If you're interested in science or engineering and have been gifted with a technical mind, you could embark on a career in radiation 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.

They 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:

  • industry (radiography)
  • medicine (diagnosis and treatment)
  • research
  • teaching.

Responsibilities

As a radiation protection practitioner, you'll need to:

  • ensure that radiation safety regulations are observed
  • visit companies to provide radiation protection consultancy and write reports based on these visits
  • 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
  • apply basic principles of health and safety to comply with relevant regulations
  • 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
  • provide a dosimetry service and measuring radiation, using both basic and complex scientific equipment
  • assess radiation risks in the workplace and advising on the design of plant, equipment and waste disposal to ensure safety
  • assess the impact of releasing radioactive material on the environment
  • advise on the safe transport of radioactive materials
  • prepare emergency plans for responding to radiation incidents
  • lead and coordinate enquiries into accidents or incidents
  • liaise with inspectorate and other bodies
  • identify training needs and lecture and/or train other staff.

Salary

  • Salaries for radiation protection practitioners generally range from £22,000 to £30,000.
  • Healthcare science practitioners working for the NHS earn £22,128 to £28,746.
  • Radiation protection advisers (RPAs) can expect to earn between £35,000 and £65,000 and healthcare scientists working for the NHS earn between £31,696 and £41,787.

For further information about NHS salaries, see the Agenda for Change pay rates.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Office hours of 9am to 5pm are common but extra hours, including weekends or shifts, may be required for many posts. 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.
  • Jobs are quite widely available. 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 are working as a contractor or inspector.
  • Some posts, for example with research organisations or national advisory bodies, may require you to travel abroad. You may also need to meet and advise overseas customers.

Qualifications

You'll usually need a degree to become a radiation protection practitioner. Relevant subjects include physical/mathematical/applied science, life and medical science, and engineering, such as the following:

  • biology/biomedical science/biochemistry
  • chemistry
  • environmental health
  • environmental science (biological)
  • medical laboratory science
  • nuclear engineering
  • physics/applied physics
  • physiology
  • radiography.

Direct entry without a degree or with an HND only is unlikely, although entry into a technician-level position is possible. You would then need to complete further study and gain experience to progress to the practitioner role. It is possible to study radiation protection at postgraduate level.

To enter into radiation physics, or radiation safety physics, in the NHS, you will need to follow the healthcare scientist/clinical scientist route.

You can apply for the NHS Practitioner Training Programme, an undergraduate training scheme that includes work-based and academic learning. You will study all of the five themes in the first year of the programme and then specialise in the second and third year. You will complete an accredited BSc in Healthcare Science, which will enable you to work as a healthcare science practitioner.

The NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP) is open to graduates who hold a 1st or 2:1 in a science or engineering subject. This programme trains you to work in a senior healthcare role in a variety of areas, including radiotherapy physics, radiation safety, imaging (ionising), imaging (non-ionising), MRI and ultrasound.

On the STP programme, you'll be employed on a fixed-term contract and paid a salary during your training. The programme lasts for three years and involves approved and accredited workplace-based training and gaining a Masters degree in your chosen area of work. Once you've completed the STP, you'll be eligible to apply for suitable healthcare science posts as a clinical scientist.

Skills

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 skills (for more senior positions, particularly in industry).

Work experience

Although not essential, part-time or vacation work in a related field can help you build contacts and may improve your chances of securing full-time employment.

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).

Employers

Radiation protection practitioners are employed in both the nuclear and non-nuclear sectors. Typical employers include:

  • nuclear and electricity generating industries
  • general industry, including radiography, source manufacture, transport and instrumentation (e.g. those manufacturing radioisotopes for industry, hospitals and research establishments)
  • the NHS, which employs radiation protection practitioners 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, who operate nuclear dockyards and nuclear weapons establishments
  • private sector radiation protection consultancies
  • research establishments run by the science research councils (for a list see Research Councils UK), and those run by charities such as Cancer Research UK
  • universities and colleges where the role may be combined with other responsibilities
  • government regulators such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Environment Agency (EA), and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA).

Look for job vacancies at:

Professional development

Most employers provide extensive on-the-job training to supplement formal education/qualifications and may also send staff on external short courses on specific aspects of radiation protection.

Public Health England (PHE) provides a range of training courses for radiation protection professionals.

It's essential to keep up to date with professional developments and update your expertise by attending training courses and taking appropriate qualifications.

Postgraduate courses including Masters and diplomas in radiation protection or related subjects are available at a number of universities. Some employers may provide support for obtaining these qualifications. The SRP's website has details of some postgraduate courses.

If you wish to progress to the RPA role, or radioactive waste adviser (RWA) you may consider taking the Certificate in Radiation Protection offered jointly by the University of Strathclyde and the Association of University Radiation Protection Officers (AURPO).

Career prospects

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. Many 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, it's likely that you will want to gain a position as an RPA. To receive RPA accreditation, you will need to gain a Certificate of Core Competence from an assessing body recognised by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), for example RPA 2000. The Certificate is valid for five years and must then be renewed.

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 to a management position or to take on some general management responsibilities is more common in an industrial setting.

AURPO, IPEM and 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.