Radiation protection technicians monitor radiation levels, protect workers, and decontaminate radioactive areas. They work under the supervision of nuclear scientists, engineers, or power plant managers and are trained in the applications of nuclear and radiation physics to detect, measure, and identify different kinds of nuclear radiation. They know federal regulations and permissible levels of radiation.
Radiation Protection Technician Career History
All forms of energy have the potential to endanger life and property. This potential existed with the most primitive uses of fire, and it exists in the applications of nuclear power. Special care must be taken to prevent uncontrolled radiation in and around nuclear power plants. Skilled nuclear power plant technicians are among the workers who monitor and control radiation levels.
Around 1900, scientists discovered that certain elements give off invisible rays of energy. These elements are said to be radioactive, which means that they emit radiation. Antoine-Henri Becquerel, Marie Curie, and Pierre Curie discovered and described chemical radiation before the turn of the century. In 1910, Marie Curie isolated pure radium, the most radioactive natural element, and in 1911 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry for her work related to radiation.
Scientists eventually came to understand that radiation has existed in nature since the beginning of time, not only in specific elements on Earth, such as uranium, but also in the form of cosmic rays from outer space. All parts of the Earth are constantly bombarded by a certain background level of radiation, which is considered normal or tolerable.
During the 20th century, research into the nature of radiation led to many controlled applications of radioactivity, ranging from X rays to nuclear weapons. One of the most significant of these applications is the use of nuclear fuel to produce energy. Nuclear power reactors produce heat that is used to generate electricity.
Scientists are still trying to understand the biological effects of radiation exposure, but we know that short-term effects include nausea, hemorrhaging, and fatigue; long-range and more dangerous effects include cancer, lowered fertility, and possible birth defects. These factors have made it absolutely clear that if radiation energy is to be used for any purpose, the entire process must be controlled. Thus, appropriate methods of radiation protection and monitoring have been developed. The radiation protection technician’s job is to ensure that these methods are employed accurately, safely, and consistently.
The Job of Radiation Protection Technician Career
Radiation protection technicians protect workers, the general public, and the environment from overexposure to radiation. Many of their activities are highly technical: They measure radiation and radioactivity levels in work areas and in the environment by collecting samples of air, water, soil, plants, and other materials; they record test results and inform the appropriate personnel when tests reveal deviations from acceptable levels; they help power plant workers set up equipment that automatically monitors processes within the plant and records deviations from established radiation limits; and they calibrate and maintain such equipment using hand tools.
Radiation protection technicians work efficiently with people of different technical backgrounds. They instruct operations personnel in making the necessary adjustments to correct problems such as excessive radiation levels, discharges of radionuclide materials above acceptable levels, or improper chemical levels. They also prepare reports for supervisory and regulatory agencies.
Radiation protection technicians are concerned with ionizing radiation, particularly three types known by the Greek letters alpha, beta, and gamma. Ionization occurs when atoms split and produce charged particles. If these particles strike the cells in the body, they cause damage by upsetting well-ordered chemical processes.
In addition to understanding the nature and effects of radiation, technicians working in nuclear power plants must understand the principles of nuclear power plant systems. They have a thorough knowledge of the instrumentation that is used to monitor radiation in every part of the plant and its immediate surroundings. They also play an important role in educating other workers about radiation monitoring and control.
Radiation protection technicians deal with three fundamental concepts of radiation: time, distance from the radiation source, and shielding. When considering time, technicians know that certain radioactive materials break down into stable elements in a matter of days or even minutes. Other materials, however, continue to emit radioactive particles for thousands of years. Radiation becomes less intense in proportion to its distance from the source, so distance is an important concept in controlling radiation exposure. Shielding is used to protect people from radiation exposure. Appropriate materials with a specific thickness must be used to block emissions of radioactive particles.
Because radiation generally cannot be seen, heard, or felt, radiation protection technicians use special instruments to detect and measure it and to determine the extent of radiation exposure. Technicians use devices that measure the ionizing effect of radiation on matter to determine the presence of radiation and, depending on the instrument used, the degree of radiation danger in a given situation.
Two such devices are Geiger counters, which measure levels of radioactivity, and dosimeters, which measure received radiation doses. Dosimeters are often in the form of photographic badges worn by personnel and visitors. These badges are able to detect radioactivity because it shows up on photographic film. Radiation protection technicians calculate the amount of time that personnel may work safely in contaminated areas, considering maximum radiation exposure limits and the radiation level in the particular area. They also use specialized equipment to detect and analyze radiation levels and chemical imbalances.
Finally, although the radiation that is released into the environment surrounding a nuclear facility is generally far less than that released through background radiation sources, radiation protection technicians must be prepared to monitor people and environments during abnormal situations and emergencies.
Under normal working conditions, technicians monitor the work force, the plant, and the nearby environment for radioactive contamination; test plant workers for radiation exposure, both internally and externally; train personnel in the proper use of monitoring and safety equipment; help nuclear materials handling technicians prepare and monitor radioactive waste shipments; perform basic radiation orientation training; take radiation contamination and control surveys, air sample surveys, and radiation level surveys; maintain and calibrate radiation detection instruments using standard samples to determine accuracy; ensure that radiation protection regulations, standards, and procedures are followed and records are kept of all regular measurements and radioactivity tests; and carry out decontamination procedures that ensure the safety of plant workers and the continued operation of the plant.
Radiation Protection Technician Career Requirements
You should have a solid background in mathematics and science. Take four years of English, at least two years of mathematics including algebra, and at least one year of physical science, preferably physics with laboratory instruction. Computer programming and applications, vocational machine shop operations, and blueprint reading will also provide you with a good foundation for further studies.
After high school, you will need to study at a two-year technical school or community college. Several public or private technical colleges offer programs designed to prepare nuclear power plant radiation protection technicians. Other programs, called nuclear technology or nuclear materials handling technology, also provide a good foundation. You should be prepared to spend from one to two years in postsecondary technical training taking courses in chemistry, physics, laboratory procedures, and technical writing. Because the job entails accurately recording important data and writing clear, concise technical reports, technicians need excellent writing skills.
A typical first year of study for radiation protection technicians includes introduction to nuclear technology, radiation physics, mathematics, electricity and electronics, technical communications, radiation detection and measurement, inorganic chemistry, radiation protection, blueprint reading, quality assurance and quality control, nuclear systems, computer applications, and radiation biology.
Course work in the second year includes technical writing, advanced radiation protection, applied nuclear chemistry, radiological emergencies, advanced chemistry, radiation shielding, radiation monitoring techniques, advanced radionuclide analysis, occupational safety and health, nuclear systems and safety, radioactive materials disposal and management, and industrial economics.
Students who graduate from nuclear technician programs are usually hired by nuclear power plants and other companies and institutions involved in nuclear-related activities. These employers provide a general orientation to their operations and further training specific to their procedures.
Certification or Licensing
At present, there are no special requirements for licensing or certification of nuclear power plant radiation protection technicians. Some graduates of radiation control technology programs, however, may want to become nuclear materials handling technicians. For this job, licensing may be required, but the employer will usually arrange for the special study needed to pass the licensing test.
Radiation protection professionals may become registered by completing an examination consisting of 150 multiple-choice questions from the following general categories: applied radiation protection, detection and measurements, and fundamentals. This examination is administered by the National Registry of Radiation Protection Technologists (NRRPT). Professionals who successfully complete this examination are known as registered radiation protection technologists. Registration is not the same as licensing and does not guarantee professional ability, but it can help a technician demonstrate their professional competence to prospective employers.
The work of a radiation protection technician is very demanding. Technicians must have confidence in their ability to measure and manage potentially dangerous radioactivity on a daily basis. Radiation protection technicians play an important teaching role in the nuclear energy-fueled power plant. They must know the control measures required for every employee and be capable of explaining the reasons for such measures. Because abnormal conditions sometimes develop in the nuclear power industry, technicians must be able to withstand the stress, work long hours without making mistakes, and participate as a cooperating member of a team of experts.
Successful technicians are usually individuals who are able to confidently accept responsibility, communicate effectively in person and on paper, and enjoy doing precise work. Their participation is vital to the successful application of nuclear technology.
Federal security clearances are required for workers in jobs that involve national security. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) clearance is required for both government and private industry employees in securing related positions. Certain projects may necessitate military clearance with or without NRC clearance. Employers usually help arrange such clearances.
Exploring Radiation Protection Technician Career
Ask your school counselor to help you learn more about this occupation. You also can obtain information from the occupational information centers at community and technical colleges.
Your science teacher may be able to arrange field trips and invite speakers to describe various careers. Nuclear reactor facilities are unlikely to provide tours, but they may be able to furnish literature on radiation physics and radiation control. Radiation protection technicians employed at nuclear-related facilities may be invited to speak about their chosen field.
Radiation is used for medical diagnosis and treatment in hospitals all over the country. Radiology departments of local hospitals often provide speakers for science or career classes.
In addition, a utilities company with a nuclear-fired plant may be able to offer you a tour of the visitor’s center at the plant, where much interesting and valuable information about nuclear power plant operation is available. Small reactors used for experiments, usually affiliated with universities and research centers, also may give tours.
Radiation protection technicians are employed by government agencies, such as the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense, as well as electric power utilities that operate nuclear plants. Other than utilities, technicians are employed by nuclear materials handling and processing facilities, regulatory agencies, nondestructive testing firms, radiopharmaceutical industries, nuclear waste handling facilities, nuclear service firms, and national research laboratories.
The best way to enter this career is to graduate from a radiation control technology program and make use of the school’s placement office to find your first job. Another excellent way to enter the career is to join the U.S. Navy and enter its technical training program for various nuclear specialties.
Graduates of radiation control technology programs are usually interviewed and recruited while in school by representatives of companies with nuclear facilities. At that time, they may be hired with arrangements made to begin work soon after graduation. Graduates from strong programs may receive several attractive job offers.
Entry-level jobs for graduate radiation protection technicians include the position of radiation monitor. This position involves working in personnel monitoring, decontamination, and area monitoring and reporting. Another entry-level job is instrument calibration technician. These technicians test instrument reliability, maintain standard sources, and adjust and calibrate instruments. Accelerator safety technicians evaluate nuclear accelerator operating procedures and shielding to ensure personnel safety. Radiobiology technicians test the external and internal effects of radiation in plants and animals, collect data on facilities where potential human exposure to radiation exists, and recommend improvements in techniques or facilities.
Hot-cell operators conduct experimental design and performance tests involving materials of very high radioactivity. Environmental survey technicians gather and prepare radioactive samples from air, water, and food specimens. They may handle nonradioactive test specimens for test comparisons with National Environmental Policy Act standards. Reactor safety technicians study personnel safety through the analysis of reactor procedures and shielding and through analysis of radioactivity tests.
A variety of positions are available for experienced and well-trained radiation protection technicians. Research technicians develop new ideas and techniques in the radiation and nuclear field. Instrument design technicians design and prepare specifications and tests for use in advanced radiation instrumentation. Customer service specialists work in sales, installation, modification, and maintenance of customers’ radiation control equipment. Radiochemistry technicians prepare and analyze new and old compounds, utilizing the latest equipment and techniques. Health physics technicians train new radiation monitors, analyze existing procedures, and conduct tests of experimental design and radiation safety. Soils evaluation technicians assess soil density, radioactivity, and moisture content to determine sources of unusually high levels of radioactivity. Radioactive waste analysts develop waste disposal techniques, inventory stored waste, and prepare waste for disposal.
Some of the most attractive opportunities for experienced radiation protection technicians include working as radiation experts for a company or laboratory, or acting as consultants. Consultants may work for nuclear engineering or nuclear industry consulting firms or manage their own consulting businesses.
The earnings of radiation protection technicians who are beginning their careers depend on what radiation safety program they work in (nuclear power, federal or state agencies, research laboratories, medical facilities, etc.). They may begin as salaried staff or be paid hourly wages. Technicians who receive hourly wages usually work in shifts and receive premium pay for overtime.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that median hourly earnings of hazardous materials removal workers (including radiation protection technicians) were $16.02 in 2004, which is approximately $33,321 a year. Wages ranged from less than $10.48 per hour to more than $27.25 per hour, or $21,790 to $56,680 a year. Radiation protection technicians are among the highest paid members of this field.
Most trained technicians earn annual starting salaries of up to $25,000 a year. After three to five years of experience, they can expect to earn as much as $33,000 a year. Consultants may earn as much as $42,000 a year. Earnings are affected by whether technicians remain in their entry-level jobs or become supervisors and whether they become registered radiation protection technologists.
Technicians usually receive benefits, such as paid holidays and vacations, insurance plans, and retirement plans. Because of the rapid changes that occur in the radiation safety industry, many employers pay for job-related study and participation in workshops, seminars, and conferences.
Depending on the employer, work environments vary from offices and control rooms to relatively cramped and cold areas of power plants.
Of all power plant employees, radiation protection technicians are perhaps best able to evaluate and protect against the radiation hazards that are an occupational risk of this field. The safety of all plant workers depends on the quality and accuracy of their work.
Radiation protection technicians wear film badges or carry pocket monitors to measure their exposure to radiation. Like all other nuclear power plant employees, technicians wear safety clothing, and radiation-resistant clothing may be required in some areas. This type of clothing contains materials that reduce the level of radiation before it reaches the human body.
In some of the work done by radiation protection technicians, radiation shielding materials, such as lead and concrete, are used to enclose radioactive materials while the technician manipulates these materials from outside the contaminated area. These procedures are called hot-cell operations. In some areas, automatic alarm systems are used to warn of radiation hazards so that proper protection can be maintained.
Radiation Protection Technician Career Outlook
There are 104 nuclear power plants licensed to operate in 31 states of the United States. Due to the continuing need to make these facilities as safe and efficient as possible, the U.S. Department of Labor predicts job growth in this field that is much faster than the average for all occupations through 2014. In an effort to offset the effects of rising costs to the public for energy obtained from traditional resources, some government officials are calling for the construction of new nuclear power plants and the relicensing of existing ones. If these plants are constructed and existing plants are relicensed, radiation protection technicians will enjoy increased employment opportunities.
However, even if the nuclear power industry experiences a decline, the employment outlook for radiation protection technicians should still remain strong. Technicians are needed to support radiation safety programs in Department of Energy facilities, Department of Defense facilities, hospitals, universities, state regulatory programs, federal regulatory agencies, and many industrial activities. New technicians will be needed to replace retiring technicians or technicians who leave the field for other reasons. Increased efforts to enforce and improve safety standards may also result in new jobs for technicians. Because radiation programs have been in development for half a century, most of the radiation safety programs are well established and rely primarily on technicians to keep them running.