Remote and real-time optical detection of
alpha-emitting radionuclides in the environment

Alpha particles represent the biggest risk to soft biological tissues compared to all nuclear decay products due to their high energy, large mass and high linear energy transfer. The amount of deposited energy is about 2 000 000 to 6 000 000 times higher than that of an ordinary chemical reaction (ordinary chemical energy used by the cells in the body), thus implying that a single alpha particle has the ability to severely damage or kill all cells within its range (typically, two to four cells). Therefore, the release of alpha emitting radionuclides in the environment, such as by nuclear terroristic attacks or transportation accidents, as well as by severe emergencies in nuclear installations, represents the greatest radiological threat for human beings if they enter the human body.

A detection system to measure large-scale contamination of these radionuclides is currently not available. In case of an emergency, the only option is to evacuate the population from the affected areas and then run diagnostics by hand, thus exposing the emergency teams to considerable risk. Even then, the results of emergency field applications are notoriously ambiguous, time consuming and tedious due to the centimetre range of the alpha particles in air.

Instrumentation and methods therefore need to be developed which overcome the shortcomings of traditional detectors and that will allow remote detection of alpha particles in the environment, reducing risk to personnel, detection costs and time. The techniques should aim at ensuring an adequate level of preparedness and response, and assist on-site incident management, creation of evacuation plans as well as in developing strategies for protecting public from harm. These measures are required by the European Union (EU) legislations defined in the Council Directive 2013/59/EURATOM and are compulsory for all EU Member States.