Pros & Cons of Nuclear Energy Use in Medical Science

Nuclear isotopes are used often in medical imaging.
Nuclear isotopes are used often in medical imaging. (Image: John Foxx/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Radioactive isotopes are a byproduct of the generation of nuclear energy in power plants. Since the discovery of nuclear medicine in the 1950s, the use of radio isotopes in imaging and diagnosis as well as treatment has increased dramatically. Radio isotopes that are relatively harmless in the body can be used to image the internal space within the human body. They are used in an imaging process that allows physicians to determine the health of an individual's internal organs. Rapidly dividing cells are particularly susceptible to damage by radiation. Consequently, numerous cancers are treated through controlled irradiation of the area containing growth.

Pro: Useful in Diagnoses

Radio isotopes that are relatively harmless in the body can be used to image the internal space within the human body, allowing physicians to view internal organs and spot potential health problems faster. Isotopes can be given orally, through injection or inhalation. Once in the body, radio isotopes give off small amounts of radiation that can be read by a camera. A computer puts all these points together to form a coherent picture. Radio isotope imaging is used by than 10,000 hospitals worldwide and has become an invaluable tool in the detection of disease.

Pro: Useful in Treatment

Radiation can similarly be used in the treatment of certain illnesses, particularly cancer. When cells rapidly divide (as is the case with cancerous growths) they become more susceptible to radiation. By targeting a specific area within the body with a specified dose of radiation, cancerous cells can be killed while leaving the surrounding tissue intact. This can be accomplished using a machine which sends targeted rays of radiation (usually gamma) to a specific point on the body or through insertion of nuclear isotopes.

Con: Can Have Negative Side Effects

A drawback of radiation therapy is the collateral damage it inevitably causes to surrounding tissue. Even as medical science improvements have made targeting and delivery methods more precise, it is impossible to administer ionizing radiation to cancerous tissue without harming nearby healthy tissue. This can result in mild to severe side effects for the patient, depending on the level of treatment.

Con: Contributes to Demand for Nuclear Power

Although the vast majority of nuclear isotopes come from research reactors, they still contribute to overall demand for the existence of a nuclear power industry. Nuclear power remains controversial as concerns over human safety and environmental impact linger. If strict safety standards are not in place it is possible for fission reactions to become unstable and become uncontrollable (resulting in the release of nuclear material from the reactor core or, in the worst case, a meltdown). These events can have lasting impacts on the surrounding population and environment.

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