Radiation and Nuclear Power Plants
Each of us is exposed to radiation daily from natural sources. Radiation is found in or from the sun, air, soil, plants, building materials and in the human body. Small traces of radiation are present in food and water. Radiation also is released from man-made sources such as X-ray machines, television sets and microwave ovens. Low levels of daily radiation are not harmful.
Radioactive materials are made of atoms that are unstable. An unstable atom gives off its excess energy until it becomes stable. The energy emitted is radiation. Radiation has an increasing effect: the longer a person is exposed to it, the greater the effect. A high exposure to radiation can cause serious illness or death.
There are three types of radiation:
- Alpha – the least penetrating, can be stopped by a piece of paper.
- Beta – can be stopped by a thin piece of aluminum.
- Gamma – can be stopped by lead, water or concrete.
North Carolina has four nuclear power plants that serve the state. It is good to be ready in case something were to happen at one of these plants or from a terrorist attack that could cause a nuclear blast.
Nuclear power plants use the heat created from nuclear fission in a contained setting to change water to steam. This powers generators to make electricity. North Carolina is home for the nation’s largest utility, Duke Energy.
A major part of the state’s population lives or works in near one of these operating nuclear plants. The construction and operation of these plants are closely watched and ruled by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Yet, accidents can occur. An accident could result in dangerous levels of radiation that could affect the health and safety of the public living near the nuclear power plant.
Local and state governments, federal agencies, and the electric utilities have emergency response plans in case of a nuclear power plant incident. The plans define two “emergency planning zones.” One zone covers an area within a 10-mile radius of the plant. This 10-mile area is an area where people could be harmed by direct radiation exposure. The second zone covers a broader area. This area – up to a 50-mile radius – is where radioactive materials could contaminate water supplies, food crops and livestock.
The potential danger from an accident at a nuclear power plant is contact with radiation. This contact could come from the release of radioactive material from the plant into the environment, usually described as a plume (cloud-like formation) of radioactive gases and particles. The major dangers are radiation exposure to the body from the cloud and particles put on the ground, breathing in of radioactive materials and eating of radioactive materials.
You could be exposed to radiation through radioactive material in the air or on the ground. During a nuclear incident it is important to stay away from radioactive material if possible. You can do this many different ways:
- Prevent exposure by going to a place with no radioactive material, such as indoors.
- Stop exposure to radioactive material on hair, skin and clothing by washing it off with clean water.
- Radioactive material that is breathed in or swallowed can be gotten rid of when the material stops giving off radiation or when your body removes it.
Before a Nuclear Power Plant Emergency
The following are things you can do to protect yourself, your family and your property from the effects of a nuclear power plant emergency:
- Build an emergency supply kit, which includes food that won’t go bad or expire, water, a battery-powered or hand-crank radio, extra flashlights and batteries. You should add plastic sheeting, duct tape and scissors to the kit.
- Make a family emergency plan. Your family may not be together when an emergency strikes. It is good to know how you will contact one another, how you will get back together, and what you will do in case of an emergency.
- Get public emergency information materials from the power company that runs your local nuclear power plant or your local emergency services office. If you live within 10 miles of the power plant, you should receive the materials yearly from the power company or your state or local government.
During a Nuclear Power Plant Emergency
Local authorities would start warning sirens and hand out safety instructions through the Emergency Alert System (EAS) on local television and radio stations if an accident at a nuclear power plant happened. Listen to orders from local officials. They will tell you the best way to lower your exposure to radiation based on the environmental conditions. You may be told to leave or stay indoors.
There are four primary ways to limit the amount of radiation you are exposed to:
Shielding – put as many layers as possible between you and the radioactive material.
- If instructed to stay indoors, take cover immediately. Go as far below ground as possible. Any shield or shelter will help protect you from the immediate exposure.
- Close windows and doors. Turn off air conditioners, heaters or other airing systems.
Distance – the farther away you are away from the blast and the fallout, the lower your exposure.
- Some areas may be told to leave. Follow orders from local officials.
- If you are told to leave, keep car windows and vents closed. Use re-circulating air.
Time - decreasing time spent exposed will also lower your risk.
Potassium Iodide – if there is a significant radiation threat, health care authorities may or may not tell you to take potassium iodide. Think about keeping potassium iodide in your emergency kit. Learn what the correct doses are for each of your family members.
After a Nuclear Power Plant Emergency
After a nuclear power plant emergency, local authorities will start warning sirens and provide safety orders through the Emergency Alert System (EAS) on local television and radio stations. Listen to orders from local officials. They will tell you the best way to lower your exposure based on the outside conditions. You may be told to leave or stay indoors.
- Go to a selected public shelter if you have been told to leave.
- Act quickly if you have come in to contact with or have been exposed to dangerous radiation.
- Follow decontamination directions from local authorities. You may be told to take a thorough shower.
- Change your clothes and shoes. Put exposed clothing in a plastic bag. Seal it and place it out of the way.
- Seek medical treatment for different symptoms, such as nausea, as soon as possible.
- Help neighbors who may need special help – infants, elderly people and people with access and functional needs may need extra help. People who care for them or who have large families may need extra help in emergency situations.
- Return home only when authorities say it is safe.
- Keep food in covered containers or in the refrigerator. Food not previously covered should be washed before being put in to containers.
More information on nuclear safety and protection from radiation can be found at:
- Nuclear Regulatory Commission
- Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration
- Environmental Protection Agency
Listen to Local Officials
Learn about the emergency plans that have been made in your area by your state and local government. In any emergency, always listen to the orders given by local emergency management officials.
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