Author(s): Thorne MC, Thorne MC
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Abstract A brief overview and comparison is given of dose rates arising from natural background radiation and the fallout from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Although there are considerable spatial variations in exposure to natural background radiation, it is useful to give estimates of worldwide average overall exposures from the various components of that background. Cosmic-ray secondaries of low linear energy transfer (LET), mainly muons and photons, deliver about 280 microSv a(-1). Cosmic-ray neutrons deliver about another 100 microSv a(-1). These low- and high-LET exposures are relatively uniform to the whole body. The effective dose rate from cosmogenic radionuclides is dominated by the contribution of 12 microSv a(-1) from 14C. This is due to relatively uniform irradiation of all organs and tissues from low-energy beta particles. Primordial radionuclides and their progeny (principally the 238U and 232Th series, and 40K) contribute about 480 microSv a(-1) of effective dose by external irradiation. This is relatively uniform photon irradiation of the whole body. Internally incorporated 40K contributes a further 165 microSv a(-1) of effective dose in adults, mainly from beta particles, but with a significant gamma component. Equivalent doses from 40K are somewhat higher in muscle than other soft tissues, but the distinction is less than a factor of three. Uranium and thorium series radionuclides give rise to an average effective dose rate of around 120 microSv a(-1). This includes a major alpha particle component, and exposures of radiosensitive tissues in lung, liver, kidney and the skeleton are recognised as important contributors to effective dose. Overall, these various sources give a worldwide average effective dose rate of about 1160 microSv a(-1). Exposure to 222Rn, 220Rn and their short-lived progeny has to be considered separately. This is very variable both within and between countries. For 222Rn and its progeny, a worldwide average effective dose rate is about 1105 microSv a(-1). For 220Rn and its progeny, the corresponding value is 91 microSv a(-1). In both cases, the effective dose is mainly due to a particle irradiation of the bronchial tissues of the lungs. Overall, the worldwide average effective dose rate from natural background is about 2400 microSv a(-1) or 2.4 mSv a(-1). For comparison, worldwide average effective dose rates from weapons fallout peaked at 113 microSv a(-1) (about 5\% of natural background) in 1963 and have since fallen to about 5.5 microSv a(-1) (about 0.2\% of natural background). These values perhaps serve to emphasise that even gross insults to the natural environment from anthropogenic releases of radioactive materials are likely to be of limited significance when set in the context of the ambient radioactive environment within which all organisms, including humans, have developed.
This article was published in J Radiol Prot
and referenced in Journal of Defense Management