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This article deals with Radiation damage due to ionizing radiation on physical objects.
This radiation may take several forms:
- Cosmic rays and subsequent energetic particles caused by their collision with the atmosphere and other materials.
- Radioactive daughter products (radioisotopes) caused by the collision of cosmic rays with the atmosphere and other materials, including living tissues.
- Energetic particle beams from a particle accelerator.
- Energetic particles or electro-magnetic radiation (X rays) released from collisions of such particles with a target, as in an X ray machine or incidentally in the use of a particle accelerator.
- Particles or various types of rays released by radioactive decay of elements, which may be naturally occurring, created by accelerator collisions, or created in a nuclear reactor. They may be manufactured for therapeutic or industrial use or be released accidentally by nuclear accident, or released sententially by a dirty bomb, or released into the atmosphere, ground, or ocean incidental to the explosion of a nuclear weapon for warfare or nuclear testing.
Effects on materials and devices
Radiation may affect materials and devices in deleterious ways:
- By causing the materials to become radioactive (mainly by neutron activation, or in presence of high-energy gamma radiation by photodisintegration).
- By nuclear transmutation of the elements within the material including, for example, the production of Hydrogen and Helium which can in turn alter the mechanical properties of the materials and cause swelling and embrittlement.
- By radiolysis (breaking chemical bonds) within the material, which can weaken it, cause it to swell, polymerize, promote corrosion, cause belittlements, promote cracking or otherwise change its desirable mechanical, optical, or electronic properties.
- By formation of reactive compounds, affecting other materials (e.g. ozone cracking by ozone formed by ionization of air).
- By ionization, causing electrical breakdown, particularly in semiconductors employed in electronic equipment, with subsequent currents introducing operation errors or even permanently damaging the devices. Devices intended for high radiation environments such as the nuclear industry and extra atmospheric (space) applications may be made radiation hard to resist such effects through design, material selection, and fabrication methods.
Effects on gases
Exposure to radiation causes chemical changes in gases. The least susceptible to damage are noble gases, where the major concern is the nuclear transmutation with follow-up chemical reactions of the nuclear reaction products.
High-intensity ionizing radiation in air can produce a visible ionized air glow of telltale bluish-purplish color. The glow can be observed e.g. during criticality accidents, around mushroom clouds shortly after a nuclear explosion, or inside of a damaged nuclear reactor like during the Chernobyl disaster.
Gas-filled radiation detectors
In some Gaseous ionisation detectors, radiation damage to gases plays an important role in the device's ageing, especially in devices exposed for long periods to high intensity radiation, e.g. detectors for the Large Hadron Collider or the Geiger-Muller tube
Ionization processes require energy above 10 eV, while splitting covalent bonds in molecules and generating free radicals requires only 3-4 eV. The electrical discharges initiated by the ionization events by the particles result in plasma populated by large amount of free radicals. The highly reactive free radicals can recombine back to original molecules, or initiate a chain of free radical polymerization reactions with other molecules, yielding compounds with increasing molecular weight. These high molecular weight compounds then precipitate from gaseous phase, forming conductive or non-conductive deposits on the electrodes and insulating surfaces of the detector and distorting its response. Gases containing hydrocarbon quenchers, e.g. argon-methane, are typically sensitive to aging by polymerization; addition of oxygen tends to lower the aging rates. Trace amounts of silicone oils, present from outgassing of silicone elastomers and especially from traces of silicone lubricants, tend to decompose and form deposits of silicon crystals on the surfaces. Gaseous mixtures of argon (or xenon) with carbon dioxide and optionally also with 2-3% of oxygen are highly tolerant to high radiation fluxes. The oxygen is added as noble gas with carbon dioxide has too high transparency for high-energy photons; ozone formed from the oxygen is a strong absorber of ultraviolet photons. Carbon tetrafluoride can be used as a component of the gas for high-rate detectors; the fluorine radicals produced during the operation however limit the choice of materials for the chambers and electrodes (e.g. gold electrodes are required, as the fluorine radicals attack metals, forming fluorides). Addition of carbon tetrafluoride can however eliminate the silicon deposits. Presence of hydrocarbons with carbon tetrafluoride leads to polymerization. A mixture of argon, carbon tetrafluoride, and carbon dioxide shows low aging in high hadron flux.
Effects on liquids
Like gases, liquids lack fixed internal structure; the effects of radiation is therefore mainly limited to radiolysis, altering the chemical composition of the liquids. As with gases, one of the primary mechanisms is formation of free radicals.
All liquids are subject to radiation damage, with few exotic exceptions; e.g. molten sodium, where there are no chemical bonds to be disrupted, and liquid hydrogen fluoride, which produces gaseous hydrogen and fluorine, which spontaneously react back to hydrogen fluoride.
Effects on water
Water subjected to ionizing radiation forms free radicals of hydrogen and hydroxyl, which can recombine to form gaseous hydrogen, oxygen, hydrogen peroxide, hydroxyl radicals, and peroxide radicals. In living organisms, which are composed mostly of water, majority of the damage is caused by the reactive oxygen species, free radicals produced from water. The free radicals attack the biomolecules forming structures within the cells, causing oxidative stress (a cumulative damage which may be significant enough to cause the cell death, or may cause DNA damage possibly leading to cancer).
In cooling systems of nuclear reactors, the formation of free oxygen would promote corrosion and is counteracted by addition of hydrogen to the cooling water. The hydrogen is not consumed as for each molecule reacting with oxygen one molecule is liberated by radiolysis of water; the excess hydrogen just serves to shift the reaction equilibriums by providing the initial hydrogen radicals. The reducing environment in pressurized water reactors is less prone to buildup of oxidative species. The chemistry of boiling water reactor coolant is more complex, as the environment can be oxidizing. Most of the radiolytic activity occurs in the core of the reactor where the neutron flux is highest; the bulk of energy is deposited in water from fast neutrons and gamma radiation, the contribution of thermal neutrons is much lower. In air-free water, the concentration of hydrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen peroxide reaches steady state at about 200 Gy of radiation. In presence of dissolved oxygen, the reactions continue until the oxygen is consumed and the equilibrium is shifted. Neutron activation of water leads to buildup of low concentrations of nitrogen species; due to the oxidizing effects of the reactive oxygen species, these tend to be present in the form of nitrate anions. In reducing environments, ammonia may be formed. Ammonia ions may be however also subsequently oxidized to nitrates. Other species present in the coolant water are the oxidized corrosion products (e.g. chromates) and fission products (e.g. pertechnetate and periodate anions, uranyl and neptunyl cations). Absorption of neutrons in hydrogen nuclei leads to buildup of deuterium and tritium in the water. Behavior of supercritical water, important for the supercritical water reactors, differs from the radiochemical behavior of liquid water and steam and is currently under investigation.
The magnitude of the effects of radiation on water is dependent on the type and energy of the radiation, namely its linear energy transfer. A gas-free water subjected to low-LET gamma rays yields almost no radiolysis products and sustains an equilibrium with their low concentration. High-LET alpha radiation produces larger amounts of radiolysis products. In presence of dissolved oxygen, radiolysis always occurs. Dissolved hydrogen completely suppresses radiolysis by low-LET radiation while radiolysis still occurs with
Two main approaches to reduce radiation damage are reducing the amount of energy deposited in the sensitive material (e.g. by shielding, distance from the source, or spatial orientation), or modification of the material to be less sensitive to radiation damage (e.g. by adding antioxidants, stabilizers, or choosing a more suitable material). In addition to the electronic device hardening mentioned above, some degree of protection may be obtained by shielding, usually with the interposition of high density materials (particularly lead, where space is critical, or concrete where space is available) between the radiation source and areas to be protected. For biological effects of substances such as radioactive iodine the ingestion of non-radioactive isotopes may substantially reduce the biological uptake of the radioactive form, and chelation therapy may be applied to accelerate the removal of radioactive materials formed from heavy metals from the body by natural processes.
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