Radiation Training Module 1


Radiation Properties 


This module provides information about the following topics:

  • The Atom
  • Radiation
  • Radioactive Decay
  • Alpha Particles
  • Beta Particles
  • Gamma Rays
  • X-Rays
  • Radiation Units
  • Half-Life

The Atom


The Bohr Model of the atom consists of a central nucleus composed of neutrons and protons surrounded by a number of orbital electrons equal to the number of protons.

Protons are positively charged, while neutrons have no charge. Each has a mass of about 1 atomic mass unit or amu. Electrons are negatively charged and have mass of 0.00055 amu.

The number of protons in a nucleus determines the element of the atom. For example, the number of protons in uranium is 92 while the number in neon is 10. The proton number is often referred to as Z.

An element may have several isotopes.  An isotope of an element is comprised of atoms containing the same number of protons as all other isotopes of that element, but each isotope has a different number of neutrons than other isotopes of that element.   Isotopes may be expressed using the nomenclature Neon-20 or 20Ne10, where 20 represents the combined number of neutrons and protons in the atom (often referred to as the mass number A), and 10 represents the number of protons (the atomic number Z).

While many isotopes are stable, others are not.  Unstable isotopes normally release energy by undergoing nuclear transformations (also called decay) through one of several radioactive processes described later in this module.

Elements are arranged in the periodic table with increasing Z.  Radioisotopes are arranged by A and Z in the chart of the nuclides.


Radiation is energy transmitted through space in the form of electromagnetic waves or energetic particles.   Electromagnetic radiation, like light or radio waves, has no mass or charge.  The following chart shows the electromagnetic spectrum.


This training is concerned with radiation that has sufficient energy to remove electrons from atoms in materials through which the radiation passes.  This process is called ionization , and the high frequency electromagnetic waves and energetic particles that can produce ionizations are called ionizing radiations.  Examples of ionizing radiation include:

· alpha particle radiation

· beta particle radiation

· neutrons

· gamma rays

· x-rays


Nonionizing radiations are not energetic enough to ionize atoms and interact with materials in ways that create different hazards than ionizing radiation.  Examples of nonionizing radiation include:

· microwaves

· visible light

· radio waves

· TV waves

· ultraviolet light



Radioactive Decay

The atomic structure for certain isotopes of elements is naturally unstable. Radioactivity is the natural and spontaneous process by which the unstable atoms of an isotope of an element transform or decay to a different state and emit or radiate excess energy in the form of particles or waves.  These emissions are energetic enough to ionize atoms and are called ionizing radiation.  Depending on how the nucleus loses this excess energy, either a lower energy atom of the same form results or a completely different nucleus and atom is formed.

A given radioactive isotope decays through a specific transformation or set of transformations.  The type of emissions, along with the energy of the emissions, that result from the radioactive decay are unique to that isotope.   For instance, an atom of phosphorus-32 decays to an atom of non-radioactive sulfur-32, accompanied by the emission of a beta particle with energy up to 1.71 million electron-volts.

The following sections describe the radiations associated with the radioactive decay of the radioisotopes most commonly used in research at Murray State University.


Alpha Particle Radiation


An alpha particle consists of two neutrons and two protons ejected from the nucleus of an atom. The alpha particle is identical to the nucleus of a helium atom. Examples of alpha emitters are radium, radon, thorium, and uranium.

Because alpha particles are charged and relatively heavy, they interact intensely with atoms in materials they encounter, giving up their energy over a very short range.  In air, their travel distances are limited to no more than a few centimeters. As shown in the following illustration, alpha particles are easily shielded against and can be stopped by a single sheet of paper.

Since alpha particles cannot penetrate the dead layer of the skin, they do not present a hazard from exposure external to the body.

However, due to the very large number of ionizations they produce in a very short distance, alpha emitters can present a serious hazard when they are in close proximity to cells and tissues such as the lung. Special precautions are taken to ensure that alpha emitters are not inhaled, ingested or injected.


Beta Particle Radiation 


A beta particle is an electron emitted from the nucleus of a radioactive atom. Examples of beta emitters commonly used in biological research are:  hydrogen-3 (tritium), carbon-14,phosphorus-32, phosphorus-33, and sulfur-35.

Beta particles are much less massive and less charged than alpha particles and interact less intensely with atoms in the materials they pass through, which gives them a longer range than alpha particles.  Some energetic beta particles, such as those from P-32, will travel up to several meters in air or tens of mm into the skin, while low energy beta particles, such as those from H-3, are not capable of penetrating the dead layer of the skin.  Thin layers of metal or plastic stop beta particles.

All beta emitters, depending on the amount present, can pose a hazard if inhaled, ingested or absorbed into the body.  In addition, energetic beta emitters are capable of presenting an external radiation hazard, especially to the skin.


An important consideration in shielding beta particle radiation is the ability of beta particles to produce a secondary radiation called bremsstrahlung .  Bremsstrahlung are x-rays produced when beta particles or other electrons decelerate while passing near the nuclei of atoms.   The intensity of bremsstrahlung radiation is proportional to the energy of the beta particles and the atomic number of the material through which the betas are passing.

Consequently, bremsstrahlung radiation is generally not a concern for lower energy beta emitters such as carbon-14 and sulfur-35, but the higher energy betas from phosphorus-32 can produce significant bremsstrahlung, especially when passing through shielding materials such as lead.  Lower atomic number materials such as Plexiglas are preferred shielding materials for high energy emitters such as phosphorus-32.


Gamma Particle Radiation


A gamma ray is a packet (or photon) of electromagnetic radiation emitted from the nucleus during radioactive decay and occasionally accompanying the emission of an alpha or beta particle.  Gamma rays are identical in nature to other electromagnetic radiations such as light or microwaves but are of much higher energy.

Examples of gamma emitters are cobalt-60, zinc-65, cesium-137, and radium-226.

Like all forms of electromagnetic radiation, gamma rays have no mass or charge and interact less intensively with matter than ionizing particles.  Because gamma radiation loses energy slowly, gamma rays are able to travel significant distances.  Depending upon their initial energy, gamma rays can travel tens or hundreds of meters in air.



Gamma radiation is typically shielded using very dense materials (the denser the material, the more chance that a gamma ray will interact with atoms in the material) such as lead or other dense metals.

Gamma radiation particularly can present a hazard from exposures external to the body.



X-Ray Radiation


Like a gamma ray, an x-ray is a packet (or photon) of electromagnetic radiation emitted from an atom, except that the x-ray is not emitted from the nucleus.  X-rays are produced as the result of changes in the positions of the electrons orbiting the nucleus, as the electrons shift to different energy levels.

Examples of x-ray emitting radioisotopes are iodine-125 and iodine-131.

X-rays can be produced during the process of radioactive decay or as bremsstrahlung radiation.  Bremsstrahlung radiation are x-rays produced when high-energy electrons strike a target made of a heavy metal, such as tungsten or copper.  As electrons collide with this material, some have their paths deflected by the nucleus of the metal atoms. This deflection results in the production of x-rays as the electrons lose energy.   This is the process by which an x-ray machine produces x-rays.

Like gamma rays, x-rays are typically shielded using very dense materials such as lead or other dense metals.

X-rays particularly can present a hazard from exposures external to the body.


Radiation Measurement



The quantity of  radioactive material present is generally measured in terms of activity rather than mass, where activity is a measurement of the number of radioactive disintegrations or transformations an amount of material undergoes in a given period of time. Activity is related to mass, however, because the greater the mass of radioactive material, the more atoms are present to undergo radioactive decay.

The two most common units of activity are the Curie or the Becquerel (in the SI system).

1 Curie (Ci) = 3.7 x10 10 disintegrations per second (dps)

1 Becquerel (Bq) = 1 disintegration per second (dps). 

Obviously, 1 Curie is a large amount of activity, while 1 Becquerel is a small amount.  In the typical Murray State University laboratory, millicurie and microcurie (or kilo and MegaBecquerel) amounts of radioactive material are used.

1 millicurie = 2.2 x 10 9 disintegrations per minute (dpm) = 3.7 x 10 7 Bq = 37 MBq

1 microcurie = 2.2 x 10 6 dpm = 3.7 x 10 4 Bq = 37 kBq



For the purposes of radiation protection, it is not always useful to describe the potential hazard of a radioactive material in terms of its activity.  For instance, 1 millicurie of tritium a centimeter from the body poses a much different hazard than 1 millicurie of phosphorus-32 a centimeter from the body.

Consequently, it is often preferable to measure radiation by describing the effect of that radiation on the materials through which it passes.  The three main quantities which describe radiation field intensity are shown in the following table:



What is measured



Roentgen (R) 

Amount of charge produced 
in 1 kg of air by x- or gamma rays

1 R = 2.58 x 10 -4 Cb/kg

Absorbed Dose

Gray (Gy)

Amount of energy absorbed in 1 gram of matter from radiation

1 rad = 100 ergs*/gram 

1 Gy = 100 rad

Dose Equivalent

Sievert (Sv)

Absorbed dose modified by the ability of the radiation to cause biological damage

rem = rad x Quality Factor 

1 Sv = 100 rem

* An erg is a unit of work.

Coulombs/kilogram, the Gray, and the Sievert are the SI units for these quantities.

Half Life


Radioactive materials decay at exponential rates unique to each radioisotope. Half-life is the time required for a given amount of some radioactive material to be reduced to one-half of its original activity.

The half-life values for radioisotopes vary widely.  For example, the following table shows half-lives for radioisotopes commonly used at Murray State University :




12.3 years


5730 years


14.3 days


25.3 days


87.6 days




This is the end of the Radiation Basics Module 1, which is the first of six Radiation Basics modules.  The next module is the Background Radiation & Other Sources of Exposure Module 2.