Radioactive Pollution: Causes, Effects and Solutions to Nuclear Radiation

Radioactive pollution occurs when there is a presence or depositions of radioactive materials in the atmosphere or environment, especially where their presence is accidental and when it presents an environmental threat due to radioactive decay. The destruction caused by the radioactive materials is because of the emissions of hazardous ionizing radiation (radioactive decay) like beta or alpha particles, gamma rays or neurons in the environment where they exist.

Since the substances are characterized by radiation – because there is a lot of instability of the particles present in the radioactive materials, it can seriously affect, alter and even destroy plant, animal, and human life. The extent of damage or danger posed to the environment depends upon the radioactive material concentration, the energy emitted by the radiation, proximity of the radioactive materials to those exposed, and the radiation type. Herein is a detailed explanation of the causes, effects, and solutions of radioactive pollution.

Causes of Radioactive Pollution

1. Nuclear Accidents From Nuclear Energy Generation Plants

In the postmodern world, various forms of energy are being discovered. Among them is nuclear energy, which is touted to be the most potent source of energy due to its high latent power. Reports indicate that the high latent power is due to its high level of radiation.

Its use is, therefore, prohibited, but research is underway to determine its environmental safety and to put in place the most appropriate precautionary measures for its use. In some cases and countries, however, nuclear power plant accidents like the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (2011), Chernobyl disaster (1986), and Three Mile Island accident (1979) left many dead and even many more affected by the radiation released.

2. The Use of Nuclear Weapons as Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

The use of nuclear missiles and atomic bombs, a form of nuclear energy, in the Second World War explains not only the cause but also the damaging nature of radioactive pollution or contamination.

The effects of those two strikes in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that prompted the end of the war in 1945 have been seen to date with children born with complications such as mental retardation as well as conditions like autism and other disorders. The number of cancer cases present in the two towns is more than those of the rest of Japan.

3. Use of Radioisotopes

Radioisotopes are used to make detectors and in other industrial activities. Isotopes such as uranium have high concentrations of radiation in them. On the other hand, common Isotopes such as carbon-containing radioactive material are easily found in waterways through sewage lines.

Since most of the raw sewage is untreated before release, once released, the isotope combines with other compounds and elements present in water. This is the same water that people fetch for domestic use. Moreover, fishes use the same water to survive. Consumption of these fishes and from contaminated water sources means the potential intake of radiation.

4. Mining

Mining mostly involves the excavation of the mineral ores, which are then broken into smaller, manageable pieces. Radium and Uranium, for instance, are naturally occurring in the environment and are equally radioactive.

Hence, mining increases the natural geological processes by moving these materials from underneath the earth to the surface. Other minerals with a hint of radiation are thorium, plutonium, radon, potassium, carbon and phosphorus.

5. Spillage of Radioactive Chemicals

There have been instances of spillages over oceans when ships hit glaciers or coral reefs and end up releasing chemicals on waterways and in the atmosphere. The majority of these chemicals, including petroleum products, have a significant level of radiation, which can be detrimental to the environment.

6. Tests on Radiation

Radiation has been seen to have a lot of interesting properties, which has promoted a lot of scientists to conduct tests to learn more about it. It is one of the key elements in the cure and treatment of cancer.

Chemotherapy, a cancer curative health initiative, uses radiation to prevent further growth of the cancer cells as well as keep the immune system strong. Despite this, scientists have been exposed to radiation leading to their deaths or other complications.

As per the report to the UN General Assembly in 2000, nuclear testing is the main reason for human exposure to radioactivity caused by man.

7. Cosmic Rays and Other Natural Sources

These come from the outer space to our planet with intense radiation as their nature, therefore, causing radioactive pollution. Gamma rays, for example, are said to have the highest level of radiation and yet, depending on their intensity, some are not visible to the human eye. The quantity with which the rays hit the earth depends on the altitude of the earth and the geographical location.

There may be terrestrial radiations from radioactive elements present in the earth’s crust. These radioactive elements include potassium 40, radium 224, radon 222, thorium 232, uranium 235, uranium 238, and carbon 14 and occur in rocks, soil and water.

There can also be unstable radio-nuclides split into smaller parts emitting energetic radiation that can enter into the body of organisms through the air during respiration.

8. Nuclear Waste Handling and Disposal

The radioactive wastes are of three categories- high level, low level and transuranic. They mainly comprise of the disposal from nuclear weapons, the cleaning materials from nuclear plants, military installations, emitted from plutonium processing and other radioisotopes from hospitals and laboratories.

The handling and disposal of nuclear waste may generate low to medium radiation over a long period of time. Their effects are not only hard to predict but may not be easily distinguishable as the radioactivity may contaminate and propagate through air, water, and soil as well. Moreover, identifying locations of some nuclear waste is not easy. 

The main issue is that the radiation waste cannot be degraded or treated chemically or biologically. The only options are either to contain the waste storing in tightly closed containers shielded with radiation-protective materials (such as Pb) or dilute it.

It can also be contained by storage in remote areas with little or no life like remote caves or abandoned salt mines. However, natural or artificial whatever shields are used may get damaged over time.

Moreover, waste disposal practices in the past may not have used appropriate measures to isolate the radiation. Therefore, those areas need to be identified carefully, and restrictions promptly imposed.

9. Defensive Weapon Production

The production of defensive weapons that may release radioactivity from the radioactive materials handled usually have high health risks. However, the current standards will not allow the release of any significant amount of radiation unless an accident occurs.

Effects of Radioactive Pollution

1. Genetic Mutations

Radiation has adverse effects when it comes to genetics. It leads to damage to DNA strands leading to the genetic break up over time. The degree of genetic mutation leading to changes in DNA composition varies due to the level of radiation one has been exposed to and the kind of exposure.

In the event that a human or an animal is exposed to too much radiation from the atmosphere, the food consumed, and even water used then, the chances are that their bodies have already absorbed the radiation. Once in the body, it remains active because energy cannot be destroyed.

The resulting mutation makes one highly susceptible to cancer. For pregnant women, kids born have adverse defects caused by genetic mutations like low weight during birth. Effects such as disfigured births and impairment like blindness in children have also been reported. Infertility has also been mentioned as an effect of radiation.

2. Diseases

Cancer is the most dominant radiation-related disease. It has developed over the years and poses a great risk in global health. Others include leukemia, anemia, hemorrhage, a reduction in the life span leading to premature aging and premature deaths as well as others such as cardiovascular complications. Leukemia, for instance, is caused by radiation in the bone marrow.

3. Soil Infertility

Exposure of radiation to the atmosphere means it is present even in soils. Radioactive substances in the soil react together with the various nutrients leading to the destruction of those nutrients, thus rendering the soil infertile and highly toxic.

Such soil leads to the harvest of crops that are riddled with radiation and thus, unfit for consumption by both humans and animals.

Plants that grow from such soil are also genetically modified. Since these are at the base of the food chain, the herbivores consume them and retain the radiation levels. The carnivores such as lions, vultures end up consuming them and increasing their levels of radiation – explained through the concept of Biomagnification.


4. Cell Destruction

Radioactive pollution has diverse effects, such as the alteration of cells. The bodies of living organisms are unique as within it, there are millions of cells in one single body, where each has its own purpose to fulfill. Radiation distorts the cells present, leading to permanent damage of the various organs and organ systems. In the face of too much radiation, permanent illnesses and death are inevitable.

5. Burns

Radiation is not easy to feel, but it is easy to realize that you have been affected by it. The immediate presence of burns, red lesions and sores is evidence. To make it worse, this can lead to skin cancer.

6. Effects on Wildlife

The animals at different levels suffer differently. The higher-level organisms get more affected than insects and flies. Herbivores, such as cattle, when grazing the contaminated land, the deposited Ce-13 and I-131 get accumulated on the animal tissues in a large amount.

These radionuclides enter their metabolic cycles and affect their DNAs (mentioned above; ionizing). This ends up having a mutated animal generation with a higher risk of health issues by just a small amount of radionuclides.

7. Effects on Plants

The plants are also exposed to radiation, and the damage is mostly done due to the increased Ultraviolet waves. Different plants get affected differently.

The stomata stop to evaporate during the increase of radiation. When the radiation hits the chromosomes, the reproduction gets hampered. It results in altered shapes, sizes and health in plants. Exposure in high amounts destroys the affected plants. When we eat these plants, we ingest nuclides.

8. Effects on Marine life

The power plants, which are the sources of nuclear energy and chemical processing, have been releasing radioisotopes into the water for decades. Cesium, Radon, Crypton, Ruthenium, Zinc and Copper are few of them. Though the waste is released in a “permissible” amount, it does not mean safe. 

These radionuclides can be detected in the soft tissues or on the bones of the fishes. The sea-weed used in bread was said to have radioisotope of ruthenium. The shells of all shelled fishes and the tissues of fishes are contaminated with radionuclides. 

Solutions to Radioactive Pollution

1. Proper Method of Disposing of Radioactive Waste

Radioactive waste still has some level of radiation. Accordingly, it cannot be disposed of in the same way as normal waste. It cannot be incinerated or buried. Since there is a likelihood of seepage, this waste should be stored in heavy and thick concrete containers.

Another option is to dilute the radiation since storage may not be possible. Since there are no easy ways of disposing of radioactive material, professional assistance should always be sought.

2. Proper Labeling

It is necessary for any material with radioactive content to be labeled, and the necessary precautions advised on the content of the label. The reason for this is because radiation can enter the body by a mere touch of radioactive material. Containers with such elements should be well labeled in order to make one use protective gear when handling them.

3. Banning of Nuclear Tests

It has already been proven that nuclear power has a lot of latent power that is very destructive. Nevertheless, the tests done to perfect the energy contribute greatly to the overall presence of radioactive substances. Moreover, these tests, though done in the deserts, end up escaping from one ecosystem to another, eventually affecting the lives of many people.

4. Alternative Energy Sources

The evolution and use of nuclear power was not a bad thing initially. However, considering the damage and threats it has on the environment, it is high time for its use to be discontinued and for the world to perhaps focus on alternative and environmentally friendly energy sources – like renewable sources of energy namely solar, hydro-electric and wind power.

The use of radioactivity to generate energy in nuclear power plants, for example, leads to the production of more radiation to the atmosphere considering the waste released from the various processes and combustion.

5. Proper Storage

It is mandatory for containers carrying radioactive material to be stored properly. For starters, such substances should be stored in radiation proof containers to ensure no seeping or leakage during handling. Proper storage means no harm and can minimize cases of accidental leakage.

6. Reusing

Since it is not easy to store or dispose the waste, it can be recycled and used for other purposes like in another reactor as fuel thereby protecting the environment.

7. Precautions at the Personal Level

There may be the possibility of contamination if one owns a house located near a nuclear power plant. In that case, it is recommended to check the level of radon gas in your building. The radon level needs to be removed. Those who work with radioactive material are also at great risk. They need protective measures to keep away from radioactive contamination.

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About Rinkesh

A true environmentalist by heart ❤️. Founded Conserve Energy Future with the sole motto of providing helpful information related to our rapidly depleting environment. Unless you strongly believe in Elon Musk‘s idea of making Mars as another habitable planet, do remember that there really is no 'Planet B' in this whole universe.