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Careers in Radiation Protection

Basic Information
  Organizational Charts

The Radiation Protection Program at the Environmental Protection Agency employs scientists, engineers, statisticians, economists, lawyers, policy analysts, and public affairs professionals, just to name a few.

These professionals work together to protect people and the environment from harmful radiation exposure. This is accomplished by working on numerous projects across the United States. Below you will find a summary of some of these projects, followed by a list of the careers that are employed to carry out these projects.

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Responsibilities

The professionals in EPA's Radiation Protection Program are responsible for establishing levels to reduce health risks from exposure to radioactive contaminants in the environment. EPA's radiation protection program consists of the staff at our headquarter's in Washington, DC, at regional offices around the county, and two laboratories in Las Vegas, Nevada and Montgomery Alabama. The program also has responsibilities for the safe management of radioactive waste, and for responding to radiological emergencies. Below are some of the projects and responsibilities carried out by EPA's radiation protection professionals.

Guidance on Cleanup Levels

There are places in the United States that have become contaminated by radioactivity from a variety of sources. EPA provides guidance so these places can be cleaned up to a level that makes them safe again.

Site-Specific Standards

WIPP

The Department of Energy has built a facility called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). It was built to serve as a disposal site for transuranic waste, or nuclear waste, created as a result of nuclear weapons production in the 1940s.

Congress gave EPA the responsibility for making sure that the WIPP meets EPA's requirements for environmentally protective radioactive waste disposal. After an intensive effort lasting several years, EPA recently determined that the WIPP could manage and store the waste in a way that ensures it will not pose a risk to people now or in the future.

General Guidance

EPA is responsible for providing general guidance and related technical information on radiation protection to states and other federal agencies. This guidance is important for the protection of people who work with, and around radiation every day.

EPA's Emergency Response Team wearing protective suits

Emergency Response

In the event of a nuclear emergency, EPA has emergency response capabilities and can deploy specially trained staff, sophisticated equipment, and mobile and fixed laboratories to help protect people from exposure to radiation caused by an emergency.

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Careers in Science

health physicist | radiobiologist | radiochemist | radioecologist | biostatistician

Health Physicist

This term originated during the Manhattan Project, which was the name of the effort to develop the atomic bomb during the 1940s. Most of the scientists involved in that project were physicists. Those physicists responsible for health and safety concerns were called health physicists.

The name stuck and today they can be found at work at nuclear power plants, on military submarines, in hospitals (where they are called medical physicists), and at research universities, to name just a few.

Health physics provides the practical means for protecting workers, the general public, and the environment from harmful radiation exposures. At EPA, health physicists work with other scientists to provide the technical basis for radiation protection policies and regulations.

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Radiobiologist

If you like biology, particularly at the cellular and sub-cellular level, the field of radiobiology might be for you. Radiobiology is a specialized branch of biology that studies the effects of ionizing radiation on cells and organisms. The work of radiobiologists contributes significantly to our understanding of how radiation can cause cancer, genetic effects, and damage to fetuses. At EPA, radiobiologists have helped interpret the recommendations of national and international scientific organizations, such as the National Academy of Sciences, into new guidance and policy for radiation protection.

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Radiochemist

Radiochemistry is the branch of chemistry that uses a combination of standard analytical techniques ("wet chemistry") along with sophisticated radiation measurement techniques to determine the presence of or, in many cases to quantify the activity of, individual radionuclides at extremely low levels.

At EPA's radiation laboratories, radiochemist are often called upon to determine whether radioactive material is present in the environment at levels higher that what is normally known as natural background levels.;

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Radioecologist

EPA employs Radioecologists and other environmental scientists to help determine how radioactive material is transported through the physical environment (ground, water, and air) and through ecosystems (e.g., through bioaccumulation). The information they provide can be critical in setting safe clean-up levels at contaminated sites.

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Biostatistician

Biostatistics is the field that makes sense of the tremendous amounts of environmental data that EPA receives. For example, a biostatistician will be asked to determine how many samples need to be taken to determine whether radioactivity is present above a specific level, and to make other recommendations as needed.

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Careers Outside Science

generalist | economist | public affairs | lawyer

Generalist

There are opportunities for non-science professionals too. If you have a degree in political science, public policy/administration, resources management, or some other cross-discipline degree, you might be employed as an environmental protection specialist or program analyst working to evaluate situations and recommend solutions to a number of environmental challenges.

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Economist

Economists work with scientists and policy makers at EPA to determine the costs of a potential regulation or recommendation to individuals, industries, or society in general. This function is required by Congress and the United States Office of Management and Budget to ensure that EPA knows how much it will cost people to achieve environmental protection.

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Public Affairs

If you are interested in journalism, education, or general environmental issues, you might consider a career as a public affairs professional.

EPA employs public affairs professionals to develop educational materials about radiation protection activities, and to write about radiation in easy-to-understand terms. Aspects of their job may include writing press releases about important environmental news, meeting with the public at community meetings, or even designing web sites such as this one.

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Lawyer

Within the Radiation Protection Program, there are lawyers who are responsible for making certain that EPA's responsibilities fall within the scope of our authority. For example, when Congress passes a law and EPA is the Agency responsible for implementing that law, a lawyer would review all the documents to make sure EPA is living up to their responsibility, and not overstepping their authority.

This is just a sampling of the professionals working at EPA in support of its radiation protection activities. If you are interested in any of these careers, we encourage you to talk with your school's guidance counselor about academic degree programs or professional development programs in your area of interest.

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