Many elements have one or more naturally radioactive isotopes, and several hundred other radionuclides have been produced artificially. Radioactive substances may be present in natural water as a result of geochemical processes or the release of radioactive waste and other nuclear debris to the environment. The Geological Survey has developed methods for measuring certain of these .radioactive substances in water.
Radioactive substances often are present in water samples in microgram quantities or less. Therefore, precautions must be taken to prevent loss of material and to assure that the sample truly represents its source at the time of collection. Addition of acids, complexing agents, or stable isotopes often aids in preventing loss of radioactivity on container walls, on sediment, or on other solid materials in contact with the sample.
The disintegration of radioactive atoms is a random process subject to established methods of statistical analysis. Because many water samples contain small amounts of radioactivity, low-level counting techniques must be used. The usual assumption that counting data follow a Gaussian distribution is invalid under these conditions, and statistical analyses must be based on the Poisson distribution.
The gross beta activity in water samples is determined from the residue left after evaporation of the sample to dryness. Evaporation is accomplished first in a teflon dish, then the residue is transferred with distilled water to a counting planchet and again is reduced to dryness. The radioactivity on the planchet is measured with an anticoincidence-shielded, low-background, beta counter and is compared with measurements of a strontium-90-yttrium-90 standard prepared and measured in the same manner. Control charts are used to assure consistent operation of the counting instrument.