatoes, onions, rice, soybeans, and barley;
control insect pests to obtain greater crop yields without chemical contamination;
measure moisture in grains stored in silos;
help prevent the overuse of fertilizers by tracking how plants absorb these chemicals;
breed disease-resistant livestock by pinpointing where illnesses strike the animals;
irradiate some foods and most spices to preserve them longer

. Science

By "tagging" toxic chemicals with a radionuclide, scientists can trace movement in the enviroment of these chemicals in minuscule amounts to help prevent exposure to people.

Radionuclides are used to trace the age and flow of groundwater.

Carbon-14 makes it possible for archaeologists to date artifacts with a precision otherwise impossible.

Because uranium decays into radioisotopes of lead, the age of mineral deposits can be found by lead dating. Scientists have used this method to estimate the age of the earth.

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Last updated September1997