Uses of Radioactivity/Radiation

After reading this section you will be able to do the following:

  • List and describe uses of radioactivity/radiation.

There are many practical applications to the use of radioactivity/radiation. Radioactive sources are used to study living organisms, to diagnose and treat diseases, to sterilize medical instruments and food, to produce energy for heat and electric power, and to monitor various steps in all types of industrial processes.


Tracers are a common application of radioisotopes. A tracer is a radioactive element whose pathway through which a chemical reaction can be followed. Tracers are commonly used in the medical field and in the study of plants and animals. Radioactive Iodine-131 can be used to study the function of the thyroid gland assisting in detecting disease.

Nuclear reactors

Nuclear reactors are devices that control fission reactions producing new substances from the fission product and energy. Recall our discussion earlier about the fission process in the making of a radioisotope. Nuclear power stations use uranium in fission reactions as a fuel to produce energy. Steam is generated by the heat released during the fission process. It is this steam that turns a turbine to produce electric energy.

This is a photo of the outside of a nuclear reactor                This is a photo of the outside of a nuclear reactor

These are two images of nuclear reactors.

Other uses of radioactivity

Sterilization of medical instruments and food is another common application of radiation. By subjecting the instruments and food to concentrated beams of radiation, we can kill microorganisms that cause contamination and disease. Because this is done with high energy radiation sources using electromagnetic energy, there is no fear of residual radiation. Also, the instruments and food may be handled without fear of radiation poisoning.

Radiation sources are extremely important to the manufacturing industries throughout the world. They are commonly employed by nondestructive testing personnel to monitor materials and processes in the making of the products we see and use every day. Trained technicians use radiography to image materials and products much like a dentist uses radiation to x-ray your teeth for cavities. There are many industrial applications that rely on radioactivity to assist in determining if the material or product is internally sound and fit for its application.


  1. Radioactivity tracers are commonly used in the medical field and also in the study of plants and animals.
  2. Radiation is used and produced in nuclear reactors, which controls fission reactions to produce energy and new substances from the fission products.
  3. Radiation is also used to sterilize medical instruments and food.
  4. Radiation is used by test personnel who monitor materials and processes by nondestructive methods such as x-rays.