Radiation Emergencies

What is radiation?

Radiation is a form of energy, similar to light energy. It is naturally present in the earth's materials, the food we eat, and from outer space, such as rays from the sun. Most of our exposure to radiation (80%) comes from these natural sources. The other 20% comes from man-made radiation sources, mainly from medical use such as x-rays, diagnostic tests, and cancer treatments. Radiation has the same effect on the body regardless of whether or not the source is natural or man-made. A radiation emergency (such as a nuclear power plant accident or a terrorist event) could expose people to small or large doses of radiation, depending on the situation.

How exposure can occur

Internal exposure refers to radioactive material that is taken into the body through breathing, eating, or drinking.

External exposure refers to an exposure to a radioactive source outside of our bodies.

Contamination refers to particles of radioactive material that are deposited anywhere that they are not supposed to be, such as on an object or on a person's skin. 

What happens when people are exposed to radiation?

Radiation can affect the body in a number of ways, and the harmful health effects of exposure may not be noticed for many years.

These harmful health effects can range from mild effects, such as skin reddening, to serious effects such as cancer and death.

The effects of radiation depend on the amount of radiation absorbed by the body (the dose), the type of radiation, the route of exposure, and the length of time a person was exposed.  Exposure to very large doses of radiation may cause death within a few days or months.

Exposure to lower doses of radiation may lead to an increased risk of developing cancer or other harmful health effects later in life.

What type of terrorist events might involve radiation?

Possible terrorist events could involve introducing radioactive material into the food or water supply, using explosives (like dynamite) to scatter radioactive materials (called a "dirty bomb"), bombing or destroying a nuclear facility, or exploding a small nuclear device. Although introducing radioactive material into the food or water supply most likely would cause great concern or fear, it probably would not cause much contamination or increase the danger of harmful health effects.

A meltdown or explosion at a nuclear facility could cause a large amount of radioactive material to be released. People at the facility would probably be contaminated with radioactive material and possibly be injured if there was an explosion. Those people who received a large dose of radiation might develop acute radiation syndrome. People in the surrounding area could be exposed or contaminated.

How can you prepare for radiation emergencies?

  • Know if you live in the Emergency Planning Zone (EPZ) for McGuire Nuclear Power Plant. Understand evacuation routes and emergency alert systems. Know where to pick up Potassium Iodide (KI) pills. For more details visit Duke Energy's website.
  • Check with your child's school, the nursing home of a family member, and your employer to see what their plans are for dealing with a radiation emergency.
  • Develop your own family emergency plan so that every family member
    knows what to do.
  • At home, put together an emergency kit that would be appropriate for
    any emergency and/or disaster.
  • The kit should include the following items:
    • A flashlight with extra batteries
    • A portable radio with extra batteries
    • Bottled water (1 gallon per person, per day)
    • Canned and packaged food
    • A hand-operated can opener
    • A first-aid kit and essential prescription medications
    • Personal items such as paper towels, garbage bags, toilet paper, change of clothes, sturdy shoes, eyeglasses, toothbrush, soap, etc.
    • for more information about how to make an emergency kit go to www.Ready.gov
Potassium Iodide (KI)
Potassium Iodide (KI) is an over-the-counter medication that can protect one part of the body, which is the thyroid, if you are exposed to inhalation or ingestion of radioactive iodine. KI fills our thyroid with stable iodine so that it cannot absorb radioactive iodine. If KI is taken before or shortly after exposure to radioactive iodine, it can protect the thyroid from being damaged by radioactive iodine.
Potassium Iodide Tablets

How Potassium Iodide Works

In the event of a threatened or actual nuclear power plant release, evacuation remains the best course of action for protecting your health. Potassium iodide is not a replacement for evacuation. It does not provide protection from full body irradiation or other radioactive elements that may be the result of a nuclear power plant release. Potassium iodide only protects the thyroid gland from one form of radiation. If there were an actual nuclear release, it would likely contain many types of radiation that may affect additional organs in the body.

KI Distribution Press Release
Where to Buy KI English
Where to Buy KI Spanish
Where and How to Dispose of Unused Medication English
Where and How to Dispose of Unused Medication Spanish
Potassium Iodide Information Sheet English
Potassium Iodide Information Sheet Spanish