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Understanding Radiation and Public Safety

Understanding Radiation and public safety

Radiation takes many different forms in our natural environment. Light and heat radiation are produced by the Sun, ionizing radiation is produced by some minerals in the Earth. Despite these different forms of radiation, most people are concerned about one type – that produced by nuclear energy and artificial radioactive materials.

Radiation is a fact of life. We live in a world in which radiation is naturally present everywhere.  Light and heat from nuclear reactions in the Sun are essential to our existence. Radioactive materials occur naturally throughout the environment, and our bodies contain radioactive materials such as carbon-14, potassium-40 and polonium-210 quite naturally. All life on Earth has evolved in the, presence of this radiation. Since the discovery of X rays and radioactivity more than 100 years ago, we have found ways of producing radiation and radioactive materials artificially. The first use of X rays was in medical diagnosis, within six months of their discovery in 1895. So a benefit from the use of radiation was established very early on, but equally some of the potential dangers of radiation became apparent in the doctors and surgeons who unwittingly overexposed themselves to X rays in the early 1900s. Since then, many different applications of radiation and radioactive materials have been developed. We can classify radiation according to, the effects, it produces on matter, into ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation includes cosmic rays, X rays and the radiation from radioactive materials. Non-ionizing radiation includes ultraviolet light, radiant heat, radio waves and microwaves.

Benefits and risks

The benefits and risks of any practice involving radiation need to be established, so that an informed judgement can be made on their use, and any risks minimized. The discovery of ionizing radiation and radioactive materials has led to dramatic advances in medical diagnosis and treatment, and they are used for a wide range of procedures in industry, agriculture, and research. Nevertheless, they can be harmful to human beings, and people must be protected from unnecessary or excessive exposures. So in circumstances that we can control, we need to make a careful balance between the benefits and the risks of the procedures that expose people to radiation.

Public anxiety

The greatest concern about ionizing radiation stems from its potential to cause malignant diseases in people exposed to it and inherited defects in later generations. The likelihood of such effects depends on the amount of radiation that a person receives, whether from a natural or an artificial source. As the effects of ionizing radiation have become better understood during recent decades, a system of radiological protection has been developed to protect people from exposure to sources of radiation. But public anxiety remains. Radiation is one cause, among many, of the ‘dread disease’ cancer. Our senses cannot detect radiation, making this invisible risk seem even more insidious. Our collective anxiety is strengthened by memories — and, in some cases, ongoing effects — of accidents at nuclear power plants and other facilities, and by the common tendency to associate, any form of radiation with all things ‘nuclear’, including nuclear weapons. Another contributory reason for general heightened sense of concern about radiation may be the lack of reliable and accessible information and the misunderstandings that arise.

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All nuclear facilities and activities in Canada are governed by the Nuclear Safety and Control Act (NSCA), which came into force in 2000.

The role of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) is to make sure the NSCA and its related regulations are followed. The NSCA and its regulations are designed to protect the public, the people who work in the nuclear sector, and our environment.

CNSC works with provincial and territorial regulatory bodies with respect to environmental and radiation protection. A number of other Government of Canada departments also play a role in protecting Canadians. The CNSC collaborates with Natural Resources Canada,Environment CanadaHealth CanadaTransport CanadaNational Defence and the Canadian Forces and Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada to regulate Canadian nuclear facilities and activities.

Regulating licensees, organizations and facilities

Through the Nuclear Safety and Control Act, the CNSC regulates licensees and organizations that produce, use, store or transport nuclear materials in Canada.

When people think of nuclear facilities, they most often think of nuclear power plants. But there are many other facilities in the nuclear sector regulated by the CNSC. Other sectors include uranium mines and mills, processing and research facilities, nuclear substances and radiation devices, and radioactive waste and waste management facilities.

Regulating activities

CNSC regulates activities that take place in nuclear facilities across Canada. CNSC’s goal is to ensure the protection of workers’ safety and health. The activities include securitydosimetry, packaging and transport of nuclear substances, and the import and export of nuclear substances.

For example, the Canadian Radiation Protection Regulationsset limits on the amount of radiation the public and nuclear energy workers can receive. It requires that every licensee implement a radiation protection program that keeps the amount of exposure to ionizing radiation as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA). Dose limits are defined in the Radiation Protection Regulations.

Nuclear facilities in Canada must have qualified personnel to carry out operations according to the Nuclear Safety and Control Act and its regulations. The CNSC verifies the competency of radiation protection personnel to ensure they are capable of performing the duties stated in the licences.

International standards

Canada’s nuclear safety standards are benchmarked against international standards. To do this, CNSC relies on the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other organizations such as the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) and the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), as well as Health Canada and Environment Canada.

With the cooperation of its member states, the IAEA publishes a number of international standards, including standards for nuclear non-proliferation. CNSC’s standards and best practices in this area respect IAEA’s standards.

In the area of nuclear non-proliferation, CNSC is responsible for implementing on behalf of the Government of Canada two policy objectives. These objectives assure Canadians and the international community that our country’s nuclear exports do not contribute to the development of nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices; and, they promote a more effective and comprehensive international nuclear non-proliferation regime.

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