Radiation protection is a specialist area of health and safety, open to scientists and engineers looking to apply their skills to fields ranging from medicine to environmental protection
Radiation protection practitioners use scientific techniques and equipment to measure and monitor radiation, assess risks and ensure the safety of the workplace, the general public and the environment, working within both nuclear and non-nuclear industries.
You'll give advice and guidance about the possible hazards of ionising radiation, such as x-rays, as well as radioactive materials and waste. This can include advising about legal requirements and making recommendations for design improvements. Some practitioners also advise on non-ionising matters, such as radar, mobile phone mast, laser and ultraviolet light radiation.
You may work within a particular area, such as:
Your responsibilities will depend on the area of radiation protection you work in. However, as a radiation protection practitioner, you may need to:
- ensure that radiation safety regulations are observed
- draw up and implement radiation protection policies and procedures
- monitor and maintain records of radiological and environmental conditions
- develop and review radiation protection systems and inspect their operation
- liaise with management and the workforce (including plant managers, designers, engineers, laboratory staff, academics, accountants and other health and safety professionals) on matters of radiation safety and legislation
- ensure all staff are fully trained and supervised
- provide a dosimetry service and measuring radiation, using both basic and complex scientific equipment
- assess radiation risks in the workplace and advise on the design of plant, equipment and waste disposal to ensure safety
- ensure all equipment and devices are maintained properly
- assess the impact of releasing radioactive material on the environment
- advise on the safe transport of radioactive materials
- prepare emergency plans and contingency procedures for responding to radiation incidents
- lead and coordinate enquiries into accidents or incidents
- visit companies to provide radiation protection consultancy and write reports based on these visits
- liaise with inspectorate and other bodies
- identify training needs and lecture and/or train other staff.
- Salaries for radiation protection practitioners generally range from around £22,000 to £30,000.
- Radiation protection advisers (RPAs) can expect to earn between £35,000 and £65,000. Salaries at senior/management level may be more.
- Clinical scientists working in radiation safety for the NHS typically earn between £37,570 to £43,772, rising to between £44,606 and £50,819 for principal scientist roles, and £52,306 and £60,983 for lead roles.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Typical working hours of 9am to 5pm are common, but extra hours, including weekends or shifts, may be required. There may be some on-call work to provide cover for emergency arrangements and to attend in the event of an incident.
Part-time work and career breaks may be available.
What to expect
- Self-employment or freelance work is often possible after significant experience and qualification as an RPA.
- Opportunities exist in most large towns and cities, at hospitals and universities, and in rural areas where major sites in the nuclear industry are located.
- Ionising protection regulations may require you to undergo personal monitoring of exposure to radiation and medical surveillance.
- Having to travel locally is unlikely if you work in the nuclear industry or hospital trusts, but may be common if you're working as a contractor or inspector.
- Some posts, for example with research organisations or national advisory bodies or for overseas projects, may require you to travel abroad. You may also need to meet and advise overseas customers.
You'll usually need a degree in a science or numerate discipline to become a radiation protection practitioner. Relevant subjects include:
- electrical or electronic engineering
- environmental health
- environmental science (biological)
- medical laboratory science
- nuclear engineering
- physics/applied physics
Direct entry without a degree or with an HND only is unlikely, although entry into a radiation protection technician position is possible. You would then need to complete further study and gain experience to progress to the practitioner role.
Postgraduate study at Masters, MPhil or PhD level can be useful. Relevant subjects include radiation and environmental protection, medical radiation physics and nuclear safety.
To enter into radiation safety physics in the NHS, you'll need to follow the healthcare/clinical scientist route. The NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP) is open to graduates who hold a 1st or 2:1 in a science or engineering subject, or a 2:2 with a relevant Masters or PhD. This programme trains you to work in a senior scientist role in a variety of areas, including radiotherapy physics, radiation safety, imaging (ionising), imaging (non-ionising), MRI and ultrasound. Find out more about the role of a healthcare scientist in medical physics.
To work in radiation physics, you can apply for the NHS Practitioner Training Programme, an undergraduate training scheme that includes work-based and academic learning. Your first year of training is broad and you'll then specialise in the second and third year. You'll complete an accredited BSc in healthcare science (radiation physics), which will enable you to work as a healthcare science practitioner.
You'll need to have:
- the ability to apply scientific theory to day-to-day problem solving
- good numeracy skills
- excellent communication skills, with the ability to communicate complex innovation to a range of stakeholders
- the capacity to think clearly in an emergency
- good team-working skills
- a practical and innovative approach to work
- good attention to detail
- the ability to negotiate with tact and diplomacy
- good management and leadership skills (for more senior positions, particularly in industry).
Although not essential, work experience in a related field can help you build contacts and may improve your chances of securing full-time employment. Look out for summer internships or vacation work or consider taking a year out in industry as part of your course to develop your skills.
It's useful to gain student membership of a relevant professional body to help you keep up to date with news and developments. For example, you can get access to publications, conferences, career development advice, bursaries and networking opportunities with The Society for Radiological Protection (SRP).
Radiation protection practitioners are employed in both the nuclear and non-nuclear sectors. Typical employers include:
- the nuclear industry, including nuclear waste and decommissioning
- electricity generating companies
- general industry, including radiography, source manufacture, transport and instrumentation (e.g. those manufacturing radioisotopes for industry, hospitals and research establishments)
- the NHS, which employs clinical scientists (radiation safety) to ensure the safe and effective use of radiation in the diagnosis, treatment and monitoring of patients in hospitals
- veterinary practices
- the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and its contractors, which operate nuclear dockyards and nuclear weapons establishments
- environmental protection agencies such as the Environment Agency (EA) and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)
- private sector radiation protection consultancies
- mobile phone companies
- research establishments run by the science research councils (for a list see UK Research and Innovation), and those run by charities such as Cancer Research UK
- universities and colleges, where the role may be combined with other responsibilities
- independent regulators such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)
- executive agencies such as Public Health England - Radiation Protection Services.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine (IPEM)
- Jobs.ac.uk - for jobs in academic institutions
- New Scientist Jobs
- NHS Jobs and NHS Recruitment Scotland
- The Society for Radiological Protection (SRP) - vacancies available to members.
Vacancies are also advertised on employers' websites. The SRP offers a list of employers who recruit radiation protection specialists.
Most employers provide on-the-job training to supplement formal education/qualifications and may also send staff on short courses on specific aspects of radiation protection.
It's essential to keep up to date with professional developments and develop your expertise by attending training courses and taking appropriate qualifications. Training courses for radiation protection professionals are offered by a range of organisations, such as Public Health England (PHE).
The Certificate of Professional Development in Radiation Protection, offered jointly by the University of Strathclyde and the Association of University Radiation Protection Officers (AURPO), is aimed at professionals wanting to develop their radiation protection skills further or at those wanting to progress to the role of radiation protection adviser (RPA) or radioactive waste adviser (RWA). To work as either an RPA or RWA, you'll need a Certificate of Core Competence from RPA 2000, the assessing body recognised by the HSE and the UK Environment Agencies. The Certificate is valid for five years and must then be renewed.
Postgraduate courses, including Masters and diplomas in radiation protection or related subjects, are also available at a number of universities. Some employers may provide support for obtaining these qualifications.
Most major employers have a good career structure and there are opportunities, particularly on the operational side, for early responsibility and promotion. To advance your career it may be necessary to move from one employer to another. Some radiation protection practitioners start their career in one sector, for example the nuclear industry, and then move to another sector.
If you're working in operational radiation protection, you'll typically progress to the role of RPA or RWA. Career development will usually come in the form of either technical or managerial progression. You may choose to specialise in a particular area, for example non-ionising radiation or medical X-ray equipment.
Promotion within the NHS will usually be from clinical scientist to principal and then lead scientist. As you progress, you're likely to become involved in the management of a large department or major departmental section. You may also work as a medical physics expert.
AURPO, IPEM and the SRP are among the number of professional bodies offering career-building membership to radiation protection practitioners. Chartered membership of the SRP is possible for those with the required knowledge and experience as a radiation protection professional.