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More Information on Types of Radiation Emergencies

Radiation emergencies may be intentional (e.g., caused by terrorists) or unintentional. Below is more information on some examples of different types of radiation emergencies.


Improvised Nuclear Device and Nuclear Weapons

What is a nuclear weapon?

A nuclear weapon is a device that uses a nuclear reaction to create an explosion. This explosion is much more powerful than that of conventional explosives (like TNT).

What is an Improvised Nuclear Device (IND)?

An Improvised Nuclear Device (IND) is a type of nuclear weapon. When an IND or other nuclear weapon explodes, it gives off four types of energy: a blast wave, intense light, heat, and radiation. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War II is an example of an IND.

When an IND or other nuclear weapon explodes, a large fireball is created. Everything inside of this fireball vaporizes and is carried upward. This creates a mushroom-shaped cloud. The material in the cloud cools into dust-like particles and drops back to the earth as fallout. Fallout can be carried by the wind and can end up miles from the site of the explosion. Fallout is radioactive and can contaminate anything it lands on.

What are the main dangers of an Improvised Nuclear Device (IND) or other nuclear weapons?

An IND and other nuclear weapons would cause great destruction, death and injury, and have a wide area of impact.

People close to the blast site could experience:

  • Injury or death (as a result of the blast)
  • Moderate to severe burns
  • Flash blindness
  • Radiation Sickness (also called acute radiation syndrome or ARS)
  • Contaminated food and water sources
  • The best way to protect yourself if an IND explodes is to Get Inside, Stay Inside, and Stay Tuned.


Dirty Bomb or Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD)

What is a dirty bomb?

  • A dirty bomb is a mix of explosives, such as dynamite, and radioactive powder or pellets. It is also known as a Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD).
  • A dirty bomb cannot create an atomic blast.
  • When the bomb explodes, the blast carries radioactive material into the surrounding area.

What is the main danger of a dirty bomb?

  • The main danger from a dirty bomb comes from the explosion, not the radiation.
  • The explosion from can cause serious injuries and property damage.
  • People nearby could be injured by pieces of radioactive material from the bomb.
  • Only people who are very close to the blast site would be exposed to enough radiation to cause immediate serious illness. However, the radioactive dust and smoke can spread farther away and could be dangerous to health if people breathe in the dust, eat contaminated food, or drink contaminated water.
  • People injured by radioactive pieces or contaminated with radioactive dust will need medical attention.
  • The best way to protect yourself if a dirty bomb explodes is to Get Inside, Stay Inside, and Stay Tuned.


Radiological Exposure Device (RED)

What is a Radiological Exposure Device (RED)?

  • Radioactive material or an object containing radioactive material can expose people to radiation without their knowledge. Such objects are called Radiological Exposure Devices (REDs), or hidden sealed sources.
  • REDs may be hidden in public places (e.g., under a subway seat, in a food court, or in a busy hallway).
  • People who sit near or pass close to the RED may be exposed to radiation.

What are the main dangers of an RED?

  • The dangers of a RED depend on three factors:
    1. The type and amount of radioactive material used;
    2. How long people were near the device;
    3. What parts of a person's body are exposed to radiation coming from the device.
  • People exposed to high levels of radiation can develop symptoms of Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS). They can also develop radiation burns.
  • Health effects may take hours, days, or weeks to appear. These effects range from mild to severe (e.g., cancer or death). Some people may not experience any health effects.
  • Report a suspected RED to law enforcement officials immediately. Stay as far away from the suspected object as possible. If a RED is identified, and you believe you have been exposed, listen for instructions from emergency officials and contact your doctor.


Nuclear Power Plant Accident

Nuclear power plants have safety and security procedures in place and are closely monitored by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). External Web Site Icon An accident at a nuclear power plant could release dangerous levels of radiation over an area (sometimes called a plume).

What are the main dangers of a nuclear power plant accident?

  • Radioactive materials in the plume from the nuclear power plant can settle and contaminate people who are outdoors, buildings, food, water, and livestock. 
  • Radioactive materials can also get inside the body if people breathe it in, or eat or drink something that is contaminated.
  • People living close to the nuclear power plant who are exposed to radiation could experience long-term health effects such as cancer.

What should I do to protect myself?

  • If you live near a nuclear power plant, you can get emergency information materials from the power company that operates your local nuclear power plant or your local emergency services office. 

  • If a nuclear power plant accident happens, the best thing to do is to Get Inside, Stay Inside, and Stay Tuned for instructions from emergency officials.


Transportation Accidents

How is radioactive material transported?

  • Radioactive material is transported by trucks, rail, and other shipping methods.
  • Shipments involving significant amounts of radioactive material are required to have documentation, labels, and placards identifying the cargo as radioactive.

What are the main dangers of a transportation accident involving radiation?

  • The main dangers of transportation accidents involving radiation are contact with and exposure to radioactive material. 

  • It is very unlikely that accidents involving transport of radioactive material will cause any radiation-related injuries or illnesses.  Emergency officials have plans in place to safely respond to transportation accidents involving radioactive material.

What should I do to protect myself?

  • Report any transportation accidents involving radiation to emergency responders immediately.  Stay as far away from the site of the accident as possible.  Do not touch any cargo from the transport container.

  • If you believe you have been exposed, listen for instructions from emergency officials and contact your doctor.

Workplace Radiation Incidents

Workplaces like health care facilities, research institutions, and industrial operations may use radiation sources.  An incident can happen if:

  • Radiation sources are stored or used incorrectly
  • Safety controls malfunction
  • Safety procedures are not followed 

How can an occupational accident involving radiation affect people's health?

The health effects from a workplace incident involving radiation sources could range from no health effects to very serious health effects based on several factors:

  • The type and amount of radioactive material
  • How long people were near the radioactive material or how long the radioactive material was in or on the body
  • How close people were to the radioactive material
  • What parts of the body were exposed

What should I do to protect myself?

  • If your workplace uses radiation sources, use required personal protective and monitoring equipment, be familiar with safety precautions and procedures, and complete required radiation safety trainings.
  • Report any incidents involving radiation to safety officials immediately. Stay as far away from the site of the incident as possible.
  • If you are involved in a workplace radiation incident, follow instructions from safety officials and contact your doctor.
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