One of the most frightening scenarios that any prepper could face is a nuclear incident. A nuclear power plant accident, deployment of a dirty bomb or a genuine nuclear warhead detonation will all scatter radioactive and potentially lethal material far and wide.
You cannot detect radioactivity with any of your five senses, and so we’ll have to rely on specialized equipment for the purpose. The two most commonly recommended for the task are Geiger counters (a.k.a. or Geiger-Mueller tubes) and personal radiation detectors. What is the difference between the two?
Geiger counters and personal radiation detectors perform essentially the same task but personal radiation detectors are more sophisticated with better sensor suites and provide more useful information.
A Geiger counter will tell you only that there is radiation around you, but not the source, strength or anything else. A personal radiation detector can do the same but can pinpoint a source, the type of radiation, the current dose rate and even the safe stay time in the area for the wearer.
Obviously getting prepared for any kind of nuclear incident is serious business, even in the realm of personal readiness. This topic deserves considerably more discussion and we will delve more into the finer points of Geiger counters and personal radiation detectors below.
A Geiger Counter Can Tell You There is Radiation Around…
Geiger counters, also known as Geiger-Mueller tubes, or G-M counters are comparatively simple devices for detecting radiation in the immediate area, and are among the least expensive tools for doing so.
A Geiger counter has two main parts, a sealed chamber filled with gas and an informational display, and usually a speaker today which can be turned on or off. A wire running through the middle of the chamber attracts electrons and creates ion pairs, in the process sending a current through the wire.
The wire, connected to the information display on the Geiger counter, moves a needle when energized and displays a number on a screen accordingly. This reading is known as the counts per minute, or the number of ion pairs created every 60 seconds.
If the speaker on the device is turned on, the characteristic click or pop is emitted and higher levels of radiation will make a Geiger counter click furiously in that eerie way we have all heard in popular media.
The number of ion pairs is important because ion pairs are created when an electron in an atom absorbs energy from radiation and is pushed out of its orbit. This process is known as ionization and creates that ion pair of a free, negatively charged electron and a positively charged atom as a result. This is where we take the term ionizing radiation from.
… But Not What Kind or How Energetic it Is
Unfortunately, a Geiger counter can only tell you that there is radiation around you, but it can’t tell you anything else that is potentially useful, or even life-saving under the circumstances.
It cannot tell you what the original source of the radiation is, what kind of radiation it is or how energetic it is. All you get is the counts per minute reading, but it is surely good to know if you are dealing with comparatively weak counts or strong accounts, isn’t it?
Accordingly, Geiger counters are useful in a very general way, and if they are going off repeatedly and intensely you know there is trouble, but you might not be able to suss out exactly where the trouble is coming from.
Your Geiger counter could be picking up radiation from the sun, base radioactive elements in the soil, radon gas, even the rock under your feet or a person nearby.
These coarse readings make interpretation of the situation mostly guess work.
A Personal Radiation Detector Offers Better Capability
Personal radiation detectors might be thought of as a generational leap in Geiger counter technology.
These devices are worn on the body and are capable of detecting and localizing the source of radiation in an area, including radiation emitted by such devices as dirty bombs or radioactive material dispersal devices, to say nothing of nuclear warhead detonations.
In short, a personal radiation detector gives you all the capability of the older style G-M tubes while boosting the feature set available to the user.
Though these devices, in accordance with their greater sensitivity and capability, must be calibrated and tested more often than a Geiger counter they are capable of detecting alpha, beta and gamma radiation along with x-rays, and advanced units of the type can detect all four.
These devices are also expandable or upgradable with various modules to afford the user better capability, capability that might just save a life. We will talk more about that in the next section.
PRD’s Can Determine Type, Source and Dose Rates Along with “Stay Time”
Depending on the type of PRD, it might be able to detect radiation in the immediate area around the wearer or it might provide directional indications on the source of the radiation, allowing a skilled user to precisely pinpoint where it is coming from.
Perhaps most useful for skilled civilians and professionals operating in radiological environments alike is the capability of such instrumentation to provide count rate, dose rates including total accumulated dosage, peak dosage and the remaining stay time or safe up time in an environment experiencing a sustained level of radiation.
Other, more specialized PRD units can detect surface contamination levels local to the environment and are capable of characterizing specific types of radiation on the fly with no need to recalibrate.
This type of capability is predominantly useful for professionals, but a prepper who understands the physics and characteristics of a nuclear incident might be able to make use of such information to devise a better personal response.
Ultimately, assuming cost is not an object any variety of PRD is typically a better choice for nuclear safety and nuclear preparation than an old school Geiger counter.
A Traditional Geiger-Counter is Less Useful for Nuclear Preparedness
If you’re only going to get one kind of nuclear monitoring device, make it a personal radiation detector such as this one. You give up absolutely no capability over a traditional G-M tube but you get much in return for only a modest increase in cost assuming you are not trying to purchase a top of the line model or specialized scintillator.
The ability to determine the strength, source and type of radiation is useful in any context assuming one has the education and the training to interpret that information correctly. A common Geiger counter can only tell you that there is radiation around you, and that is all. Though undoubtedly useful, they fall well short of the detection capabilities of a modern PRD.
A Geiger counter and personal radiation detector function on similar principles but differ greatly and capability. A Geiger counter can tell the user only that there is radiation around them, but not the source, strength or type.
A personal radiation detector can likewise inform the user or where that there is radiation nearby, but is also capable of pinpointing the source, determining the type of radiation, determining the strength of the radiation and also providing useful metrics such as dose rate, total accumulated dose and remaining safe time in a warm or hot zone.
For personal readiness, a personal radiation detector is the obvious choice assuming one has the skill and education to make use of its greater capability.