Although the concentration of NORM in most natural substances is low, any operation in which material is extracted from the earth and processed has the potential to concentrate NORM in product, by- product or waste (residue) streams. The generation of products, by-products, residues and wastes containing NORM has potential to lead to exposures to both workers and members of the public, along with environmental impacts.
Where does NORM come from?
Sheldon and Leonard would probably be able to explain the origin of Earth in quite eloquent terms and debate the age of all things with scientific proof, but to the average man their hypotheses may seem like something straight from a Sci-Fi movie. The fact is we all play a small but integral part in the Sci-Fi movie of life. This little piece of rock we are all stuck on contains the family tree of that very first piece of earth that formed those billions of years ago. It has a very old and predictable list of siblings and progeny and their heritage is all around us.
When we dig around in the soil to look for useful minerals or sink holes into reservoirs of decayed plants and animals to access the oil and gas deposits trapped in the crust, we inevitably bring some of this material up with us. The material contains uranium and thorium isotopes and their progeny – some of the oldest elements on earth.
In nature, these long-lived isotopes do not normally mobilise from the rock formations that contain them, but when we interact with these rock formations through crushing, grinding and chemical processes they can be removed. For the oil and gas industry the progeny of these isotopes dissolve in the produced water and precipitate along with sulphates and carbonates. Radium and its daughter products build up as scale in pipes and vessels. The dissolved salts may also deposit in sludge and schmoo in the low points of infrastructure and tanks.
Radon-222 which is the daughter of Radium-226, is a noble gas which preferentially follow gas lines.
Although we know that it will be there, the amount and activity of this material can vary significantly, depending on the geology of the surrounding area. Easy to ignore but potentially harmful due to the exposure to these when they are collected or stored in bulk. And worst of all – you wouldn’t know it is there, unless you monitor for it. The protection of workers against exposures to radioactivity is of utmost importance in nuclear facilities, because it is the main object of the operations. When it comes to other industries, potential exposures to radioactive material is easily overlooked, because it is not part of the main business.
Consider the case of the Schneeberg and Joachimsthal miners. These mines in the Ore Mountains in Germany were originally mined for silver but also yielded cobalt and bismuth and a nuisance shiny black material that they soon called ‘pechblende’. In 1789 a German Chemist, Martin Heinrich Klaproth discovered that this useless byproduct contained uranium. Uranium was of course in high demand for colouring glass and ceramics to produce a beautiful green hue. Then in 1898 the Curies derived their sample of Radium from this ‘pechblende’ originating from Joachimsthal. Radium was much sought after for medicinal purposes. This meant another boom for the mines but the concentrations were extremely low, and thus extremely expensive.
A study of the miners from these mines, exhibited a remarkably high lung cancer rate which in turn was accredited to exposure to radiation from the inhalation of radon-222, the progeny of the large amounts of uranium contained in the useless ’pechblende’. The discovery of radium was the reason for Madame Curie’s rise to fame, the subject for her Nobel prize but also the cause of her death. On 4 July 1934, she passed away at the Sancellemoz sanatorium in Passy, Haute-Savoie from aplastic anaemia, contracted due to her long-term exposure to radiation.
She never acknowledged the damaging effects of ionising radiation in her work. Safety measures were only developed later upon studying the effects on workers over many years. She carried test tube samples in her pockets, stored them in her desk drawer. Her many decades of exposure to radiation caused chronic illnesses including near-blindness due to cataracts and ultimately her death. Until today, her papers and books from the 1890s are considered too dangerous to handle because of their levels of radioactive contamination. Her papers are kept in lead-lined boxes, and those who wish to consult them must wear protective clothing. Even her cookbook is highly radioactive.
Epidemiology has helped develop an understanding of the health effects of exposure to ionising radiation. Studies have provided information on the quantitative risks of radiation-caused cancers but it is challenging to characterise the risks at lower levels of exposure and also of assessing modifiers of the risks, including dose rate, genetic susceptibility, and other environmental exposures.
That is what Radiation Safety specialists are there for – your partner in protection against the potential exposures to radiation. If you are unsure about the hazards in your industry and you are working in the natural resources or oil and gas sectors – talk to a professional today.
For more information and how we can help you please contact us.
7 Steps to Managing NORM
Make sure your staff are educated and safe
Understand your processes and where to find it
Use the right tools to measure how much
Collect enough data and determine quantities
Understand the radiation requirements for your business
Inform your business of radiation issues
Put in place the required management processes and plans
Working Safely with NORM course
Radiation Professionals Australia has launched a Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM) Awareness course to assist companies that need to be aware and manage NORM, this is a growing requirement in the industry.
Successful completion of this course provides you with the necessary knowledge for Working safely in a radiation environment, while under the supervision of licenced personnel.