A profession nobody’s heard of

Chuck Surre surveys radioactive waste at the University of Rochester

I am a health physicist. And no, this is not the first admission in a 12-step program – more like a statement that means very little to most of the people in the US. If I tell the person next to me on a plane, for example, that I am a health physicist they usually look blank or they start telling me about their bad back (or one guy who started talking about his prostate on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit – but that’s another story). Part of the reason for this is that the name “health physics” came from the secrecy of the Manhattan Project – an effort to learn about radiation’s health effects without cluing Nazi Germany in to the fact that we were developing nuclear weapons. And the true measure of the success of this effort deception is that today – 70 years later – almost nobody knows what a health physicist does (for the record, health physics is the profession that deals with radiation safety for people and the environment).

This relative obscurity is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that very few kids tell people “I want to be a health physicist when I grow up.” In fact, most health physicists fell into their profession by accident – they may have started in biology, physics, chemistry, even geology or astronomy and just happened to wind up doing radiation safety. The upshot is that this brings up two potentially significant problems – there is a shortage of health physicists in the United States and the majority of those running radiation safety programs are not trained radiation safety professionals. Let’s look at the first issue first, starting with what it is that health physicists actually do.

For a relatively small profession (there are about 6000 people in the Health Physics Society) the profession has a hugely broad reach. Health physicists are in hospitals where they help to make sure that the radiation and radioactivity used in the practice of medicine are used safely, responsibly, and in accordance with regulatory requirements. Nuclear medicine, radiation oncology, radiology, nuclear cardiology – all of these departments make heavy use of health physicists for routine radiation safety (including handling the radioactive waste that nuclear medicine patients produce). Health physicists also work at the nuclear reactors and particle accelerators that produce the isotopes used in medicine or for research. Health physicists also run radiation safety programs at large research universities as well as in industrial R&D facilities. Radioactivity is used in the military (not only naval nuclear reactors, but also in many other military applications), in the nuclear power plants that produce about 20% of our energy, and in a host of other parts of society. And not only is health physics practiced in all of these areas, but we also depend on health physicists to regulate radiation safety across the nation – the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, other federal agencies, along with over 30 state radiation safety programs all make use of health physicists to inspect and oversee radiation safety programs nationwide.

Right now there is a nationwide shortage of health physicists. This is not just my observation – although I can vouch that it is not easy to fill open HP positions – it is also the observation of the Health Physics Society in the “Human Capital Crisis Task Force Report” that was completed in 2004. The HPS identified a large – and growing – shortfall in health physicists across the board but noted that the shortage is particularly ominous in the regulatory sphere (more on that in a moment). And there are a bunch of reasons for it, starting with what I mentioned in the first paragraph – it’s hard to attract high school and college students into a field that nobody’s heard of. This is one of the reasons that, even as the HP shortage grows (and as salaries grow to reflect the scarcity), university HP degree programs are not only graduating fewer students but are even closing their doors.

Another factor is that a huge number of health physicists entered the profession in the 1950s and 1960s as participants in a huge fellowship program aimed at educating health physicists for the nation’s growing nuclear weapons and nuclear energy programs – the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) fellowship program established world-class health physics and radiation science programs in universities around the United States and these programs graduated the people who built our profession and who have been its leaders for the last half-century. But the AEC Fellows have been retiring for nearly a decade now, leaving massive holes in our profession and without adequate replacements in the pipeline. I’d like to start by looking at the impact of this shortage among our regulators and then to look at how it has affected (and will likely continue to affect) the industries that rely on radiation and radioactivity.

Many years ago when I worked for a state radiation regulatory program I used to get into congenial arguments with, of all people, my favorite hotdog vendor – a staunch Libertarian. He would accuse me of taking the public’s money for my job when we should just be able to rely on market forces to weed out businesses that were making their employees (or their customers) sick. Without getting into the whole debate over the appropriate size (or role) of government, I realized that we simply cannot expect the general public to know enough about radiation for market forces to have a chance of working – in some fields there just is no substitute for regulatory oversight by knowledgeable professionals. We have been losing these knowledgeable professionals in state, local, and national oversight agencies for years and the bleeding shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.

Not only that, but when the regulators have to compete with private industry for a scanty supply of new graduates – especially in an era of budget cuts and fiscal hardship – governments don’t have many options; they can try to entice people to extend their service, they can try to offer higher salaries, or they can accept the fact that many of their new hires might require years of training to become effective. In fact, this view was shared by the Government Accountability Office when it noted that the growing shortage of health physicists in regulatory circles could have a serious impact on nuclear reactor safety and on radioactive source safety and security in the United States. Today – when new reactor plants are on the drawing board, when we have an ever-increasing reliance on radiation in medicine, and in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident and the more recent losses of radioactive materials in the US and abroad – it would seem we can scarce afford to scale back on effective radiation and nuclear safety oversight.

There is another impact of this HP shortage as well – an increasing number of companies are turning their corporate radiation safety over to people who are not radiation safety professionals. Many hospitals and medical clinics place their radiation safety in the hands of a physician or medical technologist while a huge number of corporate licensees use multi-tasking industrial hygienists, safety professionals, engineers, or technicians as Radiation Safety Officers. Nationwide there are over 20,000 radioactive materials licensees – not to mention tens of thousands more facilities that use radiation-generating equipment such as x-ray machines and linear accelerators – and there are few than 10,000 radiation safety professionals in the United States. I spent about a decade teaching radiation safety courses for prospective radiation safety officers – my typical student was the person who ran the slowest when the need for a new RSO arose. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of radiation safety in the United States is administered by people who do not consider themselves to be radiation safety professionals – they are just stuck with the job.

Having said this, I have to admit that not every licensee needs a professional health physicist. Some radioactive sources are small and innocuous – it doesn’t make sense to require a highly trained health physicist to oversee a handful of low-activity radioactive sources that pose little risk to anyone. On the other hand, there are any number of firms that have fairly sizeable radioactive sources – possibly used for geotechnical investigations or for industrial radiography – that can cause problems if they aren’t used properly. And that doesn’t even get into companies that might use x-rays or even particle accelerators in their work. I know I’m biased – but I would rather see a potentially lethal source overseen by a professional health physicist who has other duties to fill his or her spare time, as opposed to putting such sources into the care of a person for whom radiation safety is an unwelcome afterthought.

To their credit, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy are working to address this shortage by offering grants to universities to help build new educational programs as well as offering fellowships to encourage students to study this field. At the very least it makes sense to continue these programs and perhaps even to ramp them up so that the number of fellowships is enough to offset the continuing retirements of AEC-era health physicists. But a fellowship is not effective if nobody knows what it’s for – there simply must be a reciprocal effort to help make students aware of the profession and to let them know that there is much more than nuclear energy (or nuclear weapons production) to the profession. To their credit, the Health Physics Society has a long history of working with the nation’s science teachers to help them better understand radiation science – it might be appropriate to also start working with high school guidance counselors and with university student organizations (such as the Society of Physics Students and their counterpart in other scientific and technical degree programs) to help spread the word that radiation safety is a great potential career option. Working with science teachers is a great start, but students make their career decisions in college as well as in high school – HPS needs to find ways to actively engage students at both levels of education if they are to have a chance of attracting new students into their profession. At the very least – particularly important in today’s economy – it might interest students to know that the shortage of HPs is such that anyone graduating without a felony conviction is likely to have multiple job offers, most of them fairly high-paying.

I’d like to close on a more personal note to say that I never planned to be a health physicist and was in my mid-30s before I realized that this was going to be my profession. Even after 8 years of practicing radiation safety in the Navy my plan was to work in the field to help pay for college – better than flipping burgers or stocking groceries. I was surprised to find that the profession was far more varied and far more rewarding than I had imagined and my work has taken me to more than 30 states and 25 foreign countries as well as giving me the chance to work on a number of fascinating projects with respected colleagues I think the world of. I can whole-heartedly recommend a career in health physics to anybody – and given what I have mentioned earlier in this posting, I really hope to see a surge of junior colleagues in the years to come.


Dr Y is a certified health physicist, trained in nuclear power plant design and operations, with experience in nuclear power, environmental science, and planning for radiological and nuclear emergencies. He has 30 years of experience in the areas of nuclear and radiation safety

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6 Responses to “A profession nobody’s heard of”

  1. Adam Hoffman February 7, 2012 at 9:18 AM #

    I had always wondered what the origin of the term ‘Health Physics’ was.

    What do you suppose the profession would be called today if it were not created in secrecy? Texas A&M had an undergraduate program within Nuclear Engineering that teaches health physics, and I think they called it something like ‘Radiological Health Engineering’.

    Also, on the note of putting radiation safety in unqualified hands, I was also distressed by how frequently the media was consulting physicians and how rarely they spoke with health physicists concerning health of effects of radiation in the wake of Fukushima. I think the media could stand to be better informed about health physicists and their expertise.

  2. Erik February 10, 2012 at 7:57 AM #

    If there is such a shortage of HP’s why isn’t that reflected in their salaries? If the profession were more lucrative, I am sure students would be enrolling in training programs and there would be waiting lists until supply and demand evened out.

  3. Dr Y February 10, 2012 at 2:20 PM #

    In reality HP pay is fairly good. I can’t provide a link to the recent salary surveys because it’s on the “Members Only” part of the HPS website, but median salaries for certified health physicists – BS, MS, or PhD – are upwards of $100,000 annually. To qualify for certification you must have at least an undergraduate degree in a scientific or technical field along with 6 years of professional-level experience. But still, there are few fields where a person can be making over $100,000 annually with a BS and only 6 years of experience. Pay is lower for non-certified HPs, by about $15,000-$25,000 anually, but this is still not too shabby.

    Your point about students enrolling for the high pay is a good one – but again it’s hard to get people to enroll in a field that they have never heard of. I would contend that the fundamental problem is the profession’s low profile, which is why I strongly advocate actively reaching out to tell students and their guidance counselors that we exist, instead of posting information and waiting for them to find it (or not).

  4. Paul Lindsey February 22, 2012 at 1:07 AM #

    As a HP, would you please comment on the latest news regarding the detection of Cs in the Pacific by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Inst.


    The comments page appears to have some rather ridiculous assertions:

    Unfortunately, article is light on specific numbers, and Woods Hole’s website has a press release about the presentation, but not the presentation itself. Things get confusing when trying to evaluate the risk in terms of the EPA drinking water limits and the FDA Derived Intervention Limit (DIL).

    Thank you,
    LCDR, USN (ret), A4W PPWO, EOOW & Engineer-qualified.

  5. Dr. Y February 23, 2012 at 12:25 AM #

    This is not surprising, although (like you) I am disappointed in the manner in which it is reported.

    The reason this doesn’t surprise me is that we are able to detect really low levels of radioactivity and because cesium-137 is one of the most-produced nuclides during fission. That, plus the fact that it’s fairly volatile means that it is more likely to be released into the environment in detectable quantities.

    That being said, the article is – whether intentionally or unintentially – a little misleading. In particular, there is virtually no Cs-137 in the environment due to its short half-life and artificial nature. So it doesn’t take much to increase “normal” levels by a factor of tens, hundreds, or even thousands because even a thousand times a very low number is still a very low number. The only way to know whether or not there is a risk is to have an absolute number – x number of picoCuries per liter of seawater.

    One other thing to keep in mind is that the EPA limits are based on the assumption that people will be drinking that water continuously for a long period of time. You can have a sip – even a a gulp – of water that exceeds EPA limits without having problems. The key factor is the total amount of radioactivity ingested and the length of time (in one shot, over a year, over a lifetime) over which it was ingested.

  6. Scott Davidson August 12, 2012 at 8:26 PM #

    The reason that salaries stay lower than there would otherwise be for a field with a shortfall in professional staff is that companies choose to either assign the duties to personnel with little or no formal training to the duties and take a chance on their success or that the personnel who go after the positions do not demand more of their employer. Many are employed in government, nuclear power plants and universities. The government are fast career growth to a GS-12 or 13 unless you are at DOE or NASA where you might see GS-14 or GS-15 health physicists and that is in Washington, DC or somewhere really expensive. The nuclear plants accept qualifications because their programs are well established and do not need any one to reinvent the wheel until there is a problem when the existing staff may be found lacking. The NPP community is well supported these days and communications are open so that they get answers quickly and answer as a group. All in all, a person with a BS or MS can make $100k outside of universities with little difficulty and the work is secure. You can probably double that in consulting. Is it all that bad?

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