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Common Industrial Devices and Other Uses of Radioactive Sources

Radiation Source Reduction & Management
 Source Reduction  Source Tracking   Orphan Source Detection
  and Response
 Orphan Source Recovery

Radioactive sources are commonly used in industrial processes to measure moisture, thickness, or other process parameters, and for such applications as inspecting welds.

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Advantages and Disadvantages of Radioactive Sources

In the United States, millions of radioactive sources are in use by tens of thousands of authorized users (licensees). The amount of radioactive material authorized for these licenses ranges from one-millionth of a curie, which is typical for the sources used in gauges, to millions of curries such as those used in large irradiators.


While there are some specific advantages to using sealed sources that are distinct to various industries, the major advantages are essentially the same across all the industries. Sealed sources have the following characteristics that make their use advantageous for industry:


There are a number of disadvantages to the use of radioactive sealed sources that are common to all industries. These include:

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Common Industrial Devices

Portable Moisture/Density Devices

A type of industrial gauges that are small and portable. These devices contain the sources, detectors and electronic equipment necessary for the measurement. The source is physically small in size, typically a few cm long by a few cm in diameter, and may be located either completely within the device or at the end of a rod/handle assembly. The small size of the device makes it susceptible to loss of control or theft.

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Industrial Fixed Gauges

Devices are of various shapes and sizes. These devices are generally designed for many years of operation with little or no special maintenance. Industrial gauges are used for process control; for measurement of flow, volume, density, or material presence; and may be placed in locations unsuitable for continuous human presence (e.g.: in a blast furnace). Consequently, they often accumulate layers of dirt, grime, grease, oil and other material that may cover any warning labels that may have been present. Depending upon the specific application, industrial gauges may contain relatively small quantities of radioactive material, or may contain sources with activities approaching 1 TBq. The devices generally are not large, but may be located some distance from the radiation detector, which may have electrical or electronic components located within the detector. A facility may have a large number of these gauges. The locations of such devices or sources within a facility may not be recognized, since the devices may be connected to process control equipment. This lack of recognition may result in a loss of control if the facility decides to modernize or terminate operations.

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Industrial Radiography Cameras

These devices are generally small in terms of physical size, although the devices are usually heavy due to the shielding contained in them. The sources themselves are very small, less than 1 cm in diameter, and only a few cm long, and are attached to specially designed cables for their proper operation. The use of radiography sources and devices are very common, and their portability may make them susceptible to theft or loss. The small size of the source allows for unauthorized removal by an individual, and such a source may be placed into a pocket of a garment. Industrial radiography may also be performed in fixed installations, either using the same small portable devices, or using larger machines.

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Well Logging Devices

These devices are generally found in areas where exploration for minerals is occurring, such as coal, oil, natural gas. The sources are usually contained in long (1–2 m, typically) but thin (<10 cm in diameter) devices that also contain detectors and various electronic components. The actual size of the sources inside the devices is generally small. 25 The devices are heavy, due to the ruggedness needed for the environments in which they are to be used.

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Overview of Common Industrial Uses of Sealed Radioactive Sources

EPA has begun the process of evaluating some of the most common applications of sources to identify the potential for developing alternative technologies. The table below provides an overview of the major industrial applications for radioactive materials.
(Information sources: Uranium Information Center (UIC, 2001); US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC, 2002).)

Use Types of Sources
  • numerous
  • thickness of metal components
  • thickness of coatings
  • moisture content in manufactured products
Gamma emitters such as:
  • barium-133
  • cobalt-60
  • cesium-134
  • cesium-137
  • antimony-124
  • selenium-75
  • strontium-90
  • thulium-170
Chemical Processing:
  • various
Measure process characteristics, such as:
  • density
  • thickness of coatings
  • specific gravity
  • level
Measure equipment parameters such as:
  • pipe thickness
  • corrosion
  • wear
  • Gamma emitters
  • neutron sources (for level measurement)
  • buildings, geophysical structures
  • moisture content
  • location of reinforcing bar (rebar)
Gamma emitters; neutron sources such as:
  • Americium/Beryllium
  • Plutonium/Beryllium
  • Californium-252
Mineral Processing:
  • measuring mineral levels in process streams
  • density gauges
  • spectroscopy
Gamma emitters, such as:
  • americium-241
  • cobalt-57
  • cesium-137
Coastal Engineering:
  • measuring environmental parameters
  • levels of sediments in rivers and estuaries
  • mobilization of
Gamma emitters, such as:
  • americium-241
  • cobalt-57
  • cesium-137
Non Destructive Examination:
  • radiography
  • weld and weld overlays
  • castings
  • forgings
  • valves and components
  • machined parts
  • pressure vessels
  • structural steel
  • aircraft structures
  • cobalt-60
  • cesium-137
  • iridium-192
Oil Refining:
  • refinery products
  • column scanning
  • level measurement
Gamma emitters (column scanning); neutron sources (level measurement) especially americium-241/beryllium-
Coal Fired Boilers:
  • electricity generation
  • ash and moisture content of coal
Gamma sources such as cesium-137 with americium-241 (for ash content)
Drilling / Borehole Logging:
  • geophysical investigations
  • hydrogen content
Gamma emitters, especially Cobalt-60, and neutron sources americium-241/beryllium
  • various crops
  • soil moisture measurements
Neutron sources such as:
  • americium/beryllium
  • plutonium/beryllium
  • californium-252
  • environmental assessments
  • soil moisture
neutron sources such as:
  • americium/Beryllium
  • plutonium/Beryllium
  • californium-252
Consumer Products:
  • smoke detectors
Produce an ionization current that is affected by the presence of smoke Alpha emitter typically americium-241
Materials Processing:
  • blown film
  • cast film and sheet
  • rubber
  • vinyl
  • coatings &
  • nonwovens
  • textiles
  • composites
  • paper
  • plastic pipe
  • film thickness
  • electroplating
  • thickness or weight
  • basis
  • consistency
  • moisture content
Gamma emitters, such as:
  • americium-241
Beta emitters such as:
  • praseodymium-147
  • prypton-85
  • strontium-90
  • remote weather stations
  • weather balloons
  • navigation beacons and buoys
Power sources for applications requiring small amounts of portable energy  
Recording Industry:
  • dust and static control
Product Labeling:
  • dust and static control

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