On average, one in two Australians can expect to have a nuclear medicine procedure that uses a radioisotope for diagnostic or therapeutic purposes at some stage in their life. Nuclear medicine and radiology are the medical techniques that involve the use of radiation or radioactivity to diagnose, treat, and prevent disease.
About one-third of all procedures used in modern hospitals involve radiation or radioactivity. These procedures are safe, effective, and don't require anaesthetic. They are useful in a broad spectrum of medical specialties: from paediatrics to cardiology to psychiatry.
Nuclear science plays a valuable role in helping us understand the history of our environment, how environmental systems function and interact, and the impact that humans are having on the environment.
ANSTO’s accelerator facilities are capable of providing both ion beam analysis (IBA) and accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) services. By analysing isotopic ratios with these accelerators, researchers can study paleo-climate variability over millions of years to better understand ocean, land, and atmospheric interactions of the climate system.
Isotopic tracers are also used to study and monitor pollution sources, as well as transport and mixing in the lower atmosphere, in order to improve human health.
Food and agriculture
Nuclear techniques are used in farming and agricultural communities to combat disease and provide other benefits. The process of treating food with radiant energy isn't new; the sun's energy, for example, has been used for centuries to preserve meat, fruits, vegetables, and fish.
ANSTO researchers are investigating the impact of processes such as heating, mixing, and fermenting on the molecular structure of various foods. Another research project uses radiotracers to investigate a new class of micro- and nano-scale zinc fertilisers for broadacre crops, such as wheat.
A vast array of industries, from agriculture to manufacturing, use radionuclides to assess materials, products, and processes. Just as a medical X-ray allows a doctor to obtain a detailed picture of a bone fracture, an industrial X-ray or gamma-ray examination can provide a foundry worker with a detailed picture of an internal crack in a metal casting.
Irradiation of a silicon ingot in a reactor accurately changes its semi-conducting properties. Bombarding silicon with neutrons for precise periods converts some silicon atoms to phosphorus. The computer and electronic industries have a strong demand for this precisely “doped” silicon, whose enhanced properties make it invaluable for use in high-quality electronics, such as those in satellites.
Mining and minerals
Radioactive sources are used widely in the mining industry. Examples include the non-destructive testing of pipeline blockages and welds, measuring the density of the material to be drilled through, testing the dynamic characteristics of blast furnaces, measuring combustible volatile matter in coal, and on-stream analysis of a wide range of minerals and fuels.
Mining companies use radionuclides to locate and quantify mineral deposits, to map geological contours using test wells and mine bores, and to determine the presence of hydrocarbons. In milling and flotation operations, instruments using radioactive sources are widespread. These devices have the advantage of providing reliable non-contact measurements.
A wide range of nuclear techniques is used by archaeologists. Historical artefacts, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or Charlemagne’s Crown, can be dated, and their authenticity verified, using nuclear techniques.
Scientists from ANSTO's Centre for Accelerator Science and Australian Synchrotron were part of a team who found new proof of the earliest occupation in Australia – some 65,000 years ago – in Kakadu.
ANSTO has also been involved in dating the Kelly Gang's armour and some key periods in the history of the urban complex at Angkor in Cambodia, once the capital of a vast medieval empire that incorporated most of mainland Southeast Asia during 12/13th Centuries. A team examined land-use change to gain a better understanding of the cause of Angkor's decline.
ANSTO operates an irradiation facility known as the Gamma Technology Research Irradiator (GATRI), which uses gamma rays from the cobalt-60 isotope to treat items for medicine, industry, agriculture, and research.
Irradiation is the best method for destroying any residual bacteria in human bones and tendons that are used for transplants and grafting in surgery.
Irradiation is an alternative to spraying toxic pesticides. Laboratory-reared fruit flies are sterilised in GATRI. When they are released in a target region they mate with flies of the pest population but create no offspring, thus reducing the overall population. This program is helping to control infestations of the Queensland fruit fly in commercial growing areas in NSW, Victoria, and South Australia.
Nuclear power is one of the fastest growing energy options for countries seeking energy security and low-emission energy solutions.
Australia has been officially welcomed to the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) Framework Agreement, a partnership through which we will contribute to international work on the development of future nuclear energy technologies.
Researchers from around the world, including Australia, are contributing to ITER, the world’s largest engineering project, to create fusion energy in France. Australia's research contributions to ITER fall broadly into three areas: diagnostics, plasma theory and modelling, and the development of advanced materials for extreme environments.
In the home
While natural radiation surrounds us every day, scientists have spent decades refining the use of radiation for the benefit of society. Radiation produced in nuclear reactors or cyclotrons has many other benefits that are integrated into common consumer and household items.
Smoke detectors are compulsory in Australia, helping save lives and property. The most widely-used smoke detectors contain minute amounts of americium-241. This isotope produces alpha particles at a rate which creates a steady voltage in the air between a pair of electrodes. When this voltage changes significantly, it triggers an audible alarm. The main cause of such a voltage change is variation in the composition of air - smoke being one probable cause