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What is Nuclear Shielding?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The term “nuclear shielding” is used in two different ways. In the first sense, it refers to a property seen in atoms exposed to a magnetic field. In the second sense, it refers to the use of protective materials which are designed to limit radiation exposure for people and equipment in environments where radioactive materials are used. The type of nuclear shielding under discussion is usually clear from the context of the discussion.

In the physics sense, nuclear shielding occurs when the movement of electrons around the nucleus of an atom is altered by a magnetic field. This creates a slight shielding effect, as a magnetic field is created around the nucleus, and the nucleus itself is shielded. This property plays a role in nuclear magnetic resonance and other interesting fields of study in physics.

When people discuss nuclear shielding in terms of protective gear, nuclear shielding is designed to prevent ionizing radiation from penetrating something which is sensitive to it, or to limit ionizing radiation to a specific area. On dental x-ray equipment, for example, the equipment itself is shielded to focus the x-ray beam so that patients do not experience unnecessary x-ray exposure, and patient and x-ray technician also wear lead aprons which protect them from any scattered radiation.

In facilities where people work with radioactive materials, nuclear shielding takes a number of forms. Equipment which is sensitive to radiation may be shielded so that it cannot be damaged by errant radiation, and to prevent inaccurate readings which might be created through radiation exposure. Workers wear protective garments, and entire rooms may be shielded with lead and other materials, as seen in the lead wall in some x-ray rooms which the technician can use as a shield while taking x-ray films.

Nuclear shielding is also used on containers which are designed to be used in the transport of radioactive materials. These containers must be properly shielded so that they do not expose people and equipment to radiation as they are moved along their journey. Such containers classically include ample shielding in addition to clear warning labels which indicate that the contents are hazardous and need to be handled with care.

Exposure to ionizing radiation can be dangerous, even with nuclear shielding. For this reason, people who are at risk of exposure usually wear tags which are used to monitor cumulative radiation exposure. These tags are periodically read to confirm that exposure is within reasonably safe levels, and if someone has been overexposed, an investigation will be conducted to find out why, as overexposure might be caused by defective shielding or faulty equipment which needs to be repaired for everyone's safety.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By submariner — On Mar 21, 2011

@istria- when nuclear fallout occurs, charged particles attract radioactive particles. These particles, dust, debris, and the likes, all fall back to the ground and can be harmful to your health. While sealing windows and doors with plastic does not offer radiation protection, it does reduce the amount of dust that can enter the building. After a nuclear event, dust can be one of the worst sources of radiation, so trapping this dust will be important. I hope that the day this information is necessary will not come, but it could.

By cougars — On Mar 20, 2011

@istria- There are three factors in protecting yourself from radiation: shielding, distance, and time. The better the shielding (thicker or denser), the better protected you will be from radiation. Distance from any surfaces with radioactive materials is very important. Protect yourself in an underground area of the structure you are in, and try to limit the amount of air exchanged with the atmosphere outside.

If the building you are in does not have a basement, move as close to the middle as possible, and place as many dense materials (books, mattresses, and bookshelves, etcetera) between you and radioactive particles.

Finally, give it time before you venture outdoors. It could take two weeks to a month before you can venture outdoors after nuclear fallout.

By istria — On Mar 18, 2011

What kind of material can be used for shielding radiation in a home...say after a nuclear meltdown? When authorities tell people to stay inside, what type of precautions should they take to ensure they would be as safe as possible?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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