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Category Archives: General

NRC Science 101 — Different Types of Radiation

Donald Cool
Senior Radiation Safety Advisor

science_101_squeakychalkIn earlier Science 101 posts, we talked about what makes up atoms, chemicals, matter and ionizing radiation. In this post, we will look at the different kinds of radiation.

There are four major types of radiation: alpha, beta, neutrons, and electromagnetic waves such as gamma rays. They differ in mass, energy and how deeply they penetrate people and objects.

The first is an alpha particle. These particles consist of two protons and two neutrons and are the heaviest type of radiation particle. Many of the naturally occurring radioactive materials in the earth, like uranium and thorium, emit alpha particles. An example most people are familiar with is the radon in our homes.

The second kind of radiation is a beta particle. It’s an electron that is not attached to an atom (see previous blog post). It has a small mass and a negative charge. Tritium, which is produced by cosmic radiation in the atmosphere and exists all around us, emits beta radiation. Carbon-14, used in carbon-dating of fossils and other artifacts, also emits beta particles. Carbon-dating simply makes use of the fact that carbon-14 is radioactive. If you measure the beta particles, it tells you how much carbon-14 is left in the fossil, which allows you to calculate how long ago the organism was alive.

The third is a neutron. This is a particle that doesn’t have any charge and is present in the nucleus of an atom. Neutrons are commonly seen when uranium atoms split, or fission, in a nuclear reactor. If it wasn’t for the neutrons, you wouldn’t be able to sustain the nuclear reaction used to generate power.

The last kind of radiation is electromagnetic radiation, like X-rays and gamma rays. They are probably the most familiar type of radiation because they are used widely in medical treatments. These rays are like sunlight, except they have more energy. Unlike the other kinds of radiation, there is no mass or charge. The amount of energy can range from very low, like in dental x-rays, to the very high levels seen in irradiators used to sterilize medical equipment.

fordoncools101As mentioned, these different kinds of radiation travel different distances and have different abilities to penetrate, depending on their mass and their energy. The figure (right) shows the differences.

Neutrons, because they don’t have any charge, don’t interact with materials very well and will go a very long way. The only way to stop them is with large quantities of water or other materials made of very light atoms.

On the other hand, an alpha particle, because it’s very heavy and has a very large charge, doesn’t go very far at all. This means an alpha particle can’t even get through a sheet of paper. An alpha particle outside your body won’t even penetrate the surface of your skin. But, if you inhale or ingest material that emits alpha particles, sensitive tissue like the lungs can be exposed. This is why high levels of radon are considered a problem in your home. The ability to stop alpha particles so easily is useful in smoke detectors, because a little smoke in the chamber is enough to stop the alpha particle and trigger the alarm.

Beta particles go a little farther than alpha particles. You could use a relatively small amount of shielding to stop them. They can get into your body but can’t go all the way through. To be useful in medical imaging, beta particles must be released by a material that is injected into the body. They can also be very useful in cancer therapy if you can put the radioactive material in a tumor.

Gamma rays and x-rays can penetrate through the body. This is why they are useful in medicine—to show whether bones are broken or where there is tooth decay, or to locate a tumor. Shielding with dense materials like concrete and lead is used to avoid exposing sensitive internal organs or the people who may be working with this type of radiation. For example, the technician who does my dental x-rays puts a lead apron over me before taking the picture. That apron stops the x-rays from getting to the rest of my body. The technician stands behind the wall, which usually has some lead in it, to protect him or herself.

Radiation is all around us, but that is not a reason to be afraid. Different types of radiation behave differently, and some forms can be very useful. For more information on radiation, please see our website.

Don Cool, who holds a Ph.D. in radiation biology, advises the NRC on radiation safety and for 30 years has been active on international radiation safety committees.

Change is in the Air: NRC Launches New Career Opportunities Website

Kristin Davis
Senior Human Resources Specialist

With April showers comes the countdown to graduation, and some student’s thoughts turn to the job market. Even those already employed may be getting the urge for a change of scenery. In that spirit the NRC has launched a new Career Opportunities website to attract the technologically savvy job seekers of today.

careerpictureOur website is often the first introduction prospective applicants have to the NRC and our important mission. This redesign allows us to improve that first impression with enhanced maneuverability and the most up-to-date information, all while embodying the NRC work style and attitude.

The fresh new look gives the NRC an entirely new online presence that aligns seamlessly with our overall recruitment campaign and conveys to prospective applicants that NRC has career opportunities for motivated, bright and dedicated experienced professionals as well as recent college graduates.

To attract top talent to fill our mission critical positions, we must develop relationships with potential candidates long before we need them. The Career Opportunities website is just one of the many avenues we use to do just that. We also attend college and professional career fairs, place ads in professional journals and post jobs on online job boards.  

Each year, the NRC hires about 200 new staff members in fields such as engineering, nuclear science and security.

The NRC Supports Local Science with A Special Student Award

Jenny Tobin
Project Manager
Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulations

The Montgomery County (Md.) Science fair, aka “ScienceMontgomery,” is not your average science fair. Many of the students living in the communities around the NRC headquarters have access to advanced science curricula and research opportunities, and there is a large pool of high-tech, biomedical, and research institutes that set the bar high for hands-on learning.

For me, who grew up in a very small Midwest farming community, serving as a judge for a special NRC award is always an eye-opening experience.

Jenny Tobin reviews Montgomery County, Md., science projects for a special NRC award.

Jenny Tobin reviews Montgomery County, Md., science projects for a special NRC award.

I was in good company with a 14-person volunteer team of NRC employees who got to evaluate more than 300 science projects from local middle schools and high schools. I was on the team that reviewed the high school projects and we picked the top three for NRC Community Awards that demonstrated achievement and application to the NRC mission, goals and responsibilities.

What I find most interesting, year after year, is watching, listening and seeing the current trends in topics the students choose as their science project.

A science project can be an experiment, a demonstration, a research effort, a collection of scientific items or display of scientific apparatus presented for viewing. This year there was a huge surge in cyber security, computer modeling and analyses projects throughout the fair.

In the high school completion judges must listen to the student’s presentation and their responses to questions asked. You can tell immediately which students know their topics and which ones have had too much adult or parental support.

What stands out when you speak to students can easily be summed up in their ingenuity of their project design, subject knowledge and passion for discovery solutions. I found these in the 2014 NRC award winners.

I particularly find amazing how the students re-engineer and recycle materials, and create new working designs. In the case of the first place project “Replacing Modern Sprinkler Systems with Infrared Detection to Locate and Extinguish Fires,” it was cool how they took motherboards, rubber bands and other common household items to create a working product that used infrared sensor technology to detect the hot spots of a fire and direct water to this location. For the NRC, fire protection and fire code continues to be a major spotlight issue in nuclear power plants and facilities. 

When I listened to the student whose project, “Saturated Nuclear Matter in the Large Nc and Heavy Quark Limits of Quantum Chromodynamics,” his ownership or mastery of the subject and presentation was so amazing that it made me flash back to my own quantum physics professors in college. This high-schooler was so savvy and professional. Basically his project worked through mathematical proofs, from first principles, on fundamental properties of quantum chromodynamics.   

NRC Deputy Executive Director Michael Weber (left) presents special awards for projects that relate to the agency's work. Also in the picture (left to right) students Richard Wang, Kevin Chen, Andrew Komo, Noah Kim, George Klees and the NRC’s Kreslyon Fleming.

NRC Deputy Executive Director Michael Weber (left) presents special awards for projects that relate to the agency’s work. Also in the picture (left to right) students Richard Wang, Kevin Chen, Andrew Komo, Noah Kim, George Klees and the NRC’s Kreslyon Fleming.

Novel solutions to real world problems such as “Finding Ways to Reduce Rush Hour Commute Times Using Computer Simulations” were another common theme at the science fair. This student programmed a simulation for a certain section of highway to evaluate potential solutions (such as adding exits, increasing the speed limit, adding a lane, etc.) to determine the best method to reduce traffic delays. He used data from the Department of Transportation to construct a true-to-life model of the situation. I could use less traffic to and from work!

In the end, learning about science is at the heart of a science fair; and anything I can do to fuel this passion is reward enough. By the way, the NRC supports this event because it is a way to give back to the community, engage students with an interest in STEM careers and – possibly – as a future recruitment tool. Winners receive an award certificate, a chance to present their projects to NRC staff and a NRC logo merchandise gift certificate.

Nine students were selected for the NRC Community Award that demonstrated achievement and application to the NRC mission, goals and responsibilities.

Middle School (Junior) Division:

1st Place: Raspberry Pi Controlled Robots — Student: Kevin Chen; Roberto Clemente Middle School

2nd Place: Securing Computer Networks — Students: George Klees and Theo Tosini; Takoma Park Middle School

3rd Place: The Efficiency of Data Encryption Methods — Student(s): Andrew Komo and Noah Kim; Takoma Park Middle School

High School (Senior) Division:

1st Place: Replacing Modern Sprinkler Systems with Infrared Detection to Locate and Extinguish Fires — Students: Ishan Mundra and Karan Chawla; Poolesville High School

2nd Place: Saturated Nuclear Matter in the Large Nc and Heavy Quark Limits of Quantum Chromodynamics — Student: Ishaun Datta; Montgomery Blair High School

3rd Place: Finding Ways to Reduce Rush Hour Commute Times Using Computer Simulations — Student: Richard Wang; Poolesville High School

The NRC Wants to Put the “U” in Strategic Plan

Francine Goldberg
Senior Advisor for Performance Management


Well, we do realize there is no “u” in “strategic plan,” but the NRC is drafting its 2014-2018 road map and we want your input before we finalize it.

Picture1The plan is updated every four years and is used to guide our work. You may not be aware that all of NRC’s business lines (operating reactors, new reactors, fuel facilities, nuclear materials, etc.) link their annual plans to the strategic plan and all our senior executive performance plans are linked to it as well.

If you’re familiar with our previous Strategic Plan, you’ll notice our mission and strategic goals remain basically unchanged, but the new plan does contain some new components. For example, a vision statement has been added to emphasize the importance, not only of what we achieve, but of how we regulate And there are now three strategic objectives, one for safety and two for security.

Each objective has associated strategies and key activities that will be used to achieve them. For example, this is one of the strategies for the safety objective along with three key activities:

Ensure the NRC’s readiness to respond to incidents and emergencies involving NRC-licensed facilities and radioactive materials, and other events of domestic and international interest.

·        Use operational experience and lessons learned from emergency-preparedness exercises to inform the regulatory activities.

·        Coordinate with federal, state, local, and tribal partners to strengthen national readiness and response capabilities.

·        Employ outreach before, during, and after emergency-preparedness exercises, and increase collaboration and sharing of best practices and lessons learned after emergency-preparedness exercises and incidents.

The goal of the comment period is to take advantage of the collective knowledge of the public – there is a “u” in public, after all — to make sure our plan is as good as it can be.

Picture1Why should you take the time to comment? Well, perhaps you are aware of a key external factor that we have missed that could affect the strategies and activities we have planned. Or maybe you have ideas for additional strategies or activities we need to focus on to achieve one of our objectives. This is your opportunity to weigh in and tell us if we are addressing the issues of importance to you. 

All comments will be reviewed and incorporated, as appropriate, into a revised plan. The disposition of substantive comments will be included in a Commission paper transmitting the resulting plan to the Commission for their final review and approval. 

Please submit your comments online through the federal government’s rulemaking website, www.regulations.gov using Docket ID NRC-2013-0230; or by mail to Cindy Bladey, Chief, Rules, Announcements, and Directives Branch, Office of Administration, Mail Stop:  3WFN-06-44M, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, DC 20555-0001. The comment period is coming quickly. It closes on 04/04/2014. Comments on this blog post cannot be considered, so please use the official channels. More information is also available in the Federal Register Notice.

We look forward to hearing from you soon.

It’s That Time Again – Open Government Plan Revision Time

Stu Reiter
Co-Chair Open Government Advisory Group

NRC Open GovYou probably hoped we were talking about Spring – long awaited for those of us on the East Coast – but in truth, we’re talking about the every-two-year review of the agency’s Open Government plan.

We published our first plan on April 7, 2010, and then issued a revision on June 7, 2010, to reflect your feedback. In April 2012, we updated our plan again – although our effort to get your feedback wasn’t what we’d describe as a resounding success.

On June 1, 2014, we will re-publish our plan. Among other things, we will note accomplishments over the past two years and plans over the next two years, including:

• Focusing on improving the process of handling Freedom of Information Act requests;

• Embracing the President’s Digital Government Strategy and, among other initiatives, deploying a mobile-based public meeting feedback option;

• Continuing to grow our social media program with increased subscriber and viewer rates – at times nearly doubling previous years’ statistics;

• Continuing to enhance our collaboration with state and tribal governments through a range of outreach efforts;

• Continuing to enhance our collaboration with the international community, with increased focus on sharing information after the lessons learned from the Fukushima accident;

• Improving the public’s ability to participate in the NRC’s regulatory processes by creating a one-stop web location for rulemaking actions and other documents open for comment;

• Modernizing the management of our records to make information capture and categorization more complete and transparent; and

• Enhancing stakeholder involvement in public meetings using technologies such as web streaming and conferencing

NRC Open GovAs we finalize our plan, we invite your thoughts on how we can further improve our openness program and its focus on transparency, participation and collaboration.

While comments are welcome at any time, comments must be received by April 4, 2014, to be considered specifically for the June update. Please submit your thoughts as comments to this post or via our Online Comment Form. We very much look forward to hearing from you!


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