The Role of Geology in Natural Background Radiation
What is Natural Background Radiation?
Every day we are bathed in radiation from natural sources. This radiation comes from the sun, from radioactive elements in the atmosphere, plants and animals as well as in the Earth’s crust. Since our bodies are adapted to living with the level of radiation exposure produced by these elements under the vast majority of natural circumstances, we don’t think about it very much. However, understanding the variation in the geologic contribution to natural background radiation can be useful for a number of purposes including mineral exploration, anticipating problems with radon accumulation in buildings, mitigation of contaminated areas, nuclear disaster response and other national security purposes.
Our goal is to learn how to predict the geologically produced radiation background from pre-existing sources of information, such as published geochemical and radiation data and geologic maps. The ability to predict natural background radiation is particularly valuable when there has been a release of nuclear materials into the environment because under these circumstances the original natural background levels can no longer be determined. Predicted backgrounds can be used by first responders who are tracking a release during nuclear disasters to more easily distinguish between variations in natural background radiation and radioactive contamination and to determine what levels of remediation are appropriate. They can also be used to help members of the public who have obtained their own measurement equipment and want to understand if the radiation levels they see around their homes are signs of contamination.