What are the significant issues and developments in radiation protection

- May 23, 2019-

What are the significant issues and developments in radiation protection?

Radiationprotection is a dynamic field. The wealth of scientific knowledge upon   which it is founded increases constantly. There are new advances in technology  both with respect to providing protection and the use of radiation sources.   Also, regardless of the general status of protection, there are a number of conceptual and practical issues which remain open. 

There is  a growing feeling that future advances in biology might result in breakthroughs   in fundamental scientific knowledge which could change the dose-effect  relationship and risk models, and provide genetic analysis techniques    capable of identifying some specific radiation-induced tumours above the  general background of tumour incidence. Developments such as these could  affect how the principles for radiation protection are implemented. For  example, experimental data on adaptive responses or stimulation of cellular   repair at very low doses, if confirmed, could affect estimates of stochastic    risk of low doses and lead to revised approaches to situations such as  those involving intervention. 

Some practices  are in a constant state of evolution with new technologies and procedures   replacing the old. The use of radiation in medicine is an example of such   a situation. Several models of power reactors based on new safety concepts   are being developed. Nuclear fusion is a truly new practice undergoing  long term development which may become a reality in the decades to come.   These are examples of the types of developments that can involve new radiation  protection issues and strategies. Also, another area which is expected   to reach an industrial dimension in the next few decades is decommissioning   of commercial nuclear power plants. Here, emphasis in radiation protection  should focus on optimised strategies for the protection of workers and   the public. Of particular interest is the practical application of the    protection principles to exempt wastes associated with huge amounts of   slightly contaminated scrap materials and valuable metals.

Applying  the concepts of protection against potential exposure to sources used  in medicine, industry and research as well as applying the concepts to waste disposal, presents a particular challenge with much yet to be done.        Mistakes or accidents involving relatively simple sources have resulted  in serious injury and deaths. There is a need to improve the ability to  assess and manage the risks from potential exposure, particularly with  respect to accounting for the complete human-machine systems and interfaces   in safety evaluations. This is particularly important for radiation therapy,  because the margin of error is small when treating patients with high-radiation   doses. Since devices and procedures used in radiation medicine are constantly   evolving, keeping current with understanding and managing potential exposure  risk is particularly difficult. 

Adequate  treatment of the long-time aspect (thousands of years) of waste disposal  is a difficult problem with respect to potential exposure. Although there  seems to be a consensus that the radiation protection objective of waste disposal is not to subject people in the future to a risk that is significantly  greater than society is willing to accept now, the challenge consists   in demonstrating the case against specific national performance criteria    to the satisfaction of the regulatory authorities. It involves a very    complex safety analysis of the disposal system. The main difficulties        in providing a robust safety analysis for disposal are a lack of information    about the frequency of disruptive events, lack of feedback from operating    experience and design evaluation, and lack of environmental models for   the future. Overcoming these difficulties requires the concerted efforts of radiation protection, waste management and other specialists at both international and national levels.

Finally, there is the social dimension of radiation protection. Radiation causes        public anxiety regardless of how well present radiation practices enable  persons to live in relative safety with radiation. The cause of this anxiety  is only speculative and probably cannot be attributed to a single cause,    but rather a combination of things, such as its association with nuclear weapons, the fact that it cannot be detected by the human senses and that  it can produce cancer. This has led to a keener sensibility to the costs  than to the benefits of some radiation practices. 

For this and other good reasons, decision-making in several areas of radiation  protection cannot be isolated from its social dimension and must involve  the social parties affected. Better involvement of social parties in radiation        protection decisions requires improvement in the information provided  and education of interested parties about radiation, its benefits and  impacts, and the protection against these impacts. Although society is   showing an ever increasing interest and willingness in being involved   in decisions affecting life and well-being, from the standpoint of radiation protection, a reinforced and better focused effort is needed.