Health Physics and Security: 9 Examples of How CHPs Help Protect the Nation

October 11, 2023 AAHP Blogs

Should nuclear war break out, what should you do first?

That was the question proposed by VICE magazine in an editorial on how to survive the first hour of an attack. In search of where to take cover should ballistic missiles with nukes be launched, the magazine turned to a reliable source: a certified health physicist (CHP).

The ideal solution? Seek shelter deep underground, ideally in the innermost part of the structure you’re in, surrounded by brick or concrete. And avoid going in cars. “Gamma radiation can go through the windshield and thin metal,” said the CHP, who works at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a research and development center in Livermore, California, dedicated to protecting the nation’s nuclear deterrent.

In the complex web of national security, few roles are as nuanced as CHPs. The what-if nuclear scenario above is just one example of how CHPs, with their specialized knowledge and skillset, are always at the forefront of insight that helps protect their country. Here are eight more.

CHPs Manage Radioactive Materials Safely

CHPs are instrumental in managing radioactive materials in various sectors. Take medical institutions. In these settings, they secure the safe storage and precise handling of radioactive isotopes commonly used in life-saving treatments like cancer therapy. In research laboratories, like the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, CHPs act as guardians of scientific progress. They craft meticulous radiation protection plans, establish exposure limits and implement safety protocols to enable groundbreaking experiments without compromising safety.

They Guide Radiation Incidents

During the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, CHPs were instrumental in advising governments and organizations on mitigating radiation exposure after a tsunami disabled the power supply and cooling of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors, causing all the cores to melt.

In response, government agencies and authorities turned to CHPs to accurately monitor radiation levels, provide expert guidance on evacuation, and communicate safety measures and health risks to a very concerned public. By overseeing decontamination efforts, CHPs also spearheaded the international effort to minimize radiation exposure and protect public health.

They Support Emergency Preparedness

CHPs direct emergency drills and preparedness planning inside nuclear power plants, hospitals, medical facilities and research laboratories. But there are other environments where their readiness is equally required, like industrial facilities, educational institutions and government agencies, all of which contribute to the country’s safety.

For example, CHPs help develop emergency protocols for cities near nuclear power facilities, like New York City, less than 50 miles from the Indian Point Energy Center, which closed in 2011. Another instance: Joliet, the third-largest city in Illinois, is about 20 miles from the Braidwood Nuclear Generating Station, which is active.

They Provide Crucial Training and Education

CHPs often train first responders and medical professionals in how to treat radiation injuries and how to understand the varying health effects of radiation exposure. Nuclear plant workers, meanwhile, receive in-depth training from CHPs on radiation safety procedures, ensuring they operate safely and minimize exposure risks.

One notable program serves as a golden example: the Radiation Emergency Assistance Center/Training Site (REAC/TS). This center is a beacon of excellence in radiation emergency response and medical consultation. Besides rapid response capabilities, REAC/TS is an industry leader in training health care professionals and emergency personnel on best practices for managing and treating radiation injuries. CHPs are the linchpins of their educational endeavors.

They Enhance Nuclear Facility Security

Protecting power plants is a prevailing theme when it comes to our national security. And CHPs clearly play a leading role in the safety of every facility. But while we’ve touched on how CHPs are effective at navigating what to do in an emergency, they’re equally proficient at preventing one in the first place.

CHPs offer insight on how to conduct safety audits and help implement security measures to prevent unauthorized access or sabotage at every nuclear facility. By carefully assessing the vulnerabilities of a facility, they help avoid worst-case scenarios from unfolding.

They Help with Regulatory Compliance and Oversight

CHPs are pivotal links between organizations using radioactive materials and the regulatory bodies that oversee their use, like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

In this liaison role, CHPs have a straightforward and yet complicated role—translate and communicate complex regulations to ensure these institutions not only understand but also actively practice the stipulated safety procedures. It’s a hands-on position that includes:

  • Developing radiation safety protocols.
  • Implementing monitoring programs.
  • Maintaining the optimal functionality of all radiation protection equipment.

Through these functions and many others, CHPs ensure consistent compliance with local, state and federal laws and provide invaluable feedback to the NRC and similar organizations.

They Excel at Counterterrorism Efforts

CHPs play an integral role in helping agencies like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) protect against radiological hazards in. Their involvement includes:

  • Threat assessment.
  • Selecting appropriate radiation detection instruments.
  • Training first responders.
  • Establishing response protocols.
  • Crafting public communication.
  • Participating in scenario simulations.

Health physicists provide the expertise to assess and mitigate radiological threats. They also ensure security measures are effective and that the public is well-informed with accurate, not exaggerated, information.

They Help with Environmental Protection

Excessive radiation exposure can not only hurt us. It can also damage the environment. CHPs possess the deepest understanding of how radiation exposure impacts ecology. Utilizing specialized equipment, they monitor radiation across various settings and direct the correct handling, transportation and disposal of radioactive waste.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State is a well-known example of CHPs being leaders in remediating environmental radiation contamination. Good thing they’re on the job: The site used to produce plutonium for the military before storing other radioactive waste. Cleanup will take another 75 years, meaning more CHPs will be needed here and in many other nuclear, medical and research facilities nationwide.

Are you up for the challenge? Contact us to learn more about how you can help make a difference in our national security as a CHP and AAHP member today.