There’s a paradox when it comes to radioactive material and its portrayal to non-specialists; the fact that radiation is easily detected. The quantification of how radioactive a material is, at first glance, appears quite scary, particularly because it’s so unfamiliar to us. What the heck is a Bequerel or a Sievert after all? After Fukushima, the media was reporting how radioactive material from the reactors was detected off the coast of North America. Scary stuff! The activity was actually pretty low and harmless. However, the fact that we can detect even these minute quantities of radioactive material, and even know where they’ve come from, actually makes it a huge deal safer. Hurray for radioactivity!
It’s worth remembering that many radioactive materials are chemically toxic too, like other heavy metals, you wouldn’t want to consume them. In a facility with chemical or biological hazards, whether it’s a factory producing solar panels or a research lab developing vaccines, the detection of these hazards would arguably be much more difficult than in a nuclear facility where we have sensors to detect the tell-tale signatures left by alpha, beta or gamma decay. In fact, radioactivity is so useful for detection that radioisotopes are commonly used by chemists and biologists to determine the mechanisms of chemical and biological processes.