Ancient Greek philosophers first
developed the idea that all matter is composed of invisible particles called
atoms. The word atom comes from the Greek word, atomos, meaning indivisible.
Scientists in the 18th and 19th centuries revised the concept based on their
By 1900, physicists knew the
atom contains large quantities of energy. British physicist Ernest
Rutherford was called the father of nuclear science because of his
contribution to the theory of atomic structure. In 1904 he wrote: "If it
were ever possible to control at will the rate of disintegration of the
radio elements, an enormous amount of energy could be obtained from a small
amount of matter."
Albert Einstein developed his
theory of the relationship between mass and energy one year later. The
mathematical formula is E=mc 2, or “energy equals mass times the speed of
light squared.” It took almost 35 years for someone to prove Einstein’s
This equation says:
stands for the speed of light.
means c times c, or the speed
of light raised to the second power -- or c-squared.]
Energy From The Atom
Although they are tiny, atoms
have a large amount of energy holding their nuclei together. Certain
isotopes of some elements can be split and will release part of their energy
as heat. This splitting is called fission. The heat released in fission can
be used to help generate electricity in powerplants. Uranium-235 (U-235) is
one of the isotopes that fissions easily. During fission, U-235 atoms absorb
loose neutrons. This causes U-235 to become unstable and split into two
light atoms called fission products. The combined mass of the fission
products is less than that of the original U-235. The reduction occurs
because some of the matter changes into energy. The energy is released as
heat. Two or three neutrons are released along with the heat. These neutrons
may hit other atoms, causing more fission.
A series of fissions is called a
chain reaction. If enough uranium is brought together under the right
conditions, a continuous chain reaction occurs. This is called a
self-sustaining chain reaction. A self-sustaining chain reaction creates a
great deal of heat, which can be used to help generate electricity.
Nuclear powerplants generate
electricity like any other steam-electric powerplant. Water is heated, and
steam from the boiling water turns turbines and generates electricity. The
main difference in the various types of steam-electric plants is the heat
source. Heat from a selfsustaining chain reaction boils the water in a
nuclear powerplant. Coal, oil, or gas is burned in other powerplants to heat
The Discovery Of Fission
In 1934, physicist Enrico Fermi
conducted experiments in Rome that showed neutrons could split many kinds of
atoms. The results surprised even Fermi himself. When he bombarded uranium
with neutrons, he did not get the elements he expected. The elements were
much lighter than uranium.
In the fall of 1938, German
scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman fired neutrons from a source
containing the elements radium and beryllium into uranium (atomic number
92). They were surprised to find lighter elements, such as barium (atomic
number 56), in the leftover materials.
In the fall of 1938, German
scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman fired neutrons from a source
containing the elements radium and beryllium into uranium (atomic number
92). They were surprised to find lighter elements, such as barium (atomic
number 56), in the leftover materials.
These elements had about half
the atomic mass of uranium. In previous experiments, the leftover materials
were only slightly lighter than uranium. Hahn and Strassman contacted Lise
Meitner in Copenhagen before publicizing their discovery. She was an
Austrian colleague who had been forced to flee Nazi Germany. She worked with
Niels Bohr and her nephew, Otto R. Frisch. Meitner and Frisch thought the
barium and other light elements in the leftover material resulted from the
uranium splitting — or fissioning. However, when she added the atomic masses
of the fission products, they did not total the uranium’s mass.
Meitner used Einstein’s theory
to show the lost mass changed to energy. This proved fission occurred and
confirmed Einstein’s work.
The First Self-Sustaining Chain
In 1939, Bohr came to America.
He shared with Einstein the Hahn-Strassman-Meitner discoveries. Bohr also
met Fermi at a conference on theoretical physics in Washington, D.C. They
discussed the exciting possibility of a selfsustaining chain reaction. In
such a process, atoms could be split to release large amounts of energy.
Scientists throughout the world
began to believe a self-sustaining chain reaction might be possible. It
would happen if enough uranium could be brought together under proper
conditions. The amount of uranium needed to make a self-sustaining chain
reaction is called a critical mass.
Fermi and his associate, Leo
Szilard, suggested a possible design for a uranium chain reactor in 1941.
Their model consisted of uranium placed in a stack of graphite to make a
cube-like frame of fissionable material.
Early in 1942, a group of
scientists led by Fermi gathered at the University of Chicago to develop
their theories. By November 1942, they were ready for construction to begin
on the world’s first nuclear reactor, which became known as Chicago Pile-1.
The pile was erected on the floor of a squash court beneath the University
of Chicago’s athletic stadium. In addition to uranium and graphite, it
contained control rods made of cadmium. Cadmium is a metallic element that
absorbs neutrons. When the rods were in the pile, there were fewer neutrons
to fission uranium atoms. This slowed the chain reaction. When the rods were
pulled out, more neutrons were available to split atoms. The chain reaction
On the morning of December 2,
1942, the scientists were ready to begin a demonstration of Chicago Pile-1.
Fermi ordered the control rods to be withdrawn a few inches at a time during
the next several hours. Finally, at 3:25 p.m., Chicago time, the nuclear
reaction became self-sustaining. Fermi and his group had successfully
transformed scientific theory into technological reality. The world had
entered the nuclear age.
Development Of Nuclear Energy For Peaceful Applications
The first nuclear reactor was
only the beginning. Most early atomic research focused on developing an
effective weapon for use in World War II. The work was done under the code
name Manhattan Project.
However, some scientists worked
on making breeder reactors, which would produce fissionable material in the
chain reaction. Therefore, they would create more fissionable material than
they would use.
After the war, the United
States government encouraged the development of nuclear energy for peaceful
civilian purposes. Congress created the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in
1946. The AEC authorized the construction of Experimental Breeder Reactor I
at a site in Idaho. The reactor generated the first electricity from nuclear
energy on December 20, 1951. Enrico Fermi led a group of scientists in
initiating the first selfsustaining nuclear chain reaction.
A major goal of nuclear research
in the mid-1950s was to show that nuclear energy could produce electricity
for commercial use. The first commercial electricity-generating plant
powered by nuclear energy was located in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. It
reached its full design power in 1957. Light-water reactors like
Shippingport use ordinary water to cool the reactor core during the chain
reaction. They were the best design then available for nuclear powerplants.
Private industry became more and
more involved in developing light-water reactors after Shippingport became
operational Federal nuclear energy programs shifted their focus to
developing other reactor technologies.
The nuclear power industry in
the U.S. grew rapidly in the 1960s. Utility companies saw this new form of
electricity production as economical, environmentally clean, and safe. In
the 1970s and 1980s, however, growth slowed. Demand for electricity
decreased and concern grew over nuclear issues, such as reactor safety,
waste disposal, and other environmental considerations. Still, the U.S. had
twice as many operating nuclear powerplants as any other country in 1991.
This was more than one-fourth of the world’s operating plants. Nuclear
energy supplied almost 22 percent of the electricity produced in the U.S.
At the end of 1991, 31 other
countries also had nuclear powerplants in commercial operation or under
construction. That is an impressive worldwide commitment to nuclear power
technology. During the 1990s, the U.S. faces several major energy issues and
has developed several major goals for nuclear power, which are:
To maintain exacting safety and design standards;
To reduce economic risk;
To reduce regulatory risk; and
To establish an effective high-level nuclear waste disposal
Several of these nuclear power goals were addressed in the Energy
Policy Act of 1992, which was signed into law in October of that
The U.S. is working to achieve these goals in a number of ways. For
instance, the U.S. Department of Energy has undertaken a number of
joint efforts with the nuclear industry to develop the next generation
of nuclear powerplants. These plants are being designed to be safer
and more efficient. There is also an effort under way to make nuclear
plants easier to build by standardizing the design and simplifying the
licensing requirements, without lessening safety standards.
In the area of waste management, engineers are developing new methods
and places to store the radioactive waste produced by nuclear plants
and other nuclear processes. Their goal is to keep the waste away from
the environment and people for very long periods of time.
Scientists are also studying the power of nuclear fusion. Fusion
occurs when atoms join — or fuse — rather than split. Fusion is the
energy that powers the sun. On earth, the most promising fusion fuel
is deuterium, a form of hydrogen. It comes from water and is
plentiful. It is also likely to create less radioactive waste than
fission. However, scientists are still unable to produce useful
amounts of power from fusion and are continuing their research.
Nuclear energy is energy in the
nucleus (core) of an atom. Atoms are tiny particles that make up every
object in the universe. There is enormous energy in the bonds that hold
atoms together. Nuclear energy can be used to make electricity. But first
the energy must be released. It can be released from atoms in two ways:
nuclear fusion and nuclear fission.
In nuclear fusion,
energy is released when atoms are combined or fused together to form a larger
atom. This is how the sun produces energy.
In nuclear fission,
atoms are split apart to form smaller atoms, releasing energy. Nuclear power
plants use nuclear fission to produce electricity.
Nuclear power plants are very
clean and efficient to operate. However, nuclear power plants have some
major environmental risks. Nuclear power plants produce radioactive gases.
These gases are to be contained in the operation of the plant. If these
gases are released into the air, major health risks can occur. Nuclear
plants use uranium as a fuel to produce power. The mining and handling of
uranium is very risky and radiation leaks can occur. The third concern of
nuclear power is the permanent storage of spent radioactive fuel. This fuel
is toxic for centuries, handling and disposal is an ongoing environmental
An atom consists of an extremely
small, positively charged nucleus surrounded by a cloud of negatively
charged electrons. Although typically the nucleus is less than one
ten-thousandth the size of the atom, the nucleus contains more than 99.9% of
the mass of the atom! Nuclei consist of positively charged protons and
electrically neutral neutrons held together by the so-called strong or
nuclear force. This force is much stronger than the familiar electrostatic
force that binds the electrons to the nucleus, but its range is limited to
distances on the order of a few x10-15 meters.
The number of protons in the nucleus, Z, is called the atomic number.
This determines what chemical element the atom is. The number of neutrons in
the nucleus is denoted by N. Theatomic mass of the nucleus,
A, is equal to Z + N. A given element can have many
different isotopes, which differ from one another by the number of neutrons
contained in the nuclei. In a neutral atom, the number of electrons orbiting
the nucleus equals the number of protons in the nucleus. Since the electric
charges of the proton and the electron are +1 and -1 respectively (in units
of the proton charge), the net charge of the atom is zero. At present, there
are 112 known elements which range from the lightest, hydrogen, to the
recently discovered and yet to-be-named element 112. All of the elements
heavier than uranium are man made. Among the elements are approximately 270
stable isotopes, and more than 2000 unstable isotopes.
The Nuclear Fuel Cycle
The nuclear fuel cycle consists
of "front end" steps that lead to the preparation of uranium for use as fuel
for reactor operation and "back end" steps that are necessary to safely
manage, prepare, and dispose of the highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel.
A deposit of uranium, discovered by geophysical techniques, is evaluated and
sampled to determine the amounts of uranium materials that are extractable at
specified costs from the deposit. Uranium reserves are the amounts of ore that
are estimated to be recoverable at stated costs.
Uranium ore can be extracted through conventional mining in open pit and
underground methods similar to those used for mining other metals. In situ leach
mining methods also are used to mine uranium in the United States. In this
technology, uranium is leached from the in-place ore through an array of
regularly spaced wells and is then recovered from the leach solution at a
surface plant. Uranium ores in the United States typically range from about 0.05
to 0.3 percent uranium oxide (U3O8). Some uranium deposits developed in other
countries are of higher grade and are also larger than deposits mined in the
United States. Uranium is also present in very low grade amounts (50 to 200
parts per million) in some domestic phosphate-bearing deposits of marine origin.
Because very large quantities of phosphate-bearing rock are mined for the
production of wet-process phosphoric acid used in high analysis fertilizers and
other phosphate chemicals, at some phosphate processing plants the uranium,
although present in very low concentrations, can be economically recovered from
the process stream.
Mined uranium ores normally are processed by grinding the ore materials to a
uniform particle size and then treating the ore to extract the uranium by
chemical leaching. The milling process commonly yields dry powder-form material
consisting of natural uranium, "yellowcake," which is sold on the uranium market
conversion. Milled uranium oxide, U3O8, must be converted to uranium
hexafluoride, UF6, which is the form required by most commercial uranium
enrichment facilities currently in use. A solid at room temperature, UF6 can be
changed to a gaseous form at moderately higher temperatures. The UF6 conversion
product contains only natural, not enriched, uranium.
The concentration of the fissionable isotope, 235U (0.71 percent in natural
uranium) is less than that required to sustain a nuclear chain reaction in light
water reactor cores. Natural UF6 thus must be "enriched" in the fissionable
isotope for it to be used as nuclear fuel. The different levels of enrichment
required for a particular nuclear fuel application are specified by the
customer: light-water reactor fuel normally is enriched up to about 4 percent
235U, but uranium enriched to lower concentrations also is required. Gaseous
diffusion and gas centrifuge are the commonly used uranium enrichment
technologies. The gaseous diffusion process consists of passing the natural UF6
gas feed under high pressure through a series of diffusion barriers (semiporous
membranes) that permit passage of the lighter 235UF6 atoms at a faster rate than
the heavier 238UF6 atoms. This differential treatment, applied across a large
number of diffusion "stages," progressively raises the product stream
concentration of 235U relative to 238U. In the gaseous diffusion technology, the
separation achieved per diffusion stage is relatively low, and a large number of
stages is required to achieve the desired level of isotope enrichment. Because
this technology requires a large capital outlay for facilities and it consumes
large amounts of electrical energy, it is relatively cost intensive. In the gas
centrifuge process, the natural UF6 gas is spun at high speed in a series of
cylinders. This acts to separate the 235UF6 and 238UF6 atoms based on their
slightly different atomic masses. Gas centrifuge technology involves relatively
high capital costs for the specialized equipment required, but its power costs
are below those for the gaseous diffusion technology. New enrichment
technologies currently being developed are the atomic vapor laser isotope
separation (AVLIS) and the molecular laser isotope separation (MLIS). Each
laser-based enrichment process can achieve higher initial enrichment (isotope
separation) factors than the diffusion or centrifuge processes can achieve. Both
AVLIS and MLIS will be capable of operating at high material throughput rates.
For use as nuclear fuel, enriched UF6 is converted into uranium dioxide (UO2)
powder which is then processed into pellet form. The pellets are then fired in a
high temperature sintering furnace to create hard, ceramic pellets of enriched
uranium. The cylindrical pellets then undergo a grinding process to achieve a
uniform pellet size. The pellets are stacked, according to each nuclear core's
design specifications, into tubes of corrosion-resistant metal alloy. The tubes
are sealed to contain the fuel pellets: these tubes are called fuel rods. The
finished fuel rods are grouped in special fuel assemblies that are then used to
build up the nuclear fuel core of a power reactor.
The back end of
the cycle is divided into the following steps:
After its operating cycle, the reactor is shut down for refueling. The fuel
discharged at that time (spent fuel) is stored either at the reactor site or,
potentially, in a common facility away from reactor sites. If on-site pool
storage capacity is exceeded, it may be desirable to store aged fuel in modular
dry storage facilities known as Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installations
(ISFSI) at the reactor site or at a facility away from the site. The spent fuel
rods are usually stored in water, which provides both cooling (the spent fuel
continues to generate heat as a result of residual radioactive decay) and
shielding (to protect the environment from residual ionizing radiation).
Spent fuel discharged from light-water reactors contains appreciable quantities
of fissile (U-235, Pu-239), fertile (U-238), and other radioactive materials.
These fissile and fertile materials can be chemically separated and recovered
from the spent fuel. The recovered uranium and plutonium can, if economic and
institutional conditions permit, be recycled for use as nuclear fuel. Currently,
plants in Europe are reprocessing spent fuel from utilities in Europe and Japan.
A current concern in the nuclear power field is the safe disposal and isolation
of either spent fuel from reactors or, if the reprocessing option is used,
wastes from reprocessing plants. These materials must be isolated from the
biosphere until the radioactivity contained in them has diminished to a safe
level. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, as amended, the Department of
Energy has responsibility for the development of the waste disposal system for
spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. Current plans call for the
ultimate disposal of the wastes in solid form in licensed deep, stable geologic
Inside the reactor of an atomic
power plant, uranium atoms are split apart in a controlled chain reaction.
In a chain reaction, particles released by the splitting of the atom go off
and strike other uranium atoms splitting those. Those particles given off
split still other atoms in a chain reaction. In nuclear power plants,
control rods are used to keep the splitting regulated so it doesn't go too
fast. If the reaction is not controlled, you could have an atomic bomb. But
in atomic bombs, almost pure pieces of the element Uranium-235 or Plutonium,
of a precise mass and shape, must be brought together and held together,
with great force. These conditions are not present in a nuclear reactor. The
reaction also creates radioactive material. This material could hurt people
if released, so it is kept in a solid form.
This view looks down on the fuel
rods at Penn State's Breazeale Reactor. The reactor is a TRIGA model
manufactured by General Atomics. The blue light surrounding the fuel is
known as Cherenkov radiation, produced when charged particles travel through
matter (in this case, water) at speeds greater than light. Penn State
University is the site of the first licensed reactor. Sources: the Penn
State Radiation Science and Engineering Center
This chain reaction gives off
heat energy. This heat energy is used to boil water in the core of the
reactor. So, instead of burning a fuel, nuclear power plants use the chain
reaction of atoms splitting to change the energy of atoms into heat energy.
This water from around the nuclear core is sent to another section of the
power plant. Here it heats another set of pipes filled with water to make
steam. The steam in this second set of pipes powers a turbine to generate
Fission is a nuclear process in
which a heavy nucleus splits into two smaller nuclei. An example of a
fission reaction that was used in the first atomic bomb and is still used in
nuclear reactors is.
An atom's nucleus can be split
apart. When this is done, a tremendous amount of energy is released. The
energy is both heat and light energy. This energy, when let out slowly, can
be harnessed to generate electricity. When it is let out all at once, it
makes a tremendous explosion in an atomic bomb. The word fission means to
235U + n ----> 134Xe +
100Sr + 2n
shown in the above equation are only one set of many possible product nuclei.
Fission reactions can produce any combination of lighter nuclei so long as the
number of protons and neutrons in the products sum up to those in the initial
fissioning nucleus. As with fusion, a great amount of energy can be released in
fission because for heavy nuclei, the summed masses of the lighter product
nuclei is less than the mass of the fissioning nucleus.
Fission occurs because of the electrostatic repulsion created by the large
number of positively charged protons contained in a heavy nucleus. Two smaller
nuclei have less internal electrostatic repulsion than one larger nucleus. So,
once the larger nucleus can overcome the strong nuclear force which holds it
together, it can fission. Fission can be seen as a "tug-of-war" between the
strong attractive nuclear force and the repulsive electrostatic force. In
fission reactions, electrostatic repulsion wins.
Fission is a process that has been occurring in the universe for billions
of years. As mentioned above, we have not only used fission to produce energy
for nuclear bombs, but we also use fission peacefully everyday to produce energy
in nuclear power plants.
The following are
essential components/systems of a thermal nuclear fission reactor:
– the fissile material (U-235), either as found in natural uranium or
enriched. In some cases plutonium is added. The fuel is produced in the form
of metal or oxide pellets.
– a metal shell in which the fuel pellets are contained. It protects the
fuel from corrosion and prevents fission products from escaping.
– made of light elements, it slows down the fission neutrons to thermal
levels without unduly absorbing them.
– to transport the heat generated from the core to the steam generator for
driving the turbine.
– made of neutron absorbing material, these can be moved in or out of the
core to control the reaction and maintain it at a critical level or to stop
the reaction during shutdown.
vessel – to prevent radioactive material from escaping in case of
excessive internal pressure.
structure or neutron shield – (concrete or other material) to protect
operators and the public from radiation.
University of California,
Another form of nuclear energy
is called fusion. Fusion means joining smaller nuclei (the plural of
nucleus) to make a larger nucleus.
Fusion is a nuclear
process in which two light nuclei combine to form a single heavier nucleus. An
example of a fusion reaction important in thermonuclear weapons and in future
nuclear reactors is the reaction between two different hydrogen isotopes to form
an isotope of helium:
+ 3H ----> 4He
This reaction liberates an amount of energy more than a million times greater
than one gets from a typical chemical reaction. Such a large amount of energy is
released in fusion reactions because when two light nuclei fuse, the sum of the
masses of the product nuclei is less than the sum of the masses of the initial
fusing nuclei. Once again, Einstein's equation, E=mc2, explains that
the mass that is lost it converted into energy carried away by the fusion
Even though fusion n is an energetically favorable reaction for light
nuclei, it does not occur under standard conditions here on Earth because of the
large energy investment that is required. Because the reacting nuclei are both
positively charged, there is a large electrostatic repulsion between them as
they come together. Only when they are squeezed very close to one another do
they feel the strong nuclear force, which can overcome the electrostatic
repulsion and cause them to fuse.
Fusion reactions have been going on for billions of years in our universe.
In fact, nuclear fusion reactions are responsible for the energy output of most
stars, including our own Sun. Scientists on Earth have been able to produce
fusion reactions for only about the last sixty years. At first, there were small
scale studies in which only a few fusion reactions actually occurred. However,
these first experiments later lead to the development of thermonuclear fusion
weapons (hydrogen bombs).
Fusion is the process that takes place in stars like our Sun. Whenever we
feel the warmth of the Sun and see by its light, we are observing the products
of fusion. We know that all life on Earth exists because the light generated by
the Sun produces food and warms our planet. Therefore, we can say that fusion is
the basis for our life.
When a star is
formed, it initially consists of hydrogen and helium created in the Big Bang,
the process that created our universe. Hydrogen isotopes collide in a star and
fuse forming a helium nucleus. Later, the helium nuclei collide and form heavier
elements. Fusion is a nuclear reaction in which nuclei combine to form a heavier
nucleus. It is the basic reaction which drives the Sun. Lighter elements fuse
and form heavier elements. These reactions continue until the nuclei reach iron
(around mass sixty), the nucleus with the most binding energy. When a nucleus
reaches mass sixty, no more fusion occurs in a star because it is energetically
unfavorable to produce higher masses. Once a star has converted a large fraction
of its core's mass to iron, it has almost reached the end of its life.
The fusion chain cannot continue so its fuel is reduced. Some stars keep
shrinking until they become a cooling ember made up of iron. However, if a star
is sufficiently massive, a tremendous, violent, brilliant explosion can happen.
A star will suddenly expand and produce, in a very short time, more energy than
our Sun will produce in a lifetime. When this happens, we say that a star has
become a supernova.
While a star is in the supernova phase, many important reactions occur. The
nuclei are accelerated to much higher velocities than can occur in a fusing
star. With the added energy caused by their speed, nuclei can fuse and produce
elements higher in mass than iron. The extra energy in the explosion is
necessary to over come the energy barrier of a higher mass element. Elements
such as lead, gold, and silver found on Earth were once the debris of a
supernova explosion. The element iron that we find all through the Earth and in
its center is directly derived from both super novae and dead stars.
There are Two Types of Reactors in the United States
The Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR)
keep water under pressure so that it heats, but does not boil. Water from the
reactor and the water in the steam generator that is turned into steam never
mix. In this way, most of the radioactivity stays in the reactor area.
The Boiling Water Reactor (BWR)
Nuclear Regulatory Commission Graphic
actually boil the water. In both types, water is converted to steam, and then
recycled back into water by a part called the condenser, to be used again in
the heat process. Since radioactive materials can be dangerous, nuclear power
plants have many safety systems to protect workers, the public, and the
environment. These safety systems include shutting the reactor down quickly
and stopping the fission process, systems to cool the reactor down and carry
heat away from it, and barriers to contain the radioactivity and prevent it
from escaping into the environment. Radioactive materials, if not used
properly, can damage human cells or even cause cancer over long periods of
The international nuclear and radiological event scale
Events are classified on the scale at seven levels: Levels 1–3 are called
"incidents" and Levels 4–7 "accidents". The scale is designed so that the
severity of an event is about ten times greater for each increase in level
on the scale. Events without safety significance are called “deviations”
and are classified Below Scale / Level 0.
INES classifies nuclear and radiological accidents and incidents by
considering three areas of impact:
People and the Environment considers the radiation doses to people close
to the location of the event and the widespread, unplanned release of
radioactive material from an installation.
Radiological Barriers and Control covers events without any direct
impact on people or the environment and only applies inside major
facilities. It covers unplanned high radiation levels and spread of
significant quantities of radioactive materials confined within the
Defence-in-Depth also covers events without any direct impact on people
or the environment, but for which the range of measures put in place to
prevent accidents did not function as intended.
Glossary of Nuclear Science
that stops ionizing radiation. Lead, concrete, and steel attenuate gamma
rays. A thin sheet of paper or metal will stop or absorb alpha particles and
most beta particles.
Alpha particle (alpha
radiation, alpha ray)
charged particle (a Helium-4 nucleus) made up of two neutrons and two
protons. It is the least penetrating of the three common forms of radiation,
being stopped by a sheet of paper. It is not dangerous to living things
unless the alpha-emitting substance is inhaled or ingested or comes into
contact with the lens of the eye.
A particle of
matter indivisible by chemical means. It is the fundamental building block
assigned to each element on the basis of the number of protons found in the
Atomic weight (atomic mass)
the sum of the number of protons and neutrons found in the nucleus of an
- B -
The radiation of
man's natural environment originating primarily from the naturally
radioactive elements of the earth and from the cosmic rays. The term may
also mean radiation extraneous to an experiment.
Beta particle (beta
radiation, beta ray)
An electron of
either positive charge (ß+) or negative charge (ß-), which has been emitted
by an atomic nucleus or neutron in the process of a transformation. Beta
particles are more penetrating than alpha particles but less than gamma rays
- C -
material deposited or dispersed in materials or places where it is not
The basic unit
used to describe the intensity of radioactivity in a sample of material. One
curie equals thirty-seven billion disintegrations per second, or
approximately the radioactivity of one gram of radium.
- D -
A nucleus formed
by the radioactive decay of a different (parent) nuclide.
The change of
one radioactive nuclide into a different nuclide by the spontaneous emission
of alpha, beta, or gamma rays, or by electron capture. The end product is a
less energetic, more stable nucleus. Each decay process has a definite
The removal of
radioactive contaminants by cleaning and washing with chemicals.
That property of
a substance which is expressed by the ratio of its mass to its volume.
A general term
denoting the quantity of radiation or energy absorbed in a specific mass.
- E -
consisting of electric and magnetic waves that travel at the speed of light.
Examples: light, radio waves, gamma rays, x-rays.
particle with a unit electrical charge and a mass 1/1837 that of the proton.
Electrons surround the atom's positively charged nucleus and determine the
atom's chemical properties.
decay process in which an orbital electron is captured by and merges with
the nucleus. The mass number is unchanged, but the atomic number is
decreased by one.
(The solution that is introduced into the cow).
obtained by elution (the solution that comes out of the cow).
To separate by
washing (to milk).
The state of an
atom or nucleus when it possesses more than its normal energy. The excess
energy is usually released eventually as a gamma ray.
- F -
The splitting of
a heavy nucleus into two roughly equal parts (which are nuclei of lighter
elements), accompanied by the release of a relatively large amount of energy
in the form of kinetic energy of the two parts and in the form of emission
of neutrons and gamma rays.
Nuclei formed by
the fission of heavy elements. They are of medium atomic weight and almost
all are radioactive. Examples: strontium-90, cesium-137.
- G -
penetrating type of nuclear radiation, similar to x-radiation, except that
it comes from within the nucleus of an atom, and, in general, has a shorter
detector and measuring instrument. It contains a gas-filled tube which
discharges electrically when ionizing radiation passes through it and a
device that records the events.
A cow-a system
containing a parent-daughter set of radioisotopes in which the parent decays
through a daughter to a stable isotope. The daughter is a different element
from that of the parent, and, hence, can be separated from the parent by
- H -
The time in
which half the atoms of a particular radioactive nuclide disintegrate. The
half-life is a characteristic property of each radioactive isotope.
devoted to recognition, evaluation, and control of all health hazards from
- I -
that is created by bombarding a substance with neutrons in a reactor or with
charged particles produced by particle accelerators.
particle that is electrically charged, either negative or positive.
is capable of producing ions either directly or indirectly.
To expose to
some form of radiation.
One of several
nuclides with the same number of neutrons and protons capable of existing
for a measurable time in different nuclear energy states.
A mode of
radioactive decay where a nucleus goes from a higher to a lower energy
state. The mass number and the atomic number are unchanged.
Isotopes of a
given element have the same atomic number (same number of protons in their
nuclei) but different atomic weights (different number of neutrons in their
nuclei). Uranium-238 and uranium-235 are isotopes of uranium.
- K -
The capture by
an atom's nucleus of an orbital electron from the first K-shell surrounding
- M -
One millionth of
a curie (3.7 x 104 disintegrations per second).
To elute a cow.
A trademark of
Union Carbide Corporation that is used to identify radioisotope generator
systems for educational use.
- N -
neutral particle with negligible mass. It is produced in many nuclear
reactions such as in beta decay.
One of the basic
particles which make up an atom. A neutron and a proton have about the same
weight, but the neutron has no electrical charge.
A device in
which a fission chain reaction can be initiated, maintained, and controlled.
Its essential components are fissionable fuel, moderator, shielding, control
rods, and coolant.
A constituent of
the nucleus; that is, a proton or a neutron.
technology, and application of nuclear energy.
The core of the
atom, where most of its mass and all of its positive charge is concentrated.
Except for hydrogen, it consists of protons and neutrons.
Any species of
atom that exists for a measurable length of time. A nuclide can be
distinguished by its atomic weight, atomic number, and energy state.
- P -
that decays to another nuclide which may be either radioactive or stable.
A quantity of
electromagnetic energy. Photons have momentum but no mass or electrical
One of the basic
particles which makes up an atom. The proton is found in the nucleus and has
a positive electrical charge equivalent to the negative charge of an
electron and a mass similar to that of a neutron: a hydrogen nucleus.
- R -
Absorbed Dose. The basic unit of an absorbed dose of ionizing radiation. One
rad is equal to the absorption of 100 ergs of radiation energy per gram of
A technique for
estimating the age of an object by measuring the amounts of various
radioisotopes in it.
are radioactive and for which there is no further use.
decay of disintegration of an unstable atomic nucleus accompanied by the
emission of radiation.
isotope. A common term for a radionuclide.
nuclide. An unstable isotope of an element that decays or disintegrates
spontaneously, emitting radiation.
instrument that indicates, on a meter, the number of radiation induced
pulses per minute from radiation detectors such as a Geiger-Muller tube.
- S -
instrument for counting radiation induced pulses from radiation detectors
such as a Geiger-Muller tube.
that detects and measures gamma radiation by counting the light flashes
(scintillations) induced by the radiation.
A state of
parent-daughter equilibrium which is achieved when the half-life of the
parent is much longer than the half-life of the daughter. In this case, if
the two are not separated, the daughter will eventually be decaying at the
same rate at which it is being produced. At this point, both parent and
daughter will decay at the same rate until the parent is essentially
barrier, usually a dense material, which reduces the passage of radiation
from radioactive materials to the surroundings.
material that produces radiation for experimental or industrial use.
release of radioactive materials.
- T -
A small amount
of radioactive isotope introduced into a system in order to follow the
behavior of some component of that system.
transformation of one element into another by a nuclear reaction
Credit: U.S. Department of Energy, International Atomic Energy Agency, U.S.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Nuclear Science Division ---- Lawrence
Berkeley National Laboratory, Penn State Radiation Science and Engineering
Center, American Nuclear Society, European Commission
Data compiled from The
British Antarctic Study, NASA, Environment Canada, UNEP, EPA and
other sources as stated and credited Researched by Charles
Welch-Updated daily This Website is a project of the The Ozooe Hole