Uses of radioactivity in oil and gas wells

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Radioactive sources are used for logging formation parameters. Radioactive tracers, along with the other substances in hydraulic-fracturing fluid, are often used to determine the injection profile and location of fractures created by hydraulic fracturing.[1]

Use of radioactive sources for logging[edit]

Composite wireline log for the Lisburne 1 well, Alaska - the neutron and density logs used radioactive sources

Sealed radioactive sources are routinely used in formation evaluation of both hydraulically fractured and non-fracked wells. The sources are lowered into the borehole as part of the well logging tools, and are removed from the borehole before any hydraulic fracturing takes place. Measurement of formation density is made using a sealed caesium-137 source. This bombards the formation with high energy gamma rays. The attenuation of these gamma rays gives an accurate measure of formation density; this has been a standard oilfield tool since 1965. Another source is americium berylium (Am-Be) neutron source used in evaluation of the porosity of the formation, and this has been used since 1950. In a drilling context, these sources are used by trained personnel, and radiation exposure of those personnel is monitored. Usage is covered by licenses from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) guidelines, SU or European Union protocols, and the Environment Agency in the UK. Licenses are required for access, transport, and use of radioactive sources. These sources are very large, and the potential for their use in a 'dirty bomb' means security issues are considered as important. There is no risk to the public, or to water supplies under normal usage. They are transported to a well site in shielded containers, which means exposure to the public is very low, much lower than the background radiation dose in one day.

Radiotracers and markers[edit]

The oil and gas industry in general uses unsealed radioactive solids (powder and granular forms), liquids and gases to investigate or trace the movement of materials. The most common use of these radiotracers is at the well head for the measurement of flow rate for various purposes.

Use of these radioactive tracers is strictly controlled. It is recommended that the radiotracer is chosen to have readily detectable radiation, appropriate chemical properties, and a half life and toxicity level that will minimize initial and residual contamination.[2] Operators are to ensure that licensed material will be used, transported, stored, and disposed of in such a way that members of the public will not receive more than 1 mSv (100 mrem) in one year, and the dose in any unrestricted area will not exceed 0.02 mSv (2 mrem) in any one hour. They are required to secure stored licensed material from access, removal, or use by unauthorized personnel and control and maintain constant surveillance of licensed material when in use and not in storage.[3] Federal and state nuclear regulatory agencies keep records of the radionuclides used.[3]

As of 2003 the isotopes Antimony-124, argon-41, cobalt-60, iodine-131, iridium-192, lanthanum-140, manganese-56, scandium-46, sodium-24, silver-110m, technetium-99m, and xenon-133 were most commonly used by the oil and gas industry because they are easily identified and measured.[2][4] Bromine-82, Carbon-14, hydrogen-3, iodine-125 are also used.[2][3]

Examples of amounts used are:[3]

Nuclide Form Activity
Iodine-131 Gas 100 millicuries (3.7 GBq) total, not to exceed 20 mCi (0.74 GBq) per injection
Iodine-131 Liquid 50 millicuries (1.9 GBq) total, not to exceed 10 mCi (0.37 GBq) per injection
Iridium-192 "Labeled" frac sand 200 millicuries (7.4 GBq) total, not to exceed 15 mCi (0.56 GBq) per injection
Silver-110m Liquid 200 millicuries (7.4 GBq) total, not to exceed 10 mCi (0.37 GBq) per injection

In hydraulic fracturing, plastic pellets coated with Silver-110m or sand labelled with Iridium-192with may be added to a proppant when it is required to evaluate whether a fracturing process has penetrated rocks in the pay zone.[3] Some radioactivity may by brought to the surface at the well head during testing to determine the injection profile and location of fractures. Typically this uses very small (50 kBq) Cobalt-60 sources and dilution factors are such that the activity concentrations will be very low in the topside plant and equipment.[2]

Regulation in the US[edit]

The NRC and approved state agencies regulate the use of injected radionuclides in hydraulic fracturing in the United States.[3]

The US EPA sets radioactivity standards for drinking water.[5] Federal and state regulators do not require sewage treatment plants that accept gas well wastewater to test for radioactivity. In Pennsylvania, where the hydraulic fracturing drilling boom began in 2008, most drinking-water intake plants downstream from those sewage treatment plants have not tested for radioactivity since before 2006.[6] The EPA has asked the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to require community water systems in certain locations, and centralized wastewater treatment facilities to conduct testing for radionuclides.[7][8][9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Reis, John C. (1976). Environmental Control in Petroleum Engineering. Gulf Professional Publishers.
  2. ^ a b c d (PDF) Radiation Protection and the Management of Radioactive Waste in the Oil and Gas Industry (Report). International Atomic Energy Agency. 2003. pp. 38-40. Retrieved 20 May 2012. "Beta emitters, including 3H and 14C, may be used when it is feasible to use sampling techniques to detect the presence of the radiotracer, or when changes in activity concentration can be used as indicators of the properties of interest in the system. Gamma emitters, such as 46Sc, 140La, 56Mn, 24Na, 124Sb, 192Ir, 99Tcm, 131I, 110Agm, 41Ar and 133Xe are used extensively because of the ease with which they can be identified and measured. ... In order to aid the detection of any spillage of solutions of the 'soft' beta emitters, they are sometimes spiked with a short half-life gamma emitter such as 82Br..."
  3. ^ a b c d e f Jack E. Whitten, Steven R. Courtemanche, Andrea R. Jones, Richard E. Penrod, and David B. Fogl (Division of Industrial and Medical Nuclear Safety, Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards) (June 2000). "Consolidated Guidance About Materials Licenses: Program-Specific Guidance About Well Logging, Tracer, and Field Flood Study Licenses (NUREG-1556, Volume 14)". US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Retrieved 19 April 2012. labeled Frac Sand...Sc-46, Br-82, Ag-110m, Sb-124, Ir-192 
  4. ^ Dina Murphy and Larry Huskins (8 Sep 2006). "letter filed with Department of Environment, New Brunswick, CA" (PDF). Penobsquis, CA government. p. 3. Retrieved 29 July 2012. engineer who works with this radioactive material for a living is exposed to less radiation than an individual who smokes 1.5 packs of cigarettes a day." 
  5. ^ US EPA, are EPA’s drinking water regulations for radionuclides? What are EPA's drinking water regulations for radionuclides?, accessed 15 Sept. 2013.
  6. ^ "Regulation Lax as Gas Wells' Tainted Water Hits Rivers". New York Times. February 26, 2011. 
  7. ^ Urbina, Ian (26 February 2011). "Regulation Lax as Gas Wells' Tainted Water Hits Rivers". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 February 2012. The level of radioactivity in the wastewater has sometimes been hundreds or even thousands of times the maximum allowed by the federal standard for drinking water. 
  8. ^ Shawn M. Garvin (7 March 2011). "Letter to PADEP re:Marcellus Shale 030711" (PDF). EPA. Retrieved 11 May 2012. ...several sources of data, including reports required by PADEP, indicate that the wastewater resulting from gas drilling operations (including flowback from hydraulic fracturing and other fluids produced from gas production wells) contains variable and sometimes high concentrations of materials that may present a threat to human health and aquatic environment, including radionuclides....Many of these substances are not completely removed by wastewater treatment facilities, and their discharge may cause or contribute to impaired drinking water quality for downstream users, or harm aquatic life...At the same time, it is equally critical to examine the persistence of these substances, including radionuclides, in wastewater effluents and their potential presence in receiving waters. 
  9. ^ Ian Urbina (7 March 2011). "E.P.A. Steps Up Scrutiny of Pollution in Pennsylvania Rivers". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 February 2012.