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Nuclear Technology Series 1: Oil Wealth, Radiation Safety: Balancing Progress and Protection in Uganda by AEC

In the Oil and Gas Sector, gamma ray detectors are used as radiation sources in drilling through rocks of different properties. They aid in the studying of rocks, how they are absorbed and scattered, and understanding their type.



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The Atomic Energy Council serves as Uganda’s national regulatory body for the peaceful applications of ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation is a form of energy that acts by removing electrons from atoms and molecules of materials, including air, water, and living tissue. This type of radiation travels unseen and passes through these elements.

To elaborate further, ionizing radiation, such as X-rays, can penetrate a body and reveal pictures of human bones. It has unique capabilities to remove electrons and molecules in any matter through which it passes. The implications are vast, spanning from damaging tissues, DNA modification, and genetic mutation to cancer and death.

There are two categories of ionizing radiation: Natural and Man-made. The effects vary depending on the doses one is exposed to. Naturally occurring ionizing radiation consists of exposure to small doses from gases like radon. Other sources include Radiation from Space (Cosmic and Solar Radiation), earth (Terrestrial radiation), potassium, and building materials. Man-made sources include X-rays, Fluoroscopy, Nuclear Medicine Procedures, and Computed Tomography scans (CT Scans) used in the healthcare fields.

It’s essential to note that the medical benefits of diagnostic imaging far outweigh the risks. This is why the Atomic Energy Council plays a crucial role in regulating the peaceful application of nuclear technology to ensure regulated use and to avoid the risks of exposure that might arise from leakage, theft, poor handling leading to severe repercussions.

In the Oil and Gas Sector, gamma ray detectors are used as radiation sources in drilling through rocks of different properties. They aid in the studying of rocks, how they are absorbed and scattered, and understanding their type.

According to the Chairperson of the Atomic Energy Council, Doctor Akisophel Kisolo, petroleum, like other minerals, is associated with specific rocks. The densities and properties of these rocks, as well as the attenuation pattern as radiation passes through them, provide insights into whether an area has rocks bearing oil. This information guides decisions on the magnitude of work to be done, including consideration of diverting if the rocks are unsuitable.

Chairperson of the Atomic Energy Council Doctor Akisophel Kisolo
Chairperson of the Atomic Energy Council, Doctor Akisophel Kisolo

Two types of radiation sources used in the Oil and Gas Sector: gamma rays for detecting rock densities and properties, and neutrons mainly used in detecting the availability of hydrocarbons. Neutrons possess the same mass as hydrogen atoms, and the collision between a neutron and a hydrogen atom can be likened to hitting two balls of the same mass, leading to energy loss to stop them.

Dr. Akisophel states that neutrons are useful because they can be stopped by water or plastic. When rocks are penetrated, and neutrons are stopped, it implies that the rocks are full of hydrocarbons, such as petroleum, which consist mainly of hydrogen and carbon. Thus, a high presence of hydrogen indicates the presence of hydrocarbons.

During the application of such technology in areas hosting communities, Dr. Akisophel advises necessary precautions to ensure the safety of Radiation Safety Officers handling the source, the environment, and communities to avoid contamination and health implications.

He emphasizes that while the Atomic Energy Council is akin to protecting the community; their main focus and concern are the workers who often handle radioactive sources, which are harmful. Since communities live in areas where oil exploration or the use of radioactive sources occurs, communities in such areas also face potential exposure risks.

As a precaution to protect the community, radiation safety officers are equipped with radiation detectors, which they use to scan the environment for radiation emission from sources. This enables officers to assess radiation levels within roughly 20 to 30 meters from the source. Once an officer gets close to the source, the alarm systems alert to indicate high doses, enabling the demarcation and securing of the radiation zone in which the technology is applied.

However, Dr. Akisophel also reveals a concern about naturally occurring radiation, which humans live with and can sometimes present high levels, though not much can be done about it, acknowledging associated high levels of emission. Some of these sources include uranium and thorium, which are mixed all over and produce gases that are equally dangerous. Radon, emitted by traces of uranium and thorium in rocks, can build up in closed areas, posing significant concerns. Therefore, the council has developed regulations to protect people and set limits accordingly.

Dr. Akisophel stresses the importance of alerting and sensitizing people about the risks associated with radon gas, which is also a risk in the oil and gas industry. While drilling through rocks, there are chances of encountering radioactive rocks, and if such material is spread around, it might contaminate the environment. This calls for precautionary measures in areas with naturally occurring radioactive materials.

The Atomic Energy Council has noticed that some oil extraction fields, like Kingfisher, are not testing for uranium, thorium, radium, or potassium-14, which are naturally occurring radioactive materials. Dr. Akisophel adds that while chemical analysis may show no pollution, the absence of measurements for naturally occurring radioactive materials poses a threat to the environment.

The writer is a Journalist in Uganda specializing in Crime and Investigation


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