What Is Radiation?

Radiation is any form of energy propagated as rays, waves or energetic particles that travel through the air or a material medium.

Radioactive materials are composed of atoms that are unstable. An unstable atom gives off its excess energy until it becomes stable. The energy emitted is radiation. The process by which an atom changes from an unstable state to a more stable state by emitting radiation is called radioactive decay or radioactivity.

People receive some natural or background radiation exposure each day from the sun, radioactive elements in the soil and rocks, household appliances (like television sets and microwave ovens), and medical and dental x-rays.Even the human body itself emits radiation. These levels of natural and background radiation are normal. The average American receives 360 millirems of radiation each year, 300 from natural sources and 60 from man-made activities. (A rem is a unit of radiation exposure.)

Radioactive materials – if handled improperly – or radiation accidentally released into the environment, can be dangerous because of the harmful effects of certain types of radiation on the body. The longer a person is exposed to radiation and the closer the person is to the radiation, the greater the risk.

Although radiation cannot be detected by the senses (sight, smell, etc.), it is easily detected by scientists with sophisticated instruments that can detect even the smallest levels of radiation.

Preparing For An Emergency

Federal, State and local officials work together to develop site-specific emergency response plans for nuclear power plant accidents. These plans are tested through exercises that include protective actions for schools and nursing homes.

The plans also outline evacuation routes, reception centers for those seeking radiological monitoring and location of congregate care centers for temporary lodging.

What about local residents?

State and local governments, with support from the Federal government and utilities, develop plans that include an emergency planning zone with a radius of 10 miles from the radioactive location, and a planning zone within a radius of 50 miles from the disaster location.

Residents within the 10-mile emergency planning zone are regularly provided emergency information (via brochures, the phone book, calendars, utility bills, etc.). These materials contain educational information about radiation, instructions for evacuation and sheltering, special arrangements for the handicapped, contacts for additional information, etc. Residents should be familiar with these emergency information materials.

Radiological emergency plans call for a prompt Alert and Notification system. If needed, this prompt Alert and Notification System will be activated quickly to inform the public of any potential threat from natural or man-made events. This system uses either sirens, tone alert radios, route alerting (the "Paul Revere" method), or a combination to notify the public to tune their radios or television to an Emergency Alert System (EAS) station.

The EAS stations will provide information and emergency instructions for the public to follow. If you are alerted, tune to your local EAS station which includes radio stations, television stations, NOAA weather radio, and the cable TV system.

Special plans must be made to assist and care for persons who are medically disabled or handicapped. If you or someone you know lives within ten miles of a nuclear facility, please notify and register with your local emergency management agency. Adequate assistance will be provided during an emergency.

In the most serious case, evacuations will be recommended based on particular plant conditions rather than waiting for the situation to deteriorate and an actual release of radionuclides to occur.