In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Radiological and Nuclear Emergencies

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks and Anthologies
  • Some Additional Useful Texts
  • Bibliographies
  • Scholarly Journals
  • Governmental Information Portals
  • NonGovernmental Portals
  • Risk Communication
  • Responder Workforce Issues
  • Recovery Issues
  • International Implications and Issues

Public Health Radiological and Nuclear Emergencies
Steven M. Becker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0146


Radioactive materials are widely used in the world today. Although electricity production from nuclear power plants is perhaps the most well-known application, millions of radioactive sources are also used in commerce and industry (e.g., weld inspection), agriculture (e.g., radioactive tracers to understand plant biology), education and research (e.g., archaeological dating), household safety (e.g., smoke alarms), and health care (e.g., x-rays, CT scans, cancer treatment). Along with the many benefits from radioactive materials, the possibility of accidents (unintentional releases) or malicious use (intentional releases) does exist. Unintentional releases could occur, for example, through a mishap at a nuclear power facility, lost or disused radioactive sources being broken open, or transportation accidents. Intentional releases could occur from criminal acts, an act of terrorism, or the actions of a hostile nation-state. In recent years, interest in the topic of radiation emergencies has grown dramatically. One factor was the accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility in Japan. One of the world’s largest nuclear generating stations at the time, Fukushima Dai-ichi sustained severe damage as a result of the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake-Tsunami Disaster. A second factor that has increased attention to radiological/nuclear preparedness is the worldwide threat of terrorism involving radioactive materials. The threat stems from a thriving global illicit trade in radioactive materials, proliferation of weapons-making know-how, and evidence that some terrorist organizations wish to obtain radiological/nuclear weapons. No matter what type of radiation emergency occurs—small or large, accident or act of terror—public health plays a central role in addressing the situation. For example, public health scientists may help develop appropriate steps for people to take to protect themselves, and public health communication researchers may identify the most effective ways to provide the information to different populations. Environmental specialists may check potentially affected areas for contamination, public health laboratories may analyze human samples for the presence of radiological contaminants, and epidemiologists may assess potential health effects. Public health helps determine the safety of food and water and provides advice on the management of contaminated agricultural products. Public health has primary responsibility for screening and following up with populations after an incident and is involved with population decontamination and the identification of appropriate alternate care sites for triage. Public health nurses and others may be involved in organizing the distribution of medical countermeasures. Assessing and responding to the mental health impacts of a radiation emergency is another area in which public health contributes significantly. So, too, is ensuring the safety and health of emergency responders. Finally, public health also assists in fatality management. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it demonstrates that public health science, research, and practice play a role in nearly every aspect of radiation emergency preparedness and response. This article introduces the reader to this important and rapidly developing field and provides citations to overarching and foundational works, classic and new scholarship, and important works in key topic areas.

Introductory Works

Because the general topic of radiation and radioactive materials is largely unfamiliar to most professionals in public health (and indeed in other health fields), it is helpful to begin with a basic introduction to radiation, radiation concepts, and radiation terminology.

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