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What is Radiation?

Ionizing Radiation: What you should know about it

The radiation given off by the radioactive materials in commercial nuclear power plants is called ionizing radiation. That means that it causes ion pairs (positively and negatively charged particles) to form in the cells that the radiation encounters. It is important to understand that ionizing radiation from nuclear power plants is the same as ionizing radiation from other possible sources, such as cosmic radiation, medical treatments and the naturally occurring background radiation from the soil and building materials around us.

Low-level ionizing radiation is measured in units called millirem (1/1000 of a REM). Most people in the U.S. receive about 250-300 millirem per year from natural background radiation.

The sun and stars give off radiation called cosmic radiation and most of us receive about 27 millirem a year from this source. We get another 28 millirem from the naturally occurring radioactive materials in building materials (usually bricks, stone and mortar) and the soil. There is an additional 200 millirem from the air we breathe, largely from radon.

Medical treatments and examinations are another source of radiation exposure for many people. A chest X-ray is generally about 10 millirem, while a dental X-ray is usually about 9 millirem. Most scientists do not think that these levels have a significant impact on a person's health.

The average person living within 50 miles of a commercial nuclear power plant will receive about .001 millirem of additional radiation exposure on an annual basis. Even people living within a few miles of a plant rarely get as much as 1 millirem per year.

Exposure to Ionizing Radiation:

  • .001 millirem: Average annual dose to people who are living within 50 miles of the generating station.
  • less than 1 millirem: Average annual dose to people who are living within 10 miles of the generating station.
  • 3 millirem: Annual dose from watching color television 3 hours per day.
  • 4 millirem: Average round trip flight from New York City to Los Angeles.
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