Radio Isotope (Gamma) Sources
Manmade radioactive sources are produced by introducing an extra neutron to atoms of the source material. As the material rids itself of the neutron, energy is released in the form of gamma rays. Two of the more common industrial gamma-ray sources for industrial radiography are iridium-192 and cobalt-60. These isotopes emit radiation in a few discreet wavelengths. Cobalt-60 will emit a 1.33 and a 1.17 MeV gamma ray, and iridium-192 will emit 0.31, 0.47, and 0.60 MeV gamma rays. In comparison to an X-ray generator, cobalt-60 produces energies comparable to a 1.25 MeV X-ray system and iridium-192 to a 460 keV X-ray system. These high energies make it possible to penetrate thick materials with a relatively short exposure time. This and the fact that sources are very portable are the main reasons that gamma sources are widely used for field radiography. Of course, the disadvantage of a radioactive source is that it can never be turned off and safely managing the source is a constant responsibility.
Physical size of isotope materials varies between manufacturers, but generally an isotope material is a pellet that measures 1.5 mm x 1.5 mm. Depending on the level of activity desired, a pellet or pellets are loaded into a stainless steel capsule and sealed by welding. The capsule is attached to short flexible cable called a pigtail.
The source capsule and the pigtail is housed in a shielding device referred to as a exposure device or camera. Depleted uranium is often used as a shielding material for sources. The exposure device for iridium-192 and cobalt-60 sources will contain 45 pounds and 500 pounds of shielding materials, respectively. Cobalt cameras are often fixed to a trailer and transported to and from inspection sites. When the source is not being used to make an exposure, it is locked inside the exposure device.
To make a radiographic exposure, a crank-out mechanism and a guide tube are attached to opposite ends of the exposure device. The guide tube often has a collimator at the end to shield the radiation except in the direction necessary to make the exposure. The end of the guide tube is secured in the location where the radiation source needs to be to produce the radiograph. The crank-out cable is stretched as far as possible to put as much distance as possible between the exposure device and the radiographer. To make the exposure, the radiographer quickly cranks the source out of the exposure device and into position in the collimator at the end of the guide tube. At the end of the exposure time, the source is cranked back into the exposure device. There is a series of safety procedures, which include several radiation surveys, that must be accomplished when making an exposure with a gamma source. See the radiation safety material for more information.