Civilian aspects of nuclear technology
Nuclear power is a type of nuclear technology involving the controlled use of nuclear fission to release energy for work including propulsion, heat, and the generation of electricity. Nuclear energy is produced by a controlled nuclear chain reaction which creates heat—and which is used to boil water, produce steam, and drive a steam turbine. The turbine is used to generate electricity and/or to do mechanical work.
Currently nuclear power provides approximately 15.7% of the world’s electricity (in 2004) and is used to propel aircraft carriers, icebreakers and submarines (so far economics and fears in some ports have prevented the use of nuclear power in transport ships). All nuclear power plants use fission. No man-made fusion reaction has resulted in a viable source of electricity.
- Nuclear medicine
The medical applications of nuclear technology are divided into diagnostics and radiation treatment.
Medical and dental x-ray imagers use of cobalt-60 or other x-ray sources. A number of radiopharmaceuticals are used, sometimes attached to organic molecules, to act as radioactive tracers or contrast agents in the human body. Positron emitting nucleotides are used for high resolution, short time span imaging in applications known as Positron emission tomography. Radiation is also used to treat diseases in radiation therapy.
- Industrial applications
Since some ionizing radiation can penetrate matter, they are used for a variety of measuring methods. X-rays and gamma rays are used in industrial radiography to make images of the inside of solid products, as a means of nondestructive testing and inspection. The piece to be radiographed is placed between the source and a photographic film in a cassette. After a certain exposure time, the film is developed and it shows any internal defects of the material.
- Gauges – Gauges use the exponential absorption law of gamma rays.
- Level indicators: Source and detector are placed at opposite sides of a container, indicating the presence or absence of material in the horizontal radiation path. Beta or gamma sources are used, depending on the thickness and the density of the material to be measured. The method is used for containers of liquids or of grainy substances
- Thickness gauges: if the material is of constant density, the signal measured by the radiation detector depends on the thickness of the material. This is useful for continuous production, like of paper, rubber, etc.
- Electrostatic control – To avoid the build-up of static electricity in production of paper, plastics, synthetic textiles, etc., a ribbon-shaped source of the alpha emitter 241Am can be placed close to the material at the end of the production line. The source ionizes the air to remove electric charges on the material.
- Radioactive tracers – Since radioactive isotopes behave, chemically, mostly like the inactive element, the behavior of a certain chemical substance can be followed by tracing the radioactivity. Examples:
- Adding a gamma tracer to a gas or liquid in a closed system makes it possible to find a hole in a tube.
- Adding a tracer to the surface of the component of a motor makes it possible to measure wear by measuring the activity of the lubricating oil.
- Oil and Gas Exploration- Nuclear well logging is used to help predict the commercial viability of new or existing wells. The technology involves the use of a neutron or gamma-ray source and a radiation detector which are lowered into boreholes to determine the properties of the surrounding rock such as porosity and lithography.
- Road Construction – Nuclear moisture/density gauges are used to determine the density of soils, asphalt, and concrete. Typically a cesium-137 source is used.