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Nuclear energy

creating matter and energy

Contents
1

Nuclear power

1

1.1

Use . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

3

1.1.1

Use in space . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

6

History . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

6

1.2.1

Origins . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

6

1.2.2

Early years . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

8

1.2.3

Development . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

9

1.3

Nuclear power plant . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

12

1.4

Life cycle . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

13

1.4.1

Conventional fuel resources . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

14

1.4.2

Solid waste . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

15

1.4.3

Reprocessing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

17

1.5

Economics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

17

1.6

Accidents and safety, the human and financial costs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

18

1.7

Nuclear proliferation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

19

1.8

Environmental issues . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

19

1.8.1

Climate change . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

20

Nuclear decommissioning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

20

1.10 Debate on nuclear power . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

20

1.11 Comparison with renewable energy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

21

1.12 Nuclear renaissance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

22

1.13 Future of the industry . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

22

1.13.1 Nuclear phase out . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

23

1.13.2 Advanced concepts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

24

1.13.3 Hybrid nuclear fusion-fission . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

24

1.13.4 Nuclear fusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

25

1.14 Nuclear power organizations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

25

1.14.1 Proponents . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

25

1.14.2 Opponents . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

25

1.15 See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

26

1.16 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

26

1.17 Further reading . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

36

1.2

1.9

i

ii

2

CONTENTS
1.18 External links . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

36

Nuclear fission

46

2.1

Physical overview . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

46

2.1.1

Mechanism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

46

2.1.2

Energetics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

47

2.1.3

Product nuclei and binding energy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

49

2.1.4

Origin of the active energy and the curve of binding energy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

49

2.1.5

Chain reactions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

50

2.1.6

Fission reactors . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

51

2.1.7

Fission bombs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

51

History . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

52

2.2.1

Discovery of nuclear fission . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

52

2.2.2

Fission chain reaction realized . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

54

2.2.3

Manhattan Project and beyond . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

55

2.2.4

Natural fission chain-reactors on Earth . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

56

2.3

See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

56

2.4

Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

56

2.5

References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

57

2.6

External links . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

57

2.2

3

Nuclear fusion

68

3.1

Overview . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

69

3.2

Requirements . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

71

3.3

Methods for achieving fusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

73

3.3.1

Thermonuclear fusion

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

73

3.3.2

Inertial confinement fusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

73

3.3.3

Beam-beam or beam-target fusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

73

3.3.4

Muon-catalyzed fusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

73

3.3.5

Other principles . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

74

Important reactions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

75

3.4.1

Astrophysical reaction chains . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

75

3.4.2

Criteria and candidates for terrestrial reactions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

75

3.4.3

Neutronicity, confinement requirement, and power density . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

78

3.4.4

Bremsstrahlung losses in quasineutral, isotropic plasmas . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

80

3.5

See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

80

3.6

References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

81

3.7

Further reading . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

82

3.8

External links . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

82

3.4

4

Nuclear fuel cycle

84

4.1

84

Basic concepts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

CONTENTS

iii

4.2

Front end . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

84

4.2.1

Exploration . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

85

4.2.2

Mining . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

85

4.2.3

Milling . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

85

4.2.4

Uranium conversion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

85

4.2.5

Enrichment . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

85

4.2.6

Fabrication . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

86

Service period . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

87

4.3.1

Transport of radioactive materials . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

87

4.3.2

In-core fuel management . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

87

4.3.3

On-load reactors . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

91

4.3.4

Interim storage . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

91

4.3.5

Transportation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

91

4.3.6

Reprocessing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

91

4.3.7

Partitioning and transmutation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

92

4.3.8

Waste disposal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

92

Fuel cycles . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

93

4.4.1

Once-through nuclear fuel cycle . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

93

4.4.2

Plutonium cycle . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

93

4.4.3

Minor actinides recycling . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

93

4.4.4

Thorium cycle . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

96

4.4.5

Current industrial activity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

96

4.3

4.4

5

4.5

References

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

96

4.6

External links . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

97

Fusion power

98

5.1

Background . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

99

5.1.1

Mechanism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

99

5.1.2

Cross section . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

99

5.1.3

Lawson criterion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 100

5.1.4

Density, temperature, time: ntτ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101

5.1.5

Energy capture . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101

5.2

5.3

Possible approaches . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102
5.2.1

Magnetic confinement fusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102

5.2.2

Inertial confinement fusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102

5.2.3

Magnetic pinches . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102

5.2.4

Inertial electrostatic confinement . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102

5.2.5

Other . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 103

History of research . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 103
5.3.1

1920s . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 103

5.3.2

1930s . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 103

5.3.3

1940s . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 103

iv

CONTENTS
5.3.4

1950s . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 104

5.3.5

1960s . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 106

5.3.6

1970s . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 106

5.3.7

1980s . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 107

5.3.8

1990s . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 109

5.3.9

2000s . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 111

5.3.10 2010s . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 112
5.4

Fuels

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 114

5.4.1

Deuterium, tritium . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 114

5.4.2

Deuterium, deuterium

5.4.3

Deuterium, helium 3 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 116

5.4.4

Proton, boron 11 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 117

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 116

5.5

Heating . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 117

5.6

Confinement . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 117

5.7

5.8

5.9

5.6.1

Unconfined . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 117

5.6.2

General confinement principles . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 117

5.6.3

Inertial confinement

5.6.4

Magnetic confinement

5.6.5

Electrostatic confinement . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 119

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 118
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 119

Material selection . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 119
5.7.1

Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 120

5.7.2

Durability

5.7.3

Selection . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 120

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 120

Plant design . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 120
5.8.1

Nuclear island

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 120

5.8.2

Energy extraction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 121

5.8.3

Diagnostics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 121

Safety and the environment . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 121
5.9.1

Accident potential . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 121

5.9.2

Effluents during normal operation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 122

5.9.3

Waste management . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 122

5.9.4

Nuclear proliferation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 122

5.9.5

As a sustainable energy source . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 123

5.10 Economics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 123
5.11 Advantages . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 124
5.12 See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 124
5.13 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 125
5.14 Bibliography

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 130

5.15 External links . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 131
6

Nuclear chain reaction
6.1

132

History . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 132

CONTENTS
6.2

6.3

6.4

Fission chain reaction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 132
6.2.1

Nuclear fission fuel . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 133

6.2.2

Fission reaction products . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 133

Timescales of nuclear chain reactions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 133
6.3.1

Prompt neutron lifetime . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 133

6.3.2

Mean generation time . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 134

6.3.3

Effective neutron multiplication factor . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 134

6.3.4

Prompt and delayed supercriticality . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 134

Nuclear weapons application of neutron multiplication . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 135
6.4.1

7

8

v

Predetonation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 135

6.5

Nuclear power plants and control of chain reactions

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 135

6.6

See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 136

6.7

References

6.8

External links . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 137

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 136

Nuclear reprocessing

140

7.1

Separated components and disposition . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 140

7.2

History . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 140

7.3

Separation technologies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 141
7.3.1

Water and organic solvents . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 141

7.3.2

Pyroprocessing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 144

7.3.3

Radioanalytical separations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 147

7.4

Economics

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 147

7.5

List of sites . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 147

7.6

See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 147

7.7

References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 148

7.8

Further reading . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 150

7.9

External links . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 150

Isotope

151

8.1

Isotope vs. nuclide . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 152

8.2

Notation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 152

8.3

Radioactive, primordial, and stable isotopes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 152

8.4

History . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 153

8.5

8.6

8.4.1

Radioactive isotopes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 153

8.4.2

Stable isotopes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 153

Variation in properties between isotopes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 153
8.5.1

Chemical and molecular properties . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 153

8.5.2

Nuclear properties and stability

8.5.3

Numbers of isotopes per element

8.5.4

Even and odd nucleon numbers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 156

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 156
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 156

Occurrence in nature . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 158

vi

CONTENTS
8.7

Atomic mass of isotopes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 159

8.8

Applications of isotopes

8.9

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 159

8.8.1

Purification of isotopes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 159

8.8.2

Use of chemical and biological properties . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 159

8.8.3

Use of nuclear properties . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 160

See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 160

8.10 Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 160
8.11 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 161
8.12 External links . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 162
9

Nucleosynthesis

163

9.1

Timeline . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 163

9.2

History of nucleosynthesis theory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 164

9.3

Processes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 165

9.4

The major types of nucleosynthesis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 166
9.4.1

Big Bang nucleosynthesis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 166

9.4.2

Stellar nucleosynthesis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 166

9.4.3

Explosive nucleosynthesis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 167

9.4.4

Cosmic ray spallation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 168

9.5

Empirical evidence . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 168

9.6

Minor mechanisms and processes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 168

9.7

See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 169

9.8

References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 169

9.9

Further reading . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 170

10 Big Bang nucleosynthesis

171

10.1 Characteristics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 171
10.2 Important parameters . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 172
10.2.1 Neutron-proton ratio . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 172
10.2.2 Baryon-photon ratio . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 172
10.3 Sequence . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 172
10.3.1 History of theory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 173
10.3.2 Heavy elements . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 174
10.3.3 Helium-4 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 174
10.3.4 Deuterium . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 175
10.4 Measurements and status of theory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 175
10.5 Non-standard scenarios . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 176
10.6 See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 176
10.7 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 176
10.8 External links . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 177
10.8.1 For a general audience . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 177
10.8.2 Technical articles . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 177

CONTENTS

vii

11 Stellar nucleosynthesis

179

11.1 History . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 179
11.2 Key reactions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 181
11.2.1 Hydrogen burning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 183
11.3 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 184
11.4 Further reading . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 185
11.5 External links . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 185
12 Supernova nucleosynthesis

186

12.1 Supernova . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 186
12.2 Elements fused . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 186
12.3 The r-process . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 187
12.4 See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 188
12.5 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 188
12.6 Other reading . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 188
12.7 External links . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 189
13 Type II supernova

190

13.1 Formation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 191
13.2 Core collapse . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 191
13.3 Theoretical models . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 193
13.4 Light curves for Type II-L and Type II-P supernovae . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 194
13.5 Type IIn supernovae . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 194
13.6 Type IIb supernovae . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 195
13.7 Hypernovae (collapsars) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 195
13.8 See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 196
13.9 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 196
13.10External links . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 198
14 R-process
14.1 History

199
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 200

14.2 Nuclear physics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 200
14.3 Astrophysical sites
14.4 References
15 S-process
15.1 History

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 201

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 201
203

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 203

15.2 The s-process in stars . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 204
15.3 The s-process measured in stardust . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 205
15.4 References
16 CNO cycle

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 205
207

16.1 Cold CNO cycles . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 208

viii

CONTENTS
16.1.1 CNO-I . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 208
16.1.2 CNO-II . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 209
16.1.3 CNO-III

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 209

16.1.4 CNO-IV

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 209

16.2 Hot CNO cycles . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 210
16.2.1 HCNO-I

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 210

16.2.2 HCNO-II . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 210
16.2.3 HCNO-III

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 211

16.3 Use in astronomy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 211
16.4 See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 211
16.5 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 211
16.6 Further reading . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 212
17 Deuterium burning

213

17.1 In protostars . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 213
17.2 In substellar objects . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 213
17.3 Other reactions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 213
17.4 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 214
18 Lithium burning

215

19 Proton–proton chain reaction

216

19.1 History of the theory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 216
19.2 The proton–proton chain reaction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 216
19.2.1 The pp I branch

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 218

19.2.2 The pp II branch . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 218
19.2.3 The pp III branch . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 218
19.2.4 The pp IV (Hep) branch . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 218
19.2.5 Energy release
19.3 The pep reaction

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 219

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 220

19.4 See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 221
19.5 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 221
20 Alpha process

223

20.1 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 224
20.2 External links . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 224
21 Triple-alpha process

225

21.1 Reaction rate and stellar evolution . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 226
21.2 Discovery . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 227
21.3 Improbability and fine-tuning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 227
21.4 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 228
22 Carbon-burning process

229

CONTENTS

ix

22.1 Fusion reactions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 229
22.2 Reaction products . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 229
22.3 Neutrino losses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 230
22.4 Stellar evolution . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 230
22.5 See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 231
22.6 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 231
23 Neon-burning process

232

23.1 See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 232
23.2 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 232
24 Oxygen-burning process

233

24.1 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 233
24.2 External links . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 233
25 Silicon-burning process

234

25.1 Nuclear fusion sequence and the alpha process . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 234
25.2 Binding energy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 235
25.3 See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 235
25.4 Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 235
25.5 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 236
25.6 External links . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 236
26 P-process

237

26.1 The proton capture p-process . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 237
26.2 History . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 237
26.3 See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 238
26.4 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 238
27 Rp-process

239

27.1 Conditions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 240
27.2 Possible sites . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 240
27.3 See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 240
27.4 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 240
28 Beta decay

241

28.1 β decay

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 242

28.2 β+ decay

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 243

28.3 Electron capture (K-capture) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 244
28.4 Competition of beta decay types . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 244
28.5 Energy release

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 245

28.5.1 β− decay

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 245

28.5.2 β+ decay

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 245

28.5.3 Electron capture

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 246

x

CONTENTS
28.6 Nuclear transmutation
28.7 Double beta decay

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 246

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 248

28.8 Bound-state β− decay . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 248
28.9 Forbidden transitions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 248
28.10Beta emission spectrum . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 249
28.10.1 Fermi function . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 249
28.10.2 Kurie plot . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 249
28.11History . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 249
28.11.1 Discovery and characterization of β− decay . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 249
28.11.2 Neutrinos in beta decay . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 250
28.11.3 Discovery of other types of beta decay . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 250
28.12See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 250
28.13References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 251
28.14External links . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 252
29 Radioactive decay

253

29.1 History of discovery . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 254
29.1.1 Early dangers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 255
29.1.2 Radiation protection . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 255
29.2 Units of radioactivity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 256
29.3 Types of decay . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 257
29.4 Radioactive decay rates . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 261
29.5 Mathematics of radioactive decay . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 262
29.5.1 Universal law of radioactive decay . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 262
29.5.2 Corollaries of the decay laws . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 265
29.5.3 Decay timing: definitions and relations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 265
29.5.4 Example . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 266
29.6 Changing decay rates . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 266
29.7 Theoretical basis of decay phenomena . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 267
29.8 Occurrence and applications . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 267
29.9 Origins of radioactive nuclides . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 268
29.10Decay chains and multiple modes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 268
29.11Associated hazard warning signs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 269
29.12See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 269
29.13Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 270
29.14References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 270
29.14.1 Inline . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 270
29.14.2 General . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 271
29.15External links . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 271
30 Star

276

30.1 Observation history . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 278

CONTENTS

xi

30.2 Designations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 281
30.3 Units of measurement . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 281
30.4 Formation and evolution . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 282
30.4.1 Protostar formation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 283
30.4.2 Main sequence . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 284
30.4.3 Post-main sequence . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 285
30.5 Distribution . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 287
30.6 Characteristics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 288
30.6.1 Age . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 288
30.6.2 Chemical composition . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 289
30.6.3 Diameter . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 289
30.6.4 Kinematics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 290
30.6.5 Magnetic field . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 291
30.6.6 Mass . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 292
30.6.7 Rotation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 293
30.6.8 Temperature . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 293
30.7 Radiation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 293
30.7.1 Luminosity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 294
30.7.2 Magnitude . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 294
30.8 Classification . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 295
30.9 Variable stars . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 295
30.10Structure . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 296
30.11Nuclear fusion reaction pathways . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 298
30.12See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 300
30.13References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 300
30.14Further reading . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 306
30.15External links . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 306
31 Thermonuclear fusion

307

31.1 Temperature requirements . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 307
31.2 Confinement . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 307
31.2.1 Gravitational confinement
31.2.2 Magnetic confinement
31.2.3 Inertial confinement

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 307

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 308
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 308

31.3 See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 308
31.4 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 308
31.5 Text and image sources, contributors, and licenses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 309
31.5.1 Text . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 309
31.5.2 Images . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 319
31.5.3 Content license . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 326

Chapter 1

Nuclear power
“Atomic power” and “Atomic Power” redirect here. For the film, see Atomic Power (film).
This article is about nuclear fission and fusion power sources primarily. For commercial quantities of nuclear energy
attained from nuclear decay, see Geothermal energy. For the political term, see List of states with nuclear weapons.
Nuclear power, or nuclear energy, is the use of exothermic nuclear processes,[1] to generate useful heat and

The Susquehanna Steam Electric Station, in Pennsylvania, United States. The two boiling water reactors are located inside the
rectangular containment buildings towards the front of the cooling towers. The power station produces 63 million kilowatt hours per
day.

electricity. The term includes nuclear fission, nuclear decay and nuclear fusion. Presently, the nuclear fission of ele1

2

CHAPTER 1. NUCLEAR POWER

American nuclear powered ships,(top to bottom) cruisers USS Bainbridge, the USS Long Beach and the USS Enterprise, the longest
ever naval vessel, and the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Picture taken in 1964 during a record setting voyage of 26,540
nmi (49,190 km) around the world in 65 days without refueling. Crew members are spelling out Einstein's mass-energy equivalence
formula E = mc2 on the flight deck.

The Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker NS Yamal on a joint scientific expedition with the NSF in 1994.

ments in the actinide series of the periodic table produce the vast majority of nuclear energy in the direct service of

1.1. USE

3

humankind, with nuclear decay processes, primarily in the form of geothermal energy, and radioisotope thermoelectric generators, in niche uses making up the rest. Nuclear (fission) power stations, excluding the contribution from
naval nuclear fission reactors, provided about 5.7% of the world’s energy and 13% of the world’s electricity in 2012.[2]
In 2013, the IAEA report that there are 437 operational nuclear power reactors,[3] in 31 countries,[4] although not every reactor is producing electricity.[5] In addition, there are approximately 140 naval vessels using nuclear propulsion
in operation, powered by some 180 reactors.[6][7][8] As of 2013, attaining a net energy gain from sustained nuclear
fusion reactions, excluding natural fusion power sources such as the Sun, remains an ongoing area of international
physics and engineering research. More than 60 years after the first attempts, commercial fusion power production
remains unlikely before 2050.[9]
There is an ongoing debate about nuclear power.[10][11][12] Proponents, such as the World Nuclear Association, the
IAEA and Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy contend that nuclear power is a safe, sustainable energy source that
reduces carbon emissions.[13] Opponents, such as Greenpeace International and NIRS, contend that nuclear power
poses many threats to people and the environment.[14][15][16]
Nuclear power plant accidents include the Chernobyl disaster (1986), Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (2011),
and the Three Mile Island accident (1979).[17] There have also been some nuclear submarine accidents.[17][18][19] In
terms of lives lost per unit of energy generated, analysis has determined that nuclear power has caused less fatalities per unit of energy generated than the other major sources of energy generation. Energy production from coal,
petroleum, natural gas and hydropower has caused a greater number of fatalities per unit of energy generated due
to air pollution and energy accident effects.[20][21][22][23][24] However, the economic costs of nuclear power accidents
is high, and meltdowns can render areas uninhabitable for very long periods. The human costs of evacuations of
affected populations and lost livelihoods is also significant.[25][26]
Along with other sustainable energy sources, nuclear power is a low carbon power generation method of producing
electricity, with an analysis of the literature on its total life cycle emission intensity finding that it is similar to other
renewable sources in a comparison of greenhouse gas(GHG) emissions per unit of energy generated.[27] With this
translating into, from the beginning of nuclear power station commercialization in the 1970s, having prevented the
emission of approximately 64 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent(GtCO2-eq) greenhouse gases, gases that would
have otherwise resulted from the burning of fossil fuels in thermal power stations.[28]
As of 2012, according to the IAEA, worldwide there were 68 civil nuclear power reactors under construction in
15 countries,[3] approximately 28 of which in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), with the most recent nuclear
power reactor, as of May 2013, to be connected to the electrical grid, occurring on February 17, 2013 in Hongyanhe
Nuclear Power Plant in the PRC.[29] In the USA, two new Generation III reactors are under construction at Vogtle.
U.S. nuclear industry officials expect five new reactors to enter service by 2020, all at existing plants.[30] In 2013, four
aging, uncompetitive, reactors were permanently closed.[31][32]
Japan’s 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which occurred in a reactor design from the 1960s, prompted a
re-examination of nuclear safety and nuclear energy policy in many countries.[33] Germany decided to close all its
reactors by 2022, and Italy has banned nuclear power.[33] Following Fukushima, in 2011 the International Energy
Agency halved its estimate of additional nuclear generating capacity to be built by 2035.[34][35]

1.1 Use
See also: Nuclear power by country and List of nuclear reactors
In 2011 nuclear power provided 10% of the world’s electricity[36] In 2007, the IAEA reported there were 439 nuclear
power reactors in operation in the world,[37] operating in 31 countries.[4] However, many have now ceased operation in
the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster while they are assessed for safety. In 2011 worldwide nuclear output fell
by 4.3%, the largest decline on record, on the back of sharp declines in Japan (−44.3%) and Germany (−23.2%).[38]
Since commercial nuclear energy began in the mid-1950s, 2008 was the first year that no new nuclear power plant
was connected to the grid, although two were connected in 2009.[39][40]
Annual generation of nuclear power has been on a slight downward trend since 2007, decreasing 1.8% in 2009 to
2558 TWh with nuclear power meeting 13–14% of the world’s electricity demand.[41] One factor in the nuclear
power percentage decrease since 2007 has been the prolonged shutdown of large reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa
Nuclear Power Plant in Japan following the Niigata-Chuetsu-Oki earthquake.[41]
The United States produces the most nuclear energy, with nuclear power providing 19%[42] of the electricity it

4

CHAPTER 1. NUCLEAR POWER

Historical and projected world energy use by energy source, 1990-2035, Source: International Energy Outlook 2011, EIA.

Worldwide nuclear power installed capacity and generation, 1980 to 2010 (EIA).

consumes, while France produces the highest percentage of its electrical energy from nuclear reactors—80% as
of 2006.[43] In the European Union as a whole, nuclear energy provides 30% of the electricity.[44] Nuclear energy
policy differs among European Union countries, and some, such as Austria, Estonia, Ireland and Italy, have no active
nuclear power stations. In comparison, France has a large number of these plants, with 16 multi-unit stations in

1.1. USE

5

Trends in the top five nuclear-energy producing countries (US EIA data)

The status of nuclear power globally
(click image for legend)

current use.
In the US, while the coal and gas electricity industry is projected to be worth $85 billion by 2013, nuclear power
generators are forecast to be worth $18 billion.[45]
Many military and some civilian (such as some icebreaker) ships use nuclear marine propulsion, a form of nuclear
propulsion.[46] A few space vehicles have been launched using full-fledged nuclear reactors: 33 reactors belong to the
Soviet RORSAT series and one was the American SNAP-10A.
International research is continuing into safety improvements such as passively safe plants,[47] the use of nuclear
fusion, and additional uses of process heat such as hydrogen production (in support of a hydrogen economy), for

6

CHAPTER 1. NUCLEAR POWER

0%

10%

20%

30%

40%

50%

60%

70%

80%

90%

100%

Percentage of power produced by nuclear power plants

desalinating sea water, and for use in district heating systems.

1.1.1

Use in space

Main article: Nuclear power in space
Both fission and fusion appear promising for space propulsion applications, generating higher mission velocities with
less reaction mass. This is due to the much higher energy density of nuclear reactions: some 7 orders of magnitude
(10,000,000 times) more energetic than the chemical reactions which power the current generation of rockets.
Radioactive decay has been used on a relatively small scale (few kW), mostly to power space missions and experiments
by using radioisotope thermoelectric generators such as those developed at Idaho National Laboratory.

1.2 History
1.2.1

Origins

See also: Nuclear fission § History and Atomic Age
The pursuit of nuclear energy for electricity generation began soon after the discovery in the early 20th century that
radioactive elements, such as radium, released immense amounts of energy, according to the principle of mass–energy
equivalence. However, means of harnessing such energy was impractical, because intensely radioactive elements
were, by their very nature, short-lived (high energy release is correlated with short half-lives). However, the dream
of harnessing “atomic energy” was quite strong, even though it was dismissed by such fathers of nuclear physics
like Ernest Rutherford as “moonshine.”[48] This situation, however, changed in the late 1930s, with the discovery of
nuclear fission.
In 1932, James Chadwick discovered the neutron,[49] which was immediately recognized as a potential tool for nuclear
experimentation because of its lack of an electric charge. Experimentation with bombardment of materials with
neutrons led Frédéric and Irène Joliot-Curie to discover induced radioactivity in 1934, which allowed the creation of
radium-like elements at much less the price of natural radium.[50] Further work by Enrico Fermi in the 1930s focused
on using slow neutrons to increase the effectiveness of induced radioactivity. Experiments bombarding uranium with
neutrons led Fermi to believe he had created a new, transuranic element, which was dubbed hesperium.[51]
But in 1938, German chemists Otto Hahn[52] and Fritz Strassmann, along with Austrian physicist Lise Meitner[53] and

1.2. HISTORY

7

December 2, 1942. A depiction of the scene when scientists observed the world’s first man made nuclear reactor, the Chicago Pile-1,
as it became self-sustaining/critical at the University of Chicago.

Meitner’s nephew, Otto Robert Frisch,[54] conducted experiments with the products of neutron-bombarded uranium,
as a means of further investigating Fermi’s claims. They determined that the relatively tiny neutron split the nucleus of
the massive uranium atoms into two roughly equal pieces, contradicting Fermi.[51] This was an extremely surprising
result: all other forms of nuclear decay involved only small changes to the mass of the nucleus, whereas this process—
dubbed “fission” as a reference to biology—involved a complete rupture of the nucleus. Numerous scientists, including
Leó Szilárd, who was one of the first, recognized that if fission reactions released additional neutrons, a self-sustaining
nuclear chain reaction could result. Once this was experimentally confirmed and announced by Frédéric Joliot-Curie
in 1939, scientists in many countries (including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the
Soviet Union) petitioned their governments for support of nuclear fission research, just on the cusp of World War II,
for the development of a nuclear weapon.[55]
In the United States, where Fermi and Szilárd had both emigrated, this led to the creation of the first man-made
reactor, known as Chicago Pile-1, which achieved criticality on December 2, 1942. This work became part of the
Manhattan Project, which made enriched uranium and built large reactors to breed plutonium for use in the first
nuclear weapons, which were used on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Unexpectedly high costs in the U.S. nuclear weapons program, along with competition with the Soviet Union and a
desire to spread democracy through the world, created "...pressure on federal officials to develop a civilian nuclear
power industry that could help justify the government’s considerable expenditures.”[56] In 1945, the pocketbook The
Atomic Age heralded the untapped atomic power in everyday objects and depicted a future where fossil fuels would
go unused. One science writer, David Dietz, wrote that instead of filling the gas tank of your car two or three times a
week, you will travel for a year on a pellet of atomic energy the size of a vitamin pill. Glenn Seaborg, who chaired the
Atomic Energy Commission, wrote “there will be nuclear powered earth-to-moon shuttles, nuclear powered artificial
hearts, plutonium heated swimming pools for SCUBA divers, and much more”. These overly optimistic predications
remain unfulfilled.[57]
United Kingdom, Canada,[58] and USSR proceeded over the course of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Electricity was
generated for the first time by a nuclear reactor on December 20, 1951, at the EBR-I experimental station near Arco,
Idaho, which initially produced about 100 kW.[59][60] Work was also strongly researched in the US on nuclear marine
propulsion, with a test reactor being developed by 1953 (eventually, the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered
submarine, would launch in 1955).[61] In 1953, US President Dwight Eisenhower gave his "Atoms for Peace" speech
at the United Nations, emphasizing the need to develop “peaceful” uses of nuclear power quickly. This was followed
by the 1954 Amendments to the Atomic Energy Act which allowed rapid declassification of U.S. reactor technology
and encouraged development by the private sector. This involved a significant learning phase, with many early partial
core meltdowns and accidents at experimental reactors and research facilities.[62]

8

CHAPTER 1. NUCLEAR POWER

The first light bulbs ever lit by electricity generated by nuclear power at EBR-1 at Argonne National Laboratory-West, December 20,
1951.

1.2.2

Early years

On June 27, 1954, the USSR's Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant became the world’s first nuclear power plant to generate
electricity for a power grid, and produced around 5 megawatts of electric power.[63][64]
Later in 1954, Lewis Strauss, then chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission (U.S. AEC, forerunner
of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the United States Department of Energy) spoke of electricity in the
future being "too cheap to meter".[65] Strauss was very likely referring to hydrogen fusion[66] —which was secretly
being developed as part of Project Sherwood at the time—but Strauss’s statement was interpreted as a promise of
very cheap energy from nuclear fission. The U.S. AEC itself had issued far more realistic testimony regarding nuclear
fission to the U.S. Congress only months before, projecting that “costs can be brought down... [to]... about the same
as the cost of electricity from conventional sources...”[67] Significant disappointment would develop later on, when
the new nuclear plants did not provide energy “too cheap to meter.”
In 1955 the United Nations' “First Geneva Conference”, then the world’s largest gathering of scientists and engineers,
met to explore the technology. In 1957 EURATOM was launched alongside the European Economic Community
(the latter is now the European Union). The same year also saw the launch of the International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA).
The world’s first commercial nuclear power station, Calder Hall at Windscale, England, was opened in 1956 with an
initial capacity of 50 MW (later 200 MW).[68][69] The first commercial nuclear generator to become operational in
the United States was the Shippingport Reactor (Pennsylvania, December 1957).
One of the first organizations to develop nuclear power was the U.S. Navy, for the purpose of propelling submarines
and aircraft carriers. The first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN-571), was put to sea in December
1954.[70] Two U.S. nuclear submarines, USS Scorpion and USS Thresher, have been lost at sea. Eight Soviet and
Russian nuclear submarines have been lost at sea. This includes the Soviet submarine K-19 reactor accident in 1961
which resulted in 8 deaths and more than 30 other people were over-exposed to radiation.[18] The Soviet submarine
K-27 reactor accident in 1968 resulted in 9 fatalities and 83 other injuries.[19] Moreover, Soviet submarine K-429

1.2. HISTORY

9

The Shippingport Atomic Power Station in Shippingport, Pennsylvania was the first commercial reactor in the USA and was opened
in 1957.

sank twice, but was raised after each incident. Several serious nuclear and radiation accidents have involved nuclear
submarine mishaps.[17][19]
The U.S. Army also had a nuclear power program, beginning in 1954. The SM-1 Nuclear Power Plant, at Fort Belvoir,
Virginia, was the first power reactor in the U.S. to supply electrical energy to a commercial grid (VEPCO), in April
1957, before Shippingport. The SL-1 was a U.S. Army experimental nuclear power reactor at the National Reactor
Testing Station in eastern Idaho. It underwent a steam explosion and meltdown in January 1961, which killed its three
operators.[71] In Soviet Union in The Mayak Production Association there were a number of accidents including an
explosion that released 50-100 tonnes of high-level radioactive waste, contaminating a huge territory in the eastern
Urals and causing numerous deaths and injuries. The Soviet regime kept this accident secret for about 30 years. The
event was eventually rated at 6 on the seven-level INES scale (third in severity only to the disasters at Chernobyl and
Fukushima).

1.2.3

Development

Installed nuclear capacity initially rose relatively quickly, rising from less than 1 gigawatt (GW) in 1960 to 100 GW in
the late 1970s, and 300 GW in the late 1980s. Since the late 1980s worldwide capacity has risen much more slowly,
reaching 366 GW in 2005. Between around 1970 and 1990, more than 50 GW of capacity was under construction
(peaking at over 150 GW in the late 70s and early 80s) — in 2005, around 25 GW of new capacity was planned.
More than two-thirds of all nuclear plants ordered after January 1970 were eventually cancelled.[70] A total of 63
nuclear units were canceled in the USA between 1975 and 1980.[72]
During the 1970s and 1980s rising economic costs (related to extended construction times largely due to regulatory
changes and pressure-group litigation)[73] and falling fossil fuel prices made nuclear power plants then under construction less attractive. In the 1980s (U.S.) and 1990s (Europe), flat load growth and electricity liberalization also
made the addition of large new baseload capacity unattractive.

10

CHAPTER 1. NUCLEAR POWER

History of the Global Nuclear Power Industry
Power (Gigawatts)

400

ity

300
200

d
lle

C

ac
p
a

ized

a

t
ns

l
Rea

I

100

y

acit
p
a
c

0

Number of
Power Reactors

500

Chernobyl
Three Mile Island

n

400

ru

300

t
ns

io
ct

o

C
er

200
100

Fukushima

Active Reactors

d
Un

0

1960

1970

1980

1990

2000

2010

History of the use of nuclear power (top) and the number of active nuclear power plants (bottom).

The 1973 oil crisis had a significant effect on countries, such as France and Japan, which had relied more heavily on
oil for electric generation (39%[74] and 73% respectively) to invest in nuclear power.[75]
Some local opposition to nuclear power emerged in the early 1960s,[76] and in the late 1960s some members of
the scientific community began to express their concerns.[77] These concerns related to nuclear accidents, nuclear
proliferation, high cost of nuclear power plants, nuclear terrorism and radioactive waste disposal.[78] In the early
1970s, there were large protests about a proposed nuclear power plant in Wyhl, Germany. The project was cancelled in 1975 and anti-nuclear success at Wyhl inspired opposition to nuclear power in other parts of Europe and
North America.[79][80] By the mid-1970s anti-nuclear activism had moved beyond local protests and politics to gain
a wider appeal and influence, and nuclear power became an issue of major public protest.[81] Although it lacked
a single co-ordinating organization, and did not have uniform goals, the movement’s efforts gained a great deal of
attention.[82] In some countries, the nuclear power conflict “reached an intensity unprecedented in the history of
technology controversies”.[83]
In France, between 1975 and 1977, some 175,000 people protested against nuclear power in ten demonstrations.[84] In
West Germany, between February 1975 and April 1979, some 280,000 people were involved in seven demonstrations
at nuclear sites. Several site occupations were also attempted. In the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident in
1979, some 120,000 people attended a demonstration against nuclear power in Bonn.[84] In May 1979, an estimated
70,000 people, including then governor of California Jerry Brown, attended a march and rally against nuclear power in
Washington, D.C.[85] Anti-nuclear power groups emerged in every country that has had a nuclear power programme.
Some of these anti-nuclear power organisations are reported to have developed considerable expertise on nuclear
power and energy issues.[86]
Health and safety concerns, the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster played a part
in stopping new plant construction in many countries,[77] although the public policy organization, the Brookings
Institution states that new nuclear units, at the time of publishing in 2006, had not been built in the U.S. because of
soft demand for electricity, and cost overruns on nuclear plants due to regulatory issues and construction delays.[87]
By the end of the 1970s it became clear that nuclear power would not grow nearly as dramatically as once believed.
Eventually, more than 120 reactor orders in the U.S. were ultimately cancelled[88] and the construction of new reactors

1.2. HISTORY

11

Washington Public Power Supply System Nuclear Power Plants 3 and 5 were never completed.

120,000 people attended an anti-nuclear protest in Bonn, Germany, on October 14, 1979, following the Three Mile Island accident.[84]

12

CHAPTER 1. NUCLEAR POWER

The abandoned city of Pripyat with Chernobyl plant in the distance.

ground to a halt. A cover story in the February 11, 1985, issue of Forbes magazine commented on the overall failure
of the U.S. nuclear power program, saying it “ranks as the largest managerial disaster in business history”.[89]
Unlike the Three Mile Island accident, the much more serious Chernobyl accident did not increase regulations affecting Western reactors since the Chernobyl reactors were of the problematic RBMK design only used in the Soviet
Union, for example lacking “robust” containment buildings.[90] Many of these RBMK reactors are still in use today.
However, changes were made in both the reactors themselves (use of a safer enrichment of uranium) and in the
control system (prevention of disabling safety systems), amongst other things, to reduce the possibility of a duplicate
accident.[91]
An international organization to promote safety awareness and professional development on operators in nuclear
facilities was created: WANO; World Association of Nuclear Operators.
Opposition in Ireland and Poland prevented nuclear programs there, while Austria (1978), Sweden (1980) and Italy
(1987) (influenced by Chernobyl) voted in referendums to oppose or phase out nuclear power. In July 2009, the
Italian Parliament passed a law that cancelled the results of an earlier referendum and allowed the immediate start of
the Italian nuclear program.[92] After the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster a one year moratorium was placed on
nuclear power development,[93] followed by a referendum in which over 94% of voters (turnout 57%) rejected plans
for new nuclear power.[94]

1.3 Nuclear power plant
Main article: Nuclear power plant
Just as many conventional thermal power stations generate electricity by harnessing the thermal energy released from
burning fossil fuels, nuclear power plants convert the energy released from the nucleus of an atom via nuclear fission
that takes place in a nuclear reactor. The heat is removed from the reactor core by a cooling system that uses the heat

1.4. LIFE CYCLE

13

An animation of a Pressurized water reactor in operation.

Unlike fossil fuel power plants, the only substance leaving the cooling towers of nuclear power plants is water vapour and thus does
not pollute the air or cause global warming.

to generate steam, which drives a steam turbine connected to a generator producing electricity.

1.4 Life cycle
Main article: Nuclear fuel cycle
A nuclear reactor is only part of the life-cycle for nuclear power. The process starts with mining (see Uranium mining).
Uranium mines are underground, open-pit, or in-situ leach mines. In any case, the uranium ore is extracted, usually
converted into a stable and compact form such as yellowcake, and then transported to a processing facility. Here, the
yellowcake is converted to uranium hexafluoride, which is then enriched using various techniques. At this point, the
enriched uranium, containing more than the natural 0.7% U-235, is used to make rods of the proper composition and
geometry for the particular reactor that the fuel is destined for. The fuel rods will spend about 3 operational cycles
(typically 6 years total now) inside the reactor, generally until about 3% of their uranium has been fissioned, then they

14

CHAPTER 1. NUCLEAR POWER

The nuclear fuel cycle begins when uranium is mined, enriched, and manufactured into nuclear fuel, (1) which is delivered to a
nuclear power plant. After usage in the power plant, the spent fuel is delivered to a reprocessing plant (2) or to a final repository (3)
for geological disposition. In reprocessing 95% of spent fuel can potentially be recycled to be returned to usage in a power plant (4).

will be moved to a spent fuel pool where the short lived isotopes generated by fission can decay away. After about 5
years in a spent fuel pool the spent fuel is radioactively and thermally cool enough to handle, and it can be moved to
dry storage casks or reprocessed.

1.4.1

Conventional fuel resources

Main articles: Uranium market and Energy development - Nuclear energy
Uranium is a fairly common element in the Earth’s crust. Uranium is approximately as common as tin or germanium
in the Earth’s crust, and is about 40 times more common than silver.[95] Uranium is a constituent of most rocks, dirt,
and of the oceans. The fact that uranium is so spread out is a problem because mining uranium is only economically
feasible where there is a large concentration. Still, the world’s present measured resources of uranium, economically
recoverable at a price of 130 USD/kg, are enough to last for between 70 and 100 years.[96][97][98]
According to the OECD in 2006, there is an expected 85 years worth of uranium in identified resources, when
that uranium is used in present reactor technology, with 670 years of economically recoverable uranium in total
conventional resources and phosphate ores, while also using present reactor technology, a resource that is recoverable
from between 60-100 US$/kg of Uranium.[99] The OECD have noted that:

1.4. LIFE CYCLE

15

Even if the nuclear industry expands significantly, sufficient fuel is available for centuries. If advanced
breeder reactors could be designed in the future to efficiently utilize recycled or depleted uranium and
all actinides, then the resource utilization efficiency would be further improved by an additional factor
of eight.
For example, the OECD have determined that with a pure fast reactor fuel cycle with a burn up of, and recycling of,
all the Uranium and actinides, actinides which presently make up the most hazardous substances in nuclear waste,
there is 160,000 years worth of Uranium in total conventional resources and phosphate ore.[100] According to the
OECD's red book in 2011, due to increased exploration, known uranium resources have grown by 12.5% since 2008,
with this increase translating into greater than a century of uranium available if the metals usage rate were to continue
at the 2011 level.[101][102]
Current light water reactors make relatively inefficient use of nuclear fuel, fissioning only the very rare uranium-235
isotope. Nuclear reprocessing can make this waste reusable, and more efficient reactor designs, such as the currently
under construction Generation III reactors achieve a higher efficiency burn up of the available resources, than the
current vintage generation II reactors, which make up the vast majority of reactors worldwide.[103]

Breeding
Main articles: Breeder reactor and Nuclear power proposed as renewable energy
As opposed to current light water reactors which use uranium-235 (0.7% of all natural uranium), fast breeder reactors
use uranium-238 (99.3% of all natural uranium). It has been estimated that there is up to five billion years’ worth of
uranium-238 for use in these power plants.[104]
Breeder technology has been used in several reactors, but the high cost of reprocessing fuel safely, at 2006 technological levels, requires uranium prices of more than 200 USD/kg before becoming justified economically.[105] Breeder
reactors are still however being pursued as they have the potential to burn up all of the actinides in the present inventory of nuclear waste while also producing power and creating additional quantities of fuel for more reactors via the
breeding process.[106][107] In 2005, there were two breeder reactors producing power: the Phénix in France, which
has since powered down in 2009 after 36 years of operation, and the BN-600 reactor, a reactor constructed in 1980
Beloyarsk, Russia which is still operational as of 2013. The electricity output of BN-600 is 600 MW — Russia
plans to expand the nation’s use of breeder reactors with the BN-800 reactor, scheduled to become operational in
2014,[108] and the technical design of a yet larger breeder, the BN-1200 reactor scheduled to be finalized in 2013,
with construction slated for 2015.[109] Japan’s Monju breeder reactor restarted (having been shut down in 1995) in
2010 for 3 months, but shut down again after equipment fell into the reactor during reactor checkups, it is planned
to become re-operational in late 2013.[110] Both China and India are building breeder reactors. With the Indian 500
MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor scheduled to become operational in 2014, with plans to build five more by
2020.[111] The China Experimental Fast Reactor began producing power in 2011.[112]
Another alternative to fast breeders is thermal breeder reactors that use uranium-233 bred from thorium as fission
fuel in the thorium fuel cycle. Thorium is about 3.5 times more common than uranium in the Earth’s crust, and
has different geographic characteristics. This would extend the total practical fissionable resource base by 450%.[113]
India’s three-stage nuclear power programme features the use of a thorium fuel cycle in the third stage, as it has
abundant thorium reserves but little uranium.

1.4.2

Solid waste

For more details on this topic, see Radioactive waste.
See also: List of nuclear waste treatment technologies
The most important waste stream from nuclear power plants is spent nuclear fuel. It is primarily composed of
unconverted uranium as well as significant quantities of transuranic actinides (plutonium and curium, mostly). In
addition, about 3% of it is fission products from nuclear reactions. The actinides (uranium, plutonium, and curium)
are responsible for the bulk of the long-term radioactivity, whereas the fission products are responsible for the bulk
of the short-term radioactivity.[114]

16

CHAPTER 1. NUCLEAR POWER

High-level radioactive waste
Main article: High-level radioactive waste management
High-level radioactive waste management concerns management and disposal of highly radioactive materials created
during production of nuclear power. The technical issues in accomplishing this are daunting, due to the extremely
long periods radioactive wastes remain deadly to living organisms. Of particular concern are two long-lived fission
products, Technetium-99 (half-life 220,000 years) and Iodine-129 (half-life 15.7 million years),[117] which dominate
spent nuclear fuel radioactivity after a few thousand years. The most troublesome transuranic elements in spent fuel
are Neptunium-237 (half-life two million years) and Plutonium-239 (half-life 24,000 years).[118] Consequently, highlevel radioactive waste requires sophisticated treatment and management to successfully isolate it from the biosphere.
This usually necessitates treatment, followed by a long-term management strategy involving permanent storage, disposal or transformation of the waste into a non-toxic form.[119]
Governments around the world are considering a range of waste management and disposal options, usually involving
deep-geologic placement, although there has been limited progress toward implementing long-term waste management solutions.[120] This is partly because the timeframes in question when dealing with radioactive waste range from
10,000 to millions of years,[121][122] according to studies based on the effect of estimated radiation doses.[123]
Some proposed nuclear reactor designs however such as the American Integral Fast Reactor and the Molten salt
reactor can use the nuclear waste from light water reactors as a fuel, transmutating it to isotopes that would be safe
after hundreds, instead of tens of thousands of years. This offers a potentially more attractive alternative to deep
geological disposal.[124][125][126]
Another possibility is the use of thorium in a reactor especially designed for thorium (rather than mixing in thorium
with uranium and plutonium (i.e. in existing reactors). Used thorium fuel remains only a few hundreds of years
radioactive, instead of tens of thousands of years.[127]
Since the fraction of a radioisotope’s atoms decaying per unit of time is inversely proportional to its half-life, the
relative radioactivity of a quantity of buried human radioactive waste would diminish over time compared to natural
radioisotopes (such as the decay chains of 120 trillion tons of thorium and 40 trillion tons of uranium which are at
relatively trace concentrations of parts per million each over the crust’s 3 * 1019 ton mass).[128][129][130] For instance,
over a timeframe of thousands of years, after the most active short half-life radioisotopes decayed, burying U.S.
nuclear waste would increase the radioactivity in the top 2000 feet of rock and soil in the United States (10 million
km2 ) by ≈ 1 part in 10 million over the cumulative amount of natural radioisotopes in such a volume, although
the vicinity of the site would have a far higher concentration of artificial radioisotopes underground than such an
average.[131]
Low-level radioactive waste
See also: Low-level waste
The nuclear industry also produces a large volume of low-level radioactive waste in the form of contaminated items
like clothing, hand tools, water purifier resins, and (upon decommissioning) the materials of which the reactor itself
is built. In the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has repeatedly attempted to allow low-level materials to be
handled as normal waste: landfilled, recycled into consumer items, etcetera.
Comparing radioactive waste to industrial toxic waste
In countries with nuclear power, radioactive wastes comprise less than 1% of total industrial toxic wastes, much of
which remains hazardous for long periods.[103] Overall, nuclear power produces far less waste material by volume
than fossil-fuel based power plants.[132] Coal-burning plants are particularly noted for producing large amounts of
toxic and mildly radioactive ash due to concentrating naturally occurring metals and mildly radioactive material from
the coal.[133] A 2008 report from Oak Ridge National Laboratory concluded that coal power actually results in more
radioactivity being released into the environment than nuclear power operation, and that the population effective dose
equivalent, or dose to the public from radiation from coal plants is 100 times as much as from the ideal operation
of nuclear plants.[134] Indeed, coal ash is much less radioactive than spent nuclear fuel on a weight per weight basis,
but coal ash is produced in much higher quantities per unit of energy generated, and this is released directly into the
environment as fly ash, whereas nuclear plants use shielding to protect the environment from radioactive materials,
for example, in dry cask storage vessels.[135]

1.5. ECONOMICS

17

Waste disposal
Disposal of nuclear waste is often said to be the Achilles’ heel of the industry.[136] Presently, waste is mainly stored
at individual reactor sites and there are over 430 locations around the world where radioactive material continues
to accumulate. Some experts suggest that centralized underground repositories which are well-managed, guarded,
and monitored, would be a vast improvement.[136] There is an “international consensus on the advisability of storing
nuclear waste in deep geological repositories",[137] with the lack of movement of nuclear waste in the 2 billion year
old natural nuclear fission reactors in Oklo, Gabon being cited as “a source of essential information today.”[138][139]
As of 2009 there were no commercial scale purpose built underground repositories in operation.[137][140][141][142] The
Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico has been taking nuclear waste since 1999 from production reactors, but
as the name suggests is a research and development facility.

1.4.3

Reprocessing

For more details on this topic, see Nuclear reprocessing.
Reprocessing can potentially recover up to 95% of the remaining uranium and plutonium in spent nuclear fuel, putting
it into new mixed oxide fuel. This produces a reduction in long term radioactivity within the remaining waste, since
this is largely short-lived fission products, and reduces its volume by over 90%. Reprocessing of civilian fuel from
power reactors is currently done in Britain, France and (formerly) Russia, soon will be done in China and perhaps
India, and is being done on an expanding scale in Japan. The full potential of reprocessing has not been achieved
because it requires breeder reactors, which are not commercially available. France is generally cited as the most
successful reprocessor, but it presently only recycles 28% (by mass) of the yearly fuel use, 7% within France and
another 21% in Russia.[143]
Reprocessing is not allowed in the U.S.[144] The Obama administration has disallowed reprocessing of nuclear waste,
citing nuclear proliferation concerns.[145] In the U.S., spent nuclear fuel is currently all treated as waste.[146]
Depleted uranium
Main article: Depleted uranium
Uranium enrichment produces many tons of depleted uranium (DU) which consists of U-238 with most of the easily
fissile U-235 isotope removed. U-238 is a tough metal with several commercial uses—for example, aircraft production, radiation shielding, and armor—as it has a higher density than lead. Depleted uranium is also controversially
used in munitions; DU penetrators (bullets or APFSDS tips) “self sharpen”, due to uranium’s tendency to fracture
along shear bands.[147][148]

1.5 Economics
Main article: Economics of new nuclear power plants
Internationally the price of nuclear plants rose 15% annually in 1970-1990. Total costs rose tenfold. The nuclear
plant construction time became douple. According to Al Gore if intended plan does not hold, the delay cost a billion
dollars a year.[150]
The economics of new nuclear power plants is a controversial subject, since there are diverging views on this topic,
and multi-billion dollar investments ride on the choice of an energy source. Nuclear power plants typically have high
capital costs for building the plant, but low fuel costs. Therefore, comparison with other power generation methods
is strongly dependent on assumptions about construction timescales and capital financing for nuclear plants as well as
the future costs of fossil fuels and renewables as well as for energy storage solutions for intermittent power sources.
Cost estimates also need to take into account plant decommissioning and nuclear waste storage costs. On the other
hand measures to mitigate global warming, such as a carbon tax or carbon emissions trading, may favor the economics
of nuclear power.
In recent years there has been a slowdown of electricity demand growth and financing has become more difficult,
which has an impact on large projects such as nuclear reactors, with very large upfront costs and long project cycles

18

CHAPTER 1. NUCLEAR POWER

which carry a large variety of risks.[151] In Eastern Europe, a number of long-established projects are struggling to
find finance, notably Belene in Bulgaria and the additional reactors at Cernavoda in Romania, and some potential
backers have pulled out.[151] Where cheap gas is available and its future supply relatively secure, this also poses a
major problem for nuclear projects.[151]
Analysis of the economics of nuclear power must take into account who bears the risks of future uncertainties. To date
all operating nuclear power plants were developed by state-owned or regulated utility monopolies[152] where many
of the risks associated with construction costs, operating performance, fuel price, accident liability and other factors
were borne by consumers rather than suppliers. In addition, because the potential liability from a nuclear accident
is so great, the full cost of liability insurance is generally limited/capped by the government, which the U.S. Nuclear
Regulatory Commission concluded constituted a significant subsidy.[153] Many countries have now liberalized the
electricity market where these risks, and the risk of cheaper competitors emerging before capital costs are recovered,
are borne by plant suppliers and operators rather than consumers, which leads to a significantly different evaluation
of the economics of new nuclear power plants.[154]
Following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, costs are expected to increase for currently operating and
new nuclear power plants, due to increased requirements for on-site spent fuel management and elevated design basis
threats.[155]

1.6 Accidents and safety, the human and financial costs
See also: Energy accidents, Nuclear safety, Nuclear and radiation accidents and Lists of nuclear disasters and radioactive incidents
Some serious nuclear and radiation accidents have occurred. Benjamin K. Sovacool has reported that worldwide there
have been 99 accidents at nuclear power plants.[158] Fifty-seven accidents have occurred since the Chernobyl disaster,
and 57% (56 out of 99) of all nuclear-related accidents have occurred in the USA.[158][159]
Nuclear power plant accidents include the Chernobyl accident (1986) with approximately 60 deaths so far attributed
to the accident and a predicted, eventual total death toll, of from 4000 to 25,000 latent cancers deaths. The Fukushima
Daiichi nuclear disaster (2011), has not caused any radiation related deaths, with a predicted, eventual total death
toll, of from 0 to 1000, and the Three Mile Island accident (1979), no causal deaths, cancer or otherwise, have been
found in follow up studies of this accident.[17] Nuclear-powered submarine mishaps include the K-19 reactor accident
(1961),[18] the K-27 reactor accident (1968),[19] and the K-431 reactor accident (1985).[17] International research is
continuing into safety improvements such as passively safe plants,[47] and the possible future use of nuclear fusion.
In terms of lives lost per unit of energy generated, nuclear power has caused fewer accidental deaths per unit of
energy generated than all other major sources of energy generation. Energy produced by coal, petroleum, natural
gas and hydropower has caused more deaths per unit of energy generated, from air pollution and energy accidents.
This is found in the following comparisons, when the immediate nuclear related deaths from accidents are compared
to the immediate deaths from these other energy sources,[21] when the latent, or predicted, indirect cancer deaths
from nuclear energy accidents are compared to the immediate deaths from the above energy sources,[23][24][160] and
when the combined immediate and indirect fatalities from nuclear power and all fossil fuels are compared, fatalities
resulting from the mining of the necessary natural resources to power generation and to air pollution.[161] With these
data, the use of nuclear power has been calculated to have prevented a considerable number of fatalities, by reducing
the proportion of energy that would otherwise have been generated by fossil fuels, and is projected to continue to do
so.[162][163]
Nuclear power plant accidents, according to Benjamin K. Sovacool, rank first in terms of their economic cost, accounting for 41 percent of all property damage attributed to energy accidents.[164] However analysis presented in the
international Journal, Human and Ecological Risk Assessment found that coal, oil, Liquid petroleum gas and hydro
accidents have cost more than nuclear power accidents.[165]
Following the 2011 Japanese Fukushima nuclear disaster, authorities shut down the nation’s 54 nuclear power plants,
but it has been estimated that if Japan had never adopted nuclear power, accidents and pollution from coal or gas
plants would have caused more lost years of life.[166] As of 2013, the Fukushima site remains highly radioactive,
with some 160,000 evacuees still living in temporary housing, and some land will be unfarmable for centuries. The
difficult Fukushima disaster cleanup will take 40 or more years, and cost tens of billions of dollars.[25][26]
In August 2014, EDF Energy announced it had shut down 4 of its 8 reactors for a period of eight weeks due to

1.7. NUCLEAR PROLIFERATION

19

“cracking.” The UK nuclear regulator, ONR confirmed there was no release of radioactive material and no persons
injured.
Forced evacuation from a nuclear accident may lead to social isolation, anxiety, depression, psychosomatic medical
problems, reckless behavior, even suicide. Such was the outcome of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the
Ukraine. A comprehensive 2005 study concluded that “the mental health impact of Chernobyl is the largest public
health problem unleashed by the accident to date”.[167] Frank N. von Hippel, a U.S. scientist, commented on the 2011
Fukushima nuclear disaster, saying that “fear of ionizing radiation could have long-term psychological effects on a
large portion of the population in the contaminated areas”.[168]

1.7 Nuclear proliferation
Many technologies and materials associated with the creation of a nuclear power program have a dual-use capability,
in that they can be used to make nuclear weapons if a country chooses to do so. When this happens a nuclear power
program can become a route leading to a nuclear weapon or a public annex to a “secret” weapons program. The
concern over Iran’s nuclear activities is a case in point.[169]
A fundamental goal for American and global security is to minimize the nuclear proliferation risks associated with
the expansion of nuclear power. If this development is “poorly managed or efforts to contain risks are unsuccessful,
the nuclear future will be dangerous”.[169] The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership is one such international effort
to create a distribution network in which developing countries in need of energy, would receive nuclear fuel at a
discounted rate, in exchange for that nation agreeing to forgo their own indigenous develop of a uranium enrichment
program.
According to Benjamin K. Sovacool, a “number of high-ranking officials, even within the United Nations, have argued
that they can do little to stop states using nuclear reactors to produce nuclear weapons”.[172] A 2009 United Nations
report said that:
the revival of interest in nuclear power could result in the worldwide dissemination of uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing technologies, which present obvious risks of proliferation as these
technologies can produce fissile materials that are directly usable in nuclear weapons.[172]
On the other hand, one factor influencing the support of power reactors is due to the appeal that these reactors have
at reducing nuclear weapons arsenals through the Megatons to Megawatts Program, a program which has thus far
eliminated 425 metric tons of highly enriched uranium, the equivalent of 17,000 nuclear warheads, by converting it
into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors, and it is the single most successful non-proliferation program to date.[170]
The Megatons to Megawatts Program has been hailed as a major success by anti-nuclear weapon advocates as it has
largely been the driving force behind the sharp reduction in the quantity of nuclear weapons worldwide since the
cold war ended.[170] However without an increase in nuclear reactors and greater demand for fissile fuel, the cost of
dismantling and down blending has dissuaded Russia from continuing their disarmament.
Currently, according to Harvard professor Matthew Bunn: “The Russians are not remotely interested in extending
the program beyond 2013. We've managed to set it up in a way that costs them more and profits them less than them
just making new low-enriched uranium for reactors from scratch. But there are other ways to set it up that would be
very profitable for them and would also serve some of their strategic interests in boosting their nuclear exports.”[173]
In the Megatons to Megawatts Program approximately $8 billion of weapons grade uranium is being converted to
reactor grade uranium in the elimination of 10,000 nuclear weapons.[174]
In April 2012 there were thirty one countries that have civil nuclear power plants.[175] In 2013, Mark Diesendorf says
that governments of France, India, North Korea, Pakistan, UK, and South Africa have used nuclear power and/or
research reactors to assist nuclear weapons development or to contribute to their supplies of nuclear explosives from
military reactors.[176]

1.8 Environmental issues
Main articles: Environmental effects of nuclear power and Comparisons of life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions

20

CHAPTER 1. NUCLEAR POWER

Life cycle analysis (LCA) of carbon dioxide emissions show nuclear power as comparable to renewable energy
sources. Emissions from burning fossil fuels are many times higher.[177][179][180]
According to the United Nations (UNSCEAR), regular nuclear power plant operation including the nuclear fuel cycle
causes radioisotope releases into the environment amounting to 0.0002 mSv (milli-Sievert) per year of public exposure
as a global average.[181] (Such is small compared to variation in natural background radiation, which averages 2.4
mSv/a globally but frequently varies between 1 mSv/a and 13 mSv/a depending on a person’s location as determined
by UNSCEAR).[181] As of a 2008 report, the remaining legacy of the worst nuclear power plant accident (Chernobyl)
is 0.002 mSv/a in global average exposure (a figure which was 0.04 mSv per person averaged over the entire populace
of the Northern Hemisphere in the year of the accident in 1986, although far higher among the most affected local
populations and recovery workers).[181]

1.8.1

Climate change

Climate change causing weather extremes such as heat waves, reduced precipitation levels and droughts can have a
significant impact on nuclear energy infrastructure.[182] Seawater is corrosive and so nuclear energy supply is likely
to be negatively affected by the fresh water shortage.[182] This generic problem may become increasingly significant
over time.[182] This can force nuclear reactors to be shut down, as happened in France during the 2003 and 2006 heat
waves. Nuclear power supply was severely diminished by low river flow rates and droughts, which meant rivers had
reached the maximum temperatures for cooling reactors.[182] During the heat waves, 17 reactors had to limit output
or shut down. 77% of French electricity is produced by nuclear power and in 2009 a similar situation created a 8GW
shortage and forced the French government to import electricity.[182] Other cases have been reported from Germany,
where extreme temperatures have reduced nuclear power production 9 times due to high temperatures between 1979
and 2007.[182] In particular:
• the Unterweser nuclear power plant reduced output by 90% between June and September 2003[182]
• the Isar nuclear power plant cut production by 60% for 14 days due to excess river temperatures and low stream
flow in the river Isar in 2006[182]
Similar events have happened elsewhere in Europe during those same hot summers.[182] If global warming continues,
this disruption is likely to increase.

1.9 Nuclear decommissioning
The price of energy inputs and the environmental costs of every nuclear power plant continue long after the facility
has finished generating its last useful electricity. Both nuclear reactors and uranium enrichment facilities must be
decommissioned, returning the facility and its parts to a safe enough level to be entrusted for other uses. After
a cooling-off period that may last as long as a century, reactors must be dismantled and cut into small pieces to
be packed in containers for final disposal. The process is very expensive, time-consuming, dangerous for workers,
hazardous to the natural environment, and presents new opportunities for human error, accidents or sabotage.[183]
The total energy required for decommissioning can be as much as 50% more than the energy needed for the original
construction. In most cases, the decommissioning process costs between US $300 million to US$5.6 billion. Decommissioning at nuclear sites which have experienced a serious accident are the most expensive and time-consuming.
In the U.S. there are 13 reactors that have permanently shut down and are in some phase of decommissioning, and
none of them have completed the process.[183]
Current UK plants are expected to exceed £73bn in decommissioning costs.“Nuclear decommissioning costs exceed
£73bn”.

1.10 Debate on nuclear power
Main article: Nuclear power debate
See also: Nuclear energy policy and Anti-nuclear movement

1.11. COMPARISON WITH RENEWABLE ENERGY

21

The nuclear power debate concerns the controversy[11][12][82] which has surrounded the deployment and use of nuclear
fission reactors to generate electricity from nuclear fuel for civilian purposes. The debate about nuclear power peaked
during the 1970s and 1980s, when it “reached an intensity unprecedented in the history of technology controversies”,
in some countries.[83][184]
Proponents of nuclear energy contend that nuclear power is a sustainable energy source that reduces carbon emissions
and increases energy security by decreasing dependence on imported energy sources.[13] Proponents claim that nuclear
power produces virtually no conventional air pollution, such as greenhouse gases and smog, in contrast to the chief
viable alternative of fossil fuel.[185] Nuclear power can produce base-load power unlike many renewables which are
intermittent energy sources lacking large-scale and cheap ways of storing energy.[186] M. King Hubbert saw oil as a
resource that would run out, and proposed nuclear energy as a replacement energy source.[187] Proponents claim that
the risks of storing waste are small and can be further reduced by using the latest technology in newer reactors, and
the operational safety record in the Western world is excellent when compared to the other major kinds of power
plants.[188]
Opponents believe that nuclear power poses many threats to people and the environment.[14][15][16] These threats
include the problems of processing, transport and storage of radioactive nuclear waste, the risk of nuclear weapons
proliferation and terrorism, as well as health risks and environmental damage from uranium mining.[189][190] They
also contend that reactors themselves are enormously complex machines where many things can and do go wrong;
and there have been serious nuclear accidents.[191][192] Critics do not believe that the risks of using nuclear fission as
a power source can be fully offset through the development of new technology. They also argue that when all the
energy-intensive stages of the nuclear fuel chain are considered, from uranium mining to nuclear decommissioning,
nuclear power is neither a low-carbon nor an economical electricity source.[193][194][195]
Arguments of economics and safety are used by both sides of the debate.

1.11 Comparison with renewable energy
See also: Renewable energy debate, Nuclear power proposed as renewable energy and 100% renewable energy
As of 2013, the World Nuclear Association has said “There is unprecedented interest in renewable energy, particularly
solar and wind energy, which provide electricity without giving rise to any carbon dioxide emission. Harnessing these
for electricity depends on the cost and efficiency of the technology, which is constantly improving, thus reducing costs
per peak kilowatt”.[196]
Renewable electricity production, from sources such as wind power and solar power, is sometimes criticized for being
intermittent or variable.[197][198] However, the International Energy Agency concluded that deployment of renewable
technologies (RETs), when it increases the diversity of electricity sources, contributes to the flexibility of the system.
However, the report also concluded (p. 29): “At high levels of grid penetration by RETs the consequences of unmatched demand and supply can pose challenges for grid management. This characteristic may affect how, and the
degree to which, RETs can displace fossil fuels and nuclear capacities in power generation.”[199]
Renewable electricity supply in the 20-50+% range has already been implemented in several European systems, albeit
in the context of an integrated European grid system.[200] In 2012, the share of electricity generated by renewable
sources in Germany was 21.9%, compared to 16.0% for nuclear power after Germany shut down 7-8 of its 18 nuclear
reactors in 2011.[201] In the United Kingdom, the amount of energy produced from renewable energy is expected to
exceed that from nuclear power by 2018,[202] and Scotland plans to obtain all electricity from renewable energy by
2020.[203] The majority of installed renewable energy across the world is in the form of hydro power.
The IPCC has said that if governments were supportive, and the full complement of renewable energy technologies
were deployed, renewable energy supply could account for almost 80% of the world’s energy use within forty years.[204]
Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, said the necessary investment in renewables would cost only about 1% of
global GDP annually. This approach could contain greenhouse gas levels to less than 450 parts per million, the safe
level beyond which climate change becomes catastrophic and irreversible.[204]
The cost of nuclear power has followed an increasing trend whereas the cost of electricity is declining for wind
power.[205] In about 2011, wind power became as inexpensive as natural gas, and anti-nuclear groups have suggested
that in 2010 solar power became cheaper than nuclear power.[206][207] Data from the EIA in 2011 estimated that in
2016, solar will have a levelized cost of electricity almost twice that of nuclear (21¢/kWh for solar, 11.39¢/kWh for
nuclear), and wind somewhat less (9.7¢/kWh).[208] However, the US EIA has also cautioned that levelized costs of

22

CHAPTER 1. NUCLEAR POWER

intermittent sources such as wind and solar are not directly comparable to costs of “dispatchable” sources (those that
can be adjusted to meet demand).[209]
From a safety stand point, nuclear power, in terms of lives lost per unit of electricity delivered, is comparable to
and in some cases, lower than many renewable energy sources.[20][21][210] There is however no radioactive spent fuel
that needs to be stored or reprocessed with conventional renewable energy sources.[211] A nuclear plant needs to be
disassembled and removed. Much of the disassembled nuclear plant needs to be stored as low level nuclear waste.[212]

1.12 Nuclear renaissance
Main article: Nuclear renaissance
Since about 2001 the term nuclear renaissance has been used to refer to a possible nuclear power industry revival,
driven by rising fossil fuel prices and new concerns about meeting greenhouse gas emission limits.[218] However,
the World Nuclear Association has reported that nuclear electricity generation in 2012 was at its lowest level since
1999.[219]
In March 2011 the nuclear emergencies at Japan’s Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant and shutdowns at other nuclear
facilities raised questions among some commentators over the future of the renaissance.[220][221][222][223][224] Platts
has reported that “the crisis at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plants has prompted leading energy-consuming countries
to review the safety of their existing reactors and cast doubt on the speed and scale of planned expansions around
the world”.[225] In 2011 Siemens exited the nuclear power sector following the Fukushima disaster and subsequent
changes to German energy policy, and supported the German government’s planned energy transition to renewable
energy technologies.[226] China, Germany, Switzerland, Israel, Malaysia, Thailand, United Kingdom, Italy[227] and
the Philippines have reviewed their nuclear power programs. Indonesia and Vietnam still plan to build nuclear
power plants.[228][229][230][231] Countries such as Australia, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Liechtenstein,
Luxembourg, Portugal, Israel, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Norway remain opposed to nuclear power. Following the
Fukushima I nuclear accidents, the International Energy Agency halved its estimate of additional nuclear generating
capacity built by 2035.[34]
The World Nuclear Association has said that “nuclear power generation suffered its biggest ever one-year fall through
2012 as the bulk of the Japanese fleet remained offline for a full calendar year”. Data from the International Atomic
Energy Agency showed that nuclear power plants globally produced 2346 TWh of electricity in 2012 – seven per cent
less than in 2011. The figures illustrate the effects of a full year of 48 Japanese power reactors producing no power
during the year. The permanent closure of eight reactor units in Germany was also a factor. Problems at Crystal
River, Fort Calhoun and the two San Onofre units in the USA meant they produced no power for the full year, while
in Belgium Doel 3 and Tihange 2 were out of action for six months. Compared to 2010, the nuclear industry produced
11% less electricity in 2012.[219]

1.13 Future of the industry
See also: List of prospective nuclear units in the United States, Nuclear power in the United States, Nuclear energy
policy and Mitigation of global warming
As already noted, the nuclear power industry in western nations has a history of construction delays, cost overruns,
plant cancellations, and nuclear safety issues despite significant government subsidies and support.[89][233][234][235] In
December 2013, Forbes Magazine reported that, in developed countries, “reactors are not a viable source of new
power”.[236] Even in developed nations where they make economic sense, they are not feasible because nuclear’s
“enormous costs, political and popular opposition, and regulatory uncertainty”.[236] This view echoes the statement
of former Exelon CEO John Rowe, who said in 2012 that new nuclear plants “don’t make any sense right now”
and won’t be economically viable in the foreseeable future.[236] John Quiggin, economics professor, also says the
main problem with the nuclear option is that it is not economically-viable. Quiggin says that we need more efficient
energy use and more renewable energy commercialization.[149] Former NRC member Peter Bradford and Professor
Ian Lowe have recently made similar statements.[237][238] However, some “nuclear cheerleaders” and lobbyists in
the West continue to champion reactors, often with proposed new but largely untested designs, as a source of new
power.[236][237][239][240][241][242][243]
Much more new build activity is occurring in developing countries like South Korea, India and China. China has

1.13. FUTURE OF THE INDUSTRY

23

25 reactors under construction, with plans to build more,[244][245] However, according to a government research unit,
China must not build “too many nuclear power reactors too quickly”, in order to avoid a shortfall of fuel, equipment
and qualified plant workers.[246]
In the USA, licenses of almost half its reactors have been extended to 60 years,[247][248] Two new Generation III
reactors are under construction at Vogtle, a dual construction project which marks the end of a 34 year period of
stagnation in the US construction of civil nuclear power reactors. The station operator licenses of almost half the
present 104 power reactors in the US, as of 2008, have been given extensions to 60 years.[247] As of 2012, U.S.
nuclear industry officials expect five new reactors to enter service by 2020, all at existing plants.[30] In 2013, four
aging, uncompetitive, reactors were permanently closed.[31][32] Relevant state legislatures are trying to close Vermont
Yankee and Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant.[32]
The U.S. NRC and the U.S. Department of Energy have initiated research into Light water reactor sustainability which
is hoped will lead to allowing extensions of reactor licenses beyond 60 years, provided that safety can be maintained,
as the loss in non-CO2 -emitting generation capacity by retiring reactors “may serve to challenge U.S. energy security,
potentially resulting in increased greenhouse gas emissions, and contributing to an imbalance between electric supply
and demand.”[249]
There is a possible impediment to production of nuclear power plants as only a few companies worldwide have
the capacity to forge single-piece reactor pressure vessels,[250] which are necessary in the most common reactor
designs. Utilities across the world are submitting orders years in advance of any actual need for these vessels. Other
manufacturers are examining various options, including making the component themselves, or finding ways to make
a similar item using alternate methods.[251]
According to the World Nuclear Association, globally during the 1980s one new nuclear reactor started up every 17
days on average, and by the year 2015 this rate could increase to one every 5 days.[252] As of 2007, Watts Bar 1
in Tennessee, which came on-line on February 7, 1996, was the last U.S. commercial nuclear reactor to go on-line.
This is often quoted as evidence of a successful worldwide campaign for nuclear power phase-out.[253] Electricity
shortages, fossil fuel price increases, global warming, and heavy metal emissions from fossil fuel use, new technology
such as passively safe plants, and national energy security may renew the demand for nuclear power plants.

1.13.1

Nuclear phase out

Main article: Nuclear power phase-out
Following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the International Energy Agency halved its estimate of additional
nuclear generating capacity to be built by 2035.[34][35] Platts has reported that “the crisis at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear
plants has prompted leading energy-consuming countries to review the safety of their existing reactors and cast doubt
on the speed and scale of planned expansions around the world”.[225] In 2011, The Economist reported that nuclear
power “looks dangerous, unpopular, expensive and risky”, and that “it is replaceable with relative ease and could be
forgone with no huge structural shifts in the way the world works”.[254]
In early April 2011, analysts at Swiss-based investment bank UBS said: “At Fukushima, four reactors have been out
of control for weeks, casting doubt on whether even an advanced economy can master nuclear safety . . .. We believe
the Fukushima accident was the most serious ever for the credibility of nuclear power”.[255]
In 2011, Deutsche Bank analysts concluded that “the global impact of the Fukushima accident is a fundamental shift in
public perception with regard to how a nation prioritizes and values its populations health, safety, security, and natural
environment when determining its current and future energy pathways”. As a consequence, "renewable energy will
be a clear long-term winner in most energy systems, a conclusion supported by many voter surveys conducted over
the past few weeks. At the same time, we consider natural gas to be, at the very least, an important transition fuel,
especially in those regions where it is considered secure”.[256]
In September 2011, German engineering giant Siemens announced it will withdraw entirely from the nuclear industry,
as a response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, and said that it would no longer build nuclear power plants
anywhere in the world. The company’s chairman, Peter Löscher, said that “Siemens was ending plans to cooperate
with Rosatom, the Russian state-controlled nuclear power company, in the construction of dozens of nuclear plants
throughout Russia over the coming two decades”.[257][258] Also in September 2011, IAEA Director General Yukiya
Amano said the Japanese nuclear disaster “caused deep public anxiety throughout the world and damaged confidence
in nuclear power”.[259]
In February 2012, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the construction of two additional
reactors at the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant, the first reactors to be approved in over 30 years since the Three

24

CHAPTER 1. NUCLEAR POWER

Mile Island accident,[260] but NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko cast a dissenting vote citing safety concerns stemming
from Japan’s 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, and saying “I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima never
happened”.[30] One week after Southern received the license to begin major construction on the two new reactors,
a dozen environmental and anti-nuclear groups are suing to stop the Plant Vogtle expansion project, saying “public
safety and environmental problems since Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor accident have not been taken
into account”.[261]
Countries such as Australia, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta,
Portugal, Israel, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Norway have no nuclear power reactors and remain opposed to nuclear
power.[254][262] However, by contrast, some countries remain in favor, and financially support nuclear fusion research,
including EU wide funding of the ITER project.[263][264]
Worldwide wind power has been increasing at 26%/year, and solar power at 58%/year, from 2006 to 2011, as a
replacement for thermal generation of electricity.[265]

1.13.2

Advanced concepts

Main article: Generation IV reactor
Current fission reactors in operation around the world are second or third generation systems, with most of the
first-generation systems having been retired some time ago. Research into advanced generation IV reactor types
was officially started by the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) based on eight technology goals, including to
improve nuclear safety, improve proliferation resistance, minimize waste, improve natural resource utilization, the
ability to consume existing nuclear waste in the production of electricity, and decrease the cost to build and run such
plants. Most of these reactors differ significantly from current operating light water reactors, and are generally not
expected to be available for commercial construction before 2030.[266]
The nuclear reactors to be built at Vogtle are new AP1000 third generation reactors, which are said to have safety
improvements over older power reactors.[260] However, John Ma, a senior structural engineer at the NRC, is concerned that some parts of the AP1000 steel skin are so brittle that the “impact energy” from a plane strike or storm
driven projectile could shatter the wall.[267] Edwin Lyman, a senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is concerned about the strength of the steel containment vessel and the concrete shield building around the
AP1000.[267][268]
The Union of Concerned Scientists has referred to the European Pressurized Reactor, currently under construction
in China, Finland and France, as the only new reactor design under consideration in the United States that "...appears
to have the potential to be significantly safer and more secure against attack than today’s reactors.”[269]
One disadvantage of any new reactor technology is that safety risks may be greater initially as reactor operators
have little experience with the new design. Nuclear engineer David Lochbaum has explained that almost all serious
nuclear accidents have occurred with what was at the time the most recent technology. He argues that “the problem
with new reactors and accidents is twofold: scenarios arise that are impossible to plan for in simulations; and humans
make mistakes”.[270] As one director of a U.S. research laboratory put it, “fabrication, construction, operation, and
maintenance of new reactors will face a steep learning curve: advanced technologies will have a heightened risk of
accidents and mistakes. The technology may be proven, but people are not”.[270]

1.13.3

Hybrid nuclear fusion-fission

Hybrid nuclear power is a proposed means of generating power by use of a combination of nuclear fusion and fission
processes. The concept dates to the 1950s, and was briefly advocated by Hans Bethe during the 1970s, but largely
remained unexplored until a revival of interest in 2009, due to delays in the realization of pure fusion. When a
sustained nuclear fusion power plant is built, it has the potential to be capable of extracting all the fission energy that
remains in spent fission fuel, reducing the volume of nuclear waste by orders of magnitude, and more importantly,
eliminating all actinides present in the spent fuel, substances which cause security concerns.[271]

1.14. NUCLEAR POWER ORGANIZATIONS

1.13.4

25

Nuclear fusion

Main articles: Nuclear fusion and Fusion power
Nuclear fusion reactions have the potential to be safer and generate less radioactive waste than fission.[272][273] These
reactions appear potentially viable, though technically quite difficult and have yet to be created on a scale that could
be used in a functional power plant. Fusion power has been under theoretical and experimental investigation since
the 1950s.
Construction of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor facility began in 2007, but the project has
run into many delays and budget overruns. The facility is now not expected to begin operations until the year 2027
– 11 years after initially anticipated.[274] A follow on commercial nuclear fusion power station, DEMO, has been
proposed.[9][275] There is also suggestions for a power plant based upon a different fusion approach, that of a Inertial
fusion power plant.
Fusion powered electricity generation was initially believed to be readily achievable, as fission power had been. However, the extreme requirements for continuous reactions and plasma containment led to projections being extended by
several decades. In 2010, more than 60 years after the first attempts, commercial power production was still believed
to be unlikely before 2050.[9]

1.14 Nuclear power organizations
There are multiple organizations which have taken a position on nuclear power – some are proponents, and some are
opponents.

1.14.1

Proponents

Main article: List of nuclear power groups

• Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy (International)
• Nuclear Industry Association (United Kingdom)
• World Nuclear Association, a confederation of companies connected with nuclear power production. (International)
• International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
• Nuclear Energy Institute (United States)
• American Nuclear Society (United States)
• United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (United Kingdom)
• EURATOM (Europe)
• European Nuclear Education Network (Europe)
• Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (Canada)

1.14.2

Opponents

Main article: List of anti-nuclear power groups

• Friends of the Earth International, a network of environmental organizations.[276]
• Greenpeace International, a non-governmental organization[277]

26

CHAPTER 1. NUCLEAR POWER
• Nuclear Information and Resource Service (International)
• World Information Service on Energy (International)
• Sortir du nucléaire (France)
• Pembina Institute (Canada)
• Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (United States)
• Sayonara Nuclear Power Plants (Japan)

1.15 See also
• Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues
• German nuclear energy project
• Linear no-threshold model
• Nuclear power in France
• Nuclear weapons debate
• Uranium mining debate
• World energy consumption

1.16 References
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by the U. S. Department of Energy and the Texas State Energy Conservation Office (SECO). U. S. Department of Energy and
the Texas State Energy Conservation Office (SECO). July 2010. Retrieved 2010-07-10.
[2] “Key World Energy Statistics 2012” (PDF). International Energy Agency. 2012. Retrieved 2012-12-17.
[3] “PRIS - Home”. Iaea.org. Retrieved 2013-06-14.
[4] “World Nuclear Power Reactors 2007-08 and Uranium Requirements”. World Nuclear Association. 2008-06-09. Archived
from the original on March 3, 2008. Retrieved 2008-06-21.
[5] “Japan approves two reactor restarts”. Taipei Times. 2013-06-07. Retrieved 2013-06-14.
[6] “What is Nuclear Power Plant - How Nuclear Power Plants work | What is Nuclear Power Reactor - Types of Nuclear
Power Reactors”. EngineersGarage. Retrieved 2013-06-14.
[7] “Nuclear-Powered Ships | Nuclear Submarines”. World-nuclear.org. Retrieved 2013-06-14.
[8] http://www.ewp.rpi.edu/hartford/~{}ernesto/F2010/EP2/Materials4Students/Misiaszek/NuclearMarinePropulsion.pdf Naval
Nuclear Propulsion, Magdi Ragheb. As of 2001, about 235 naval reactors had been built
[9] “Beyond ITER”. The ITER Project. Information Services, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Archived from the original
on 7 November 2006. Retrieved 5 February 2011. - Projected fusion power timeline
[10] Union-Tribune Editorial Board (March 27, 2011). “The nuclear controversy”. Union-Tribune.
[11] James J. MacKenzie. Review of The Nuclear Power Controversy by Arthur W. Murphy The Quarterly Review of Biology,
Vol. 52, No. 4 (Dec., 1977), pp. 467-468.
[12] In February 2010 the nuclear power debate played out on the pages of the New York Times, see A Reasonable Bet on
Nuclear Power and Revisiting Nuclear Power: A Debate and A Comeback for Nuclear Power?
[13] U.S. Energy Legislation May Be 'Renaissance' for Nuclear Power.
[14] Share. “Nuclear Waste Pools in North Carolina”. Projectcensored.org. Retrieved 2010-08-24.

1.16. REFERENCES

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[15] “Nuclear Power”. Nc Warn. Retrieved 2013-06-22.
[16] Sturgis, Sue. “Investigation: Revelations about Three Mile Island disaster raise doubts over nuclear plant safety”. Southernstudies.org. Retrieved 2010-08-24.
[17] iPad iPhone Android TIME TV Populist The Page (2009-03-25). “The Worst Nuclear Disasters”. Time.com. Retrieved
2013-06-22.
[18] Strengthening the Safety of Radiation Sources p. 14.
[19] Johnston, Robert (September 23, 2007). “Deadliest radiation accidents and other events causing radiation casualties”.
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[20] Markandya, A.; Wilkinson, P. (2007). “Electricity generation and health”. Lancet 370 (9591): 979–990. doi:10.1016/S01406736(07)61253-7. PMID 17876910.
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[22] http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2012/06/10/energys-deathprint-a-price-always-paid/ with Chernobyl’s total predicted linear no-threshold cancer deaths included, nuclear power is safer when compared to many alternative energy sources’
immediate, death rate.
[23] Brendan Nicholson (2006-06-05). “Nuclear power 'cheaper, safer' than coal and gas”. Melbourne: The Age. Retrieved
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[24] Burgherr, P.; Hirschberg, S. (2008). “A Comparative Analysis of Accident Risks in Fossil, Hydro, and Nuclear Energy
Chains”. Human and Ecological Risk Assessment: an International Journal 14 (5): 947. doi:10.1080/10807030802387556.
If you cannot access the paper via the above link, the following link is open to the public, credit to the authors. http:
//gabe.web.psi.ch/pdfs/_2012_LEA_Audit/TA01.pdf Page 962 to 965. Comparing Nuclear’s latent cancer deaths, such
as cancer with other energy sources immediate deaths per unit of energy generated(GWeyr). This study does not include
Fossil fuel related cancer and other indirect deaths created by the use of fossil fuel consumption in its “severe accident”, an
accident with more than 5 fatalities, classification.
[25] Richard Schiffman (12 March 2013). “Two years on, America hasn't learned lessons of Fukushima nuclear disaster”. The
Guardian (London).
[26] Martin Fackler (June 1, 2011). “Report Finds Japan Underestimated Tsunami Danger”. New York Times.
[27] “Collectively, life cycle assessment literature shows that nuclear power is similar to other renewable and much lower than
fossil fuel in total life cycle GHG emissions.''". Nrel.gov. 2013-01-24. Retrieved 2013-06-22.
[28] “Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power - global nuclear power
has prevented an average of 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent (GtCO2-eq)
greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning”. Pubs.acs.org. doi:10.1021/es3051197?source=cen.
[29] “Worldwide First Reactor to Start Up in 2013, in China - World Nuclear Industry Status Report”. Worldnuclearreport.org.
Retrieved 2013-06-14.
[30] Ayesha Rascoe (Feb 9, 2012). “U.S. approves first new nuclear plant in a generation”. Reuters.
[31] Mark Cooper (18 June 2013). “Nuclear aging: Not so graceful”. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
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[256] Deutsche Bank Group (2011). The 2011 inflection point for energymarkets: Health, safety, security and the environment.
DB Climate Change Advisors, May 2.
[257] John Broder (October 10, 2011). “The Year of Peril and Promise in Energy Production”. New York Times.
[258] “Siemens to quit nuclear industry”. BBC News. 18 September 2011.
[259] “IAEA sees slow nuclear growth post Japan”. UPI. September 23, 2011.
[260] Hsu, Jeremy (February 9, 2012). “First Next-Gen US Reactor Designed to Avoid Fukushima Repeat”. Live Science (hosted
on Yahoo!). Retrieved February 9, 2012.
[261] Kristi E. Swartz (February 16, 2012). “Groups sue to stop Vogtle expansion project”. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
[262] Duroyan Fertl (June 5, 2011). “Germany: Nuclear power to be phased out by 2022”. Green Left.
[263] “Science/Nature | France gets nuclear fusion plant”. BBC News. 2005-06-28. Retrieved 2014-01-24.
[264] “NCPST Homepage | DCU”. Ncpst.ie. Retrieved 2014-01-24.
[265] Renewables 2012 Global Status Report p. 21
[266] “4th Generation Nuclear Power — OSS Foundation”. Ossfoundation.us. Retrieved 2014-01-24.
[267] Adam Piore (June 2011). “Nuclear energy: Planning for the Black Swan”. Scientific American.
[268] Matthew L. Wald. Critics Challenge Safety of New Reactor Design New York Times, April 22, 2010.
[269] “Nuclear Power in a Warming World” (PDF). Union of Concerned Scientists. Retrieved 1 October 2008.
[270] Benjamin K. Sovacool. A Critical Evaluation of Nuclear Power and Renewable Electricity in Asia, Journal of Contemporary
Asia, Vol. 40, No. 3, August 2010, p. 381.
[271] Gerstner, E. (2009). “Nuclear energy: The hybrid returns”. Nature 460 (7251): 25–8. doi:10.1038/460025a. PMID
19571861.
[272] Introduction to Fusion Energy, J. Reece Roth, 1986.
[273] T. Hamacher and A.M. Bradshaw (October 2001). “Fusion as a Future Power Source: Recent Achievements and Prospects”
(PDF). World Energy Council. Archived from the original on 2004-05-06.
[274] W Wayt Gibbs (30 December 2013). “Triple-threat method sparks hope for fusion”. Nature.
[275] “Overview of EFDA Activities”. EFDA. European Fusion Development Agreement. Archived from the original on 200610-01. Retrieved 2006-11-11.
[276] “About Friends of the Earth International”. Friends of the Earth International. Retrieved 2009-06-25.
[277] “United Nations, Department of Public Information, Non-Governmental Organizations”. Un.org. 2006-02-23. Retrieved
2010-08-24.

36

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1.17 Further reading
See also: List of books about nuclear issues and List of films about nuclear issues
• Clarfield, Gerald H. and William M. Wiecek (1984). Nuclear America: Military and Civilian Nuclear Power
in the United States 1940-1980, Harper & Row.
• Cooke, Stephanie (2009). In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age, Black Inc.
• Cravens, Gwyneth (2007). Power to Save the World: the Truth about Nuclear Energy. New York: Knopf.
ISBN 0-307-26656-7.
• Elliott, David (2007). Nuclear or Not? Does Nuclear Power Have a Place in a Sustainable Energy Future?,
Palgrave.
• Falk, Jim (1982). Global Fission: The Battle Over Nuclear Power, Oxford University Press.
• Ferguson, Charles D., (2007). Nuclear Energy: Balancing Benefits and Risks Council on Foreign Relations.
• Herbst, Alan M. and George W. Hopley (2007). Nuclear Energy Now: Why the Time has come for the World’s
Most Misunderstood Energy Source, Wiley.
• Schneider, Mycle, Steve Thomas, Antony Froggatt, Doug Koplow (2012). The World Nuclear Industry Status
Report, German Federal Ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation and Reactor Safety.
• Walker, J. Samuel (1992). Containing the Atom: Nuclear Regulation in a Changing Environment, 1993-1971,
Berkeley: University of California Press.
• Weart, Spencer R. The Rise of Nuclear Fear. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012. ISBN 0-67405233-1

1.18 External links
• Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues — Annotated Bibliography on Nuclear Power
• An entry to nuclear power through an educational discussion of reactors
• Argonne National Laboratory
• Briefing Papers from the Australian EnergyScience Coalition
• British Energy — Understanding Nuclear Energy / Nuclear Power
• Coal Combustion: Nuclear Resource or Danger?
• Congressional Research Service report on Nuclear Energy Policy PDF (94.0 KB)
• Energy Information Administration provides lots of statistics and information
• How Nuclear Power Works
• IAEA Website The International Atomic Energy Agency
• IAEA’s Power Reactor Information System (PRIS)
• Nuclear Power: Climate Fix or Folly? (2009)
• Nuclear Power Education
• Nuclear Tourist.com, nuclear power information
• The World Nuclear Industry Status Reports website
• TED Talk - Bill Gates on energy: Innovating to zero!
• LFTR in 5 Minutes - Creative Commons Film Compares PWR to Th-MSR/LFTR Nuclear Power. on YouTube

1.18. EXTERNAL LINKS

37

Natural uranium
> 99.2% U-238
0.72% U-235

Low-enriched uranium

38

CHAPTER 1. NUCLEAR POWER

A nuclear fuel rod assembly bundle being inspected before entering a reactor.

Following interim storage in a spent fuel pool, the bundles of used fuel assemblies of a typical nuclear power station are often stored
on site in the likes of the eight dry cask storage vessels pictured above.[115] At Yankee Rowe Nuclear Power Station, which generated
44 billion kilowatt hours of electricity over its lifetime, its complete spent fuel inventory is contained within sixteen casks.[116]

1.18. EXTERNAL LINKS

39

George W. Bush signing the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which was designed to promote the US nuclear power industry, through
incentives and subsidies, including cost-overrun support up to a total of $2 billion for six new nuclear plants.[149]

The Ikata Nuclear Power Plant, a pressurized water reactor that cools by utilizing a secondary coolant heat exchanger with a large
body of water, an alternative cooling approach to large cooling towers.

40

CHAPTER 1. NUCLEAR POWER

The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the world’s worst nuclear accident since 1986, displaced 50,000 households after
radiation leaked into the air, soil and sea.[156] Radiation checks led to bans of some shipments of vegetables and fish.[157]

45,000
Number of warheads

40,000

United States
USSR/Russia

35,000
30,000
25,000
20,000
15,000
10,000
5,000
0

1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
Year

United States and USSR/Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles, 1945-2006.The Megatons to Megawatts Program was the main driving
force behind the sharp reduction in the quantity of nuclear weapons worldwide since the cold war ended.[170][171] However without
an increase in nuclear reactors and greater demand for fissile fuel, the cost of dismantling has dissuaded Russia from continuing
their disarmament.

1.18. EXTERNAL LINKS

41

42

CHAPTER 1. NUCLEAR POWER

A 2008 synthesis of 103 studies, published by Benjamin K. Sovacool, estimated that the value of CO2 emissions for nuclear power
over the lifecycle of a plant was 66.08 g/kW·h. Comparative results for various renewable power sources were 9–32 g/kW·h.[177] A
2012 study by Yale University arrived at a different value, with the mean value, depending on which Reactor design was analyzed,
ranging from 11 to 25 g/kW·h of total life cycle nuclear power CO2 emissions.[178]

Olkiluoto 3 under construction in 2009. It is the first EPR design, but problems with workmanship and supervision have created
costly delays which led to an inquiry by the Finnish nuclear regulator STUK.[213] In December 2012, Areva estimated that the full
cost of building the reactor will be about €8.5 billion, or almost three times the original delivery price of €3 billion.[214][215][216]

1.18. EXTERNAL LINKS

Nuclear power production 1995-2012 in TWh[217]

Brunswick Nuclear Plant discharge canal

43

44

The Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, the largest nuclear power facility in the world[232]

CHAPTER 1. NUCLEAR POWER

1.18. EXTERNAL LINKS

45

SchleswigHolstein
806

KKB
Brunsbüttel
Unterweser

1440

KBR
Brokdorf

HH

1410

KKU

1316 Mecklenburg-

Vorpommern
KKK
Krümmel

Niedersachsen

Bremen

1400

KKE
Emsland

Berlin

1430

KWG
Grohnde

Brandenburg
Sachsen-Anhalt

Nordrhein-Westfalen
Sachsen
Thüringen

Hessen

RheinlandPfalz
Saarland

1225 1300

1345

KWB-A/B
Biblis

KKG
Grafenrheinfeld
Bayern

926 1458

KKP-1/2

Philippsburg

840 1395

GKN-1/2
Neckarwestheim
BadenWürttemberg

1344 1344

KRB-II-B/C
Gundremmingen

Isar
912 1475

KKI-1/2

Eight of the seventeen operating reactors in Germany were permanently shut down following the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear
disaster.

Chapter 2

Nuclear fission
“Splitting the atom” redirects here. For the EP, see Splitting the Atom.
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is either a nuclear reaction or a radioactive decay process in
which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts (lighter nuclei). The fission process often produces free neutrons
and photons (in the form of gamma rays which can cause cancer), and releases a very large amount of energy even
by the energetic standards of radioactive decay.
Nuclear fission of heavy elements was discovered on December 17, 1938 by Otto Hahn and his assistant Fritz Strassmann, and explained theoretically in January 1939 by Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Robert Frisch. Frisch
named the process by analogy with biological fission of living cells. It is an exothermic reaction which can release
large amounts of energy both as electromagnetic radiation and as kinetic energy of the fragments (heating the bulk
material where fission takes place). In order for fission to produce energy, the total binding energy of the resulting
elements must be less negative (higher energy) than that of the starting element.
Fission is a form of nuclear transmutation because the resulting fragments are not the same element as the original
atom. The two nuclei produced are most often of comparable but slightly different sizes, typically with a mass ratio
of products of about 3 to 2, for common fissile isotopes.[1][2] Most fissions are binary fissions (producing two charged
fragments), but occasionally (2 to 4 times per 1000 events), three positively charged fragments are produced, in a
ternary fission. The smallest of these fragments in ternary processes ranges in size from a proton to an argon nucleus.
Fission as encountered in the modern world is usually a deliberately produced man-made nuclear reaction induced by a
neutron. It is less commonly encountered as a natural form of spontaneous radioactive decay (not requiring a neutron),
occurring especially in very high-mass-number isotopes. The unpredictable composition of the products (which
vary in a broad probabilistic and somewhat chaotic manner) distinguishes fission from purely quantum-tunnelling
processes such as proton emission, alpha decay and cluster decay, which give the same products each time. Nuclear
fission produces energy for nuclear power and drives the explosion of nuclear weapons. Both uses are possible because
certain substances called nuclear fuels undergo fission when struck by fission neutrons, and in turn emit neutrons when
they break apart. This makes possible a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction that releases energy at a controlled rate
in a nuclear reactor or at a very rapid uncontrolled rate in a nuclear weapon.
The amount of free energy contained in nuclear fuel is millions of times the amount of free energy contained in a
similar mass of chemical fuel such as gasoline, making nuclear fission a very dense source of energy. The products
of nuclear fission, however, are on average far more radioactive than the heavy elements which are normally fissioned
as fuel, and remain so for significant amounts of time, giving rise to a nuclear waste problem. Concerns over nuclear
waste accumulation and over the destructive potential of nuclear weapons may counterbalance the desirable qualities
of fission as an energy source, and give rise to ongoing political debate over nuclear power.

2.1 Physical overview
2.1.1

Mechanism

Nuclear fission can occur without neutron bombardment as a type of radioactive decay. This type of fission (called
spontaneous fission) is rare except in a few heavy isotopes. In engineered nuclear devices, essentially all nuclear fission
occurs as a "nuclear reaction" — a bombardment-driven process that results from the collision of two subatomic
46

2.1. PHYSICAL OVERVIEW

47

particles. In nuclear reactions, a subatomic particle collides with an atomic nucleus and causes changes to it. Nuclear
reactions are thus driven by the mechanics of bombardment, not by the relatively constant exponential decay and
half-life characteristic of spontaneous radioactive processes.
Many types of nuclear reactions are currently known. Nuclear fission differs importantly from other types of nuclear
reactions, in that it can be amplified and sometimes controlled via a nuclear chain reaction (one type of general chain
reaction). In such a reaction, free neutrons released by each fission event can trigger yet more events, which in turn
release more neutrons and cause more fissions.
The chemical element isotopes that can sustain a fission chain reaction are called nuclear fuels, and are said to be
fissile. The most common nuclear fuels are 235 U (the isotope of uranium with an atomic mass of 235 and of use in
nuclear reactors) and 239 Pu (the isotope of plutonium with an atomic mass of 239). These fuels break apart into a
bimodal range of chemical elements with atomic masses centering near 95 and 135 u (fission products). Most nuclear
fuels undergo spontaneous fission only very slowly, decaying instead mainly via an alpha/beta decay chain over periods
of millennia to eons. In a nuclear reactor or nuclear weapon, the overwhelming majority of fission events are induced
by bombardment with another particle, a neutron, which is itself produced by prior fission events.
Nuclear fissions in fissile fuels are the result of the nuclear excitation energy produced when a fissile nucleus captures
a neutron. This energy, resulting from the neutron capture, is a result of the attractive nuclear force acting between
the neutron and nucleus. It is enough to deform the nucleus into a double-lobed “drop,” to the point that nuclear
fragments exceed the distances at which the nuclear force can hold two groups of charged nucleons together, and
when this happens, the two fragments complete their separation and then are driven further apart by their mutually
repulsive charges, in a process which becomes irreversible with greater and greater distance. A similar process occurs
in fissionable isotopes (such as uranium-238), but in order to fission, these isotopes require additional energy provided
by fast neutrons (such as those produced by nuclear fusion in thermonuclear weapons).
The liquid drop model of the atomic nucleus predicts equal-sized fission products as an outcome of nuclear deformation. The more sophisticated nuclear shell model is needed to mechanistically explain the route to the more
energetically favorable outcome, in which one fission product is slightly smaller than the other. A theory of the fission
based on shell model has been formulated by Maria Goeppert Mayer.
The most common fission process is binary fission, and it produces the fission products noted above, at 95±15 and
135±15 u. However, the binary process happens merely because it is the most probable. In anywhere from 2 to 4
fissions per 1000 in a nuclear reactor, a process called ternary fission produces three positively charged fragments
(plus neutrons) and the smallest of these may range from so small a charge and mass as a proton (Z=1), to as large
a fragment as argon (Z=18). The most common small fragments, however, are composed of 90% helium-4 nuclei
with more energy than alpha particles from alpha decay (so-called “long range alphas” at ~ 16 MeV), plus helium-6
nuclei, and tritons (the nuclei of tritium). The ternary process is less common, but still ends up producing significant
helium-4 and tritium gas buildup in the fuel rods of modern nuclear reactors.[3]

2.1.2

Energetics

Input
The fission of a heavy nucleus requires a total input energy of about 7 to 8 million electron volts (MeV) to initially
overcome the strong force which holds the nucleus into a spherical or nearly spherical shape, and from there, deform
it into a two-lobed (“peanut”) shape in which the lobes are able to continue to separate from each other, pushed by
their mutual positive charge, in the most common process of binary fission (two positively charged fission products +
neutrons). Once the nuclear lobes have been pushed to a critical distance, beyond which the short range strong force
can no longer hold them together, the process of their separation proceeds from the energy of the (longer range)
electromagnetic repulsion between the fragments. The result is two fission fragments moving away from each other,
at high energy.
About 6 MeV of the fission-input energy is supplied by the simple binding of an extra neutron to the heavy nucleus via
the strong force; however, in many fissionable isotopes, this amount of energy is not enough for fission. Uranium-238,
for example, has a near-zero fission cross section for neutrons of less than one MeV energy. If no additional energy
is supplied by any other mechanism, the nucleus will not fission, but will merely absorb the neutron, as happens when
U-238 absorbs slow and even some fraction of fast neutrons, to become U-239. The remaining energy to initiate
fission can be supplied by two other mechanisms: one of these is more kinetic energy of the incoming neutron, which
is increasingly able to fission a fissionable heavy nucleus as it exceeds a kinetic energy of one MeV or more (socalled fast neutrons). Such high energy neutrons are able to fission U-238 directly (see thermonuclear weapon for

48

CHAPTER 2. NUCLEAR FISSION

application, where the fast neutrons are supplied by nuclear fusion). However, this process cannot happen to a great
extent in a nuclear reactor, as too small a fraction of the fission neutrons produced by any type of fission have enough
energy to efficiently fission U-238 (fission neutrons have a mode energy of 2 MeV, but a median of only 0.75 MeV,
meaning half of them have less than this insufficient energy).[4]
Among the heavy actinide elements, however, those isotopes that have an odd number of neutrons (such as U-235
with 143 neutrons) bind an extra neutron with an additional 1 to 2 MeV of energy over an isotope of the same element
with an even number of neutrons (such as U-238 with 146 neutrons). This extra binding energy is made available
as a result of the mechanism of neutron pairing effects. This extra energy results from the Pauli exclusion principle
allowing an extra neutron to occupy the same nuclear orbital as the last neutron in the nucleus, so that the two form
a pair. In such isotopes, therefore, no neutron kinetic energy is needed, for all the necessary energy is supplied by
absorption of any neutron, either of the slow or fast variety (the former are used in moderated nuclear reactors, and
the latter are used in fast neutron reactors, and in weapons). As noted above, the subgroup of fissionable elements
that may be fissioned efficiently with their own fission neutrons (thus potentially causing a nuclear chain reaction
in relatively small amounts of the pure material) are termed "fissile.” Examples of fissile isotopes are U-235 and
plutonium-239.

Output
Typical fission events release about two hundred million eV (200 MeV) of energy for each fission event. The exact
isotope which is fissioned, and whether or not it is fissionable or fissile, has only a small impact on the amount of
energy released. This can be easily seen by examining the curve of binding energy (image below), and noting that the
average binding energy of the actinide nuclides beginning with uranium is around 7.6 MeV per nucleon. Looking
further left on the curve of binding energy, where the fission products cluster, it is easily observed that the binding
energy of the fission products tends to center around 8.5 MeV per nucleon. Thus, in any fission event of an isotope
in the actinide’s range of mass, roughly 0.9 MeV is released per nucleon of the starting element. The fission of U235
by a slow neutron yields nearly identical energy to the fission of U238 by a fast neutron. This energy release profile
holds true for thorium and the various minor actinides as well.[5]
By contrast, most chemical oxidation reactions (such as burning coal or TNT) release at most a few eV per event.
So, nuclear fuel contains at least ten million times more usable energy per unit mass than does chemical fuel. The
energy of nuclear fission is released as kinetic energy of the fission products and fragments, and as electromagnetic
radiation in the form of gamma rays; in a nuclear reactor, the energy is converted to heat as the particles and gamma
rays collide with the atoms that make up the reactor and its working fluid, usually water or occasionally heavy water
or molten salts.
When a uranium nucleus fissions into two daughter nuclei fragments, about 0.1 percent of the mass of the uranium
nucleus[6] appears as the fission energy of ~200 MeV. For uranium-235 (total mean fission energy 202.5 MeV),
typically ~169 MeV appears as the kinetic energy of the daughter nuclei, which fly apart at about 3% of the speed of
light, due to Coulomb repulsion. Also, an average of 2.5 neutrons are emitted, with a mean kinetic energy per neutron
of ~2 MeV (total of 4.8 MeV).[7] The fission reaction also releases ~7 MeV in prompt gamma ray photons. The latter
figure means that a nuclear fission explosion or criticality accident emits about 3.5% of its energy as gamma rays, less
than 2.5% of its energy as fast neutrons (total of both types of radiation ~ 6%), and the rest as kinetic energy of fission
fragments (this appears almost immediately when the fragments impact surrounding matter, as simple heat). In an
atomic bomb, this heat may serve to raise the temperature of the bomb core to 100 million kelvin and cause secondary
emission of soft X-rays, which convert some of this energy to ionizing radiation. However, in nuclear reactors, the
fission fragment kinetic energy remains as low-temperature heat, which itself causes little or no ionization.
So-called neutron bombs (enhanced radiation weapons) have been constructed which release a larger fraction of their
energy as ionizing radiation (specifically, neutrons), but these are all thermonuclear devices which rely on the nuclear
fusion stage to produce the extra radiation. The energy dynamics of pure fission bombs always remain at about 6%
yield of the total in radiation, as a prompt result of fission.
The total prompt fission energy amounts to about 181 MeV, or ~ 89% of the total energy which is eventually released
by fission over time. The remaining ~ 11% is released in beta decays which have various half-lives, but begin as
a process in the fission products immediately; and in delayed gamma emissions associated with these beta decays.
For example, in uranium-235 this delayed energy is divided into about 6.5 MeV in betas, 8.8 MeV in antineutrinos
(released at the same time as the betas), and finally, an additional 6.3 MeV in delayed gamma emission from the
excited beta-decay products (for a mean total of ~10 gamma ray emissions per fission, in all). Thus, about 6.5% of
the total energy of fission is released some time after the event, as non-prompt or delayed ionizing radiation, and the

2.1. PHYSICAL OVERVIEW

49

delayed ionizing energy is about evenly divided between gamma and beta ray energy.
In a reactor that has been operating for some time, the radioactive fission products will have built up to steady state
concentrations such that their rate of decay is equal to their rate of formation, so that their fractional total contribution
to reactor heat (via beta decay) is the same as these radioisotopic fractional contributions to the energy of fission.
Under these conditions, the 6.5% of fission which appears as delayed ionizing radiation (delayed gammas and betas
from radioactive fission products) contributes to the steady-state reactor heat production under power. It is this output
fraction which remains when the reactor is suddenly shut down (undergoes scram). For this reason, the reactor decay
heat output begins at 6.5% of the full reactor steady state fission power, once the reactor is shut down. However,
within hours, due to decay of these isotopes, the decay power output is far less. See decay heat for detail.
The remainder of the delayed energy (8.8 MeV/202.5 MeV = 4.3% of total fission energy) is emitted as antineutrinos,
which as a practical matter, are not considered “ionizing radiation.” The reason is that energy released as antineutrinos
is not captured by the reactor material as heat, and escapes directly through all materials (including the Earth) at nearly
the speed of light, and into interplanetary space (the amount absorbed is minuscule). Neutrino radiation is ordinarily
not classed as ionizing radiation, because it is almost entirely not absorbed and therefore does not produce effects
(although the very rare neutrino event is ionizing). Almost all of the rest of the radiation (6.5% delayed beta and
gamma radiation) is eventually converted to heat in a reactor core or its shielding.
Some processes involving neutrons are notable for absorbing or finally yielding energy — for example neutron kinetic
energy does not yield heat immediately if the neutron is captured by a uranium-238 atom to breed plutonium-239, but
this energy is emitted if the plutonium-239 is later fissioned. On the other hand, so-called delayed neutrons emitted
as radioactive decay products with half-lives up to several minutes, from fission-daughters, are very important to
reactor control, because they give a characteristic “reaction” time for the total nuclear reaction to double in size, if
the reaction is run in a "delayed-critical" zone which deliberately relies on these neutrons for a supercritical chainreaction (one in which each fission cycle yields more neutrons than it absorbs). Without their existence, the nuclear
chain-reaction would be prompt critical and increase in size faster than it could be controlled by human intervention.
In this case, the first experimental atomic reactors would have run away to a dangerous and messy “prompt critical
reaction” before their operators could have manually shut them down (for this reason, designer Enrico Fermi included
radiation-counter-triggered control rods, suspended by electromagnets, which could automatically drop into the center
of Chicago Pile-1). If these delayed neutrons are captured without producing fissions, they produce heat as well.[8]

2.1.3

Product nuclei and binding energy

Main articles: fission product and fission product yield
In fission there is a preference to yield fragments with even proton numbers, which is called the odd-even effect on
the fragments charge distribution. However, no odd-even effect is observed on fragment mass number distribution.
This result is attributed to nucleon pair breaking.
In nuclear fission events the nuclei may break into any combination of lighter nuclei, but the most common event is
not fission to equal mass nuclei of about mass 120; the most common event (depending on isotope and process) is a
slightly unequal fission in which one daughter nucleus has a mass of about 90 to 100 u and the other the remaining
130 to 140 u.[9] Unequal fissions are energetically more favorable because this allows one product to be closer to the
energetic minimum near mass 60 u (only a quarter of the average fissionable mass), while the other nucleus with mass
135 u is still not far out of the range of the most tightly bound nuclei (another statement of this, is that the atomic
binding energy curve is slightly steeper to the left of mass 120 u than to the right of it).

2.1.4

Origin of the active energy and the curve of binding energy

Nuclear fission of heavy elements produces energy because the specific binding energy (binding energy per mass) of
intermediate-mass nuclei with atomic numbers and atomic masses close to 62 Ni and 56 Fe is greater than the nucleonspecific binding energy of very heavy nuclei, so that energy is released when heavy nuclei are broken apart. The total
rest masses of the fission products (Mp) from a single reaction is less than the mass of the original fuel nucleus (M).
The excess mass Δm = M – Mp is the invariant mass of the energy that is released as photons (gamma rays) and
kinetic energy of the fission fragments, according to the mass-energy equivalence formula E = mc2 .
The variation in specific binding energy with atomic number is due to the interplay of the two fundamental forces
acting on the component nucleons (protons and neutrons) that make up the nucleus. Nuclei are bound by an attractive

50

CHAPTER 2. NUCLEAR FISSION

nuclear force between nucleons, which overcomes the electrostatic repulsion between protons. However, the nuclear
force acts only over relatively short ranges (a few nucleon diameters), since it follows an exponentially decaying
Yukawa potential which makes it insignificant at longer distances. The electrostatic repulsion is of longer range, since
it decays by an inverse-square rule, so that nuclei larger than about 12 nucleons in diameter reach a point that the
total electrostatic repulsion overcomes the nuclear force and causes them to be spontaneously unstable. For the same
reason, larger nuclei (more than about eight nucleons in diameter) are less tightly bound per unit mass than are smaller
nuclei; breaking a large nucleus into two or more intermediate-sized nuclei releases energy. The origin of this energy
is the nuclear force, which intermediate-sized nuclei allows to act more efficiently, because each nucleon has more
neighbors which are within the short range attraction of this force. Thus less energy is needed in the smaller nuclei
and the difference to the state before is set free.
Also because of the short range of the strong binding force, large stable nuclei must contain proportionally more
neutrons than do the lightest elements, which are most stable with a 1 to 1 ratio of protons and neutrons. Nuclei
which have more than 20 protons cannot be stable unless they have more than an equal number of neutrons. Extra
neutrons stabilize heavy elements because they add to strong-force binding (which acts between all nucleons) without
adding to proton–proton repulsion. Fission products have, on average, about the same ratio of neutrons and protons
as their parent nucleus, and are therefore usually unstable to beta decay (which changes neutrons to protons) because
they have proportionally too many neutrons compared to stable isotopes of similar mass.
This tendency for fission product nuclei to beta-decay is the fundamental cause of the problem of radioactive high level
waste from nuclear reactors. Fission products tend to be beta emitters, emitting fast-moving electrons to conserve
electric charge, as excess neutrons convert to protons in the fission-product atoms. See Fission products (by element)
for a description of fission products sorted by element.

2.1.5

Chain reactions

Main article: Nuclear chain reaction
Several heavy elements, such as uranium, thorium, and plutonium, undergo both spontaneous fission, a form of
radioactive decay and induced fission, a form of nuclear reaction. Elemental isotopes that undergo induced fission
when struck by a free neutron are called fissionable; isotopes that undergo fission when struck by a thermal, slow
moving neutron are also called fissile. A few particularly fissile and readily obtainable isotopes (notably 233 U, 235 U
and 239 Pu) are called nuclear fuels because they can sustain a chain reaction and can be obtained in large enough
quantities to be useful.
All fissionable and fissile isotopes undergo a small amount of spontaneous fission which releases a few free neutrons
into any sample of nuclear fuel. Such neutrons would escape rapidly from the fuel and become a free neutron, with a
mean lifetime of about 15 minutes before decaying to protons and beta particles. However, neutrons almost invariably
impact and are absorbed by other nuclei in the vicinity long before this happens (newly created fission neutrons move
at about 7% of the speed of light, and even moderated neutrons move at about 8 times the speed of sound). Some
neutrons will impact fuel nuclei and induce further fissions, releasing yet more neutrons. If enough nuclear fuel is
assembled in one place, or if the escaping neutrons are sufficiently contained, then these freshly emitted neutrons
outnumber the neutrons that escape from the assembly, and a sustained nuclear chain reaction will take place.
An assembly that supports a sustained nuclear chain reaction is called a critical assembly or, if the assembly is almost
entirely made of a nuclear fuel, a critical mass. The word “critical” refers to a cusp in the behavior of the differential
equation that governs the number of free neutrons present in the fuel: if less than a critical mass is present, then the
amount of neutrons is determined by radioactive decay, but if a critical mass or more is present, then the amount of
neutrons is controlled instead by the physics of the chain reaction. The actual mass of a critical mass of nuclear fuel
depends strongly on the geometry and surrounding materials.
Not all fissionable isotopes can sustain a chain reaction. For example, 238 U, the most abundant form of uranium, is
fissionable but not fissile: it undergoes induced fission when impacted by an energetic neutron with over 1 MeV of
kinetic energy. However, too few of the neutrons produced by 238 U fission are energetic enough to induce further
fissions in 238 U, so no chain reaction is possible with this isotope. Instead, bombarding 238 U with slow neutrons
causes it to absorb them (becoming 239 U) and decay by beta emission to 239 Np which then decays again by the same
process to 239 Pu; that process is used to manufacture 239 Pu in breeder reactors. In-situ plutonium production also
contributes to the neutron chain reaction in other types of reactors after sufficient plutonium-239 has been produced,
since plutonium-239 is also a fissile element which serves as fuel. It is estimated that up to half of the power produced
by a standard “non-breeder” reactor is produced by the fission of plutonium-239 produced in place, over the total

2.1. PHYSICAL OVERVIEW

51

life-cycle of a fuel load.
Fissionable, non-fissile isotopes can be used as fission energy source even without a chain reaction. Bombarding
238
U with fast neutrons induces fissions, releasing energy as long as the external neutron source is present. This is
an important effect in all reactors where fast neutrons from the fissile isotope can cause the fission of nearby 238 U
nuclei, which means that some small part of the 238 U is “burned-up” in all nuclear fuels, especially in fast breeder
reactors that operate with higher-energy neutrons. That same fast-fission effect is used to augment the energy released
by modern thermonuclear weapons, by jacketing the weapon with 238 U to react with neutrons released by nuclear
fusion at the center of the device.

2.1.6

Fission reactors

Critical fission reactors are the most common type of nuclear reactor. In a critical fission reactor, neutrons produced by
fission of fuel atoms are used to induce yet more fissions, to sustain a controllable amount of energy release. Devices
that produce engineered but non-self-sustaining fission reactions are subcritical fission reactors. Such devices use
radioactive decay or particle accelerators to trigger fissions.
Critical fission reactors are built for three primary purposes, which typically involve different engineering trade-offs
to take advantage of either the heat or the neutrons produced by the fission chain reaction:
• power reactors are intended to produce heat for nuclear power, either as part of a generating station or a local
power system such as a nuclear submarine.
• research reactors are intended to produce neutrons and/or activate radioactive sources for scientific, medical,
engineering, or other research purposes.
• breeder reactors are intended to produce nuclear fuels in bulk from more abundant isotopes. The better known
fast breeder reactor makes 239 Pu (a nuclear fuel) from the naturally very abundant 238 U (not a nuclear fuel).
Thermal breeder reactors previously tested using 232 Th to breed the fissile isotope 233 U (thorium fuel cycle)
continue to be studied and developed.
While, in principle, all fission reactors can act in all three capacities, in practice the tasks lead to conflicting engineering
goals and most reactors have been built with only one of the above tasks in mind. (There are several early counterexamples, such as the Hanford N reactor, now decommissioned). Power reactors generally convert the kinetic energy
of fission products into heat, which is used to heat a working fluid and drive a heat engine that generates mechanical
or electrical power. The working fluid is usually water with a steam turbine, but some designs use other materials such
as gaseous helium. Research reactors produce neutrons that are used in various ways, with the heat of fission being
treated as an unavoidable waste product. Breeder reactors are a specialized form of research reactor, with the caveat
that the sample being irradiated is usually the fuel itself, a mixture of 238 U and 235 U. For a more detailed description
of the physics and operating principles of critical fission reactors, see nuclear reactor physics. For a description of
their social, political, and environmental aspects, see nuclear power.

2.1.7

Fission bombs

One class of nuclear weapon, a fission bomb (not to be confused with the fusion bomb), otherwise known as an atomic
bomb or atom bomb, is a fission reactor designed to liberate as much energy as possible as rapidly as possible, before
the released energy causes the reactor to explode (and the chain reaction to stop). Development of nuclear weapons
was the motivation behind early research into nuclear fission: the Manhattan Project of the U.S. military during World
War II carried out most of the early scientific work on fission chain reactions, culminating in the Trinity test bomb
and the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs that were exploded over the cities Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, Japan in August
1945.
Even the first fission bombs were thousands of times more explosive than a comparable mass of chemical explosive.
For example, Little Boy weighed a total of about four tons (of which 60 kg was nuclear fuel) and was 11 feet (3.4
m) long; it also yielded an explosion equivalent to about 15 kilotons of TNT, destroying a large part of the city of
Hiroshima. Modern nuclear weapons (which include a thermonuclear fusion as well as one or more fission stages)
are hundreds of times more energetic for their weight than the first pure fission atomic bombs (see nuclear weapon
yield), so that a modern single missile warhead bomb weighing less than 1/8 as much as Little Boy (see for example
W88) has a yield of 475,000 tons of TNT, and could bring destruction to about 10 times the city area.

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While the fundamental physics of the fission chain reaction in a nuclear weapon is similar to the physics of a controlled
nuclear reactor, the two types of device must be engineered quite differently (see nuclear reactor physics). A nuclear
bomb is designed to release all its energy at once, while a reactor is designed to generate a steady supply of useful
power. While overheating of a reactor can lead to, and has led to, meltdown and steam explosions, the much lower
uranium enrichment makes it impossible for a nuclear reactor to explode with the same destructive power as a nuclear
weapon. It is also difficult to extract useful power from a nuclear bomb, although at least one rocket propulsion system,
Project Orion, was intended to work by exploding fission bombs behind a massively padded and shielded spacecraft.
The strategic importance of nuclear weapons is a major reason why the technology of nuclear fission is politically
sensitive. Viable fission bomb designs are, arguably, within the capabilities of many being relatively simple from an
engineering viewpoint. However, the difficulty of obtaining fissile nuclear material to realize the designs, is the key
to the relative unavailability of nuclear weapons to all but modern industrialized governments with special programs
to produce fissile materials (see uranium enrichment and nuclear fuel cycle).

2.2 History
2.2.1

Discovery of nuclear fission

The discovery of nuclear fission occurred in 1938 in the buildings of Kaiser Wilhelm Society for Chemistry, today
part of the Free University of Berlin, following nearly five decades of work on the science of radioactivity and the
elaboration of new nuclear physics that described the components of atoms. In 1911, Ernest Rutherford proposed a
model of the atom in which a very small, dense and positively charged nucleus of protons (the neutron had not yet been
discovered) was surrounded by orbiting, negatively charged electrons (the Rutherford model).[11] Niels Bohr improved
upon this in 1913 by reconciling the quantum behavior of electrons (the Bohr model). Work by Henri Becquerel,
Marie Curie, Pierre Curie, and Rutherford further elaborated that the nucleus, though tightly bound, could undergo
different forms of radioactive decay, and thereby transmute into other elements. (For example, by alpha decay: the
emission of an alpha particle—two protons and two neutrons bound together into a particle identical to a helium
nucleus.)
Some work in nuclear transmutation had been done. In 1917, Rutherford was able to accomplish transmutation of
nitrogen into oxygen, using alpha particles directed at nitrogen 14 N + α → 17 O + p. This was the first observation
of a nuclear reaction, that is, a reaction in which particles from one decay are used to transform another atomic
nucleus. Eventually, in 1932, a fully artificial nuclear reaction and nuclear transmutation was achieved by Rutherford’s
colleagues Ernest Walton and John Cockcroft, who used artificially accelerated protons against lithium-7, to split this
nucleus into two alpha particles. The feat was popularly known as “splitting the atom”, although it was not the modern
nuclear fission reaction later discovered in heavy elements, which is discussed below.[12] Meanwhile, the possibility
of combining nuclei—nuclear fusion—had been studied in connection with understanding the processes which power
stars. The first artificial fusion reaction had been achieved by Mark Oliphant in 1932, using two accelerated deuterium
nuclei (each consisting of a single proton bound to a single neutron) to create a helium nucleus.[13]
After English physicist James Chadwick discovered the neutron in 1932,[14] Enrico Fermi and his colleagues in
Rome studied the results of bombarding uranium with neutrons in 1934.[15] Fermi concluded that his experiments
had created new elements with 93 and 94 protons, which the group dubbed ausonium and hesperium. However, not
all were convinced by Fermi’s analysis of his results. The German chemist Ida Noddack notably suggested in print in
1934 that instead of creating a new, heavier element 93, that “it is conceivable that the nucleus breaks up into several
large fragments.”[16][17] However, Noddack’s conclusion was not pursued at the time.
After the Fermi publication, Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, and Fritz Strassmann began performing similar experiments
in Berlin. Meitner, an Austrian Jew, lost her citizenship with the "Anschluss", the occupation and annexation of
Austria into Nazi Germany in March 1938, but she fled in July 1938 to Sweden and started a correspondence by
mail with Hahn in Berlin. By coincidence, her nephew Otto Robert Frisch, also a refugee, was also in Sweden when
Meitner received a letter from Hahn dated 19 December describing his chemical proof that some of the product of
the bombardment of uranium with neutrons was barium. Hahn suggested a bursting of the nucleus, but he was unsure
of what the physical basis for the results were. Barium had an atomic mass 40% less than uranium, and no previously
known methods of radioactive decay could account for such a large difference in the mass of the nucleus. Frisch was
skeptical, but Meitner trusted Hahn’s ability as a chemist. Marie Curie had been separating barium from radium for
many years, and the techniques were well-known. According to Frisch:
Was it a mistake? No, said Lise Meitner; Hahn was too good a chemist for that. But how could

2.2. HISTORY

53

barium be formed from uranium? No larger fragments than protons or helium nuclei (alpha particles)
had ever been chipped away from nuclei, and to chip off a large number not nearly enough energy was
available. Nor was it possible that the uranium nucleus could have been cleaved right across. A nucleus
was not like a brittle solid that can be cleaved or broken; George Gamow had suggested early on, and Bohr
had given good arguments that a nucleus was much more like a liquid drop. Perhaps a drop could divide
itself into two smaller drops in a more gradual manner, by first becoming elongated, then constricted,
and finally being torn rather than broken in two? We knew that there were strong forces that would
resist such a process, just as the surface tension of an ordinary liquid drop tends to resist its division into
two smaller ones. But nuclei differed from ordinary drops in one important way: they were electrically
charged, and that was known to counteract the surface tension.
The charge of a uranium nucleus, we found, was indeed large enough to overcome the effect of the
surface tension almost completely; so the uranium nucleus might indeed resemble a very wobbly unstable
drop, ready to divide itself at the slightest provocation, such as the impact of a single neutron. But there
was another problem. After separation, the two drops would be driven apart by their mutual electric
repulsion and would acquire high speed and hence a very large energy, about 200 MeV in all; where
could that energy come from? ...Lise Meitner... worked out that the two nuclei formed by the division
of a uranium nucleus together would be lighter than the original uranium nucleus by about one-fifth the
mass of a proton. Now whenever mass disappears energy is created, according to Einstein’s formula
E=mc2 , and one-fifth of a proton mass was just equivalent to 200MeV. So here was the source for that
energy; it all fitted![18]
In short, Meitner and Frisch had correctly interpreted Hahn’s results to mean that the nucleus of uranium had split
roughly in half. Frisch suggested the process be named “nuclear fission,” by analogy to the process of living cell
division into two cells, which was then called binary fission. Just as the term nuclear “chain reaction” would later be
borrowed from chemistry, so the term “fission” was borrowed from biology.
On 22 December 1938, Hahn and Strassmann sent a manuscript to Naturwissenschaften reporting that they had discovered the element barium after bombarding uranium with neutrons.[19] Simultaneously, they communicated these
results to Meitner in Sweden. She and Frisch correctly interpreted the results as evidence of nuclear fission.[20] Frisch
confirmed this experimentally on 13 January 1939.[21][22] For proving that the barium resulting from his bombardment of uranium with neutrons was the product of nuclear fission, Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry
in 1944 (the sole recipient) “for his discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei”. (The award was actually given to Hahn
in 1945, as “the Nobel Committee for Chemistry decided that none of the year’s nominations met the criteria as outlined in the will of Alfred Nobel.” In such cases, the Nobel Foundation's statutes permit that year’s prize be reserved
until the following year.)[23]
News spread quickly of the new discovery, which was correctly seen as an entirely novel physical effect with great
scientific—and potentially practical—possibilities. Meitner’s and Frisch’s interpretation of the discovery of Hahn
and Strassmann crossed the Atlantic Ocean with Niels Bohr, who was to lecture at Princeton University. I.I. Rabi
and Willis Lamb, two Columbia University physicists working at Princeton, heard the news and carried it back to
Columbia. Rabi said he told Enrico Fermi; Fermi gave credit to Lamb. Bohr soon thereafter went from Princeton to
Columbia to see Fermi. Not finding Fermi in his office, Bohr went down to the cyclotron area and found Herbert L.
Anderson. Bohr grabbed him by the shoulder and said: “Young man, let me explain to you about something new and
exciting in physics.”[24] It was clear to a number of scientists at Columbia that they should try to detect the energy
released in the nuclear fission of uranium from neutron bombardment. On 25 January 1939, a Columbia University
team conducted the first nuclear fission experiment in the United States,[25] which was done in the basement of
Pupin Hall; the members of the team were Herbert L. Anderson, Eugene T. Booth, John R. Dunning, Enrico Fermi,
G. Norris Glasoe, and Francis G. Slack. The experiment involved placing uranium oxide inside of an ionization
chamber and irradiating it with neutrons, and measuring the energy thus released. The results confirmed that fission
was occurring and hinted strongly that it was the isotope uranium 235 in particular that was fissioning. The next day,
the Fifth Washington Conference on Theoretical Physics began in Washington, D.C. under the joint auspices of the
George Washington University and the Carnegie Institution of Washington. There, the news on nuclear fission was
spread even further, which fostered many more experimental demonstrations.[26]
During this period the Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd, who was residing in the United States at the time, realized
that the neutron-driven fission of heavy atoms could be used to create a nuclear chain reaction. Such a reaction
using neutrons was an idea he had first formulated in 1933, upon reading Rutherford’s disparaging remarks about
generating power from his team’s 1932 experiment using protons to split lithium. However, Szilárd had not been
able to achieve a neutron-driven chain reaction with neutron-rich light atoms. In theory, if in a neutron-driven chain

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CHAPTER 2. NUCLEAR FISSION

reaction the number of secondary neutrons produced was greater than one, then each such reaction could trigger
multiple additional reactions, producing an exponentially increasing number of reactions. It was thus a possibility
that the fission of uranium could yield vast amounts of energy for civilian or military purposes (i.e., electric power
generation or atomic bombs).
Szilard now urged Fermi (in New York) and Frédéric Joliot-Curie (in Paris) to refrain from publishing on the possibility of a chain reaction, lest the Nazi government become aware of the possibilities on the eve of what would
later be known as World War II. With some hesitation Fermi agreed to self-censor. But Joliot-Curie did not, and in
April 1939 his team in Paris, including Hans von Halban and Lew Kowarski, reported in the journal Nature that the
number of neutrons emitted with nuclear fission of 235 U was then reported at 3.5 per fission.[27] (They later corrected
this to 2.6 per fission.) Simultaneous work by Szilard and Walter Zinn confirmed these results. The results suggested
the possibility of building nuclear reactors (first called “neutronic reactors” by Szilard and Fermi) and even nuclear
bombs. However, much was still unknown about fission and chain reaction systems.

2.2.2

Fission chain reaction realized

"Chain reactions" at that time were a known phenomenon in chemistry, but the analogous process in nuclear physics,
using neutrons, had been foreseen as early as 1933 by Szilárd, although Szilárd at that time had no idea with what
materials the process might be initiated. Szilárd considered that neutrons would be ideal for such a situation, since
they lacked an electrostatic charge.
With the news of fission neutrons from uranium fission, Szilárd immediately understood the possibility of a nuclear
chain reaction using uranium. In the summer, Fermi and Szilard proposed the idea of a nuclear reactor (pile) to
mediate this process. The pile would use natural uranium as fuel. Fermi had shown much earlier that neutrons were
far more effectively captured by atoms if they were of low energy (so-called “slow” or “thermal” neutrons), because
for quantum reasons it made the atoms look like much larger targets to the neutrons. Thus to slow down the secondary
neutrons released by the fissioning uranium nuclei, Fermi and Szilard proposed a graphite “moderator,” against which
the fast, high-energy secondary neutrons would collide, effectively slowing them down. With enough uranium, and
with pure-enough graphite, their “pile” could theoretically sustain a slow-neutron chain reaction. This would result in
the production of heat, as well as the creation of radioactive fission products.
In August 1939, Szilard and fellow Hungarian refugees physicists Teller and Wigner thought that the Germans might
make use of the fission chain reaction and were spurred to attempt to attract the attention of the United States government to the issue. Towards this, they persuaded German-Jewish refugee Albert Einstein to lend his name to a letter
directed to President Franklin Roosevelt. The Einstein–Szilárd letter suggested the possibility of a uranium bomb
deliverable by ship, which would destroy “an entire harbor and much of the surrounding countryside.” The President
received the letter on 11 October 1939 — shortly after World War II began in Europe, but two years before U.S.
entry into it. Roosevelt ordered that a scientific committee be authorized for overseeing uranium work and allocated
a small sum of money for pile research.
In England, James Chadwick proposed an atomic bomb utilizing natural uranium, based on a paper by Rudolf Peierls
with the mass needed for critical state being 30–40 tons. In America, J. Robert Oppenheimer thought that a cube
of uranium deuteride 10 cm on a side (about 11 kg of uranium) might “blow itself to hell.” In this design it was still
thought that a moderator would need to be used for nuclear bomb fission (this turned out not to be the case if the
fissile isotope was separated). In December, Werner Heisenberg delivered a report to the German Ministry of War
on the possibility of a uranium bomb. Most of these models were still under the assumption that the bombs would
be powered by slow neutron reactions—and thus be similar to a reactor undergoing a meltdown.
In Birmingham, England, Frisch teamed up with Peierls, a fellow German-Jewish refugee. They had the idea of
using a purified mass of the uranium isotope 235 U, which had a cross section just determined, and which was much
larger than that of 238 U or natural uranium (which is 99.3% the latter isotope). Assuming that the cross section
for fast-neutron fission of 235 U was the same as for slow neutron fission, they determined that a pure 235 U bomb
could have a critical mass of only 6 kg instead of tons, and that the resulting explosion would be tremendous. (The
amount actually turned out to be 15 kg, although several times this amount was used in the actual uranium (Little
Boy) bomb). In February 1940 they delivered the Frisch–Peierls memorandum. Ironically, they were still officially
considered “enemy aliens” at the time. Glenn Seaborg, Joseph W. Kennedy, Arthur Wahl and Italian-Jewish refugee
Emilio Segrè shortly thereafter discovered 239 Pu in the decay products of 239 U produced by bombarding 238 U with
neutrons, and determined it to be a fissile material, like 235 U.
The possibility of isolating uranium-235 was technically daunting, because uranium-235 and uranium-238 are chemically identical, and vary in their mass by only the weight of three neutrons. However, if a sufficient quantity of

2.2. HISTORY

55

uranium-235 could be isolated, it would allow for a fast neutron fission chain reaction. This would be extremely
explosive, a true “atomic bomb.” The discovery that plutonium-239 could be produced in a nuclear reactor pointed
towards another approach to a fast neutron fission bomb. Both approaches were extremely novel and not yet well understood, and there was considerable scientific skepticism at the idea that they could be developed in a short amount
of time.
On June 28, 1941, the Office of Scientific Research and Development was formed in the U.S. to mobilize scientific
resources and apply the results of research to national defense. In September, Fermi assembled his first nuclear “pile”
or reactor, in an attempt to create a slow neutron-induced chain reaction in uranium, but the experiment failed to
achieve criticality, due to lack of proper materials, or not enough of the proper materials which were available.
Producing a fission chain reaction in natural uranium fuel was found to be far from trivial. Early nuclear reactors
did not use isotopically enriched uranium, and in consequence they were required to use large quantities of highly
purified graphite as neutron moderation materials. Use of ordinary water (as opposed to heavy water) in nuclear
reactors requires enriched fuel — the partial separation and relative enrichment of the rare 235 U isotope from the
far more common 238 U isotope. Typically, reactors also require inclusion of extremely chemically pure neutron
moderator materials such as deuterium (in heavy water), helium, beryllium, or carbon, the latter usually as graphite.
(The high purity for carbon is required because many chemical impurities such as the boron-10 component of natural
boron, are very strong neutron absorbers and thus poison the chain reaction and end it prematurely.)
Production of such materials at industrial scale had to be solved for nuclear power generation and weapons production
to be accomplished. Up to 1940, the total amount of uranium metal produced in the USA was not more than a few
grams, and even this was of doubtful purity; of metallic beryllium not more than a few kilograms; and concentrated
deuterium oxide (heavy water) not more than a few kilograms. Finally, carbon had never been produced in quantity
with anything like the purity required of a moderator.
The problem of producing large amounts of high purity uranium was solved by Frank Spedding using the thermite
or "Ames" process. Ames Laboratory was established in 1942 to produce the large amounts of natural (unenriched)
uranium metal that would be necessary for the research to come. The critical nuclear chain-reaction success of
the Chicago Pile-1 (December 2, 1942) which used unenriched (natural) uranium, like all of the atomic “piles”
which produced the plutonium for the atomic bomb, was also due specifically to Szilard’s realization that very pure
graphite could be used for the moderator of even natural uranium “piles”. In wartime Germany, failure to appreciate
the qualities of very pure graphite led to reactor designs dependent on heavy water, which in turn was denied the
Germans by Allied attacks in Norway, where heavy water was produced. These difficulties—among many others—
prevented the Nazis from building a nuclear reactor capable of criticality during the war, although they never put as
much effort as the United States into nuclear research, focusing on other technologies (see German nuclear energy
project for more details).

2.2.3

Manhattan Project and beyond

See also: Manhattan Project
In the United States, an all-out effort for making atomic weapons was begun in late 1942. This work was taken
over by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1943, and known as the Manhattan Engineer District. The top-secret
Manhattan Project, as it was colloquially known, was led by General Leslie R. Groves. Among the project’s dozens
of sites were: Hanford Site in Washington state, which had the first industrial-scale nuclear reactors; Oak Ridge,
Tennessee, which was primarily concerned with uranium enrichment; and Los Alamos, in New Mexico, which was the
scientific hub for research on bomb development and design. Other sites, notably the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory
and the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, played important contributing roles. Overall scientific
direction of the project was managed by the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.
In July 1945, the first atomic bomb, dubbed "Trinity", was detonated in the New Mexico desert. It was fueled by
plutonium created at Hanford. In August 1945, two more atomic bombs—"Little Boy", a uranium-235 bomb, and
"Fat Man", a plutonium bomb—were used against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In the years after World War II, many countries were involved in the further development of nuclear fission for the
purposes of nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. The UK opened the first commercial nuclear power plant in 1956.
In 2013, there are 437 reactors in 31 countries.

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2.2.4

Natural fission chain-reactors on Earth

Criticality in nature is uncommon. At three ore deposits at Oklo in Gabon, sixteen sites (the so-called Oklo Fossil
Reactors) have been discovered at which self-sustaining nuclear fission took place approximately 2 billion years ago.
Unknown until 1972 (but postulated by Paul Kuroda in 1956[28] ), when French physicist Francis Perrin discovered
the Oklo Fossil Reactors, it was realized that nature had beaten humans to the punch. Large-scale natural uranium
fission chain reactions, moderated by normal water, had occurred far in the past and would not be possible now. This
ancient process was able to use normal water as a moderator only because 2 billion years before the present, natural
uranium was richer in the shorter-lived fissile isotope 235 U (about 3%), than natural uranium available today (which
is only 0.7%, and must be enriched to 3% to be usable in light-water reactors).

2.3 See also
• Hybrid fusion/fission
• Cold fission
• Nuclear propulsion
• Photofission

2.4 Notes
[1] M. G. Arora and M. Singh (1994). Nuclear Chemistry. Anmol Publications. p. 202. ISBN 81-261-1763-X.
[2] Gopal B. Saha (1 November 2010). Fundamentals of Nuclear Pharmacy. Springer. pp. 11–. ISBN 978-1-4419-5860-0.
[3] S. Vermote, et al. (2008) “Comparative study of the ternary particle emission in 243-Cm (nth,f) and 244-Cm(SF)" in
Dynamical aspects of nuclear fission: proceedings of the 6th International Conference. J. Kliman, M. G. Itkis, S. Gmuca
(eds.). World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd. Singapore.
[4] J. Byrne (2011) Neutrons, Nuclei, and Matter, Dover Publications, Mineola, NY, p. 259, ISBN 978-0-486-48238-5.
[5] Marion Brünglinghaus. “Nuclear fission”. European Nuclear Society. Retrieved 2013-01-04.
[6] Hans A. Bethe (April 1950), “The Hydrogen Bomb”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, p. 99.
[7] These fission neutrons have a wide energy spectrum, with range from 0 to 14 MeV, with mean of 2 MeV and mode
(statistics) of 0.75 Mev. See Byrne, op. cite.
[8] “Nuclear Fission and Fusion, and Nuclear Interactions”. National Physical Laboratory. Retrieved 2013-01-04.
[9] L. Bonneau; P. Quentin. “Microscopic calculations of potential energy surfaces: fission and fusion properties”. Retrieved
2008-07-28.
[10] “Frequently Asked Questions #1”. Radiation Effects Research Foundation. Retrieved September 18, 2007.
[11] E. Rutherford (1911). “The scattering of α and β particles by matter and the structure of the atom”. Philosophical Magazine
21 (4): 669–688. Bibcode:2012PMag...92..379R. doi:10.1080/14786435.2011.617037.
[12] “Cockcroft and Walton split lithium with high energy protons April 1932”. Outreach.phy.cam.ac.uk. 1932-04-14. Retrieved 2013-01-04.
[13] “Sir Mark Oliphant (1901–2000)". University of Adelaide. Retrieved 5 October 2013.
[14] Chadwick announced his initial findings in: J. Chadwick (1932). “Possible Existence of a Neutron”. Nature 129 (3252):
312. Bibcode:1932Natur.129Q.312C. doi:10.1038/129312a0. Subsequently he communicated his findings in more detail in: Chadwick, J. (1932). “The existence of a neutron”. Proceedings of the Royal Society A 136 (830): 692–708.
Bibcode:1932RSPSA.136..692C. doi:10.1098/rspa.1932.0112.; and Chadwick, J. (1933). “The Bakerian Lecture: The
neutron”. Proceedings of the Royal Society A 142 (846): 1–25. Bibcode:1933RSPSA.142....1C. doi:10.1098/rspa.1933.0152.
[15] E. Fermi, E. Amaldi, O. D'Agostino, F. Rasetti, and E. Segrè (1934) “Radioattività provocata da bombardamento di
neutroni III,” La Ricerca Scientifica, vol. 5, no. 1, pages 452–453.

2.5. REFERENCES

57

[16] Ida Noddack (1934). "Über das Element 93”. Zeitschrift für Angewandte Chemie 47 (37): 653. doi:10.1002/ange.19340473707.
[17] Tacke, Ida Eva. Astr.ua.edu. Retrieved on 2010-12-24.
[18] Bob Weintraub. Lise Meitner (1878–1968): Protactinium, Fission, and Meitnerium. Retrieved on June 8, 2009.
[19] O. Hahn and F. Strassmann (1939). "Über den Nachweis und das Verhalten der bei der Bestrahlung des Urans mittels Neutronen entstehenden Erdalkalimetalle (“On the detection and characteristics of the alkaline earth metals formed by irradiation of uranium with neutrons”)". Naturwissenschaften 27 (1): 11–15. Bibcode:1939NW.....27...11H. doi:10.1007/BF01488241..
The authors were identified as being at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Chemie, Berlin-Dahlem. Received 22 December
1938.
[20] L. Meitner and O. R. Frisch (1939). “Disintegration of Uranium by Neutrons: a New Type of Nuclear Reaction”. Nature
143 (3615): 239. Bibcode:1939Natur.143..239M. doi:10.1038/143239a0.. The paper is dated 16 January 1939. Meitner
is identified as being at the Physical Institute, Academy of Sciences, Stockholm. Frisch is identified as being at the Institute
of Theoretical Physics, University of Copenhagen.
[21] O. R. Frisch (1939). “Physical Evidence for the Division of Heavy Nuclei under Neutron Bombardment”. Nature 143
(3616): 276. Bibcode:1939Natur.143..276F. doi:10.1038/143276a0.
[22] “Physical Evidence for the Division of Heavy Nuclei under Neutron Bombardment”. 17 January 1939. Archived from
the original on 2008-01-08. The experiment for this letter to the editor was conducted on 13 January 1939; see Richard
Rhodes (1986) The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Simon and Schuster. pp. 263 and 268, ISBN 0-671-44133-7.
[23] “The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1944”. Nobelprize.org. Retrieved 2008-10-06.
[24] Richard Rhodes. (1986) The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Simon and Schuster, p. 268, ISBN 0-671-44133-7.
[25] H. L. Anderson, E. T. Booth, J. R. Dunning, E. Fermi, G. N. Glasoe, and F. G. Slack (1939). “The Fission of Uranium”.
Physical Review 55 (5): 511. Bibcode:1939PhRv...55..511A. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.55.511.2.
[26] Richard Rhodes (1986). The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Simon and Schuster, pp. 267–270, ISBN 0-671-44133-7.
[27] H. Von Halban; F. Joliot and L. Kowarski (1939). “Number of Neutrons Liberated in the Nuclear Fission of Uranium”.
Nature 143 (3625): 680. Bibcode:1939Natur.143..680V. doi:10.1038/143680a0.
[28] P. K. Kuroda (1956). “On the Nuclear Physical Stability of the Uranium Minerals”. The Journal of Chemical Physics 25
(4): 781. Bibcode:1956JChPh..25..781K. doi:10.1063/1.1743058.

2.5 References
• DOE Fundamentals Handbook: Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory Volume 1. U.S. Department of Energy.
January 1993. Retrieved 2012-01-03.
• DOE Fundamentals Handbook: Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory Volume 2. U.S. Department of Energy.
January 1993. Retrieved 2012-01-03.

2.6 External links
• The Effects of Nuclear Weapons
• Annotated bibliography for nuclear fission from the Alsos Digital Library
• The Discovery of Nuclear Fission Historical account complete with audio and teacher’s guides from the American Institute of Physics History Center
• atomicarchive.com Nuclear Fission Explained
• Nuclear Files.org What is Nuclear Fission?
• Nuclear Fission Animation

58

CHAPTER 2. NUCLEAR FISSION

An induced fission reaction. A neutron is absorbed by a uranium-235 nucleus, turning it briefly into an excited uranium-236 nucleus,
with the excitation energy provided by the kinetic energy of the neutron plus the forces that bind the neutron. The uranium-236, in
turn, splits into fast-moving lighter elements (fission products) and releases three free neutrons. At the same time, one or more “prompt
gamma rays" (not shown) are produced, as well.

2.6. EXTERNAL LINKS

59

A visual representation of an induced nuclear fission event where a slow-moving neutron is absorbed by the nucleus of a uranium-235
atom, which fissions into two fast-moving lighter elements (fission products) and additional neutrons. Most of the energy released is
in the form of the kinetic velocities of the fission products and the neutrons.

60

CHAPTER 2. NUCLEAR FISSION

90 100
7%
U-233

Sr Zr

130 140

Tc

Pu-239
65%U
35%Pu

5%

Cs
Cs

6%
U-235
4%

3%
129

I

2%

Pd

1%
80

Sm
Sn

90

110 120

150 160

Fission product yields by mass for thermal neutron fission of U-235, Pu-239, a combination of the two typical of current nuclear
power reactors, and U-233 used in the thorium cycle.

2.6. EXTERNAL LINKS

61

62

CHAPTER 2. NUCLEAR FISSION

9

Average binding energy per nucleon (MeV)

O 16
8 C 12
7
6
5

U 235
U 238

Fe 56

He 4

Li 7
Li 6

4
3

H3
He 3

2
2
1 H
1
0 H
0

30

60

90
120
150
180
Number of nucleons in nucleus

The “curve of binding energy": A graph of binding energy per nucleon of common isotopes.

210

240

270

2.6. EXTERNAL LINKS

63

1

A schematic nuclear fission chain reaction. 1. A uranium-235 atom absorbs a neutron and fissions into two new atoms (fission
fragments), releasing three new neutrons and some binding energy. 2. One of those neutrons is absorbed by an atom of uranium238 and does not continue the reaction. Another neutron is simply lost and does not collide with anything, also not continuing the
reaction. However, one neutron does collide with an atom of uranium-235, which then fissions and releases two neutrons and some
binding energy. 3. Both of those neutrons collide with uranium-235 atoms, each of which fissions and releases between one and
three neutrons, which can then continue the reaction.

64

The cooling towers of the Philippsburg Nuclear Power Plant, in Germany.

CHAPTER 2. NUCLEAR FISSION

2.6. EXTERNAL LINKS

65

The mushroom cloud of the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan in 1945 rose some 18 kilometres (11 mi) above the bomb’s
hypocenter. The bomb killed at least 60,000 people.[10]

66

CHAPTER 2. NUCLEAR FISSION

The experimental apparatus with which Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann discovered nuclear fission in 1938

German stamp honoring Otto Hahn and his discovery of nuclear fission (1979)

2.6. EXTERNAL LINKS

Drawing of the first artificial reactor, Chicago Pile-1.

67

Chapter 3

Nuclear fusion

The Sun is a main-sequence star, and thus generates its energy by nuclear fusion of hydrogen nuclei into helium. In its core, the Sun
fuses 620 million metric tons of hydrogen each second.

In nuclear physics, nuclear fusion is a nuclear reaction in which two or more atomic nuclei collide at a very high
speed and join to form a new type of atomic nucleus. During this process, matter is not conserved because some of
the matter of the fusing nuclei is converted to photons (energy). Fusion is the process that powers active or "main
sequence" stars.
68

3.1. OVERVIEW

69

The fusion of two nuclei with lower masses than iron (which, along with nickel, has the largest binding energy per
nucleon) generally releases energy, while the fusion of nuclei heavier than iron absorbs energy. The opposite is true
for the reverse process, nuclear fission. This means that fusion generally occurs for lighter elements only, and likewise,
that fission normally occurs only for heavier elements. There are extreme astrophysical events that can lead to short
periods of fusion with heavier nuclei. This is the process that gives rise to nucleosynthesis, the creation of the heavy
elements during events such as supernova. Following the discovery of quantum tunneling by Friedrich Hund, in 1929
Robert Atkinson and Fritz Houtermans used the measured masses of light elements to predict that large amounts
of energy could be released by fusing small nuclei. Building upon the nuclear transmutation experiments by Ernest
Rutherford, carried out several years earlier, the laboratory fusion of hydrogen isotopes was first accomplished by
Mark Oliphant in 1932. During the remainder of that decade the steps of the main cycle of nuclear fusion in stars
were worked out by Hans Bethe. Research into fusion for military purposes began in the early 1940s as part of the
Manhattan Project. Fusion was accomplished in 1951 with the Greenhouse Item nuclear test. Nuclear fusion on a
large scale in an explosion was first carried out on November 1, 1952, in the Ivy Mike hydrogen bomb test.
Research into developing controlled thermonuclear fusion for civil purposes also began in earnest in the 1950s, and
it continues to this day. Two projects, the National Ignition Facility and ITER, have the goal of high gains, that
is, producing more energy than required to ignite the reaction, after 60 years of design improvements developed
from previous experiments. While these ICF and Tokamak designs became popular in recent times, experiments
with Stellarators are gaining international scientific attention again, like Wendelstein 7-X in Greifswald, Germany.
Lockheed Martin is currently investigating a 100 MW reactor concept that should be sensibly smaller in size compared
to a Tokamak.[1] The same manufacturer admits that the design of this smaller reactor is still at a very early stage,
and to date no prototype has been built, although, according to the researchers behind this project, all the physics
involved has already been proved. No technical detail of the new design has been published or revealed, bringing
some skepticism about the real feasibility of such a reactor.[2]

3.1 Overview
The origin of the energy released in fusion of light elements is due to an interplay of two opposing forces, the nuclear
force which combines together protons and neutrons, and the Coulomb force which causes protons to repel each
other. The protons are positively charged and repel each other but they nonetheless stick together, demonstrating the
existence of another force referred to as nuclear attraction. This force, called the strong nuclear force, overcomes
electric repulsion in a very close range. The effect of this force is not observed outside the nucleus, hence the force
has a strong dependence on distance, making it a short-range force. The same force also pulls the neutrons together,
or neutrons and protons together.[4] Because the nuclear force is stronger than the Coulomb force for atomic nuclei
smaller than iron and nickel, building up these nuclei from lighter nuclei by fusion releases the extra energy from the
net attraction of these particles. For larger nuclei, however, no energy is released, since the nuclear force is shortrange and cannot continue to act across still larger atomic nuclei. Thus, energy is no longer released when such nuclei
are made by fusion; instead, energy is absorbed in such processes.
Fusion reactions of light elements power the stars and produce virtually all elements in a process called nucleosynthesis.
The fusion of lighter elements in stars releases energy (and the mass that always accompanies it). For example, in
the fusion of two hydrogen nuclei to form helium, 0.7% of the mass is carried away from the system in the form of
kinetic energy or other forms of energy (such as electromagnetic radiation).[5]
Research into controlled fusion, with the aim of producing fusion power for the production of electricity, has been
conducted for over 60 years. It has been accompanied by extreme scientific and technological difficulties, but has
resulted in progress. At present, controlled fusion reactions have been unable to produce break-even (self-sustaining)
controlled fusion reactions.[6] Workable designs for a reactor that theoretically will deliver ten times more fusion
energy than the amount needed to heat up plasma to required temperatures are in development (see ITER). The
ITER facility is expected to finish its construction phase in 2019. It will start commissioning the reactor that same
year and initiate plasma experiments in 2020, but is not expected to begin full deuterium-tritium fusion until 2027.[7]
It takes considerable energy to force nuclei to fuse, even those of the lightest element, hydrogen. This is because
all nuclei have a positive charge due to their protons, and as like charges repel, nuclei strongly resist being put close
together. Accelerated to high speeds, they can overcome this electrostatic repulsion and be forced close enough for
the attractive nuclear force to be sufficiently strong to achieve fusion. The fusion of lighter nuclei, which creates a
heavier nucleus and often a free neutron or proton, generally releases more energy than it takes to force the nuclei
together; this is an exothermic process that can produce self-sustaining reactions. The US National Ignition Facility,
which uses laser-driven inertial confinement fusion, is thought to be capable of break-even fusion.

70

CHAPTER 3. NUCLEAR FUSION

2

H

3

H

4

He + 3.5 MeV

n + 14.1 MeV
Fusion of deuterium with tritium creating helium-4, freeing a neutron, and releasing 17.59 MeV of energy, as an appropriate amount
of mass changing forms to appear as the kinetic energy of the products, in agreement with kinetic E = Δmc2 , where Δm is the change
in rest mass of particles.[3]

The first large-scale laser target experiments were performed in June 2009 and ignition experiments began in early
2011.[8][9]
Energy released in most nuclear reactions is much larger than in chemical reactions, because the binding energy that
holds a nucleus together is far greater than the energy that holds electrons to a nucleus. For example, the ionization
energy gained by adding an electron to a hydrogen nucleus is 13.6 eV—less than one-millionth of the 17.6 MeV
released in the deuterium–tritium (D–T) reaction shown in the diagram to the right (one gram of matter would release
339 GJ of energy). Fusion reactions have an energy density many times greater than nuclear fission; the reactions
produce far greater energy per unit of mass even though individual fission reactions are generally much more energetic
than individual fusion ones, which are themselves millions of times more energetic than chemical reactions. Only
direct conversion of mass into energy, such as that caused by the annihilatory collision of matter and antimatter, is
more energetic per unit of mass than nuclear fusion.

3.2. REQUIREMENTS

71

3.2 Requirements
Details and supporting references on the material in this section can be found in textbooks on nuclear physics or
nuclear fusion.[10]
A substantial energy barrier of electrostatic forces must be overcome before fusion can occur. At large distances, two
naked nuclei repel one another because of the repulsive electrostatic force between their positively charged protons.
If two nuclei can be brought close enough together, however, the electrostatic repulsion can be overcome by the
attractive nuclear force, which is stronger at close distances.
When a nucleon such as a proton or neutron is added to a nucleus, the nuclear force attracts it to other nucleons, but
primarily to its immediate neighbours due to the short range of the force. The nucleons in the interior of a nucleus
have more neighboring nucleons than those on the surface. Since smaller nuclei have a larger surface area-to-volume
ratio, the binding energy per nucleon due to the nuclear force generally increases with the size of the nucleus but
approaches a limiting value corresponding to that of a nucleus with a diameter of about four nucleons. It is important
to keep in mind that the above picture is a toy model because nucleons are quantum objects, and so, for example,
since two neutrons in a nucleus are identical to each other, distinguishing one from the other, such as which one is in
the interior and which is on the surface, is in fact meaningless, and the inclusion of quantum mechanics is necessary
for proper calculations.
The electrostatic force, on the other hand, is an inverse-square force, so a proton added to a nucleus will feel an
electrostatic repulsion from all the other protons in the nucleus. The electrostatic energy per nucleon due to the
electrostatic force thus increases without limit as nuclei get larger.

The electrostatic force between the positively charged nuclei is repulsive, but when the separation is small enough, the attractive
nuclear force is stronger. Therefore, the prerequisite for fusion is that the nuclei have enough kinetic energy that they can approach
each other despite the electrostatic repulsion.

The net result of these opposing forces is that the binding energy per nucleon generally increases with increasing size,
up to the elements iron and nickel, and then decreases for heavier nuclei. Eventually, the binding energy becomes
negative and very heavy nuclei (all with more than 208 nucleons, corresponding to a diameter of about 6 nucleons)
are not stable. The four most tightly bound nuclei, in decreasing order of binding energy per nucleon, are 62Ni,
58Fe, 56Fe, and 60Ni.[11] Even though the nickel isotope, 62Ni, is more stable, the iron isotope 56Fe is an order of
magnitude more common. This is due to the fact that there is no easy way for stars to create 62Ni through the alpha
process.
An exception to this general trend is the helium-4 nucleus, whose binding energy is higher than that of lithium, the
next heaviest element. This is because protons and neutrons are fermions, which according to the Pauli exclusion
principle cannot exist in the same nucleus in exactly the same state. Each proton or neutron energy state in a nucleus
can accommodate both a spin up particle and a spin down particle. Helium-4 has an anomalously large binding energy
because its nucleus consists of two protons and two neutrons, so all four of its nucleons can be in the ground state.
Any additional nucleons would have to go into higher energy states. Indeed, the helium-4 nucleus is so tightly bound
that it is commonly treated as a single particle in nuclear physics, namely, the alpha particle.

72

CHAPTER 3. NUCLEAR FUSION

The situation is similar if two nuclei are brought together. As they approach each other, all the protons in one nucleus
repel all the protons in the other. Not until the two nuclei actually come in contact can the strong nuclear force
take over. Consequently, even when the final energy state is lower, there is a large energy barrier that must first be
overcome. It is called the Coulomb barrier.
The Coulomb barrier is smallest for isotopes of hydrogen, as their nuclei contain only a single positive charge. A
diproton is not stable, so neutrons must also be involved, ideally in such a way that a helium nucleus, with its extremely
tight binding, is one of the products.
Using deuterium-tritium fuel, the resulting energy barrier is about 0.1 MeV. In comparison, the energy needed to
remove an electron from hydrogen is 13.6 eV, about 7500 times less energy. The (intermediate) result of the fusion
is an unstable 5 He nucleus, which immediately ejects a neutron with 14.1 MeV. The recoil energy of the remaining
4
He nucleus is 3.5 MeV, so the total energy liberated is 17.6 MeV. This is many times more than what was needed
to overcome the energy barrier.

The fusion reaction rate increases rapidly with temperature until it maximizes and then gradually drops off. The DT rate peaks at a
lower temperature (about 70 keV, or 800 million kelvin) and at a higher value than other reactions commonly considered for fusion
energy.

The reaction cross section σ is a measure of the probability of a fusion reaction as a function of the relative velocity
of the two reactant nuclei. If the reactants have a distribution of velocities, e.g. a thermal distribution, then it is useful
to perform an average over the distributions of the product of cross section and velocity. This average is called the
'reactivity', denoted <σv>. The reaction rate (fusions per volume per time) is <σv> times the product of the reactant
number densities:

f = n1 n2 ⟨σv⟩.
If a species of nuclei is reacting with itself, such as the DD reaction, then the product n1 n2 must be replaced by
(1/2)n2 .
⟨σv⟩ increases from virtually zero at room temperatures up to meaningful magnitudes at temperatures of 10–100 keV.
At these temperatures, well above typical ionization energies (13.6 eV in the hydrogen case), the fusion reactants exist

3.3. METHODS FOR ACHIEVING FUSION

73

in a plasma state.
The significance of ⟨σv⟩ as a function of temperature in a device with a particular energy confinement time is found
by considering the Lawson criterion. This is an extremely challenging barrier to overcome on Earth, which explains
why fusion research has taken many years to reach the current high state of technical prowess.[12]

3.3 Methods for achieving fusion
Main article: Fusion power

3.3.1

Thermonuclear fusion

Main article: Thermonuclear fusion
If the matter is sufficiently heated (hence being plasma), the fusion reaction may occur due to collisions with extreme
thermal kinetic energies of the particles. In the form of thermonuclear weapons, thermonuclear fusion is the only
fusion technique so far to yield undeniably large amounts of useful fusion energy. Usable amounts of thermonuclear
fusion energy released in a controlled manner have yet to be achieved.

3.3.2

Inertial confinement fusion

Main article: Inertial confinement fusion
Inertial confinement fusion (ICF) is a type of fusion energy research that attempts to initiate nuclear fusion reactions
by heating and compressing a fuel target, typically in the form of a pellet that most often contains a mixture of
deuterium and tritium.

3.3.3

Beam-beam or beam-target fusion

If the energy to initiate the reaction comes from accelerating one of the nuclei, the process is called beam-target
fusion; if both nuclei are accelerated, it is beam-beam fusion.
Accelerator-based light-ion fusion is a technique using particle accelerators to achieve particle kinetic energies sufficient to induce light-ion fusion reactions. Accelerating light ions is relatively easy, and can be done in an efficient
manner—all it takes is a vacuum tube, a pair of electrodes, and a high-voltage transformer; fusion can be observed
with as little as 10 kV between electrodes. The key problem with accelerator-based fusion (and with cold targets in
general) is that fusion cross sections are many orders of magnitude lower than Coulomb interaction cross sections.
Therefore the vast majority of ions end up expending their energy on bremsstrahlung and ionization of atoms of the
target. Devices referred to as sealed-tube neutron generators are particularly relevant to this discussion. These small
devices are miniature particle accelerators filled with deuterium and tritium gas in an arrangement that allows ions
of these nuclei to be accelerated against hydride targets, also containing deuterium and tritium, where fusion takes
place. Hundreds of neutron generators are produced annually for use in the petroleum industry where they are used
in measurement equipment for locating and mapping oil reserves.

3.3.4

Muon-catalyzed fusion

Muon-catalyzed fusion is a well-established and reproducible fusion process that occurs at ordinary temperatures.
It was studied in detail by Steven Jones in the early 1980s. Net energy production from this reaction cannot occur
because of the high energy required to create muons, their short 2.2 µs half-life, and the high chance that a muon will
bind to the new alpha particle and thus stop catalyzing fusion.[13]

74

CHAPTER 3. NUCLEAR FUSION

The Tokamak à configuration variable, research fusion reactor, at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland).

3.3.5

Other principles

Some other confinement principles have been investigated, some of them have been confirmed to run nuclear fusion
while having lesser expectation of eventually being able to produce net power, others have not yet been shown to
produce fusion.
Sonofusion or bubble fusion, a controversial variation on the sonoluminescence theme, suggests that acoustic shock
waves, creating temporary bubbles (cavitation) that expand and collapse shortly after creation, can produce temperatures and pressures sufficient for nuclear fusion.[14]
The Farnsworth–Hirsch fusor is a tabletop device in which fusion occurs. This fusion comes from high effective
temperatures produced by electrostatic acceleration of ions.
The Polywell is a non-thermodynamic equilibrium machine that uses electrostatic confinement to accelerate ions into
a center where they fuse together.
Antimatter-initialized fusion uses small amounts of antimatter to trigger a tiny fusion explosion. This has been studied
primarily in the context of making nuclear pulse propulsion, and pure fusion bombs feasible. This is not near becoming
a practical power source, due to the cost of manufacturing antimatter alone.
Pyroelectric fusion was reported in April 2005 by a team at UCLA. The scientists used a pyroelectric crystal heated
from −34 to 7 °C (−29 to 45 °F), combined with a tungsten needle to produce an electric field of about 25 gigavolts per meter to ionize and accelerate deuterium nuclei into an erbium deuteride target. At the estimated energy
levels,[15] the D-D fusion reaction may occur, producing helium-3 and a 2.45 MeV neutron. Although it makes a
useful neutron generator, the apparatus is not intended for power generation since it requires far more energy than it
produces.[16][17][18][19]
Hybrid nuclear fusion-fission (hybrid nuclear power) is a proposed means of generating power by use of a combination of nuclear fusion and fission processes. The concept dates to the 1950s, and was briefly advocated by Hans
Bethe during the 1970s, but largely remained unexplored until a revival of interest in 2009, due to the delays in the
realization of pure fusion.[20] Project PACER, carried out at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in the mid1970s, explored the possibility of a fusion power system that would involve exploding small hydrogen bombs (fusion
bombs) inside an underground cavity. As an energy source, the system is the only fusion power system that could be
demonstrated to work using existing technology. However it would also require a large, continuous supply of nuclear

3.4. IMPORTANT REACTIONS

75

bombs, making the economics of such a system rather questionable.

3.4 Important reactions
3.4.1

Astrophysical reaction chains

The most important fusion process in nature is the one that powers stars. The net result is the fusion of four protons
into one alpha particle, with the release of two positrons, two neutrinos (which changes two of the protons into
neutrons), and energy, but several individual reactions are involved, depending on the mass of the star. For stars the
size of the sun or smaller, the proton-proton chain dominates. In heavier stars, the CNO cycle is more important.
Both types of processes are responsible for the creation of new elements as part of stellar nucleosynthesis.
At the temperatures and densities in stellar cores the rates of fusion reactions are notoriously slow. For example,
at solar core temperature (T ≈ 15 MK) and density (160 g/cm3 ), the energy release rate is only 276 μW/cm3 —
about a quarter of the volumetric rate at which a resting human body generates heat.[21] Thus, reproduction of stellar
core conditions in a lab for nuclear fusion power production is completely impractical. Because nuclear reaction rates
strongly depend on temperature (exp(−E/kT)), achieving reasonable power levels in terrestrial fusion reactors requires
10–100 times higher temperatures (compared to stellar interiors): T ≈ 0.1–1.0 GK.

3.4.2

Criteria and candidates for terrestrial reactions

Main article: Fusion power § Fuels
In artificial fusion, the primary fuel is not constrained to be protons and higher temperatures can be used, so reactions
with larger cross-sections are chosen. This implies a lower Lawson criterion, and therefore less startup effort. Another
concern is the production of neutrons, which activate the reactor structure radiologically, but also have the advantages
of allowing volumetric extraction of the fusion energy and tritium breeding. Reactions that release no neutrons are
referred to as aneutronic.
To be a useful energy source, a fusion reaction must satisfy several criteria. It must:
• Be exothermic: This limits the reactants to the low Z (number of protons) side of the curve of binding energy.
It also makes helium 4He the most common product because of its extraordinarily tight binding, although 3He
and 3H also show up.
• Involve low Z nuclei: This is because the electrostatic repulsion must be overcome before the nuclei are close
enough to fuse.
• Have two reactants: At anything less than stellar densities, three body collisions are too improbable. In inertial
confinement, both stellar densities and temperatures are exceeded to compensate for the shortcomings of the
third parameter of the Lawson criterion, ICF’s very short confinement time.
• Have two or more products: This allows simultaneous conservation of energy and momentum without relying
on the electromagnetic force.
• Conserve both protons and neutrons: The cross sections for the weak interaction are too small.
Few reactions meet these criteria. The following are those with the largest cross sections:

For reactions with two products, the energy is divided between them in inverse proportion to their masses, as shown.
In most reactions with three products, the distribution of energy varies. For reactions that can result in more than one
set of products, the branching ratios are given.
Some reaction candidates can be eliminated at once.[22] The D-6 Li reaction has no advantage compared to p+ -11
5B because it is roughly as difficult to burn but produces substantially more neutrons through 2
1D-2

76

CHAPTER 3. NUCLEAR FUSION

1

1

H

1

H

1

H

ν
2

ν
1

H

H

1

2

H

γ

H

γ
3

1

γ
ν

H

He

3

He

1

H

H
Proton

Gamma Ray

Neutrino

4

He

Neutron
Positron

The proton-proton chain dominates in stars the size of the Sun or smaller.

1D side reactions. There is also a p+ -7
3Li reaction, but the cross section is far too low, except possibly when Tᵢ > 1 MeV, but at such high temperatures an
endothermic, direct neutron-producing reaction also becomes very significant. Finally there is also a p+ -9

3.4. IMPORTANT REACTIONS

77

4

1

He

1

H

H
C

12

N

15

N

13

O

15

C

13

N

14

1
1

H

H

Proton

Gamma Ray

Neutron

Neutrino

Positron
The CNO cycle dominates in stars heavier than the Sun.

4Be reaction, which is not only difficult to burn, but 9
4Be can be easily induced to split into two alpha particles and a neutron.
In addition to the fusion reactions, the following reactions with neutrons are important in order to “breed” tritium in
“dry” fusion bombs and some proposed fusion reactors:

The latter of the two equations was unknown when the U.S. conducted the Castle Bravo fusion bomb test in 1954.
Being just the second fusion bomb ever tested (and the first to use lithium), the designers of the Castle Bravo “Shrimp”
had understood the usefulness of Lithium-6 in tritium production, but had failed to recognize that Lithium-7 fission
would greatly increase the yield of the bomb. While Li-7 has a small neutron cross-section for low neutron energies,
it has a higher cross section above 5 MeV.[23] Li-7 also undergoes a chain reaction due to its release of a neutron after
fissioning. The 15 Mt yield was 150% greater than the predicted 6 Mt and caused heavy casualties from the fallout
generated.
To evaluate the usefulness of these reactions, in addition to the reactants, the products, and the energy released, one
needs to know something about the cross section. Any given fusion device has a maximum plasma pressure it can
sustain, and an economical device would always operate near this maximum. Given this pressure, the largest fusion
output is obtained when the temperature is chosen so that <σv>/T2 is a maximum. This is also the temperature at

78

CHAPTER 3. NUCLEAR FUSION

which the value of the triple product nTτ required for ignition is a minimum, since that required value is inversely
proportional to <σv>/T2 (see Lawson criterion). (A plasma is “ignited” if the fusion reactions produce enough power
to maintain the temperature without external heating.) This optimum temperature and the value of <σv>/T2 at that
temperature is given for a few of these reactions in the following table.
Note that many of the reactions form chains. For instance, a reactor fueled with 3
1T and 3
2He creates some 2
1D, which is then possible to use in the 2
1D-3
2He reaction if the energies are “right”. An elegant idea is to combine the reactions (8) and (9). The 3
2He from reaction (8) can react with 6
3Li in reaction (9) before completely thermalizing. This produces an energetic proton, which in turn undergoes
reaction (8) before thermalizing. Detailed analysis shows that this idea would not work well, but it is a good example
of a case where the usual assumption of a Maxwellian plasma is not appropriate.

3.4.3

Neutronicity, confinement requirement, and power density

The only man-made fusion device to achieve ignition to date is the hydrogen bomb. The detonation of the first device, codenamed
Ivy Mike, occurred in 1952 and is shown here.

Any of the reactions above can in principle be the basis of fusion power production. In addition to the temperature
and cross section discussed above, we must consider the total energy of the fusion products E ᵤ , the energy of the
charged fusion products E , and the atomic number Z of the non-hydrogenic reactant.
Specification of the 2
1D-2
1D reaction entails some difficulties, though. To begin with, one must average over the two branches (2i) and (2ii).
More difficult is to decide how to treat the 3
1T and 3
2He products. 3

3.4. IMPORTANT REACTIONS

79

1T burns so well in a deuterium plasma that it is almost impossible to extract from the plasma. The 2
1D-3
2He reaction is optimized at a much higher temperature, so the burnup at the optimum 2
1D-2
1D temperature may be low, so it seems reasonable to assume the 3
1T but not the 3
2He gets burned up and adds its energy to the net reaction. Thus the total reaction would be the sum of (2i), (2ii),
and (1):
52
1D → 4
2He + 2 n0 + 3
2He + p+ , E ᵤ = 4.03+17.6+3.27 = 24.9 MeV, E = 4.03+3.5+0.82 = 8.35 MeV.
We count the 2
1D-2
1D fusion energy per D-D reaction (not per pair of deuterium atoms) as E ᵤ = (4.03 MeV + 17.6 MeV)×50% +
(3.27 MeV)×50% = 12.5 MeV and the energy in charged particles as E = (4.03 MeV + 3.5 MeV)×50% + (0.82
MeV)×50% = 4.2 MeV. (Note: if the tritium ion reacts with a deuteron while it still has a large kinetic energy, then
the kinetic energy of the helium-4 produced may be quite different from 3.5 MeV, so this calculation of energy in
charged particles is only approximate.)
Another unique aspect of the 2
1D-2
1D reaction is that there is only one reactant, which must be taken into account when calculating the reaction rate.
With this choice, we tabulate parameters for four of the most important reactions
The last column is the neutronicity of the reaction, the fraction of the fusion energy released as neutrons. This is
an important indicator of the magnitude of the problems associated with neutrons like radiation damage, biological
shielding, remote handling, and safety. For the first two reactions it is calculated as (E ᵤ -E )/E ᵤ . For the last two
reactions, where this calculation would give zero, the values quoted are rough estimates based on side reactions that
produce neutrons in a plasma in thermal equilibrium.
Of course, the reactants should also be mixed in the optimal proportions. This is the case when each reactant ion
plus its associated electrons accounts for half the pressure. Assuming that the total pressure is fixed, this means that
density of the non-hydrogenic ion is smaller than that of the hydrogenic ion by a factor 2/(Z+1). Therefore the rate
for these reactions is reduced by the same factor, on top of any differences in the values of <σv>/T2 . On the other
hand, because the 2
1D-2
1D reaction has only one reactant, its rate is twice as high as when the fuel is divided between two different hydrogenic
species, thus creating a more efficient reaction.
Thus there is a “penalty” of (2/(Z+1)) for non-hydrogenic fuels arising from the fact that they require more electrons,
which take up pressure without participating in the fusion reaction. (It is usually a good assumption that the electron
temperature will be nearly equal to the ion temperature. Some authors, however discuss the possibility that the
electrons could be maintained substantially colder than the ions. In such a case, known as a “hot ion mode”, the
“penalty” would not apply.) There is at the same time a “bonus” of a factor 2 for 2
1D-2
1D because each ion can react with any of the other ions, not just a fraction of them.
We can now compare these reactions in the following table.
The maximum value of <σv>/T2 is taken from a previous table. The “penalty/bonus” factor is that related to a
non-hydrogenic reactant or a single-species reaction. The values in the column “reactivity” are found by dividing
1.24×10−24 by the product of the second and third columns. It indicates the factor by which the other reactions occur
more slowly than the 2
1D-3
1T reaction under comparable conditions. The column "Lawson criterion" weights these results with E and gives an
indication of how much more difficult it is to achieve ignition with these reactions, relative to the difficulty for the 2
1D-3
1T reaction. The last column is labeled “power density” and weights the practical reactivity with E ᵤ . It indicates

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CHAPTER 3. NUCLEAR FUSION

how much lower the fusion power density of the other reactions is compared to the 2
1D-3
1T reaction and can be considered a measure of the economic potential.

3.4.4

Bremsstrahlung losses in quasineutral, isotropic plasmas

The ions undergoing fusion in many systems will essentially never occur alone but will be mixed with electrons that in
aggregate neutralize the ions’ bulk electrical charge and form a plasma. The electrons will generally have a temperature
comparable to or greater than that of the ions, so they will collide with the ions and emit x-ray radiation of 10–30 keV
energy (Bremsstrahlung). The Sun and stars are opaque to x-rays, but essentially any terrestrial fusion reactor will
be optically thin for x-rays of this energy range. X-rays are difficult to reflect but they are effectively absorbed (and
converted into heat) in less than mm thickness of stainless steel (which is part of a reactor’s shield). The ratio of fusion
power produced to x-ray radiation lost to walls is an important figure of merit. This ratio is generally maximized at a
much higher temperature than that which maximizes the power density (see the previous subsection). The following
table shows estimates of the optimum temperature and the power ratio at that temperature for several reactions.[22]
The actual ratios of fusion to Bremsstrahlung power will likely be significantly lower for several reasons. For one,
the calculation assumes that the energy of the fusion products is transmitted completely to the fuel ions, which then
lose energy to the electrons by collisions, which in turn lose energy by Bremsstrahlung. However, because the fusion
products move much faster than the fuel ions, they will give up a significant fraction of their energy directly to the
electrons. Secondly, the ions in the plasma are assumed to be purely fuel ions. In practice, there will be a significant
proportion of impurity ions, which will then lower the ratio. In particular, the fusion products themselves must remain
in the plasma until they have given up their energy, and will remain some time after that in any proposed confinement
scheme. Finally, all channels of energy loss other than Bremsstrahlung have been neglected. The last two factors are
related. On theoretical and experimental grounds, particle and energy confinement seem to be closely related. In a
confinement scheme that does a good job of retaining energy, fusion products will build up. If the fusion products
are efficiently ejected, then energy confinement will be poor, too.
The temperatures maximizing the fusion power compared to the Bremsstrahlung are in every case higher than the
temperature that maximizes the power density and minimizes the required value of the fusion triple product. This
will not change the optimum operating point for 2
1D-3
1T very much because the Bremsstrahlung fraction is low, but it will push the other fuels into regimes where the
power density relative to 2
1D-3
1T is even lower and the required confinement even more difficult to achieve. For 2
1D-2
1D and 2
1D-3
2He, Bremsstrahlung losses will be a serious, possibly prohibitive problem. For 3
2He-3
2He, p+ -6
3Li and p+ -11
5B the Bremsstrahlung losses appear to make a fusion reactor using these fuels with a quasineutral, isotropic plasma
impossible. Some ways out of this dilemma are considered—and rejected—in Fundamental limitations on plasma
fusion systems not in thermodynamic equilibrium by Todd Rider.[24] This limitation does not apply to non-neutral and
anisotropic plasmas; however, these have their own challenges to contend with.

3.5 See also
• Aneutronic fusion
• CNO cycle
• Direct energy conversion
• Inertial electrostatic confinement
• Focus fusion

3.6. REFERENCES

81

• Fusenet
• Fusion power
• Fusion rocket
• Helium-3
• Impulse generator
• ITER
• Joint European Torus
• List of fusion experiments
• List of plasma (physics) articles
• National Ignition Facility
• Nuclear fission
• Nuclear physics
• Nuclear reactor
• Nucleosynthesis
• Neutron generator
• Neutron source
• Periodic table
• Polywell
• Proton-proton chain
• Pulsed power
• Teller–Ulam design
• Thermonuclear fusion
• Timeline of nuclear fusion
• Triple-alpha process

3.6 References
[1] Lockheed says makes breakthrough on fusion energy project, Reuters, 15 October 2014, Andrea Shalal
[2] Scientists Are Bashing Lockheed Martin’s Nuclear Fusion 'Breakthrough', Business Insider, 15 October 2014, Jessica
Orwig
[3] Shultis, J.K. and Faw, R.E. (2002). Fundamentals of nuclear science and engineering. CRC Press. p. 151. ISBN 0-82470834-2.
[4] Physics Flexbook. Ck12.org. Retrieved on 2012-12-19.
[5] Bethe, Hans A. “The Hydrogen Bomb”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 1950, p. 99.
[6] “Progress in Fusion”. ITER. Retrieved 2010-02-15.
[7] “ITER - the way to new energy”. ITER. 2014.
[8] “The National Ignition Facility: Ushering in a new age for high energy density science”. National Ignition Facility. Retrieved
2014-03-27.

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CHAPTER 3. NUCLEAR FUSION

[9] “DOE looks again at inertial fusion as potential clean-energy source”, David Kramer, Physics Today, March 2011, p 26
[10] S. Atzeni, J. Meyer-ter-Vehn (2004). Chapter 1: “Nuclear fusion reactions”. The Physics of Inertial Fusion. University of
Oxford Press. ISBN 978-0-19-856264-1
[11] The Most Tightly Bound Nuclei. Hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu. Retrieved on 2011-08-17.
[12] What Is The Lawson Criteria, Or How to Make Fusion Power Viable
[13] Jones, S.E. (1986). “Muon-Catalysed Fusion Revisited”. Nature 321 (6066): 127–133. Bibcode:1986Natur.321..127J.
doi:10.1038/321127a0.
[14] Access: Desktop fusion is back on the table: Nature News. Nature.com. Retrieved on 2011-08-17.
[15] Supplementary methods for “Observation of nuclear fusion driven by a pyroelectric crystal”. Main article Naranjo, B.;
Gimzewski, J.K.; Putterman, S. (2005). “Observation of nuclear fusion driven by a pyroelectric crystal”. Nature 434
(7037): 1115–1117. Bibcode:2005Natur.434.1115N. doi:10.1038/nature03575. PMID 15858570.
[16] UCLA Crystal Fusion. Rodan.physics.ucla.edu. Retrieved on 2011-08-17.
[17] Schewe, Phil and Stein, Ben (2005). “Pyrofusion: A Room-Temperature, Palm-Sized Nuclear Fusion Device”. Physics
News Update 729 (1).
[18] Coming in out of the cold: nuclear fusion, for real. Christiansciencemonitor.com (2005-06-06). Retrieved on 2011-08-17.
[19] fusion on the desktop ... really!. MSNBC (2005-04-27). Retrieved on 2011-08-17.
[20] Gerstner, E. (2009). “Nuclear energy: The hybrid returns”. Nature 460 (7251): 25–8. doi:10.1038/460025a. PMID
19571861.
[21] FusEdWeb | Fusion Education. Fusedweb.pppl.gov (1998-11-09). Retrieved on 2011-08-17.
[22] Archived January 3, 2006 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on 2012-12-19.
[23] Subsection 4.7.4c. Kayelaby.npl.co.uk. Retrieved on 2012-12-19.
[24] Portable Document Format (PDF)

3.7 Further reading
• “What is Nuclear Fusion?". NuclearFiles.org.
• S. Atzeni, J. Meyer-ter-Vehn (2004). “Nuclear fusion reactions”. The Physics of Inertial Fusion. University of
Oxford Press. ISBN 978-0-19-856264-1.
• G. Brumfiel (22 May 2006). “Chaos could keep fusion under control”. Nature. doi:10.1038/news060522-2.
• R.W. Bussard (9 November 2006). “Should Google Go Nuclear? Clean, Cheap, Nuclear Power”. Google
TechTalks.
• A. Wenisch, R. Kromp, D. Reinberger (November 2007). “Science of Fiction: Is there a Future for Nuclear?".
Austrian Institute of Ecology.
• W.J. Nuttall (September 2008). “Fusion as an Energy Source: Challenges and Opportunities”. Institute of
Physics Report. Institute of Physics.

3.8 External links
• NuclearFiles.org—A repository of documents related to nuclear power.
• Annotated bibliography for nuclear fusion from the Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues
• -NRL Fusion Formulary
Organizations

3.8. EXTERNAL LINKS
• ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) website
• CCFE (Culham Centre for Fusion Energy) website
• JET (Joint European Torus) website

83

Chapter 4

Nuclear fuel cycle
The nuclear fuel cycle, also called nuclear fuel chain, is the progression of nuclear fuel through a series of differing
stages. It consists of steps in the front end, which are the preparation of the fuel, steps in the service period in which
the fuel is used during reactor operation, and steps in the back end, which are necessary to safely manage, contain,
and either reprocess or dispose of spent nuclear fuel. If spent fuel is not reprocessed, the fuel cycle is referred to as
an open fuel cycle (or a once-through fuel cycle); if the spent fuel is reprocessed, it is referred to as a closed fuel cycle.

4.1 Basic concepts
Nuclear power relies on fissionable material that can sustain a chain reaction with neutrons. Examples of such materials
include uranium and plutonium. Most nuclear reactors use a moderator to lower the kinetic energy of the neutrons
and increase the probability that fission will occur. This allows reactors to use material with far lower concentration
of fissile isotopes than nuclear weapons. Graphite and heavy water are the most effective moderators, because they
slow the neutrons through collisions without absorbing them. Reactors using heavy water or graphite as the moderator
can operate using natural uranium.
A Light water reactor (LWR) uses water in the form that occurs in nature, and require fuel that is enriched in fissile
isotopes, typically uranium enriched to 3–5% in the less common isotope U-235, the only fissile isotope that is found
in significant quantity in nature. One alternative to this low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel are Mixed Oxide (MOX)
fuels produced by blending plutonium with natural or depleted uranium, and these fuels provide an avenue to utilize
surplus weapons-grade plutonium. Another type of MOX fuel involves mixing LEU with thorium, which generates
the fissile isotope U-233. Both plutonium and U-233 are produced from the absorption of neutrons by irradiating
fertile materials in a reactor, in particular the common uranium isotope U-238 and thorium, respectively, and can be
separated from spent uranium and thorium fuels in reprocessing plants.
Some reactors do not use moderators to slow the neutrons. Like nuclear weapons, which also use unmoderated or
“fast” neutrons, these Fast-neutron reactors require much higher concentrations of fissile isotopes in order to sustain
a chain reaction. They are also capable of breeding fissile isotopes from fertile materials; a Breeder reactor is one
that generates more fissile material in this way than it consumes.
During the nuclear reaction inside a reactor, the fissile isotopes in nuclear fuel are consumed, producing more and more
fission products, most of which are considered radioactive waste. The buildup of fission products and consumption of
fissile isotopes eventually stop the nuclear reaction, causing the fuel to become a spent nuclear fuel. When 3% enriched
LEU fuel is used, the spent fuel typically consists of roughly 1% U-235, 95% U-238, 1% plutonium and 3% fission
products. Spent fuel and other high-level radioactive waste is extremely hazardous, although nuclear reactors produce
relatively small volumes of waste compared to other power plants because of the high energy density of nuclear fuel.
Safe management of these byproducts of nuclear power, including their storage and disposal, is a difficult problem
for any country using nuclear power.

4.2 Front end
• 1 Uranium ore - the principal raw material of nuclear fuel
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4.2. FRONT END

85

• 2 Yellowcake - the form in which uranium is transported to a conversion plant
• 3 UF6 - used in enrichment
• 4 Nuclear fuel - a compact, inert, insoluble solid

4.2.1

Exploration

A deposit of uranium, such as uraninite, 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 in nature consists primarily of two
isotopes, U-238 and U-235. The numbers refer to the atomic mass number for each isotope, or the number of
protons and neutrons in the atomic nucleus. Naturally occurring uranium consists of approximately 99.28% U-238
and 0.71% U-235. The atomic nucleus of U-235 will nearly always fission when struck by a free neutron, and
the isotope is therefore said to be a "fissile" isotope. The nucleus of a U-238 atom on the other hand, rather than
undergoing fission when struck by a free neutron, will nearly always absorb the neutron and yield an atom of the
isotope U-239. This isotope then undergoes natural radioactive decay to yield Pu-239, which, like U-235, is a fissile
isotope. The atoms of U-238 are said to be fertile, because, through neutron irradiation in the core, some eventually
yield atoms of fissile Pu-239.

4.2.2

Mining

Main article: Uranium mining
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%
uranium oxide (U3 O8 ). 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 phosphatebearing 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.

4.2.3

Milling

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 as U3 O8 .

4.2.4

Uranium conversion

Milled uranium oxide, U3 O8 , 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, uranium hexafluoride can be
changed to a gaseous form at moderately higher temperature of 57 °C (134 °F). The uranium hexafluoride conversion
product contains only natural, not enriched, uranium.
Triuranium octaoxide (U3 O8 ) is also converted directly to ceramic grade uranium dioxide (UO2 ) for use in reactors
not requiring enriched fuel, such as CANDU. The volumes of material converted directly to UO2 are typically quite
small compared to the amounts converted to UF6 .

4.2.5

Enrichment

Main article: Enriched uranium
The concentration of the fissionable isotope, U-235 (0.71% in natural uranium) is less than that required to sustain

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CHAPTER 4. NUCLEAR FUEL CYCLE

Nuclear fuel cycle begins when uranium is mined, enriched and manufactured to nuclear fuel (1) which is delivered to a nuclear
power plant. After usage in the power plant the spent fuel is delivered to a reprocessing plant (if fuel is recycled) (2) or to a final
repository (if no recycling is done) (3) for geological disposition. In reprocessing 95% of spent fuel can be recycled to be returned to
usage in a nuclear power plant (4).

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 to 3.5% U-235, but uranium enriched to
lower concentrations is also required. Enrichment is accomplished using one or more methods of isotope separation.
Gaseous diffusion and gas centrifuge are the commonly used uranium enrichment technologies, but new enrichment
technologies are currently being developed.
The bulk (96%) of the byproduct from enrichment is depleted uranium (DU), which can be used for armor, kinetic
energy penetrators, radiation shielding and ballast. Still, there are vast quantities of depleted uranium in storage.
The United States Department of Energy alone has 470,000 tonnes.[1] About 95% of depleted uranium is stored as
uranium hexafluoride (UF6 ).

4.2.6

Fabrication

Main article: Nuclear fuel

4.3. SERVICE PERIOD

87

For use as nuclear fuel, enriched uranium hexafluoride is converted into uranium dioxide (UO2 ) powder that 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 reactor 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 alloy used for the tubes depends on the design of the reactor. Stainless steel was used in the past, but most reactors
now use a zirconium alloy. For the most common types of reactors, boiling water reactors (BWR) and pressurized
water reactors (PWR), the tubes are assembled into bundles[2] with the tubes spaced precise distances apart. These
bundles are then given a unique identification number, which enables them to be tracked from manufacture through
use and into disposal.

4.3 Service period
4.3.1

Transport of radioactive materials

Transport is an integral part of the nuclear fuel cycle. There are nuclear power reactors in operation in several
countries but uranium mining is viable in only a few areas. Also, in the course of over forty years of operation by
the nuclear industry, a number of specialized facilities have been developed in various locations around the world
to provide fuel cycle services and there is a need to transport nuclear materials to and from these facilities.[3] Most
transports of nuclear fuel material occur between different stages of the cycle, but occasionally a material may be
transported between similar facilities. With some exceptions, nuclear fuel cycle materials are transported in solid
form, the exception being uranium hexafluoride (UF6 ) which is considered a gas. Most of the material used in
nuclear fuel is transported several times during the cycle. Transports are frequently international, and are often over
large distances. Nuclear materials are generally transported by specialized transport companies.
Since nuclear materials are radioactive, it is important to ensure that radiation exposure of both those involved in the
transport of such materials and the general public along transport routes is limited. Packaging for nuclear materials
includes, where appropriate, shielding to reduce potential radiation exposures. In the case of some materials, such as
fresh uranium fuel assemblies, the radiation levels are negligible and no shielding is required. Other materials, such as
spent fuel and high-level waste, are highly radioactive and require special handling. To limit the risk in transporting
highly radioactive materials, containers known as spent nuclear fuel shipping casks are used which are designed to
maintain integrity under normal transportation conditions and during hypothetical accident conditions.

4.3.2

In-core fuel management

A nuclear reactor core is composed of a few hundred “assemblies”, arranged in a regular array of cells, each cell
being formed by a fuel or control rod surrounded, in most designs, by a moderator and coolant, which is water in
most reactors.
Because of the fission process that consumes the fuels, the old fuel rods must be changed periodically to fresh ones
(this period is called a cycle). However, only a part of the assemblies (typically one-third) are removed since the
fuel depletion is not spatially uniform. Furthermore, it is not a good policy, for efficiency reasons, to put the new
assemblies exactly at the location of the removed ones. Even bundles of the same age may have different burn-up
levels, which depends on their previous positions in the core. Thus the available bundles must be arranged in such
a way that the yield is maximized, while safety limitations and operational constraints are satisfied. Consequently
reactor operators are faced with the so-called optimal fuel reloading problem, which consists in optimizing the
rearrangement of all the assemblies, the old and fresh ones, while still maximizing the reactivity of the reactor core
so as to maximise fuel burn-up and minimise fuel-cycle costs.
This is a discrete optimization problem, and computationally infeasible by current combinatorial methods, due to
the huge number of permutations and the complexity of each computation. Many numerical methods have been
proposed for solving it and many commercial software packages have been written to support fuel management. This
is an on-going issue in reactor operations as no definitive solution to this problem has been found. Operators use a
combination of computational and empirical techniques to manage this problem.

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CHAPTER 4. NUCLEAR FUEL CYCLE

The study of used fuel
Main article: Post irradiation examination
Used nuclear fuel is studied in Post irradiation examination, where used fuel is examined to know more about the
processes that occur in fuel during use, and how these might alter the outcome of an accident. For example, during
normal use, the fuel expands due to thermal expansion, which can cause cracking. Most nuclear fuel is uranium
dioxide, which is a cubic solid with a structure similar to that of calcium fluoride. In used fuel the solid state structure
of most of the solid remains the same as that of pure cubic uranium dioxide. SIMFUEL is the name given to the
simulated spent fuel which is made by mixing finely ground metal oxides, grinding as a slurry, spray drying it before
heating in hydrogen/argon to 1700 o C.[4] In SIMFUEL, 4.1% of the volume of the solid was in the form of metal
nanoparticles which are made of molybdenum, ruthenium, rhodium and palladium. Most of these metal particles are
of the ε phase (hexagonal) of Mo-Ru-Rh-Pd alloy, while smaller amounts of the α (cubic) and σ (tetragonal) phases
of these metals were found in the SIMFUEL. Also present within the SIMFUEL was a cubic perovskite phase which
is a barium strontium zirconate (BaₓSr₁-ₓZrO3 ).

The solid state structure of uranium dioxide, the oxygen atoms are in green and the uranium atoms in red

Uranium dioxide is very insoluble in water, but after oxidation it can be converted to uranium trioxide or another
uranium(VI) compound which is much more soluble. Uranium dioxide (UO2 ) can be oxidised to an oxygen rich
hyperstoichiometric oxide (UO₂₊ₓ) which can be further oxidised to U4 O9 , U3 O7 , U3 O8 and UO3 .2H2 O.
Because used fuel contains alpha emitters (plutonium and the minor actinides), the effect of adding an alpha emitter
(238 Pu) to uranium dioxide on the leaching rate of the oxide has been investigated. For the crushed oxide, adding
238
Pu tended to increase the rate of leaching, but the difference in the leaching rate between 0.1 and 10% 238 Pu was

4.3. SERVICE PERIOD

89

very small.[5]
The concentration of carbonate in the water which is in contact with the used fuel has a considerable effect on
the rate of corrosion, because uranium(VI) forms soluble anionic carbonate complexes such as [UO2 (CO3 )2 ]2- and
[UO2 (CO3 )3 ]4- . When carbonate ions are absent, and the water is not strongly acidic, the hexavalent uranium compounds which form on oxidation of uranium dioxide often form insoluble hydrated uranium trioxide phases.[6]
By ‘sputtering’, using uranium metal and an argon/oxygen gas mixture, thin films of uranium dioxide can be deposited
upon gold surfaces. These gold surfaces modified with uranium dioxide have been used for both cyclic voltammetry
and AC impedance experiments, and these offer an insight into the likely leaching behaviour of uranium dioxide.[7]

Fuel cladding interactions
The study of the nuclear fuel cycle includes the study of the behaviour of nuclear materials both under normal conditions and under accident conditions. For example, there has been much work on how uranium dioxide based fuel
interacts with the zirconium alloy tubing used to cover it. During use, the fuel swells due to thermal expansion and
then starts to react with the surface of the zirconium alloy, forming a new layer which contains both fuel and zirconium
(from the cladding). Then, on the fuel side of this mixed layer, there is a layer of fuel which has a higher caesium
to uranium ratio than most of the fuel. This is because xenon isotopes are formed as fission products that diffuse
out of the lattice of the fuel into voids such as the narrow gap between the fuel and the cladding. After diffusing
into these voids, it decays to caesium isotopes. Because of the thermal gradient which exists in the fuel during use,
the volatile fission products tend to be driven from the centre of the pellet to the rim area.[8] Below is a graph of
the temperature of uranium metal, uranium nitride and uranium dioxide as a function of distance from the centre
of a 20 mm diameter pellet with a rim temperature of 200 o C. The uranium dioxide (because of its poor thermal
conductivity) will overheat at the centre of the pellet, while the other more thermally conductive forms of uranium
remain below their melting points.

Temperature profile for a 20 mm diameter fuel pellet with a power density of 1 kW per cubic meter. The fuels other than uranium
dioxide are not compromised.

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CHAPTER 4. NUCLEAR FUEL CYCLE

Normal and abnormal conditions
The nuclear chemistry associated with the nuclear fuel cycle can be divided into two main areas; one area is concerned
with operation under the intended conditions while the other area is concerned with maloperation conditions where
some alteration from the normal operating conditions has occurred or (more rarely) an accident is occurring.
The releases of radioactivity from normal operations are the small planned releases from uranium ore processing,
enrichment, power reactors, reprocessing plants and waste stores. These can be in a different chemical/physical
form to the releases which could occur under accident conditions. In addition the isotope signature of a hypothetical
accident may be very different from that of a planned normal operational discharge of radioactivity to the environment.
Just because a radioisotope is released it does not mean it will enter a human and then cause harm. For instance,
the migration of radioactivity can be altered by the binding of the radioisotope to the surfaces of soil particles. For
example, caesium (Cs) binds tightly to clay minerals such as illite and montmorillonite, hence it remains in the upper
layers of soil where it can be accessed by plants with shallow roots (such as grass). Hence grass and mushrooms can
carry a considerable amount of 137 Cs which can be transferred to humans through the food chain. But 137 Cs is not
able to migrate quickly through most soils and thus is unlikely to contaminate well water. Colloids of soil minerals
can migrate through soil so simple binding of a metal to the surfaces of soil particles does not fix the metal totally.
According to Jiří Hála’s text book, the distribution coefficient K is the ratio of the soil’s radioactivity (Bq g−1 ) to that
of the soil water (Bq ml−1 ). If the radioisotope is tightly bound to the minerals in the soil, then less radioactivity can
be absorbed by crops and grass growing on the soil.
• Cs-137 K = 1000
• Pu-239 K = 10000 to 100000
• Sr-90 K = 80 to 150
• I-131 K = 0.007 to 50
One of the best countermeasures in dairy farming against 137 Cs is to mix up the soil by deeply ploughing the soil.
This has the effect of putting the 137 Cs out of reach of the shallow roots of the grass, hence the level of radioactivity
in the grass will be lowered. Also after a nuclear war or serious accident, the removal of top few cm of soil and its
burial in a shallow trench will reduce the long-term gamma dose to humans due to 137 Cs, as the gamma photons will
be attenuated by their passage through the soil.
Even after the radioactive element arrives at the roots of the plant, the metal may be rejected by the biochemistry of
the plant. The details of the uptake of 90 Sr and 137 Cs into sunflowers grown under hydroponic conditions has been
reported.[9] The caesium was found in the leaf veins, in the stem and in the apical leaves. It was found that 12% of
the caesium entered the plant, and 20% of the strontium. This paper also reports details of the effect of potassium,
ammonium and calcium ions on the uptake of the radioisotopes.
In livestock farming, an important countermeasure against 137 Cs is to feed animals a small amount of Prussian blue.
This iron potassium cyanide compound acts as an ion-exchanger. The cyanide is so tightly bonded to the iron that it
is safe for a human to eat several grams of Prussian blue per day. The Prussian blue reduces the biological half-life
(different from the nuclear half-life) of the caesium. The physical or nuclear half-life of 137 Cs is about 30 years. This
is a constant which can not be changed but the biological half-life is not a constant. It will change according to the
nature and habits of the organism for which it is expressed. Caesium in humans normally has a biological half-life of
between one and four months. An added advantage of the Prussian blue is that the caesium which is stripped from
the animal in the droppings is in a form which is not available to plants. Hence it prevents the caesium from being
recycled. The form of Prussian blue required for the treatment of humans or animals is a special grade. Attempts
to use the pigment grade used in paints have not been successful. Note that a good source of data on the subject of
caesium in Chernobyl fallout exists at (Ukrainian Research Institute for Agricultural Radiology).
Release of radioactivity from fuel during normal use and accidents The IAEA assume that under normal
operation the coolant of a water-cooled reactor will contain some radioactivity[10] but during a reactor accident the
coolant radioactivity level may rise. The IAEA states that under a series of different conditions different amounts of
the core inventory can be released from the fuel, the four conditions the IAEA consider are normal operation, a spike
in coolant activity due to a sudden shutdown/loss of pressure (core remains covered with water), a cladding failure
resulting in the release of the activity in the fuel/cladding gap (this could be due to the fuel being uncovered by the

4.3. SERVICE PERIOD

91

loss of water for 15–30 minutes where the cladding reached a temperature of 650-1250 o C) or a melting of the core
(the fuel will have to be uncovered for at least 30 minutes, and the cladding would reach a temperature in excess of
1650 o C).[11]
Based upon the assumption that a Pressurized water reactor contains 300 tons of water, and that the activity of the
fuel of a 1 GWe reactor is as the IAEA predicts,[12] then the coolant activity after an accident such as the Three Mile
Island accident (where a core is uncovered and then recovered with water) can be predicted.
Releases from reprocessing under normal conditions It is normal to allow used fuel to stand after the irradiation
to allow the short-lived and radiotoxic iodine isotopes to decay away. In one experiment in the USA, fresh fuel which
had not been allowed to decay was reprocessed (the Green run ) to investigate the effects of a large iodine release
from the reprocessing of short cooled fuel. It is normal in reprocessing plants to scrub the off gases from the dissolver
to prevent the emission of iodine. In addition to the emission of iodine the noble gases and tritium are released from
the fuel when it is dissolved. It has been proposed that by voloxidation (heating the fuel in a furnace under oxidizing
conditions) the majority of the tritium can be recovered from the fuel.
A paper was written on the radioactivity in oysters found in the Irish Sea.[13] These were found by gamma spectroscopy
to contain 141 Ce, 144 Ce, 103 Ru, 106 Ru, 137 Cs, 95 Zr and 95 Nb. Additionally, a zinc activation product (65 Zn) was
found, which is thought to be due to the corrosion of magnox fuel cladding in spent fuel pools. It is likely that the
modern releases of all these isotopes from Windscale is smaller.

4.3.3

On-load reactors

Some reactor designs, such as RBMKs or CANDU reactors, can be refueled without being shut down. This is
achieved through the use of many small pressure tubes to contain the fuel and coolant, as opposed to one large
pressure vessel as in pressurized water reactor (PWR) or boiling water reactor (BWR) designs. Each tube can be
individually isolated and refueled by an operator-controlled fueling machine, typically at a rate of up to 8 channels
per day out of roughly 400 in CANDU reactors. On-load refueling allows for the optimal fuel reloading problem
to be dealt with continuously, leading to more efficient use of fuel. This increase in efficiency is partially offset by the
added complexity of having hundreds of pressure tubes and the fueling machines to service them.

4.3.4

Interim storage

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 (commonly in a spent fuel pool) or potentially in a common facility away from reactor sites.
If on-site pool storage capacity is exceeded, it may be desirable to store the now cooled 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 or boric acid, which provides both cooling (the spent fuel
continues to generate decay heat as a result of residual radioactive decay) and shielding to protect the environment
from residual ionizing radiation, although after at least a year of cooling they may be moved to dry cask storage.

4.3.5

Transportation

Main article: Spent nuclear fuel shipping cask

4.3.6

Reprocessing

Main article: Nuclear reprocessing
See also: Spent nuclear fuel
Spent fuel discharged from reactors contains appreciable quantities of fissile (U-235 and Pu-239), fertile (U-238),
and other radioactive materials, including reaction poisons, which is why the fuel had to be removed. 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. This is currently
not done for civilian spent nuclear fuel in the United States.

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The Sellafield reprocessing plant

Mixed oxide, or MOX fuel, is a blend of reprocessed uranium and plutonium and depleted uranium which behaves
similarly, although not identically, to the enriched uranium feed for which most nuclear reactors were designed. MOX
fuel is an alternative to low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel used in the light water reactors which predominate nuclear
power generation.
Currently, plants in Europe are reprocessing spent fuel from utilities in Europe and Japan. Reprocessing of spent
commercial-reactor nuclear fuel is currently not permitted in the United States due to the perceived danger of nuclear
proliferation. However the recently announced Global Nuclear Energy Partnership would see the U.S. form an international partnership to see spent nuclear fuel reprocessed in a way that renders the plutonium in it usable for nuclear
fuel but not for nuclear weapons.

4.3.7

Partitioning and transmutation

As an alternative to the disposal of the PUREX raffinate in glass or Synroc, the most radiotoxic elements can be
removed through advanced reprocessing. After separation, the minor actinides and some long lived fission products
can be converted to short-lived isotopes by either neutron or photon irradiation. This is called transmutation.

4.3.8

Waste disposal

Main articles: Radioactive waste and Spent nuclear fuel
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.[19] In the U.S., 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 a licensed deep, stable geologic structure called a deep geological repository. The

4.4. FUEL CYCLES

93

Department of Energy chose Yucca Mountain as the location for the repository. However, its opening has been
repeatedly delayed.
Fast-neutron reactors can fission all actinides, while the thorium fuel cycle produces low levels of transuranics. Unlike
LWRs, in principle these fuel cycles could recycle their plutonium and minor actinides and leave only fission products
and activation products as waste. The highly radioactive medium-lived fission products Cs-137 and Sr-90 diminish
by a factor of 10 each century; while the long-lived fission products have relatively low radioactivity, often compared
favorably to that of the original uranium ore.

4.4 Fuel cycles
Although the most common terminology is fuel cycle, some argue that the term fuel chain is more accurate, because
the spent fuel is never fully recycled. Spent fuel includes fission products, which generally must be treated as waste,
as well as uranium, plutonium, and other transuranic elements. Where plutonium is recycled, it is normally reused
once in light water reactors, although fast reactors could lead to more complete recycling of plutonium.[20]

4.4.1

Once-through nuclear fuel cycle

A once through (or open) fuel cycle

Not a cycle per se, fuel is used once and then sent to storage without further processing save additional packaging to
provide for better isolation from the biosphere. This method is favored by six countries: the United States, Canada,
Sweden, Finland, Spain and South Africa.[21] Some countries, notably Sweden and Canada, have designed repositories
to permit future recovery of the material should the need arise, while others plan for permanent sequestration in a
geological repository like the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in the United States.

4.4.2

Plutonium cycle

Several countries, including Japan, Switzerland, and previously Spain and Germany, are using or have used the
reprocessing services offered by BNFL and COGEMA. Here, the fission products, minor actinides, activation products, and reprocessed uranium are separated from the reactor-grade plutonium, which can then be fabricated into
MOX fuel. Because the proportion of the non-fissile even-mass isotopes of plutonium rises with each pass through
the cycle, there are currently no plans to reuse plutonium from used MOX fuel for a third pass in a thermal reactor.
However, if fast reactors become available, they may be able to burn these, or almost any other actinide isotopes.

4.4.3

Minor actinides recycling

It has been proposed that in addition to the use of plutonium, the minor actinides could be used in a critical power
reactor. Tests are already being conducted in which americium is being used as a fuel.[22]

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CHAPTER 4. NUCLEAR FUEL CYCLE

A fuel cycle in which plutonium is used for fuel

A number of reactor designs, like the Integral Fast Reactor, have been designed for this rather different fuel cycle.
In principle, it should be possible to derive energy from the fission of any actinide nucleus. With a careful reactor
design, all the actinides in the fuel can be consumed, leaving only lighter elements with short half-lives. Whereas this
has been done in prototype plants, no such reactor has ever been operated on a large scale, and the first plants with
full actinide recovery are expected to be ready for commercial deployment in 2015 at the earliest.
It so happens that the neutron cross-section of many actinides decreases with increasing neutron energy, but the ratio
of fission to simple activation (neutron capture) changes in favour of fission as the neutron energy increases. Thus
with a sufficiently high neutron energy, it should be possible to destroy even curium without the generation of the
transcurium metals. This could be very desirable as it would make it significantly easier to reprocess and handle the
actinide fuel.
One promising alternative from this perspective is an accelerator-driven sub-critical reactor / subcritical reactor. Here
a beam of either protons (United States and European designs)[23][24][25] or electrons (Japanese design)[26] is directed
into a target. In the case of protons, very fast neutrons will spall off the target, while in the case of the electrons, very
high energy photons will be generated. These high-energy neutrons and photons will then be able to cause the fission
of the heavy actinides.
Such reactors compare very well to other neutron sources in terms of neutron energy:
• Thermal 0 to 100 eV
• Epithermal 100 eV to 100 keV
• Fast (from nuclear fission) 100 keV to 3 MeV
• DD fusion 2.5 MeV
• DT fusion 14 MeV
• Accelerator driven core 200 MeV (lead driven by 1.6 GeV protons)
• Muon-catalyzed fusion 7 GeV.
As an alternative, the curium-244, with a half-life of 18 years, could be left to decay into plutonium-240 before being
used in fuel in a fast reactor.
Fuel or targets for this actinide transmutation
To date the nature of the fuel (targets) for actinide transformation has not been chosen.
If actinides are transmuted in a Subcritical reactor it is likely that the fuel will have to be able to tolerate more thermal
cycles than conventional fuel. An accelerator-driven sub-critical reactor is unlikely to be able to maintain a constant
operation period for equally long times as a critical reactor, and each time the accelerator stops then the fuel will cool
down.

4.4. FUEL CYCLES

95

A pair of fuel cycles in which uranium and plutonium are kept separate from the minor actinides. The minor actinide cycle is kept
within the green box.

On the other hand, if actinides are destroyed using a fast reactor, such as an Integral Fast Reactor, then the fuel will
most likely not be exposed to many more thermal cycles than in a normal power station.
Depending on the matrix the process can generate more transuranics from the matrix. This could either be viewed as
good (generate more fuel) or can be viewed as bad (generation of more radiotoxic transuranic elements). A series of
different matrices exists which can control this production of heavy actinides.
Fissile nuclei, like Uranium-235, Plutonium-239 and Uranium-233 respond well to delayed neutrons and are thus
important to keep a critical reactor stable, and this limits the amount of minor actinides that can be destroyed in a
critical reactor. As a consequence it is important that the chosen matrix allows the reactor to keep the ratio of fissile
to non-fissile nuclei high, as this enables it to destroy the long lived actinides safely. In contrast, the power output
of a sub-critical reactor is limited by the intensity of the driving particle accelerator, and thus it need not contain
any uranium or plutonium at all. In such a system it may be preferable to have an inert matrix that doesn't produce
additional long-lived isotopes.
Actinides in an inert matrix The actinides will be mixed with a metal which will not form more actinides, for
instance an alloy of actinides in a solid such as zirconia could be used.
Actinides in a thorium matrix Thorium will on neutron bombardment form uranium-233. U-233 is fissile, and
has a larger fission cross section than both U-235 and U-238, and thus it is far less likely to produce higher actinides
through neutron capture.
Actinides in a uranium matrix If the actinides are incorporated into a uranium-metal or uranium-oxide matrix,
then the neutron capture of U-238 is likely to generate new plutonium-239. An advantage of mixing the actinides
with uranium and plutonium is that the large fission cross sections of U-235 and Pu-239 for the less energetic delayedneutrons could make the reaction stable enough to be carried out in a critical fast reactor, which is likely to be both
cheaper and simpler than an accelerator driven system.
Mixed matrix It is also possible to create a matrix made from a mix of the above-mentioned materials. This is
most commonly done in fast reactors where one may wish to keep the breeding ratio of new fuel high enough to keep
powering the reactor, but still low enough that the generated actinides can be safely destroyed without transporting
them to another site. One way to do this is to use fuel where actinides and uranium is mixed with inert zirconium,
producing fuel elements with the desired properties.

96

4.4.4

CHAPTER 4. NUCLEAR FUEL CYCLE

Thorium cycle

Main article: Thorium fuel cycle
In the thorium fuel cycle thorium-232 absorbs a neutron in either a fast or thermal reactor. The thorium-233 beta
decays to protactinium−233 and then to uranium-233, which in turn is used as fuel. Hence, like uranium-238,
thorium-232 is a fertile material.
After starting the reactor with existing U-233 or some other fissile material such as U-235 or Pu-239, a breeding cycle
similar to but more efficient[27] than that with U-238 and plutonium can be created. The Th-232 absorbs a neutron
to become Th-233 which quickly decays to protactinium−233. Protactinium-233 in turn decays with a half-life of
27 days to U-233. In some molten salt reactor designs, the Pa-233 is extracted and protected from neutrons (which
could transform it to Pa-234 and then to U-234), until it has decayed to U-233. This is done in order to improve the
breeding ratio which is low compared to fast reactors.
Thorium is at least 4-5 times more abundant in nature than all of uranium isotopes combined; thorium is fairly evenly
spread around Earth with a lot of countries[28] having huge supplies of it; preparation of thorium fuel does not require
difficult [27] and expensive enrichment processes; the thorium fuel cycle creates mainly Uranium-233 contaminated
with Uranium-232 which makes it harder to use in a normal, pre-assembled nuclear weapon which is stable over long
periods of time (unfortunately drawbacks are much lower for immediate use weapons or where final assembly occurs
just prior to usage time); elimination of at least the transuranic portion of the nuclear waste problem is possible in
MSR and other breeder reactor designs.
One of the earliest efforts to use a thorium fuel cycle took place at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s. An
experimental reactor was built based on molten salt reactor technology to study the feasibility of such an approach,
using thorium fluoride salt kept hot enough to be liquid, thus eliminating the need for fabricating fuel elements. This
effort culminated in the Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment that used 232 Th as the fertile material and 233 U as the fissile
fuel. Due to a lack of funding, the MSR program was discontinued in 1976.

4.4.5

Current industrial activity

Currently the only isotopes used as nuclear fuel are uranium-235 (U-235), uranium-238 (U-238) and plutonium-239,
although the proposed thorium fuel cycle has advantages. Some modern reactors, with minor modifications, can use
thorium. Thorium is approximately three times more abundant in the Earth’s crust than uranium (and 550 times more
abundant than uranium-235). However, there has been little exploration for thorium resources, and thus the proved
resource is small. Thorium is more plentiful than uranium in some countries, notably India.[29]
Heavy water reactors and graphite-moderated reactors can use natural uranium, but the vast majority of the world’s
reactors require enriched uranium, in which the ratio of U-235 to U-238 is increased. In civilian reactors the enrichment is increased to as much as 5% U-235 and 95% U-238, but in naval reactors there is as much as 93% U-235.
The term nuclear fuel is not normally used in respect to fusion power, which fuses isotopes of hydrogen into helium
to release energy.

4.5 References
[1] “How much depleted uranium hexafluoride is stored in the United States?". Depleted UF6 Management Information Network. Retrieved 2008-01-15.
[2] “Susquehanna Nuclear Energy Guide” (PDF). PPL Corporation. Retrieved 2008-01-15.
[3] “Nuclear Fuel Cycle | World Nuclear Transport Institute”. Wnti.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-04-20.
[4] A good report on the microstructure of used fuel is Lucuta PG et al. (1991) J Nuclear Materials 178:48-60
[5] V.V. Rondinella VV et al. (2000) Radiochimica Acta 88:527-531
[6] For a review of the corrosion of uranium dioxide in a waste store which explains much of the chemistry, see Shoesmith
DW (2000) J Nuclear Materials 282:1-31
[7] Miserque F et al. (2001) J Nuclear Materials 298:280-90

4.6. EXTERNAL LINKS

97

[8] Further reading on fuel cladding interactions: Tanaka K et al. (2006) J Nuclear Materials 357:58-68
[9] P. Soudek, Š. Valenová, Z. Vavříková and T. Vaněk, Journal of Environmental Radioactivity, 2006, 88, 236-250
[10] page 169 Generic Assessment Procedures for Determining Protective Actions During a Reactor Accident, IAEA-TECDOC955, 1997
[11] page 173 Generic Assessment Procedures for Determining Protective Actions During a Reactor Accident, IAEA-TECDOC955, 1997
[12] page 171 Generic Assessment Procedures for Determining Protective Actions During a Reactor Accident, IAEA-TECDOC955, 1997
[13] A. Preston, J.W.R. Dutton and B.R. Harvey, Nature, 1968, 218, 689-690.
[14] Plus radium (element 88). While actually a sub-actinide, it immediately precedes actinium (89) and follows a three element
gap of instability after polonium (84) where no isotopes have half-lives of at least four years (the longest-lived isotope in
the gap is radon-222 with a half life of less than four days). Radium’s longest lived isotope, at a notable 1600 years, thus
merits the element’s inclusion here.
[15] Specifically from thermal neutron fission of U-235, e.g. in a typical nuclear reactor.
[16] Milsted, J.; Friedman, A. M.; Stevens, C. M. (1965). “The alpha half-life of berkelium-247; a new long-lived isomer of
berkelium-248”. Nuclear Physics 71 (2): 299. doi:10.1016/0029-5582(65)90719-4.
“The isotopic analyses disclosed a species of mass 248 in constant abundance in three samples analysed over a period of
about 10 months. This was ascribed to an isomer of Bk248 with a half-life greater than 9 y. No growth of Cf248 was
detected, and a lower limit for the β− half-life can be set at about 104 y. No alpha activity attributable to the new isomer
has been detected; the alpha half-life is probably greater than 300 y.”
[17] This is the heaviest isotope with a half-life of at least four years before the "Sea of Instability".
[18] Excluding those "classically stable" isotopes with half-lives significantly in excess of 232 Th, e.g. while 113m Cd has a half-life
of only fourteen years, that of 113 Cd is nearly eight quadrillion.
[19] M. I. Ojovan, W.E. Lee. An Introduction to Nuclear Waste Immobilisation, Elsevier Science Publishers B.V., ISBN 0-08044462-8, Amsterdam, 315pp. (2005).
[20] Harvey, L.D.D. (2010). Energy and the New Reality 2: Carbon-Free Energy Supply- section 8.4. Earthscan. ISBN
9781849710732.
[21] Dyck, Peter; Crijns, Martin J. “Management of Spent Fuel at Nuclear Power Plants”. IAEA Bulletin. Retrieved 2008-01-15.
[22] Warin D.; Konings R.J.M; Haas D.; Maritin P.; Bonnerot J-M.; Vambenepe G.;Schram R.P.C.;Kuijper J.C.; Bakker K.;
Conrad R. (October 2002). “The Preparation of the EFTTRA-T5 Americium Transmutation Experiment” (PDF). Seventh
Information Exchange Meeting on Actinide and Fission Product Partitioning and Transmutation. Retrieved 2008-01-15.
[23] Gudowski, W. (August 2000). “Why Accelerator-Driven Transmutation of Wastes Enables Future Nuclear Power?" (PDF).
XX International Linac Conference. Retrieved 2008-01-15.
[24] Heighway, E. A. (1994-08-01). “An overview of accelerator-driven transmutation technology” (PDF). Retrieved 2008-0115.
[25] “Accelerator-driven Systems (ADS) and Fast Reactors (FR) in Advanced Nuclear Fuel Cycles” (PDF). Nuclear Energy
Agency. Retrieved 2008-01-15.
[26] Brolly Á.;Vértes P. (March 2005). “Concept of a Small-scale Electron Accelerator Driven System for Nuclear Waste
Transmutation Part 2. Investigation of burnup” (PDF). Retrieved 2008-01-15.
[27] See thorium fuel cycle
[28] See Thorium occurrence for discussion of abundance.
[29] Dr. Chidambaram R. (1997). “Towards an Energy Independent India”. Nu-Power. Nuclear Power Corporation of India
Limited. Archived from the original on 2007-12-17. Retrieved 2008-01-15.

4.6 External links
• World Nuclear Transport Institute

Chapter 5

Fusion power

The Sun is a natural fusion reactor.

Fusion power is the energy generated by nuclear fusion processes. In fusion reactions, two light atomic nuclei fuse
to form a heavier nucleus (in contrast with fission power). In doing so they release a comparatively large amount of
energy arising from the binding energy due to the strong nuclear force that is manifested as an increase in temperature
of the reactants. Fusion power is a primary area of research in plasma physics.
Fusion energy is released by stars - see stellar nucleosynthesis - and generated all heavy atoms in the known universe.
It is also released when hydrogen bombs - which use fission only to detonate a fusion explosion - explode. Despite
the lack of commercial viability at present, many candidate power reactions are proven in labs. The fusion reactions
all occur naturally inside stars and artificially inside bombs. Thus, there is no credible scientific objection to fusion
power, it is clearly and only a technological, economic and social (use or abuse of the power released) set of issues. A
reasonable concern is whether small fusion reactors could be used as explosive devices. This may be a factor steering
institutional research to larger scale design.
Fusion power research seeks the commercial production of net usable power from a fusion source, similar to the
98

5.1. BACKGROUND

99

usage of the term "steam power". The primary problem is confining the fusion reaction so it continues using its own
energy. Leading designs for controlled fusion research use magnetic (tokamak design) or inertial (laser) confinement
of a plasma. Both approaches are still under development and are years away from commercial operation. A few
other models such as purely inertial confinement using centrifugal force are being explored for heavier fusion fuel
such as liquid lithium, but these are not thought suitable for large scale power plants.
In most large scale commercial proposals, heat from the fusion reaction is used to operate a steam turbine that drives
electrical generators, as in existing fossil fuel and nuclear fission power stations. Smaller scale reactors however often
propose to use much simpler thermocouples - with no moving parts or hot liquids - to generate electricity from heat
at a lower electrical efficiency, but with more safety and smaller size. Smaller fission reactors such as those on nuclear
submarines have proven this approach, and research into materials suitable for fusion date back to at least 1981 .
Because of the variety of fusion reactions, the potential use of solid boron or liquid lithium fuel, a non-radioactive
supply and minimally radioactive waste chain, smaller reactors may be deployed outside the military without these
concerns, which have inhibited small uranium reactors.
However, fusion reactions do have their own radiation concerns. In small fusors, fast neutron radiation is released by
the fusion reaction, but bremsstrahlung x-ray radiation caused by the slowing down of electrons is the primary human
hazard.
If neutrons convey the energy released, then whatever medium absorbs the neutron scattering eventually becomes
mildly radioactive and must also be disposed of, e.g. ordinary water becomes heavy water. In a fusion supply chain
heavy water is actually useful again as a fuel, making a breeder reactor style of design more practical. However
the overall complexity of this design has proven problematic in fission reactors such as the CANDU and may be
uneconomic. It may be possible to retrofit turbines of existing fission reactors for thorium fission and for fusionbased neutron scatter.
However, aneutronic fusion and minimal neutron energy reactions such as proton-boron have received more research
attention in the 2010s, largely for their potential to create small clean portable energy sources without neutron pollution.

5.1 Background
Main article: Nuclear fusion

5.1.1

Mechanism

Fusion happens when two (or more) nuclei come close enough for the strong nuclear force to exceed the electrostatic
force and pull them together. This process takes light nuclei and forms a heavier one, through a nuclear reaction. For
nuclei lighter than iron-56 this is exothermic and releases energy. For nuclei heavier than iron-56 this is endothermic
and requires an external source of energy.[1] Hence, nuclei smaller than iron-56 are more likely to fuse while those
heavier than iron-56 are more likely to break apart.
To fuse, nuclei must overcome the repulsive Coulomb force. This is a force caused by the nuclei containing positively
charged protons that repel via the electromagnetic force. To overcome this "Coulomb barrier", the atoms must have
a high kinetic energy. There are several ways of doing this, including heating or acceleration. Once an atom is
heated above its ionization energy, its electrons are stripped away, leaving just the bare nucleus: the ion. Most fusion
experiments use a hot cloud of ions and electrons. This cloud is known as a plasma. Most fusion reactions produce
neutrons, which can be detected and degrade materials.
Theoretically, any atom could be fused, if enough pressure and temperature was applied.[2] Mankind has studied
many high energy fusion reactions, using particles beams.[3] These are fired at a target. For a power plant, however,
we are currently limited to only the light elements. Hydrogen is ideal: because of its small charge, it is the easiest
atom to fuse. This reaction produces helium.

5.1.2

Cross section

A reaction’s cross section, (denoted σ) is the measure of how likely a fusion reaction will happen. It is a probability,
and it depends on the velocity of the two nuclei when they strike one another. If the atoms move faster, fusion is

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CHAPTER 5. FUSION POWER

9

Average binding energy per nucleon (MeV)

O 16
8 C 12
7
6
5

U 235
U 238

Fe 56

He 4

Li 7
Li 6

4
3

H3
He 3

2
2
1 H
1
0 H
0

30

60

90
120
150
180
Number of nucleons in nucleus

210

240

270

Binding energy for different atoms. Iron-56 has the highest, making it the most stable. Atoms to the left are likely to fuse; atoms to
the right are likely to split.

more likely. If the atoms hit head on, fusion is more likely. Cross sections for many different fusion reactions were
measured mainly in the 1970s using particle beams.[3] A beam of species A was fired at species B at different speeds,
and the amount of neutrons coming off was measured. Neutrons are a key product of fusion reactions. These nuclei
are flying around in a hot cloud, with some distribution of velocities. If the plasma is thermalized, then the distribution
looks like a bell curve, or maxwellian distribution. In this case, it is useful to take the average cross section over the
velocity distribution. This is entered into the volumetric fusion rate:[4]

Pfusion = nA nB ⟨σvA,B ⟩Efusion
where:
• Pfusion is the energy made by fusion, per time and volume
• n is the number density of species A or B, the particles in the volume
• ⟨σvA,B ⟩ is the cross section of that reaction, average over all the velocities of the two species v
• Efusion is the energy released by that fusion reaction.

5.1.3

Lawson criterion

This equation shows that energy varies with the temperature, density, speed of collision, and fuel used. To reach
net power, fusion reactions have to occur fast enough to make up for energy losses. Any power plant using fusion
will hold in this hot cloud. Plasma clouds lose energy through conduction and radiation.[4] Conduction is when ions,
electrons or neutrals touch a surface and leak out. Energy is lost with the particle. Radiation is when energy leaves
the cloud as light. Radiation increases as the temperature rises. To get net power from fusion, you must overcome
these losses. This leads to an equation for power output.

Pout = ηcapture (Pfusion − Pconduction − Pradiation )

5.1. BACKGROUND

101

The fusion reaction rate increases rapidly with temperature until it maximizes and then gradually drops off. The deuterium-tritium
fusion rate peaks at a lower temperature (about 70 keV, or 800 million kelvin) and at a higher value than other reactions commonly
considered for fusion energy.

where:
• η, is the efficiency with which the plant captures energy
John Lawson used this equation to estimate some conditions for net power [4] based on a Maxwellian cloud.[4] This
is the Lawson criterion.

5.1.4

Density, temperature, time: ntτ

The Lawson criterion argues that a machine holding in a hot, thermalized and quasi-neutral plasma, has to meet
basic criteria to overcome the radiation losses, conduction losses and a power plant efficiency of 30 percent.[4][5]
This became known as the “triple product": the plasma density and temperature and how long it is held in.[6] For
many years, work has been focused on reaching the highest triple product possible. This emphasis on (ntτ ) as a
metric of success, has hurt other considerations like cost, size, complexity and efficiency. This has led to larger, more
complicated and more expensive machines like ITER and NIF.

5.1.5

Energy capture

There are several proposals for energy capture. The simplest is using a heat cycle to heat a fluid with fusion reactions.
It has been proposed to use the neutrons generated by fusion to re-generate a spent fission fuel.[7] In addition, direct
energy conversion, has been developed (at LLNL in the 1980s) as a method to maintain a voltage using the products
of a fusion reaction. This has demonstrated an energy capture efficiency of 48 percent.[8]

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5.2 Possible approaches
Resonant cavity solves problem.. One approach, not yet explored, is to combine a tokamak with a tuned magnetic
field such that the resonant cavity contains the temperature for a finite but very short time. During this period there
will be a net energy gain.

5.2.1

Magnetic confinement fusion

Tokamak The most well developed and well funded approach to fusion energy. As of January 2011 there were
an estimated 177 tokamak experiments either planned, decommissioned or currently operating, worldwide.[9] This
method races hot plasma around in a magnetically confined ring. When completed, ITER will be the world’s largest
Tokamak.
Stellarator These are twisted rings of hot plasma. Stellarators are distinct from tokamak in that they are not azimuthally symmetric. Instead, they have a discrete rotational symmetry, often fivefold, like a regular pentagon.
Stellarators were developed by Lyman Spitzer in 1950. There are four designs: Torsatron, Heliotron, Heliac and
Helias.
Levitated Dipole Experiment (LDX) These use a solid superconducting torus. This is magnetically levitated inside
the reactor chamber. The superconductor forms an axisymmetric magnetic field that contains the plasma. The LDX
was developed between MIT and Columbia University after 2000 by Jay Kesner and Michael E. Mauel.[10]
Magnetic mirror Developed by Richard F. Post and teams at LLNL in the 1960s.[11] Magnetic mirrors reflected
hot plasma back and forth in a line. Variations included the magnetic bottle and the biconic cusp.[12] A series of
well-funded, large, mirror machines were built by the US government in the 1970s and 1980s.
Field-reversed configuration This device confines a plasma on closed magnetic field lines without a central penetration.[13]

5.2.2

Inertial confinement fusion

Direct drive In this technique, lasers directly blast a pellet of fuel. The goal is to start ignition, a fusion chain reaction.
Ignition was first suggested by John Nuckolls, in 1972.[14] Notable direct drive experiments have been conducted at
the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, Laser Mégajoule and the GEKKO XII facilities.
Fast ignition This method uses two laser blasts. The first blast compresses the fusion fuel, while the second high
energy pulse ignites it. Experiments have been conducted at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics using the Omega
and Omega EP systems.
Indirect drive In this technique, lasers blasts a structure around the pellet of fuel. This structure is known as a
Hohlraum. As it disintegrates the pellet is bathed in a more uniform x-ray light, creating better compression. The
largest system using this method is the National Ignition Facility.
Magneto-inertial fusion This technique, combines laser pulses with the magnetic pinch to compress and confine an
imploding plasma cloud.[15] The field traps heat within the core, which improves the fusion rates. A similar concept
is the magnetized target fusion device, which uses a magnetic field in an external metal shell to achieve the same basic
goals.

5.2.3

Magnetic pinches

Z-Pinch This method sends a strong current (in the z-direction) through the plasma. The current generates a magnetic field that squeezes the plasma to fusion conditions. Pinches were the first method for man-made controlled
fusion.[16][17] Some examples include the Dense plasma focus and the Z machine at Sandia National Laboratories.
Theta-Pinch This method sends a current inside a plasma, in the theta direction.

5.2.4

Inertial electrostatic confinement

Fusor This method uses an electric field to heat ions to fusion conditions. The machine typically uses two spherical
cages, a cathode inside the anode, inside a vacuum. These machines are not considered a viable approach to net power

5.3. HISTORY OF RESEARCH

103

due to their high conduction and radiation[18] losses. They are simple enough to build that amateurs have fused atoms
using them.[19]
Polywell This designs attempts to combine magnetic confinement with electrostatic fields, to avoid the conduction
losses generated by the cage.[20] This research, however, is immature and under developed.

5.2.5

Other

Magnetized target fusionThis method confines hot plasma using a magnetic field and squeezes it using inertia.
Examples include LANL FRX-L machine [21] and General Fusion device.
Uncontrolled Fusion has been initiated by man, using uncontrolled fission explosions. Early proposals for fusion
power included using bombs to initiate reactions.
Beam fusion A beam of high energy particles can be fired at another beam or target and fusion will occur. This was
used in the 1970s and 80’s to study the cross sections of high energy fusion reactions.[3]
Bubble fusion This was a supposed fusion reaction that was supposed to occur inside extraordinarily large collapsing
gas bubbles, created during acoustic liquid cavitation.[22]
Cold fusion This is a hypothetical type of nuclear reaction that would occur at, or near, room temperature. Cold
fusion has gained a reputation as Pathological science.[23][24]
Muon-catalyzed fusion Muons allow atoms to get much closer and thus reduce the kinetic energy required to initiate fusion. Muons require more energy to produce than can be obtained from muon-catalysed fusion, making this
approach impractical for the generation of power[25]

5.3 History of research
5.3.1

1920s

Research into nuclear fusion started in the early part of the 20th century. In 1920 the British physicist Francis William
Aston discovered that the total mass equivalent of four hydrogen atoms (two protons and two neutrons) are heavier
than the total mass of one helium atom (He-4), which implied that net energy can be released by combining hydrogen
atoms together to form helium, and provided the first hints of a mechanism by which stars could produce energy
in the quantities being measured. Through the 1920s, Arthur Stanley Eddington became a major proponent of the
proton–proton chain reaction (PP reaction) as the primary system running the Sun.

5.3.2

1930s

A theory was verified by Hans Bethe in 1939 showing that beta decay and quantum tunneling in the Sun’s core might
convert one of the protons into a neutron and thereby producing deuterium rather than a diproton. The deuterium
would then fuse through other reactions to further increase the energy output. For this work, Bethe won the Nobel
Prize in Physics.

5.3.3

1940s

In 1942, nuclear fusion research was subsumed into the Manhattan Project and the science became obscured by the
secrecy surrounding the field. The first patent related to a fusion reactor was registered in 1946[26] by the United
Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, the inventors being Sir George Paget Thomson and Moses Blackman. This was
the first detailed examination of the Z-pinch concept, and small efforts to experiment with it started at several sites in
the UK.
Pinch was first developed in the UK in the immediate post-war era. Starting in 1947 small experiments were carried
out and plans were laid to build a much larger machine. Two teams were quickly formed and began a series of
ever-larger experiments. When the Huemul results hit the news, James L. Tuck, a UK physicist working at Los
Alamos, introduced the pinch concept in the US and produced a series of machines known as the Perhapsatron. In
the Soviet Union, unbeknownst to the west, a series of similar machines were being built. All of these devices quickly

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demonstrated a series of instabilities when the pinch was applied, which broke up the plasma column long before it
reached the densities and temperatures required for fusion. In 1953 Tuck and others suggested a number of solutions
to these problems.
A major area of study in early fusion power research is the "pinch" concept. Pinch is based on the fact that plasmas
are electrically conducting. By running a current through the plasma, a magnetic field will be generated around the
plasma. This field will, according to Lenz’s law, create an inward directed force that causes the plasma to collapse
inward, raising its density. Denser plasmas generate denser magnetic fields, increasing the inward force, leading to
a chain reaction. If the conditions are correct, this can lead to the densities and temperatures needed for fusion.
The difficulty is getting the current into the plasma, which would normally melt any sort of mechanical electrode.
A solution emerges again due to the conducting nature of the plasma; by placing the plasma in the middle of an
electromagnet, induction can be used to generate the current.

5.3.4

1950s

The first man-made device to achieve ignition was the detonation of this fission device, codenamed Ivy Mike.

The first successful man-made fusion device was the boosted fission weapon tested in 1951 in the Greenhouse Item
test. This was followed by true fusion weapons in 1952’s Ivy Mike, and the first practical examples in 1954’s Castle
Bravo. This was uncontrolled fusion. In these devices, the energy released by the fission explosion is used to compress
and heat fusion fuel, starting a fusion reaction. Fusion releases neutrons. These neutrons hit the surrounding fission
fuel, causing the atoms to split apart much faster than normal fission processes - almost instantly by comparison.
This increases the effectiveness of bombs: normal fission weapons blow themselves apart before all their fuel is used;
fusion/fission weapons do not have this practical upper limit.
In 1951, Lyman Spitzer began work on a stellarator under the code name Project Matterhorn. His work led to the
creation of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Spitzer planned an aggressive development project of four
machines, A, B, C, and D. A and B were small research devices, C would be the prototype of a power-producing
machine, and D would be the prototype of a commercial device. A worked without issue, but even by the time B was
being used it was clear the stellarator was also suffering from instabilities and plasma leakage. Progress on C slowed
as attempts were made to correct for these problems.

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105

Early photo of plasma inside a pinch machine (imperial college 1950/1951)

Around the same time, an expatriate German Ronald Richter proposed the Huemul Project in Argentina, announcing
positive results in 1951. Although these results turned out to be false, it sparked off intense interest around the world.
The UK pinch programs were greatly expanded, culminating in the ZETA and Sceptre devices. In the US, pinch
experiments like those in the UK started at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Similar devices were built in the
USSR after data on the UK program was passed to them by Klaus Fuchs. At Princeton University a new approach
developed as the stellarator, and the research establishment formed there continues to this day as the Princeton Plasma
Physics Laboratory.
By the mid-1950s it was clear that the simple theoretical tools being used to calculate the performance of all fusion machines were simply not predicting their actual behavior. Machines invariably leaked their plasma from their
confinement area at rates far higher than predicted.
In 1954, Edward Teller held a gathering of fusion researchers at the Princeton Gun Club, near the Project Matterhorn
(now known as Project Sherwood) grounds. Teller started by pointing out the problems that everyone was having,
and suggested that any system where the plasma was confined within concave fields was doomed to fail. Attendees
remember him saying something to the effect that the fields were like rubber bands, and they would attempt to snap
back to a straight configuration whenever the power was increased, ejecting the plasma. He went on to say that
it appeared the only way to confine the plasma in a stable configuration would be to use convex fields, a “cusp”
configuration.[27]
When the meeting concluded, most of the researchers quickly turned out papers saying why Teller’s concerns did not
apply to their particular device. The pinch machines did not use magnetic fields in this way at all, while the mirror
and stellarator seemed to have various ways out. This was soon followed by a paper by Martin David Kruskal and
Martin Schwarzschild discussing pinch machines, however, which demonstrated instabilities in those devices were
inherent to the design.
The largest “classic” pinch device was the ZETA, including all of these suggested upgrades, starting operations in the
UK in 1957. In early 1958, John Cockcroft announced that fusion had been achieved in the ZETA, an announcement that made headlines around the world. When physicists in the US expressed concerns about the claims they
were initially dismissed. US experiments soon demonstrated the same neutrons, although temperature measurements
suggested these could not be from fusion reactions. The neutrons seen in the UK were later demonstrated to be from
different versions of the same instability processes that plagued earlier machines. Cockcroft was forced to retract the
fusion claims, and the entire field was tainted for years. ZETA ended its experiments in 1968.

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The first controlled fusion experiment was accomplished using Scylla I at the Los Alamos National Laboratory
in 1958. This was a pinch machine, with a cylinder full of deuterium. Electric current shot down the sides of the
cylinder. The current made magnetic fields that compressed the plasma to 15 million degrees Celsius, squeezed the
gas, fused it and produced neutrons.[16][17]
In 1950–1951 I.E. Tamm and A.D. Sakharov in the Soviet Union, first discussed a tokamak-like approach. Experimental research on those designs began in 1956 at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow by a group of Soviet scientists
led by Lev Artsimovich. The tokamak essentially combined a low-power pinch device with a low-power simple
stellarator. The key was to combine the fields in such a way that the particles orbited within the reactor a particular number of times, today known as the "safety factor". The combination of these fields dramatically improved
confinement times and densities, resulting in huge improvements over existing devices.

5.3.5

1960s

A key plasma physics text was published by Lyman Spitzer at Princeton in 1963.[28] Spitzer took the ideal gas laws
and adopted them to an ionized plasma, developing many of the fundamental equations used to model a plasma.
Laser fusion was suggested in 1962 by scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, shortly after the invention of the laser itself in 1960. At the time, Lasers were low power machines, but low-level research began as
early as 1965. Laser fusion, formally known as inertial confinement fusion, involves imploding a target by using laser
beams. There are two ways to do this: indirect drive and direct drive. In direct drive, the laser blasts a pellet of fuel.
In indirect drive, the lasers blast a structure around the fuel. This makes x-rays that squeeze the fuel. Both methods
compress the fuel so that fusion can take place.
At the 1964 World’s Fair, the public was given its first demonstration of nuclear fusion.[29] The device was a θ-pinch
from General Electric. This was similar to the Scylla machine developed earlier at Los Alamos.
The magnetic mirror was first published in 1967 by Richard F. Post and many others at the Lawrence Livermore
National Laboratory.[11] The mirror consisted of two large magnets arranged so they had strong fields within them,
and a weaker, but connected, field between them. Plasma introduced in the area between the two magnets would
“bounce back” from the stronger fields in the middle.
The A.D. Sakharov group constructed the first tokamaks, the most successful being the T-3 and its larger version
T-4. T-4 was tested in 1968 in Novosibirsk, producing the world’s first quasistationary fusion reaction.[30] When
this were first announced, the international community was highly skeptical. A British team was invited to see T3, however, and after measuring it in depth they released their results that confirmed the Soviet claims. A burst of
activity followed as many planned devices were abandoned and new tokamaks were introduced in their place — the C
model stellarator, then under construction after many redesigns, was quickly converted to the Symmetrical Tokamak.
In his work with vacuum tubes, Philo Farnsworth observed that electric charge would accumulate in regions of the
tube. Today, this effect is known as the Multipactor effect.[31] Farnsworth reasoned that if ions were concentrated high
enough they could collide and fuse. In 1962, he filed a patent on a design using a positive inner cage to concentrate
plasma, in order to achieve nuclear fusion.[32] During this time, Robert L. Hirsch joined the Farnsworth Television
labs and began work on what became the fusor. Hirsch patented the design in 1966[33] and published the design in
1967.[34]

5.3.6

1970s

In 1972, John Nuckolls outlined the idea of ignition.[14] This is a fusion chain reaction. Hot helium made during
fusion reheats the fuel and starts more reactions. John argued that ignition would require lasers of about 1 kJ. This
turned out to be wrong. Nuckolls’s paper started a major development effort. Several laser systems were built at
LLNL. These included the argus, the Cyclops, the Janus, the long path, the Shiva laser and the Nova in 1984. This
prompted the UK to build the Central Laser Facility in 1976.[35]
During this time, great strides in understanding the tokamak system were made. A number of improvements to the
design are now part of the “advanced tokamak” concept, which includes non-circular plasma, internal diverters and
limiters, often superconducting magnets, and operate in the so-called “H-mode” island of increased stability. Two
other designs have also become fairly well studied; the compact tokamak is wired with the magnets on the inside of
the vacuum chamber, while the spherical tokamak reduces its cross section as much as possible.
In the mid-1970s, Project PACER, carried out at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) explored the possibility

5.3. HISTORY OF RESEARCH

107

Shiva laser, 1977, the largest ICF laser system built in the seventies

of a fusion power system that would involve exploding small hydrogen bombs (fusion bombs) inside an underground
cavity.[36] As an energy source, the system is the only fusion power system that could be demonstrated to work
using existing technology. It would also require a large, continuous supply of nuclear bombs, however, making the
economics of such a system rather questionable.
In 1974 a study of the ZETA results demonstrated an interesting side-effect; after an experimental run ended, the
plasma would enter a short period of stability. This led to the reversed field pinch concept, which has seen some level
of development since.

5.3.7

1980s

As a result of advocacy, the cold war, and the 1970s energy crisis a massive magnetic mirror program was funded by
the US federal government in the late 70’s and early 80’s. This program resulted in a series of large magnetic mirror
devices including: 2X,[37] Baseball I, Baseball II, the Tandem Mirror Experiment, the Tandem mirror experiment
upgrade, the Mirror Fusion Test Facility and the MFTF-B. These machines were built and tested at Livermore from
the late 60’s to the mid 80’s.[38][39] A number of institutions collaborated on these machines, conducting experiments.
These included the Institute for Advanced Study and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The last machine, the
Mirror Fusion Test Facility cost 372 million dollars and was, at that time, the most expensive project in Livermore
history.[40] It opened on February 21, 1986 and was promptly shut down. The reason given was to balance the United

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Magnetic mirrors suffered from end losses, requiring high power, complex magnetic designs, such as the baseball coil pictured here.

States federal budget. This program was supported from within the Carter and early Reagan administrations by Edwin
E. Kintner, a US Navy captain, under Alvin Trivelpiece.[41]
In Laser fusion, efforts focused on either fast delivery or beam smoothness. Both tried to deliver the energy uniformly
to implode the target. One early problem was that the light in the infrared wavelength, lost lots of energy before
hitting the fuel. Breakthroughs were also made at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at the University of Rochester.
Rochester scientists used frequency-tripling crystals to transform the infrared laser beams into ultraviolet beams.
In 1985, Donna Strickland[42] and Gérard Mourou invented a method to amplify lasers pulses by “chirping”. This
method changes a single wavelength into a full spectrum. The system then amplifies the laser at each wavelength and
then reconstitutes the beam into one color. Chirp pulsed amplification became instrumental in building the National
Ignition Facility and the Omega EP system. Most research into ICF was towards weapons research, because the
implosion is relevant to nuclear weapons.
During this time Los Alamos National Laboratory constructed a series of laser facilities.[43] This included Gemini (a
two beam system), Helios (eight beams), Antares (24 beams) and Aurora (96 beams).[44][45] The program ended in
the early nineties with a cost on the order of one billion dollars.[43]
In 1989, Pons and Fleischmann submitted papers to the Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry claiming that they
had observed fusion in a room temperature device and disclosing their work in a press release.[46] Some scientists
reported excess heat, neutrons, tritium, helium and other nuclear effects in so-called cold fusion systems, which for a
time gained interest as showing promise. Hopes fell when replication failures were weighed in view of several reasons
cold fusion is not likely to occur, the discovery of possible sources of experimental error, and finally the discovery
that Fleischmann and Pons had not actually detected nuclear reaction byproducts.[47] By late 1989, most scientists
considered cold fusion claims dead,[48] and cold fusion subsequently gained a reputation as pathological science.[49]
However, a small community of researchers continues to investigate cold fusion[48][50][51][52] claiming to replicate
Fleishmann and Pons’ results including nuclear reaction byproducts.[53][54] Claims related to cold fusion are largely
disbelieved in the mainstream scientific community.[55] In 1989, the majority of a review panel organized by the US
Department of Energy (DOE) found that the evidence for the discovery of a new nuclear process was not persuasive.
A second DOE review, convened in 2004 to look at new research, reached conclusions similar to the first.[56]

5.3. HISTORY OF RESEARCH

109

The magnetic mirror test facility during construction

5.3.8

1990s

In 1991 the Preliminary Tritium Experiment at the Joint European Torus in England achieved the world’s first
controlled release of fusion power.[57]
In 1992, a major article was published in physics today by Robert McCory at the Laboratory for laser energetics
outlying the current state of ICF and advocating for a national ignition facility.[58] This was followed up by a major
review article, from John Lindl in 1995,[59] advocating for NIF. During this time a number of ICF subsystems were
developing, including target manufacturing, cryogenic handling systems, new laser designs (notably the NIKE laser
at NRL) and improved diagnostics like time of flight analyzers and Thomson scattering. This work was done at the
NOVA laser system, General Atomics, Laser Mégajoule and the GEKKO XII system in Japan. Through this work
and lobbying by groups like the fusion power associates and John Sethian at NRL, a vote was made in congress,
authorizing funding for the NIF project in the late nineties.
In the early nineties, theory and experimental work regarding fusors and polywells was published.[60][61] In response,
Todd Rider at MIT developed general models of these devices.[62] Rider argued that all plasma systems at thermodynamic equilibrium were fundamentally limited. In 1995, William Nevins published a criticism [63] arguing that the
particles inside fusors and polywells would build up angular momentum, causing the dense core to degrade.
In 1995, the University of Wisconsin–Madison built a large fusor, known as HOMER, which is still in operation.[64]
Meanwhile, Dr George H. Miley at Illinois, built a small fusor that has produced neutrons using deuterium gas [65]
and discovered the “star mode” of fusor operation.[66] The following year, the first “US-Japan Workshop on IEC
Fusion”, was conducted. At this time in Europe, an IEC device was developed as a commercial neutron source by
Daimler-Chrysler and NSD Fusion.[67][68]
In 1996, the Z-machine was upgraded and opened to the public by the US Army in August 1998 in Scientific
American.[69][70] The key attributes of Sandia’s Z machine[71] are its 18 million amperes and a discharge time of
less than 100 nanoseconds. This generates a magnetic pulse, inside a large oil tank, this strikes an array of tungsten
wires called a liner.[72] Firing the Z-machine has become a way to test very high energy, high temperature (2 billion
degrees) conditions.[73]

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Inertial confinement fusion implosion on the Nova laser during the 80’s was a key driver of fusion development.

5.3. HISTORY OF RESEARCH

111

Z Machine (A pinch at SNL) went through a number of upgrades during the mid to late ninities

In 1997, JET produced a peak of 16.1MW of fusion power (65% of input power), with fusion power of over 10MW
sustained for over 0.5 sec. Its successor, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), was officially
announced as part of a seven-party consortium (six countries and the EU).[74] ITER is designed to produce ten times
more fusion power than the power put into the plasma. ITER is currently under construction in Cadarache, France.

5.3.9

2000s

In the March 8, 2002 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Science, Rusi P. Taleyarkhan and colleagues at the Oak
Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) reported that acoustic cavitation experiments conducted with deuterated acetone
(C3 D6 O) showed measurements of tritium and neutron output consistent with the occurrence of fusion.[80] Taleyarkhan was later found guilty of misconduct,[81] the Office of Naval Research debarred him for 28 months from
receiving Federal Funding,[82][83] and his name was listed in the 'Excluded Parties List'.[82]
“Fast ignition” was developed in the late nineties, and was part of a push by the Laboratory for Laser Energetics for
building the Omega EP system. This system was finished in 2008. Fast ignition showed such dramatic power savings
that ICF appears to be a useful technique for energy production. There are even proposals to build an experimental
facility dedicated to the fast ignition approach, known as HiPER.
In April 2005, a team from UCLA announced[84] it had devised a way of producing fusion using a machine that “fits
on a lab bench”, using lithium tantalate to generate enough voltage to smash deuterium atoms together. The process,
however, does not generate net power (see Pyroelectric fusion). Such a device would be useful in the same sort of
roles as the fusor.
In the early 2000s, Researchers at LANL reasoned that a plasma oscillating could be at local thermodynamic equilibrium. This prompted the POPS and Penning trap designs.[85][86] At this time, researchers at MIT became interested in
fusors for space propulsion[87] and powering space vehicles.[88] Specifically, researchers developed fusors with multiple inner cages. Greg Piefer graduated from Madison and founded Phoenix Nuclear Labs, a company that developed
the fusor into a neutron source for the mass production of medical isotopes.[89] Robert Bussard began speaking openly
about the Polywell in 2006.[90] He attempted to generate interest [91] in the research, before his death.
In 2009, a high-energy laser system, the National Ignition Facility (NIF), was created in the US, which can heat
hydrogen atoms to temperatures only existing in nature in the cores of stars. The new laser is expected to have the

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Mockup of a gold-plated hohlraum designed for use in the National Ignition Facility

ability to produce, for the first time, more energy from controlled, inertially confined nuclear fusion than was required
to initiate the reaction.[92]

5.3.10

2010s

In 2010, NIF researchers were conducting a series of “tuning” shots to determine the optimal target design and laser
parameters for high-energy ignition experiments with fusion fuel in the following months.[93] Two firing tests were
performed on 31 October 2010 and 2 November 2010. In early 2012, NIF director Mike Dunne expected the laser
system to generate fusion with net energy gain by the end of 2012.[94] Nonetheless, it was not achieved by that date

5.3. HISTORY OF RESEARCH

113

Starting in 1999, a growing number of amateurs have been able to fuse atoms using homemade fusors, shown here.[75][76][77][78][79]

The preamplifiers of the National Ignition Facility. In 2012 NIF achieved a 500 terawatt shot.

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due to delays.
Inertial (laser) confinement is being developed at the United States National Ignition Facility (NIF) based at Lawrence
Livermore National Laboratory in California, the French Laser Mégajoule, and the planned European Union High
Power laser Energy Research (HiPER) facility. NIF reached initial operational status in 2010 and has been in the
process of increasing the power and energy of its “shots”, with fusion ignition tests to follow.[95] A three year goal
announced in 2009 to produce net energy from fusion by 2012 was missed; in September 2013, however, the facility
announced a significant milestone from an August 2013 test that produced more energy from the fusion reaction than
had been provided to the fuel pellet. This was reported as the first time this had been accomplished in fusion power
research. The facility reported that their next step involved improving the system to prevent the hohlraum breaking
up asymmetrically or too soon.[96][97][98]
A 2012 paper demonstrated that a dense plasma focus had achieved temperatures of 1.8 billion degrees C, sufficient for
boron fusion, and that fusion reactions were occurring primarily within the contained plasmoid, a necessary condition
for net power.[99] The focus consists of two coaxial cylindrical electrodes made from copper or beryllium and housed
in a vacuum chamber containing a low-pressure fusible gas. An electrical pulse is applied across the electrodes,
heating the gas into a plasma. The current forms into a minuscule vortex along the axis of the machine, which then
kinks into a cage of current with an associated magnetic field. The cage of current and magnetic field entrapped
plasma is called a plasmoid. The acceleration of the electrons about the magnetic field lines heats the nuclei within
the plasmoid to fusion temperatures.
In September 2013 the NIF was widely acclaimed to have achieved a milestone in controlled fusion, by successfully
initiating a reaction that resulted in the release of more energy than the fuel absorbed — even if only for a fraction
of a second.[100] However, it was still far short of creating a self-sustaining reaction.[101] The process will need to be
made more efficient to yield commercially viable amounts of energy.[102]
In 2014, Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works announced the development of a high beta fusion reactor they expect to
yield a functioning 100 megawatt prototype by 2017 and to be ready for regular operation by 2022.[103][104][105] Deep
space exploration as well as higher-velocity lower-cost space transport services in general would be enabled by this
compact fusion reactor technology.[106]
In April 2014, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory ended the Laser Inertial Fusion Energy (LIFE) program
and redirected their efforts towards NIF.[107]

5.4 Fuels
By firing particle beams at targets, many fusion reactions have been tested, while the fuels considered for power have
all been light elements like the isotopes of hydrogen—deuterium and tritium.[3] Other reactions like the deuterium
and Helium3 reaction or the Helium3 and Helium3 reactions, would require a supply of Helium3 . This can either
come from other nuclear reactions or from extraterrestrial sources. Finally, researchers hope to do the p-11B reaction,
because it does not directly produce neutrons, though side reactions can.[108]

5.4.1

Deuterium, tritium

The easiest nuclear reaction, at the lowest energy, is:
2
1D + 3
1T → 4
2He + 1
0n
This reaction is common in research, industrial and military applications, usually as a convenient source of neutrons.
Deuterium is a naturally occurring isotope of hydrogen and is commonly available. The large mass ratio of the
hydrogen isotopes makes their separation easy compared to the difficult uranium enrichment process. Tritium is
a natural isotope of hydrogen, but due to its short half-life of 12.32 years, is hard to find, store, produce, and is
expensive. Consequently, the deuterium-tritium fuel cycle requires the breeding of tritium from lithium using one of
the following reactions:

5.4. FUELS

115

2

H

3

H

4

He + 3.5 MeV

n + 14.1 MeV
Diagram of the D-T reaction

1
0n + 6
3Li → 3
1T + 4
2He
1
0n + 7
3Li → 3
1T + 4
2He + 1
0n
The reactant neutron is supplied by the D-T fusion reaction shown above, and the one that has the greatest yield of
energy. The reaction with 6 Li is exothermic, providing a small energy gain for the reactor. The reaction with 7 Li is

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endothermic but does not consume the neutron. At least some 7 Li reactions are required to replace the neutrons lost
to absorption by other elements. Most reactor designs use the naturally occurring mix of lithium isotopes.
Several drawbacks are commonly attributed to D-T fusion power:
1. It produces substantial amounts of neutrons that result in the neutron activation of the reactor materials.[109]
2. Only about 20% of the fusion energy yield appears in the form of charged particles with the remainder carried
off by neutrons, which limits the extent to which direct energy conversion techniques might be applied.[110]
3. It requires the handling of the radioisotope tritium. Similar to hydrogen, tritium is difficult to contain and
may leak from reactors in some quantity. Some estimates suggest that this would represent a fairly large
environmental release of radioactivity.[111]
The neutron flux expected in a commercial D-T fusion reactor is about 100 times that of current fission power reactors,
posing problems for material design. After a series of D-T tests at JET, the vacuum vessel was sufficiently radioactive
that remote handling was required for the year following the tests.[112]
In a production setting, the neutrons would be used to react with lithium in order to create more tritium. This also
deposits the energy of the neutrons in the lithium, which would then be transferred to drive electrical production. The
lithium neutron absorption reaction protects the outer portions of the reactor from the neutron flux. Newer designs,
the advanced tokamak in particular, also use lithium inside the reactor core as a key element of the design. The
plasma interacts directly with the lithium, preventing a problem known as “recycling”. The advantage of this design
was demonstrated in the Lithium Tokamak Experiment.

5.4.2

Deuterium, deuterium

This fuel is commonly used by amateurs who fuse. This is second easiest fusion reaction, fusing of deuterium with
itself. This reaction has two branches that occur with nearly equal probability:

This reaction is also common in research. The optimum energy to initiate this reaction is 15 keV, only slightly higher
than the optimum for the D-T reaction. The first branch does not produce neutrons, but it does produce tritium, so
that a D-D reactor will not be completely tritium-free, even though it does not require an input of tritium or lithium.
Unless the tritons can be quickly removed, most of the tritium produced would be burned before leaving the reactor,
which would reduce the handling of tritium, but would produce more neutrons, some of which are very energetic.
The neutron from the second branch has an energy of only 2.45 MeV (0.393 pJ), whereas the neutron from the D-T
reaction has an energy of 14.1 MeV (2.26 pJ), resulting in a wider range of isotope production and material damage.
When the tritons are removed quickly while allowing the 3 He to react, the fuel cycle is called “tritium suppressed
fusion”[113] The removed tritium decays to 3 He with a 12.5 year half life. By recycling the 3 He produced from the
decay of tritium back into the fusion reactor, the fusion reactor does not require materials resistant to fast 14.1 MeV
(2.26 pJ) neutrons.
Assuming complete tritium burn-up, the reduction in the fraction of fusion energy carried by neutrons would be
only about 18%, so that the primary advantage of the D-D fuel cycle is that tritium breeding would not be required.
Other advantages are independence from scarce lithium resources and a somewhat softer neutron spectrum. The
disadvantage of D-D compared to D-T is that the energy confinement time (at a given pressure) must be 30 times
longer and the power produced (at a given pressure and volume) would be 68 times less .
Assuming complete removal of tritium and recycling of 3 He, only 6% of the fusion energy is carried by neutrons.
The tritium-suppressed D-D fusion requires an energy confinement that is 10 times longer compared to D-T and a
plasma temperature that is twice as high.[114]

5.4.3

Deuterium, helium 3

A second-generation approach to controlled fusion power involves combining helium-3 (3 He) and deuterium (2 H):

5.5. HEATING

117

This reaction produces a helium-4 nucleus (4 He) and a high-energy proton. As with the p-11 B aneutronic fusion fuel
cycle, most of the reaction energy is released as charged particles, reducing activation of the reactor housing and
potentially allowing more efficient energy harvesting (via any of several speculative technologies). In practice, D-D
side reactions produce a significant number of neutrons, resulting in p-11 B being the preferred cycle for aneutronic
fusion.

5.4.4

Proton, boron 11

If aneutronic fusion is the goal, then the most promising candidate may be the Hydrogen-1 (proton)/boron reaction,
which releases alpha (helium) particles, but does not rely on neutron scattering for energy transfer.
1

H + 11 B → 3 4 He

Under reasonable assumptions, side reactions will result in about 0.1% of the fusion power being carried by neutrons.[115]
At 123 keV, the optimum temperature for this reaction is nearly ten times higher than that for the pure hydrogen
reactions, the energy confinement must be 500 times better than that required for the D-T reaction, and the power
density will be 2500 times lower than for D-T.
Since the confinement properties of conventional approaches to fusion such as the tokamak and laser pellet fusion
are marginal, most proposals for aneutronic fusion are based on radically different confinement concepts, such as the
Polywell and the Dense Plasma Focus. Results have been extremely promising:
“In the October 2013 edition of Nature Communications,[116] a research team led by Christine Labaune
at Ecole Polytechnique in Palaiseau, France, reported a new record fusion rate: an estimated 80 million
fusion reactions during the 1.5 nanoseconds that the laser fired, which is at least 100 times more than
any previous proton-boron experiment. "

5.5 Heating
Gas must be first heated to form a plasma. This then needs to be hot enough to start fusion reactions. A number of
heating schemes have been explored:[117]
Radiofrequency Heating A radio wave is applied to the plasma, causing it to oscillate.
Electrostatic Heating An electric field can do work on a charged ions or electrons, heating them.
Neutral Beam Injection Gas is heated and injected into the fusion device. It may be heated using an electric field
and then neutralized. After injection, it collides with particles the imparting energy.

5.6 Confinement
5.6.1

Unconfined

The first human-made, large-scale fusion reaction was the test of the hydrogen bomb, Ivy Mike, in 1952. As part
of the PACER project, it was once proposed to use hydrogen bombs as a source of power by detonating them in
underground caverns and then generating electricity from the heat produced, but such a power plant is unlikely ever
to be constructed.

5.6.2

General confinement principles

Confinement refers to all the conditions necessary to keep a plasma dense and hot long enough to undergo fusion:
• Equilibrium: The forces acting on the plasma must be balanced so that it will not rapidly disassemble. The
exception, of course, is inertial confinement, where the relevant physics must occur faster than the disassembly
time.

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National Ignition Facility
Typical Magnetic Fusion Energy projects
Inertial confinement fusion
Shiva laser Nova laser

Quality of confinement nτ, cm-3 sec

DT gain

10-5

10-4

10-3

10-2 10

-1

1

10

100

1015

1013

1011

0.1, 1

1.0, 10

10, 100

100, 1000

Ion temperature (keV, million °C)
Parameter space occupied by inertial fusion energy and magnetic fusion energy devices as of the mid 1990s. The regime allowing
thermonuclear ignition with high gain lies near the upper right corner of the plot.

• Stability: The plasma must be so constructed that small deviations are restored to the initial state, otherwise
some unavoidable disturbance will occur and grow exponentially until the plasma is destroyed.
• Transport: The loss of particles and heat in all channels must be sufficiently slow. The word “confinement” is
often used in the restricted sense of “energy confinement”.
Controlled fusion refers to the continuous power production from fusion, or at least the use of explosions that are
so small that they do not destroy a significant portion of the machine that produces them.[118] To produce selfsustaining fusion, the energy released by the reaction (or at least a fraction of it) must be used to heat new reactant
nuclei and keep them hot long enough that they also undergo fusion reactions. Retaining the energy is called energy
confinement and may be accomplished in a number of ways, Material, Gravitational, Electrostatic, Inertial, and
Magnetic Confinement.[119]

5.6.3

Inertial confinement

Inertial confinement is the use of rapidly imploding shell to heat and confine plasma. The shell is imploded using a
direct laser blast (direct drive) or a secondary x-ray blast (indirect drive). Theoretically, fusion using lasers would

5.7. MATERIAL SELECTION

119

be done using tiny pellets of fuel that explode several times a second. To induce the explosion, the pellet must
be compressed to about 30 times solid density with energetic beams. If direct drive is used - the beams are focused
directly on the pellet - it can in principle be very efficient, but in practice is difficult to obtain the needed uniformity.[120]
The alternative approach, indirect drive, uses beams to heat a shell, and then the shell radiates x-rays, which then
implode the pellet. The beams are commonly laser beams, but heavy and light ion beams and electron beams have
all been investigated.[121]
Inertial confinement produces plasmas with very high densities and temperatures making it suitable for weapons
research, X-ray generation and perhaps in the distant future, spaceflight . ICF implosions require fuel pellets with
close to a perfect shape in order to generate an symmetrical inward shock wave and to produce the high-density
plasma. These are known as targets and, building them has presented its own technical challenges.
A recent development in ICF research is fast ignition. This is the use of two laser systems to heat a compressed
targets. A conventional laser system compresses the pellet, after which a second ultrashort laser pulse heats the
compressed plasma. This burst has many petawatts of power. Fast ignition implodes the pellet at exactly the moment
of greatest density. Research into fast ignition has been carried out at the OMEGA EP petawatt and OMEGA lasers
at the University of Rochester and at the GEKKO XII laser at the institute for laser engineering in Osaka Japan. If
fruitful, it may have the effect of greatly reducing the cost of a laser fusion based power source.

5.6.4

Magnetic confinement

At the temperatures required for fusion, the fuel is heated to a plasma state. In this state it has a very good electrical
conductivity. This opens the possibility of confining the plasma with magnetic fields, an idea known as magnetic
confinement. This puts a Lorentz force on the plasma. The force works perpendicular to the magnetic fields, so one
problem in magnetic confinement is preventing the plasma from leaking out the ends of the field lines. These ends
are known as magnetic cusps. There are basically two solutions.
The first is to use the magnetic mirror effect. If a particle follows the field line and enters a region of higher field
strength, the particles can be reflected. There are several devices that try to use this effect. The most famous was the
magnetic mirror machines, which was a series of large, expensive devices built at the Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory from the 1960s to mid 1980s.[122] Some other examples include the magnetic bottles and Biconic cusp.[123]
Because the mirror machines were straight, they had some advantages over a ring shape. First, mirrors would easier to
construct and maintain and second direct conversion energy capture, was easier to implement.[8] As the confinement
achieved in experiments was poor, this approach has been essentially abandoned.
The second possibility to prevent end losses is to bend the field lines back on themselves, either in circles or more
commonly in nested toroidal surfaces. The most highly developed system of this type is the tokamak, with the
stellarator being next most advanced, followed by the Reversed field pinch. Compact toroids, especially the FieldReversed Configuration and the spheromak, attempt to combine the advantages of toroidal magnetic surfaces with
those of a simply connected (non-toroidal) machine, resulting in a mechanically simpler and smaller confinement
area. Compact toroids still have some enthusiastic supporters but are not backed as readily by the majority of the
fusion community.

5.6.5

Electrostatic confinement

There are also electrostatic confinement fusion devices. These devices heat and confine ions using electrostatic fields.
The best known is the Fusor. This device has an cathode inside an anode wire cage. Positive ions fly towards the
negative inner cage, and are heated by the electric field in the process. If they miss the inner cage they can collide and
fuse. Ions typically hit the cathode, however, creating prohibitory high conduction losses. Also, fusion rates in fusors
are very low due to competing physical effects, such as energy loss in the form of light radiation.[124] Designs have
been proposed to avoid the problems associated with the cage, by generating the field using a non-neutral cloud. These
include a plasma oscillating device,[125] a penning trap and the polywell.[126] The technology is relatively immature,
however, and many scientific and engineering questions remain.

5.7 Material selection
Main article: International Fusion Materials Irradiation Facility

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5.7.1

CHAPTER 5. FUSION POWER

Considerations

Any power plant using hot plasma, is going to have plasma facing walls. In even the simplest plasma approaches, the
material will get blasted with matter and energy. This leads to a minimum list of considerations, including dealing
with:
• A heating and cooling cycle, up to a 10 MW/m² thermal load .
• Neutron radiation, which over time leads to neutron activation and embrittlement.
• High energy ions leaving at tens to hundreds of electronvolts.
• Alpha particles leaving at millions of electronvolts.
• Electrons leaving at high energy.
• Light radiation (IR, visible, UV, X-ray).
Depending on the approach, these effects may be higher or lower than typical fission reactors like the pressurized
water reactor (PWR).[127] One estimate put the radiation at 100 times the (PWR). Materials need to be selected
or developed that can withstand these basic conditions. Depending on the approach, however, there may be other
considerations such as Electrical conductivity, magnetic permeability and mechanical strength. There is also a need
for materials whose primary components and impurities do not result in long-lived radioactive wastes.

5.7.2

Durability

For long term use, each atom the wall is expected to be hit by a neutron and displaced about a hundred times before
the material is replaced. High-energy neutrons will produce hydrogen and helium by way of various nuclear reactions
that tends to form bubbles at grain boundaries and result in swelling, blistering or embrittlement.[127]

5.7.3

Selection

One can choose either a low-Z material, such as graphite or beryllium, or a high-Z material, usually tungsten with
molybdenum as a second choice. Use of liquid metals (lithium, gallium, tin) has also been proposed, e.g., by injection
of 1–5 mm thick streams flowing at 10 m/s on solid substrates.
If graphite is used, the gross erosion rates due to physical and chemical sputtering would be many meters per year, so
one must rely on redeposition of the sputtered material. The location of the redeposition will not exactly coincide with
the location of the sputtering, so one is still left with erosion rates that may be prohibitive. An even larger problem is
the tritium co-deposited with the redeposited graphite. The tritium inventory in graphite layers and dust in a reactor
could quickly build up to many kilograms, representing a waste of resources and a serious radiological hazard in case
of an accident. The consensus of the fusion community seems to be that graphite, although a very attractive material
for fusion experiments, cannot be the primary PFC material in a commercial reactor.
The sputtering rate of tungsten by the plasma fuel ions is orders of magnitude smaller than that of carbon, and tritium
is much less incorporated into redeposited tungsten, making this a more attractive choice. On the other hand, tungsten
impurities in a plasma are much more damaging than carbon impurities, and self-sputtering of tungsten can be high,
so it will be necessary to ensure that the plasma in contact with the tungsten is not too hot (a few tens of eV rather
than hundreds of eV). Tungsten also has disadvantages in terms of eddy currents and melting in off-normal events,
as well as some radiological issues.

5.8 Plant design
5.8.1

Nuclear island

A fusion power plant may be designed with a nuclear island and the balance of plant. This is common in typical
fission reactors. The nuclear island has a plasma chamber with an associated vacuum system, surrounded by plasmafacing components (first wall and divertor) maintaining the vacuum and absorbing the heat coming from the plasma. If

5.9. SAFETY AND THE ENVIRONMENT

121

magnetic confinement is used, a magnet system made from superconducting magnets will be needed, as well as systems
for heating and refueling the plasma. If inertial confinement is used, it will require a driver (laser or accelerator) and
a focusing system, as well as place to manufacture and position the target. The balance of plant converts heat into
electricity via steam turbines.

5.8.2

Energy extraction

Steam turbines It has been proposed [128] that steam turbines be used to convert the heat from the fusion chamber
into electricity. The heat is transferred into a working fluid that turns into steam, driving electric generators.
Neutron blankets Deuterium and tritium fusion generates neutrons. This varies by technique (NIF has a record of
3E14 neutrons per second[129] while a typical fusor produces 1E5 - 1E9 neutrons per second). It has been proposed
to use these neutrons as a way to regenerate spent fission fuel [130] or as a way to breed tritium from a liquid lithium
blanket.
Direct conversion This is a method where the kinetic energy of a particle is converted into voltage.[131] It was first
suggested by Richard F. Post in conjunction with magnetic mirrors, in the late sixties. It has also been suggested for
Field-Reversed Configurations. The process takes the plasma, expands it, and converts a large fraction of the random
energy of the fusion products into directed motion. The particles are then collected on electrodes at various large
electrical potentials. This method has demonstrated an experimental efficiency of 48 percent.[132]

5.8.3

Diagnostics

Thomson Scattering Certain wavelengths of light will scatter off a plasma. This light can be detected and used to
reconstruct the plasmas’ behavior. This technique can be used to find its’ density and temperature. It is common in
Inertial confinement fusion,[133] Tokamaks[134] and fusors. In ICF systems, this can be done by firing a second beam
into a gold foil adjacent to the target. This makes x-rays that scatter or traverse the plasma. In Tokamaks, this can be
done using mirrors and detectors to reflect light across a plane (two dimensions) or in a line (one dimension).
Langmuir probe This is a metal object placed in a plasma. A potential is applied to it, giving it a positive or negative
voltage against the surrounding plasma. The metal collects charged particles, drawing a current. As the voltage
changes, the current changes. This makes a IV Curve. The IV-curve can be used to determine the local plasma
density, potential and temperature.[135]
Geiger counter Deuterium or tritium fusion produces neutrons. Geiger counters record the rate of neutron production, so they are an essential tool for demonstrating success.

5.9 Safety and the environment
5.9.1

Accident potential

There is no possibility of a catastrophic accident in a fusion reactor resulting in major release of radioactivity to
the environment or injury to non-staff, unlike modern fission reactors. The primary reason is that the requirements
for nuclear fusion differ greatly from nuclear fission: fusion requires extremely precise and controlled temperature,
pressure, and magnetic field parameters for any net energy to be produced, and a far smaller amount of fuel. If the
reactor suffered damage or lost even a small degree of required control, fusion reactions and heat generation would
rapidly cease.[136]
Therefore fusion reactors are considered extremely safe in this sense, making them favorable over fission reactors,
which, in contrast, continue to generate heat through beta-decay for several months after reactor shut-down, meaning
that melting of fuel rods is possible even after the reactor has been stopped due to continued accumulation of heat.[137]
There is also no risk of a runaway reaction in a fusion reactor. The plasma is burnt at optimal conditions, and any
significant change will render it unable to react or to produce excess heat. In fusion reactors the reaction process is
so delicate that this level of safety is inherent; no elaborate failsafe mechanism is required. Although the plasma in a
fusion power plant will have a volume of 1000 cubic meters or more, the density of the plasma is extremely low, and
the total amount of fusion fuel in the vessel is very small, typically a few grams.[137] If the fuel supply is closed, the
reaction stops within seconds. In comparison, a fission reactor is typically loaded with enough fuel for several years,
and no additional fuel is necessary to keep the reaction going.[138]

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In the magnetic approach, strong fields are developed in coils that are held in place mechanically by the reactor
structure. Failure of this structure could release this tension and allow the magnet to “explode” outward. The severity
of this event would be similar to any other industrial accident or an MRI machine quench/explosion, and could be
effectively stopped with a containment building similar to those used in existing (fission) nuclear generators. The
laser-driven inertial approach is generally lower-stress. Although failure of the reaction chamber is possible, simply
stopping fuel delivery would prevent any sort of catastrophic failure.
Most reactor designs rely on the use of liquid lithium as both a coolant and a method for converting stray neutrons
from the reaction into tritium, which is fed back into the reactor as fuel. Lithium is highly flammable, and in the case
of a fire it is possible that the lithium stored on-site could be burned up and escape. In this case, the tritium contents
of the lithium would be released into the atmosphere, posing a radiation risk. Calculations suggest that at about 1 kg
the total amount of tritium and other radioactive gases in a typical power plant would be so small that they would
have diluted to legally acceptable limits by the time they blew as far as the plant’s perimeter fence.[139]
The likelihood of small industrial accidents including the local release of radioactivity and injury to staff cannot
be estimated yet. These would include accidental releases of lithium, tritium, or mis-handling of decommissioned
radioactive components of the reactor itself.

5.9.2

Effluents during normal operation

The natural product of the fusion reaction is a small amount of helium, which is completely harmless to life. Of more
concern is tritium, which, like other isotopes of hydrogen, is difficult to retain completely. During normal operation,
some amount of tritium will be continually released. There would be no acute danger, but the cumulative effect on
the world’s population from a fusion economy could be a matter of concern.
Although tritium is volatile and biologically active the health risk posed by a release is much lower than that of most
radioactive contaminants, due to tritium’s short half-life (12.32 years), very low decay energy (~14.95 keV), and the
fact that it does not bioaccumulate (instead being cycled out of the body as water, with a biological half-life of 7 to
14 days).[140] Current ITER designs are investigating total containment facilities for any tritium.

5.9.3

Waste management

The large flux of high-energy neutrons in a reactor will make the structural materials radioactive. The radioactive
inventory at shut-down may be comparable to that of a fission reactor, but there are important differences.
The half-life of the radioisotopes produced by fusion tends to be less than those from fission, so that the inventory
decreases more rapidly. Unlike fission reactors, whose waste remains radioactive for thousands of years, most of
the radioactive material in a fusion reactor would be the reactor core itself, which would be dangerous for about 50
years, and low-level waste another 100. Although this waste will be considerably more radioactive during those 50
years than fission waste, the very short half-life makes the process very attractive, as the waste management is fairly
straightforward. By 500 years the material would have the same radiotoxidity as coal ash.[139]
Additionally, the choice of materials used in a fusion reactor is less constrained than in a fission design, where many
materials are required for their specific neutron cross-sections. This allows a fusion reactor to be designed using materials that are selected specifically to be “low activation”, materials that do not easily become radioactive. Vanadium,
for example, would become much less radioactive than stainless steel. Carbon fiber materials are also low-activation,
as well as being strong and light, and are a promising area of study for laser-inertial reactors where a magnetic field
is not required.
In general terms, fusion reactors would create far less radioactive material than a fission reactor, the material it would
create is less damaging biologically, and the radioactivity “burns off” within a time period that is well within existing
engineering capabilities for safe long-term waste storage.

5.9.4

Nuclear proliferation

Main article: Nuclear proliferation
Although fusion power uses nuclear technology, the overlap with nuclear weapons would be limited. A huge amount
of tritium could be produced by a fusion power plant. Tritium is used in the trigger of hydrogen bombs and in a

5.10. ECONOMICS

123

modern boosted fission weapon. But tritium can be also produced by nuclear fission. The energetic neutrons from
a fusion reactor could be used to breed weapons-grade plutonium or uranium for an atomic bomb (for example by
transmutation of U238 to Pu239 , or Th232 to U233 ).
A study conducted 2011 assessed the risk of three scenarios:[141]
• Use in small-scale fusion plant: Due to much higher power consumption, heat dissipation and a more unique
design compared to enrichment gas centrifuges this choice would be much easier to detect and therefore
implausible.[141]
• Modifications to produce weapon-usable material in a commercial facility: The production potential is
significant. But no fertile or fissile substances necessary for the production of weapon-usable materials needs
to be present at a civil fusion system at all. If not shielded, a detection of these materials can be done by
their characteristic gamma radiation. The underlying redesign could be detected by regular design information
verifications. In the (technically more feasible) case of solid breeder blanket modules, it would be necessary for
incoming components to be inspected for the presence of fertile material,[141] otherwise plutonium for several
weapons could be produced each year.[142]
• Prioritizing a fast production of weapon-grade material regardless of secrecy: The fastest way to produce
weapon usable material was seen in modifying a prior civil fusion power plant. Unlike in some nuclear power
plants, there is no weapon compatible material during civil use. Even without the need for covert action this
modification would still take about 2 months to start the production and at least an additional week to generate
a significant amount for weapon production. This was seen as enough time to detect a military use and to react
with diplomatic or military means. To stop the production, a military destruction of inevitable parts of the
facility leaving out the reactor itself would be sufficient. This, together with the intrinsic safety of fusion power
would only bear a low risk of radioactive contamination.[141]
Another study concludes that "[..]large fusion reactors – even if not designed for fissile material breeding – could
easily produce several hundred kg Pu per year with high weapon quality and very low source material requirements.”
It was emphasized that the implementation of features for intrinsic proliferation resistance might only be possible
at this phase of research and development.[142] The theoretical and computational tools needed for hydrogen bomb
design are closely related to those needed for inertial confinement fusion, but have very little in common with the
more scientifically developed magnetic confinement fusion.

5.9.5

As a sustainable energy source

Large-scale reactors using neutronic fuels (e.g. ITER) and thermal power production (turbine based) are most comparable to fission power from an engineering and economics viewpoint. Both fission and fusion power plants involve
a relatively compact heat source powering a conventional steam turbine-based power plant, while producing enough
neutron radiation to make activation of the plant materials problematic. The main distinction is that fusion power
produces no high-level radioactive waste (though activated plant materials still need to be disposed of). There are
some power plant ideas that may significantly lower the cost or size of such plants; however, research in these areas
is nowhere near as advanced as in tokamaks.
Fusion power commonly proposes the use of deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, as fuel and in many current designs
also use lithium. Assuming a fusion energy output equal to the 1995 global power output of about 100 EJ/yr (= 1
× 1020 J/yr) and that this does not increase in the future, which is unlikely, then the known current lithium reserves
would last 3000 years. Lithium from sea water would last 60 million years, however, and a more complicated fusion
process using only deuterium from sea water would have fuel for 150 billion years.[143] To put this in context, 150
billion years is close to 30 times the remaining lifespan of the sun,[144] and more than 10 times the estimated age of
the universe.

5.10 Economics
While fusion power is still in early stages of development, substantial sums have been and continue to be invested in
research. In the EU almost €10 billion was spent on fusion research up to the end of the 1990s, and the new ITER
reactor alone is budgeted at €10 billion.

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It is estimated that up to the point of possible implementation of electricity generation by nuclear fusion, R&D will
need further promotion totalling around €60–80 billion over a period of 50 years or so (of which €20–30 billion
within the EU) based on a report from 2002.[145] Nuclear fusion research receives €750 million (excluding ITER
funding) from the European Union, compared with €810 million for sustainable energy research,[146] putting research
into fusion power well ahead of that of any single rivaling technology. Indeed, the size of the investments and time
frame of the expected results mean that fusion research is almost exclusively publicly funded, while research in other
forms of energy can be done by the private sector.

5.11 Advantages
Fusion power would provide more energy for a given weight of fuel than any fuel-consuming energy source currently
in use,[147] and the fuel itself (primarily deuterium) exists abundantly in the Earth’s ocean: about 1 in 6500 hydrogen
atoms in seawater is deuterium.[148] Although this may seem a low proportion (about 0.015%), because nuclear fusion
reactions are so much more energetic than chemical combustion and seawater is easier to access and more plentiful
than fossil fuels, fusion could potentially supply the world’s energy needs for millions of years.[149][150]
Despite being technically non-renewable, fusion power has many of the benefits of renewable energy sources (such
as being a long-term energy supply and emitting no greenhouse gases) as well as some of the benefits of the resourcelimited energy sources as hydrocarbons and nuclear fission (without reprocessing). Like these currently dominant
energy sources, fusion could provide very high power-generation density and uninterrupted power delivery (due to
the fact that it is not dependent on the weather, unlike wind and solar power).
Another aspect of fusion energy is that the cost of production does not suffer from diseconomies of scale. The cost
of water and wind energy, for example, goes up as the optimal locations are developed first, while further generators
must be sited in less ideal conditions. With fusion energy the production cost will not increase much even if large
numbers of plants are built, because the raw resource (seawater) is abundant and widespread.
Some problems that are expected to be an issue in this century, such as fresh water shortages, can alternatively
be regarded as problems of energy supply. For example, in desalination plants, seawater can be purified through
distillation or reverse osmosis. Nonetheless, these processes are energy intensive. Even if the first fusion plants are
not competitive with alternative sources, fusion could still become competitive if large-scale desalination requires
more power than the alternatives are able to provide.
A scenario has been presented of the effect of the commercialization of fusion power on the future of human
civilization.[151] ITER and later Demo are envisioned to bring online the first commercial nuclear fusion energy
reactor by 2050. Using this as the starting point and the history of the uptake of nuclear fission reactors as a guide,
the scenario depicts a rapid take up of nuclear fusion energy starting after the middle of this century.
Fusion power could be used in interstellar space, where solar energy is not available.

5.12 See also
• List of fusion experiments
• FuseNet
• Fusion
• Tokamak
• National Ignition Facility
• Inertial electrostatic confinement
• Magnetic mirror
• Joint European Torus
• Inertial confinement fusion
• fusor

5.13. REFERENCES

125

• Spheromak
• Levitated dipole
• Stellarator
• High beta fusion reactor

5.13 References
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5.14 Bibliography
• Chen, Francis (2011). An Indispensable Truth: How Fusion Power Can Save the Planet. New York: Springer.
ISBN 978-1441978196
• Clery, Daniel (2013). A Piece of the Sun. New York: Overlook. ISBN 978-1468304930
• Dean, Stephen (2013). Search for the Ultimate Energy Source: A History of the U.S. Fusion Energy Program.
New York: Springer. ISBN 978-1461460367
• Molina, Andrés de Bustos (2013) Kinetic Simulations of Ion Transport in Fusion Devices. New York: Springer.
ISBN 978-3319004211
• Voss, David (March 1, 1999). “What Ever Happened to Cold Fusion”. Physics World. ISSN 0953-8585.
Retrieved 2012-08-18.
• Kruglinksi, Susan (2006-03-03). “Whatever Happened To... Cold Fusion?". Discover Magazine. ISSN 02747529. Retrieved 20 June 2008.
• Choi, Charles (2005). “Back to Square One”. Scientific American. Retrieved 25 November 2008.
• Feder, Toni (January 2005). “Cold Fusion Gets Chilly Encore”. Physics Today 58: 31. Bibcode:2005PhT....58a..31F.
doi:10.1063/1.1881896.
• Hagelstein, Peter L.; Michael, McKubre; Nagel, David; Chubb, Talbot; Hekman, Randall (2004), New Physical
Effects in Metal Deuterides (PDF), Washington: US Department of Energy (manuscript)
• U.S. Department of Energy (2004), Report of the Review of Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (PDF), Washington,
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• Goodstein, David (1994), “Whatever happened to cold fusion?", American Scholar (Phi Beta Kappa Society)
63 (4): 527–541, ISSN 0003-0937, retrieved 2008-05-25
• Close, Frank E. (1992), Too Hot to Handle: The Race for Cold Fusion (2 ed.), London: Penguin, ISBN 0-14015926-6
• Beaudette, Charles G. (2002), Excess Heat & Why Cold Fusion Research Prevailed, South Bristol, Maine: Oak
Grove Press, ISBN 0-9678548-3-0
• Van Noorden, R. (April 2007), “Cold fusion back on the menu”, Chemistry World, ISSN 1473-7604, retrieved
2008-05-25
• Taubes, Gary (1993). Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion. New York: Random
House. ISBN 0-394-58456-2.
• Browne, M. (May 3, 1989), “Physicists Debunk Claim Of a New Kind of Fusion”, New York Times, retrieved
2008-05-25
• Adam, David (24 March 2005), Rusbringer, Alan, ed., “In from the cold”, The Guardian (London), retrieved
2008-05-25
• Platt, Charles (1998), “What if Cold Fusion is Real?", Wired Magazine (6.11), retrieved 2008-05-25
• Hutchinson, Alex (January 8, 2006), “The Year in Science: Physics”, Discover Magazine (online), ISSN 02747529, retrieved 2008-06-20
• Adam, David (24 March 2005), Rusbringer, Alan, ed., “In from the cold”, The Guardian (London), retrieved
2008-05-25
• Alfred, Randy (2009-03-23). “March 23, 1989: Cold Fusion Gets Cold Shoulder”. Wired.

5.15 External links
• Fusion as an Energy Source
• U.S. Fusion Energy Science Program
• EURATOM/UKAEA Fusion Association
• ITER
• European Fusion Development Agreement
• A Central Site for Fusion Energy Links
• Institute for Plasma Focus Studies
• Montage of 60 years of fusion research history

Chapter 6

Nuclear chain reaction
A nuclear chain reaction occurs when one single nuclear reaction causes an average of one or more subsequent
nuclear reactions, thus leading to the possibility of a self-propagating series of these reactions. The specific nuclear
reaction may be the fission of heavy isotopes (e.g. 235 U). The nuclear chain reaction releases several million times
more energy per reaction than any chemical reaction.

6.1 History
Chemical chain reactions were first proposed by German chemist Max Bodenstein in 1913, and were reasonably well
understood before nuclear chain reactions were proposed.[1] It was understood that chemical chain reactions were
responsible for exponentially increasing rates in reactions, such as produced chemical explosions.
The concept of a nuclear chain reaction was first hypothesized by Hungarian scientist Leó Szilárd on Tuesday, September 12, 1933. The neutron had been discovered in 1932, shortly before. Szilard realized that if a nuclear reaction
produced neutrons, which then caused further nuclear reactions, the process might be self-perpetuating. Szilárd, however, did not propose fission as the mechanism for his chain reaction, since the fission reaction was not yet discovered
or even suspected. Instead, Szilard proposed using mixtures of lighter known isotopes which produced neutrons in
copious amounts. He filed a patent for his idea of a simple nuclear reactor the following year.[2]
In 1936, Szilárd attempted to create a chain reaction using beryllium and indium, but was unsuccessful. After nuclear
fission was discovered by Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann in December 1938, Szilárd and Enrico Fermi
in 1939 searched for, and discovered, neutron multiplication in uranium, proving that a nuclear chain reaction by this
mechanism was indeed possible.[3] This discovery prompted the letter from Szilard and signed by Albert Einstein to
President Franklin D. Roosevelt warning of the possibility that Nazi Germany might be attempting to build an atomic
bomb.[4][5]
Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilárd created the first artificial self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, called Chicago Pile-1
(CP-1), in a racquets court below the bleachers of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago on December 2, 1942.
Fermi’s experiments at the University of Chicago were part of Arthur H. Compton's Metallurgical Laboratory, part of
the Manhattan Project; the lab was later moved outside Chicago, renamed Argonne National Laboratory, and tasked
with conducting research in harnessing fission for nuclear energy.[6]
In 1956, Paul Kuroda of the University of Arkansas postulated that a natural fission reactor may have once existed.
Since nuclear chain reactions only require natural materials (such as water and uranium), it is possible to have these
chain reactions occur where there is the right combination of materials within the Earth’s crust. Kuroda’s prediction
was verified with the discovery of evidence of natural self-sustaining nuclear chain reactions in the past at Oklo in
Gabon, Africa in September 1972.[7]

6.2 Fission chain reaction
Fission chain reactions occur because of interactions between neutrons and fissile isotopes (such as 235 U). The chain
reaction requires both the release of neutrons from fissile isotopes undergoing nuclear fission and the subsequent
absorption of some of these neutrons in fissile isotopes. When an atom undergoes nuclear fission, a few neutrons (the
132

6.3. TIMESCALES OF NUCLEAR CHAIN REACTIONS

133

exact number depends on several factors) are ejected from the reaction. These free neutrons will then interact with
the surrounding medium, and if more fissile fuel is present, some may be absorbed and cause more fissions. Thus,
the cycle repeats to give a reaction that is self-sustaining.
Nuclear power plants operate by precisely controlling the rate at which nuclear reactions occur, and that control is
maintained through the use of several redundant layers of safety measures. Moreover, the materials in a nuclear
reactor core and the uranium enrichment level make a nuclear explosion impossible, even if all safety measures
failed. On the other hand, nuclear weapons are specifically engineered to produce a reaction that is so fast and intense
it cannot be controlled after it has started. When properly designed, this uncontrolled reaction can lead to an explosive
energy release.

6.2.1

Nuclear fission fuel

Nuclear weapons employ high quality, highly enriched fuel exceeding the critical size and geometry (critical mass)
necessary in order to obtain an explosive chain reaction. The fuel for energy purposes, such as in a nuclear fission
reactor, is very different, usually consisting of a low-enriched oxide material (e.g. UO2 ).

6.2.2

Fission reaction products

Main article: nuclear fission
When a heavy atom undergoes nuclear fission it breaks into two or more fission fragments. Also, several free neutrons,
gamma rays, and neutrinos are emitted, and a large amount of energy is released. The sum of the rest masses of the
fission fragments and ejected neutrons is less than the sum of the rest masses of the original atom and incident neutron
(of course the fission fragments are not at rest). The mass difference is accounted for in the release of energy according
to the equation E=Δmc²:
mass of released energy =

E
c2

= moriginal − mfinal

Due to the extremely large value of the speed of light, c, a small decrease in mass is associated with a tremendous
release of active energy (for example, the kinetic energy of the fission fragments). This energy (in the form of
radiation and heat) carries the missing mass, when it leaves the reaction system (total mass, like total energy, is
always conserved). While typical chemical reactions release energies on the order of a few eVs (e.g. the binding
energy of the electron to hydrogen is 13.6 eV), nuclear fission reactions typically release energies on the order of
hundreds of millions of eVs.
Two typical fission reactions are shown below with average values of energy released and number of neutrons ejected:
235

U + neutron → fission fragments + 2.4 neutrons + 192.9 MeV [8]

239

Pu + neutron → fission fragments + 2.9 neutrons + 198.5 MeV [8]

Note that these equations are for fissions caused by slow-moving (thermal) neutrons. The average energy released
and number of neutrons ejected is a function of the incident neutron speed.[8] Also, note that these equations exclude
energy from neutrinos since these subatomic particles are extremely non-reactive and, therefore, rarely deposit their
energy in the system.

6.3 Timescales of nuclear chain reactions
6.3.1

Prompt neutron lifetime

The prompt neutron lifetime, l, is the average time between the emission of neutrons and either their absorption in
the system or their escape from the system.[9] The term lifetime is used because the emission of a neutron is often
considered its “birth,” and the subsequent absorption is considered its “death.” For thermal (slow-neutron) fission
reactors, the typical prompt neutron lifetime is on the order of 10−4 seconds, and for fast fission reactors, the prompt
neutron lifetime is on the order of 10−7 seconds.[8] These extremely short lifetimes mean that in 1 second, 10,000
to 10,000,000 neutron lifetimes can pass. The average (also referred to as the adjoint unweighted) prompt neutron

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lifetime takes into account all prompt neutrons regardless of their importance in the reactor core; the effective prompt
neutron lifetime (referred to as the adjoint weighted over space, energy, and angle) refers to a neutron with average
importance.[10]

6.3.2

Mean generation time

The mean generation time, Λ, is the average time from a neutron emission to a capture that results in fission.[8] The
mean generation time is different from the prompt neutron lifetime because the mean generation time only includes
neutron absorptions that lead to fission reactions (not other absorption reactions). The two times are related by the
following formula:

Λ=

l
k

In this formula, k is the effective neutron multiplication factor, described below.

6.3.3

Effective neutron multiplication factor

The effective neutron multiplication factor, k, is the average number of neutrons from one fission that cause another fission. The remaining neutrons either are absorbed in non-fission reactions or leave the system without being
absorbed. The value of k determines how a nuclear chain reaction proceeds:
• k < 1 (subcriticality): The system cannot sustain a chain reaction, and any beginning of a chain reaction dies
out over time. For every fission that is induced in the system, an average total of 1/(1 − k) fissions occur.
• k = 1 (criticality): Every fission causes an average of one more fission, leading to a fission (and power) level that
is constant. Nuclear power plants operate with k = 1 unless the power level is being increased or decreased.
• k > 1 (supercriticality): For every fission in the material, it is likely that there will be "k" fissions after the next
mean generation time. The result is that the number of fission reactions increases exponentially, according to
the equation e(k−1)t/Λ , where t is the elapsed time. Nuclear weapons are designed to operate under this state.
There are two subdivisions of supercriticality: prompt and delayed.
When describing kinetics and dynamics of nuclear reactors, and also in the practice of reactor operation, the concept
of reactivity is used, which characterizes the deflection of reactor from the critical state. ρ=(k-1)/k. InHour is a unit
of reactivity of a nuclear reactor.
In a nuclear reactor, k will actually oscillate from slightly less than 1 to slightly more than 1, due primarily to thermal
effects (as more power is produced, the fuel rods warm and thus expand, lowering their capture ratio, and thus driving
k lower). This leaves the average value of k at exactly 1. Delayed neutrons play an important role in the timing of
these oscillations.
In an infinite medium, the multiplication factor may be described by the four factor formula; in a non-infinite medium,
the multiplication factor may be described by the six factor formula.

6.3.4

Prompt and delayed supercriticality

Not all neutrons are emitted as a direct product of fission; some are instead due to the radioactive decay of some of
the fission fragments. The neutrons that occur directly from fission are called "prompt neutrons,” and the ones that
are a result of radioactive decay of fission fragments are called “delayed neutrons.” The fraction of neutrons that are
delayed is called β, and this fraction is typically less than 1% of all the neutrons in the chain reaction.[8]
The delayed neutrons allow a nuclear reactor to respond several orders of magnitude more slowly than just prompt
neutrons would alone.[9] Without delayed neutrons, changes in reaction rates in nuclear reactors would occur at speeds
that are too fast for humans to control.

6.4. NUCLEAR WEAPONS APPLICATION OF NEUTRON MULTIPLICATION

135

The region of supercriticality between k = 1 and k = 1/(1-β) is known as delayed supercriticality (or delayed
criticality). It is in this region that all nuclear power reactors operate. The region of supercriticality for k > 1/(1-β) is
known as prompt supercriticality (or prompt criticality), which is the region in which nuclear weapons operate.
The change in k needed to go from critical to prompt critical is defined as a dollar.

6.4 Nuclear weapons application of neutron multiplication
Nuclear fission weapons require a mass of fissile fuel that is prompt supercritical.
For a given mass of fissile material the value of k can be increased by increasing the density. Since the probability
per distance traveled for a neutron to collide with a nucleus is proportional to the material density, increasing the
density of a fissile material can increase k. This concept is utilized in the implosion method for nuclear weapons. In
these devices, the nuclear chain reaction begins after increasing the density of the fissile material with a conventional
explosive.
In the gun-type fission weapon two subcritical pieces of fuel are rapidly brought together. The value of k for a
combination of two masses is always greater than that of its components. The magnitude of the difference depends
on distance, as well as the physical orientation.
The value of k can also be increased by using a neutron reflector surrounding the fissile material
Once the mass of fuel is prompt supercritical, the power increases exponentially. However, the exponential power
increase cannot continue for long since k decreases when the amount of fission material that is left decreases (i.e. it is
consumed by fissions). Also, the geometry and density are expected to change during detonation since the remaining
fission material is torn apart from the explosion.

6.4.1

Predetonation

Detonation of a nuclear weapon involves bringing fissile material into its optimal supercritical state very rapidly.
During part of this process, the assembly is supercritical, but not yet in an optimal state for a chain reaction. Free
neutrons, in particular from spontaneous fissions, can cause the device to undergo a preliminary chain reaction that
destroys the fissile material before it is ready to produce a large explosion, which is known as predetonation.[11] To
keep the probability of predetonation low, the duration of the non-optimal assembly period is minimized and fissile
and other materials are used which have low spontaneous fission rates. In fact, the combination of materials has to
be such that it is unlikely that there is even a single spontaneous fission during the period of supercritical assembly.
In particular, the gun method cannot be used with plutonium (see nuclear weapon design).

6.5 Nuclear power plants and control of chain reactions
Main article: nuclear reactor physics
Chain reactions naturally give rise to reaction rates that grow (or shrink) exponentially, whereas a nuclear power
reactor needs to be able to hold the reaction rate reasonably constant. To maintain this control, the chain reaction
criticality must have a slow enough time-scale to permit intervention by additional effects (e.g., mechanical control
rods or thermal expansion). Consequently, all nuclear power reactors (even fast-neutron reactors) rely on delayed
neutrons for their criticality. An operating nuclear power reactor fluctuates between being slightly subcritical and
slightly delayed-supercritical, but must always remain below prompt-critical.
It is impossible for a nuclear power plant to undergo a nuclear chain reaction that results in an explosion of power
comparable with a nuclear weapon, but even low-powered explosions due to uncontrolled chain reactions, that would
be considered “fizzles” in a bomb, may still cause considerable damage and meltdown in a reactor. For example,
the Chernobyl disaster involved a runaway chain reaction but the result was a low-powered steam explosion from the
relatively small release of heat, as compared with a bomb. However, the reactor complex was destroyed by the heat,
as well as by ordinary burning of the graphite exposed to air.[9] Such steam explosions would be typical of the very
diffuse assembly of materials in a nuclear reactor, even under the worst conditions.
In addition, other steps can be taken for safety. For example, power plants licensed in the United States require a

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negative void coefficient of reactivity (this means that if water is removed from the reactor core, the nuclear reaction
will tend to shut down, not increase). This eliminates the possibility of the type of accident that occurred at Chernobyl
(which was due to a positive void coefficient). However, nuclear reactors are still capable of causing smaller explosions
even after complete shutdown, such as was the case of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. In such cases, residual
decay heat from the core may cause high temperatures if there is loss of coolant flow, even a day after the chain reaction
has been shut down (see SCRAM). This may cause a chemical reaction between water and fuel that produces hydrogen
gas which can explode after mixing with air, with severe contamination consequences, since fuel rod material may
still be exposed to the atmosphere from this process. However, such explosions do not happen during a chain reaction,
but rather as a result of energy from radioactive beta decay, after the fission chain reaction has been stopped.

6.6 See also
• Proton-proton chain reaction
• Chain reaction
• Critical mass
• Criticality accident
• Four factor formula
• Nuclear criticality safety
• Nuclear physics
• Nuclear reaction
• Nuclear reactor physics
• Nuclear weapon design

6.7 References
[1] See this 1956 Nobel lecture for history of the chain reaction in chemistry
[2] L. Szilárd, “Improvements in or relating to the transmutation of chemical elements,” British patent number: GB630726
(filed: 28 June 1934; published: 30 March 1936). esp@cenet document view
[3] H. L. Anderson, E. Fermi, and Leo Szilárd, “Neutron production and absorption in uranium,” The Physical Review, vol.
56, pages 284–286 (1 August 1939). Available on-line at FDRlibrary.marist.edu
[4] AIP.org
[5] Atomicarchive.com
[6] Holl, Jack (1997). Argonne National Laboratory, 1946-96. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-02341-2.
[7] Oklo: Natural Nuclear Reactors—Fact Sheet
[8] Duderstadt, James; Hamilton, Louis (1976). Nuclear Reactor Analysis. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 0-471-22363-8.
[9] Lamarsh, John; Baratta, Anthony (2001). Introduction to Nuclear Engineering. Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-201-82498-1.
[10] Deterministic and Monte Carlo Analyses of YALINA Thermal Subcritical Assembly
[11] Carey Sublette (February 20, 1999). “4.1.5.3 Predetonation”. 4. Engineering and Design of Nuclear Weapons: 4.1 Elements
of Fission Weapon Design. nuclearweaponarchive.org. Retrieved June 29, 2014.

6.8. EXTERNAL LINKS

6.8 External links
• Nuclear Chain Reaction Animation
• Annotated bibliography on nuclear chain reactions from the Alsos Digital Library
• Stochastic Java simulation of nuclear chain reaction by Wolfgang Bauer

137

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1

A possible nuclear fission chain reaction. 1. A uranium-235 atom absorbs a neutron, and fissions into two new atoms (fission
fragments), releasing three new neutrons and a large amount of binding energy. 2. One of those neutrons is absorbed by an atom of
uranium-238, and does not continue the reaction. Another neutron leaves the system without being absorbed. However, one neutron
does collide with an atom of uranium-235, which then fissions and releases two neutrons and more binding energy. 3. Both of those
neutrons collide with uranium-235 atoms, each of which fissions and releases a few neutrons, which can then continue the reaction.

6.8. EXTERNAL LINKS

139

If two pieces of subcritical material are not brought together fast enough, nuclear predetonation can occur, whereby a smaller
explosion than expected will blow the bulk of the material apart. See Fizzle (nuclear test)

Chapter 7

Nuclear reprocessing
Nuclear reprocessing technology was developed to chemically separate and recover fissionable plutonium from irradiated nuclear fuel.[1] Reprocessing serves multiple purposes, whose relative importance has changed over time.
Originally reprocessing was used solely to extract plutonium for producing nuclear weapons. With the commercialization of nuclear power, the reprocessed plutonium was recycled back into MOX nuclear fuel for thermal reactors.[2]
The reprocessed uranium, which constitutes the bulk of the spent fuel material, can in principle also be re-used as
fuel, but that is only economic when uranium prices are high. Finally, a breeder reactor is not restricted to using recycled plutonium and uranium. It can employ all the actinides, closing the nuclear fuel cycle and potentially multiplying
the energy extracted from natural uranium by about 60 times.[3][4]
Nuclear reprocessing reduces the volume of high-level waste, but by itself does not reduce radioactivity or heat generation and therefore does not eliminate the need for a geological waste repository. Reprocessing has been politically
controversial because of the potential to contribute to nuclear proliferation, the potential vulnerability to nuclear terrorism, the political challenges of repository siting (a problem that applies equally to direct disposal of spent fuel),
and because of its high cost compared to the once-through fuel cycle.[5] In the United States, the Obama administration stepped back from President Bush’s plans for commercial-scale reprocessing and reverted to a program focused
on reprocessing-related scientific research.[6] Nuclear fuel reprocessing is performed routinely in Europe, Russia and
Japan.

7.1 Separated components and disposition
See also: Spent nuclear fuel
The potentially useful components dealt with in nuclear reprocessing comprise specific actinides (plutonium, uranium, and some minor actinides). The lighter elements components include fission products, activation products, and
cladding.

7.2 History
The first large-scale nuclear reactors were built during World War II. These reactors were designed for the production of plutonium for use in nuclear weapons. The only reprocessing required, therefore, was the extraction of the
plutonium (free of fission-product contamination) from the spent natural uranium fuel. In 1943, several methods were
proposed for separating the relatively small quantity of plutonium from the uranium and fission products. The first
method selected, a precipitation process called the bismuth phosphate process, was developed and tested at the Oak
Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) between 1943 and 1945 to produce quantities of plutonium for evaluation and
use in the US weapons programs. ORNL produced the first macroscopic quantities (grams) of separated plutonium
with these processes.
The bismuth phosphate process was first operated on a large scale at the Hanford Site, in the later part of 1944. It
was successful for plutonium separation in the emergency situation existing then, but it had a significant weakness:
the inability to recover uranium.
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7.3. SEPARATION TECHNOLOGIES

141

The first successful solvent extraction process for the recovery of pure uranium and plutonium was developed at
ORNL in 1949. The PUREX process is the current method of extraction. Separation plants were also constructed
at Savannah River Site and a smaller plant at West Valley Reprocessing Plant which closed by 1972 because of its
inability to meet new regulatory requirements.[7]
Reprocessing of civilian fuel has long been employed at the COGEMA La Hague site in France, the Sellafield site
in the United Kingdom, the Mayak Chemical Combine in Russia, and at sites such as the Tokai plant in Japan, the
Tarapur plant in India, and briefly at the West Valley Reprocessing Plant in the United States.
In October 1976,[8] concern of nuclear weapons proliferation (especially after India demonstrated nuclear weapons
capabilities using reprocessing technology) led President Gerald Ford to issue a Presidential directive to indefinitely
suspend the commercial reprocessing and recycling of plutonium in the U.S. On 7 April 1977, President Jimmy
Carter banned the reprocessing of commercial reactor spent nuclear fuel. The key issue driving this policy was the
serious threat of nuclear weapons proliferation by diversion of plutonium from the civilian fuel cycle, and to encourage
other nations to follow the USA lead.[9] After that, only countries that already had large investments in reprocessing
infrastructure continued to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. President Reagan lifted the ban in 1981, but did not provide
the substantial subsidy that would have been necessary to start up commercial reprocessing.[10]
In March 1999, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) reversed its policy and signed a contract with a consortium of
Duke Energy, COGEMA, and Stone & Webster (DCS) to design and operate a mixed oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication
facility. Site preparation at the Savannah River Site (South Carolina) began in October 2005.[11] In 2011 the New
York Times reported "...11 years after the government awarded a construction contract, the cost of the project has
soared to nearly $5 billion. The vast concrete and steel structure is a half-finished hulk, and the government has yet
to find a single customer, despite offers of lucrative subsidies.” TVA (currently the most likely customer) said in April
2011 that it would delay a decision until it could see how MOX fuel performed in the nuclear accident at Fukushima
Daiichi.[12]

7.3 Separation technologies
7.3.1

Water and organic solvents

PUREX
Main article: PUREX
PUREX, the current standard method, is an acronym standing for Plutonium and Uranium Recovery by EXtraction.
The PUREX process is a liquid-liquid extraction method used to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, in order to extract
uranium and plutonium, independent of each other, from the fission products. This is the most developed and widely
used process in the industry at present. When used on fuel from commercial power reactors the plutonium extracted
typically contains too much Pu-240 to be useful in a nuclear weapon. However, reactors that are capable of refuelling
frequently can be used to produce weapon-grade plutonium, which can later be recovered using PUREX. Because of
this, PUREX chemicals are monitored.[13]

Modifications of PUREX
UREX The PUREX process can be modified to make a UREX (URanium EXtraction) process which could be
used to save space inside high level nuclear waste disposal sites, such as the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository,
by removing the uranium which makes up the vast majority of the mass and volume of used fuel and recycling it as
reprocessed uranium.
The UREX process is a PUREX process which has been modified to prevent the plutonium from being extracted.
This can be done by adding a plutonium reductant before the first metal extraction step. In the UREX process,
~99.9% of the uranium and >95% of technetium are separated from each other and the other fission products and
actinides. The key is the addition of acetohydroxamic acid (AHA) to the extraction and scrub sections of the process.
The addition of AHA greatly diminishes the extractability of plutonium and neptunium, providing somewhat greater
proliferation resistance than with the plutonium extraction stage of the PUREX process.

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Plutonium Processing

TRUEX Adding a second extraction agent, octyl(phenyl)-N, N-dibutyl carbamoylmethyl phosphine oxide(CMPO)
in combination with tributylphosphate, (TBP), the PUREX process can be turned into the TRUEX (TRansUranic
EXtraction) process. TRUEX was invented in the USA by Argonne National Laboratory and is designed to remove
the transuranic metals (Am/Cm) from waste. The idea is that by lowering the alpha activity of the waste, the majority
of the waste can then be disposed of with greater ease. In common with PUREX this process operates by a solvation
mechanism.

7.3. SEPARATION TECHNOLOGIES

143

DIAMEX As an alternative to TRUEX, an extraction process using a malondiamide has been devised. The DIAMEX (DIAMideEXtraction) process has the advantage of avoiding the formation of organic waste which contains
elements other than carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen. Such an organic waste can be burned without the formation of acidic gases which could contribute to acid rain (although the acidic gases could be recovered by a scrubber).
The DIAMEX process is being worked on in Europe by the French CEA. The process is sufficiently mature that an
industrial plant could be constructed with the existing knowledge of the process.[14] In common with PUREX this
process operates by a solvation mechanism.

SANEX Selective ActiNide EXtraction. As part of the management of minor actinides it has been proposed that
the lanthanides and trivalent minor actinides should be removed from the PUREX raffinate by a process such as
DIAMEX or TRUEX. In order to allow the actinides such as americium to be either reused in industrial sources or
used as fuel, the lanthanides must be removed. The lanthanides have large neutron cross sections and hence they
would poison a neutron driven nuclear reaction. To date the extraction system for the SANEX process has not been
defined, but currently several different research groups are working towards a process. For instance the French CEA
is working on a bis-triazinyl pyridine (BTP) based process.[15][16][17] Other systems such as the dithiophosphinic acids
are being worked on by some other workers.

UNEX The UNiversal EXtraction process was developed in Russia and the Czech Republic; it is designed to completely remove the most troublesome radioisotopes (Sr, Cs and minor actinides) from the raffinate remaining after
the extraction of uranium and plutonium from used nuclear fuel.[18][19] The chemistry is based upon the interaction
of caesium and strontium with polyethylene glycol)[20][21] and a cobalt carborane anion (known as chlorinated cobalt
dicarbollide). The actinides are extracted by CMPO, and the diluent is a polar aromatic such as nitrobenzene. Other
dilents such as meta-nitrobenzotrifluoride and phenyl trifluoromethyl sulfone[22] have been suggested as well.

Electrochemical methods
An exotic method using electrochemistry and ion exchange in ammonium carbonate has been reported.[23]

Obsolete methods
Bismuth phosphate The bismuth phosphate process is an obsolete process that adds significant unnecessary material to the final radioactive waste. The bismuth phosphate process has been replaced by solvent extraction processes.
The bismuth phosphate process was designed to extract plutonium from aluminium-clad nuclear fuel rods, containing
uranium. The fuel was decladded by boiling it in caustic soda. After decladding, the uranium metal was dissolved in
nitric acid.
The plutonium at this point is in the +4 oxidation state. It was then precipitated out of the solution by the addition
of bismuth nitrate and phosphoric acid to form the bismuth phosphate. The plutonium was coprecipitated with this.
The supernatant liquid (containing many of the fission products) was separated from the solid. The precipitate was
then dissolved in nitric acid before the addition of an oxidant such as potassium permanganate which converted the
plutonium to PuO2 2+ (Pu VI), then a dichromate salt was added to maintain the plutonium in the +6 oxidation state.
The bismuth phosphate was next re-precipitated leaving the plutonium in solution. Then an iron (II) salt such as
ferrous sulfate was added, and the plutonium re-precipitated again using a bismuth phosphate carrier precipitate.
Then lanthanum salts and fluoride were added to create solid lanthanum fluoride which acted as a carrier for the
plutonium. This was converted to the oxide by the action of an alkali. The lanthanum plutonium oxide was next
collected and extracted with nitric acid to form plutonium nitrate.[24]

Hexone or redox This is a liquid-liquid extraction process which uses methyl isobutyl ketone as the extractant. The
extraction is by a solvation mechanism. This process has the disadvantage of requiring the use of a salting-out reagent
(aluminium nitrate) to increase the nitrate concentration in the aqueous phase to obtain a reasonable distribution ratio
(D value). Also, hexone is degraded by concentrated nitric acid. This process has been replaced by the PUREX
process.[25][26]
Pu4+ + 4 NO3 − + 2S → [Pu(NO3 )4 S2 ]

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Butex, β,β'-dibutyoxydiethyl ether A process based on a solvation extraction process using the triether extractant
named above. This process has the disadvantage of requiring the use of a salting-out reagent (aluminium nitrate) to
increase the nitrate concentration in the aqueous phase to obtain a reasonable distribution ratio. This process was
used at Windscale many years ago. This process has been replaced by PUREX.

7.3.2

Pyroprocessing

Pyroprocessing is a generic term for high-temperature methods. Solvents are molten salts (e.g. LiCl+KCl or
LiF+CaF2) and molten metals (e.g. cadmium, bismuth, magnesium) rather than water and organic compounds.
Electrorefining, distillation, and solvent-solvent extraction are common steps.
These processes are not currently in significant use worldwide, but they have been researched and developed at
Argonne National Laboratory and elsewhere.
Advantages
• The principles behind them are well understood, and no significant technical barriers exist to their adoption.[27]
• Readily applied to high-burnup spent fuel and requires little cooling time, since the operating temperatures are
high already.
• Does not use solvents containing hydrogen and carbon, which are neutron moderators creating risk of criticality
accidents and can absorb the fission product tritium and the activation product carbon-14 in dilute solutions
that cannot be separated later.
• Alternatively, voloxidation[28] can remove 99% of the tritium from used fuel and recover it in the form
of a strong solution suitable for use as a supply of tritium.
• More compact than aqueous methods, allowing on-site reprocessing at the reactor site, which avoids transportation of spent fuel and its security issues, instead storing a much smaller volume of fission products on site
as high-level waste until decommissioning. For example, the Integral Fast Reactor and Molten Salt Reactor
fuel cycles are based on on-site pyroprocessing.
• It can separate many or even all actinides at once and produce highly radioactive fuel which is harder to manipulate for theft or making nuclear weapons. (However, the difficulty has been questioned.[29] ) In contrast the
PUREX process was designed to separate plutonium only for weapons, and it also leaves the minor actinides
(americium and curium) behind, producing waste with more long-lived radioactivity.
• Most of the radioactivity in roughly 102 to 105 years after the use of the nuclear fuel is produced by the
actinides, since there are no fission products with half-lives in this range. These actinides can fuel fast reactors,
so extracting and reusing (fissioning) them reduces the long-term radioactivity of the wastes.
Disadvantages
• Reprocessing as a whole is not currently (2005) in favor, and places that do reprocess already have PUREX
plants constructed. Consequently, there is little demand for new pyrometalurgical systems, although there could
be if the Generation IV reactor programs become reality.
• The used salt from pyroprocessing is less suitable for conversion into glass than the waste materials produced
by the PUREX process.
• If the goal is to reduce the longevity of spent nuclear fuel in burner reactors, then better recovery rates of the
minor actinides need to be achieved.
Electrolysis
PYRO-A and -B for IFR These processes were developed by Argonne National Laboratory and used in the Integral
Fast Reactor project.
PYRO-A is a means of separating actinides (elements within the actinide family, generally heavier than U-235) from
non-actinides. The spent fuel is placed in an anode basket which is immersed in a molten salt electrolyte. An electrical

7.3. SEPARATION TECHNOLOGIES

145

current is applied, causing the uranium metal (or sometimes oxide, depending on the spent fuel) to plate out on a solid
metal cathode while the other actinides (and the rare earths) can be absorbed into a liquid cadmium cathode. Many
of the fission products (such as caesium, zirconium and strontium) remain in the salt.[30][31][32] As alternatives to the
molten cadmium electrode it is possible to use a molten bismuth cathode, or a solid aluminium cathode.[33]
As an alternative to electrowinning, the wanted metal can be isolated by using a molten alloy of an electropositive
metal and a less reactive metal.[34]
Since the majority of the long term radioactivity, and volume, of spent fuel comes from actinides, removing the
actinides produces waste that is more compact, and not nearly as dangerous over the long term. The radioactivity of
this waste will then drop to the level of various naturally occurring minerals and ores within a few hundred, rather
than thousands of, years.[35]
The mixed actinides produced by pyrometallic processing can be used again as nuclear fuel, as they are virtually all
either fissile, or fertile, though many of these materials would require a fast breeder reactor in order to be burned
efficiently. In a thermal neutron spectrum, the concentrations of several heavy actinides (curium-242 and plutonium240) can become quite high, creating fuel that is substantially different from the usual uranium or mixed uraniumplutonium oxides (MOX) that most current reactors were designed to use.
Another pyrochemical process, the PYRO-B process, has been developed for the processing and recycling of fuel
from a transmuter reactor ( a fast breeder reactor designed to convert transuranic nuclear waste into fission products ).
A typical transmuter fuel is free from uranium and contains recovered transuranics in an inert matrix such as metallic
zirconium. In the PYRO-B processing of such fuel, an electrorefining step is used to separate the residual transuranic
elements from the fission products and recycle the transuranics to the reactor for fissioning. Newly generated technetium and iodine are extracted for incorporation into transmutation targets, and the other fission products are sent
to waste.

Voloxidation
Voloxidation (for volumetric oxidation) involves heating oxide fuel with oxygen, sometimes with alternating oxidation
and reduction, or alternating oxidation by ozone to uranium trioxide with decomposition by heating back to triuranium
octoxide.[28] A major purpose is to capture tritium as tritiated water vapor before further processing where it would
be difficult to retain the tritium. Other volatile elements leave the fuel and must be recovered, especially iodine,
technetium, and carbon-14. Voloxidation also breaks up the fuel or increases its surface area to enhance penetration
of reagents in following reprocessing steps.

Volatilization in isolation
Simply heating spent oxide fuel in an inert atmosphere or vacuum at a temperature between 700 °C and 1000 °C as
a first reprocessing step can remove several volatile elements, including caesium whose isotope caesium-137 emits
about half of the heat produced by the spent fuel over the following 100 years of cooling (however, most of the other
half is from strontium-90 which remains). The estimated overall mass balance for 20,000 grams of processed fuel
with 2,000 grams of cladding is:[36]
Tritium is not mentioned in this paper.

Fluoride volatility
Main article: Fluoride volatility
In the fluoride volatility process, fluorine is reacted with the fuel. Fluorine is so much more reactive than even oxygen
that small particles of ground oxide fuel will burst into flame when dropped into a chamber full of fluorine. This is
known as flame fluorination; the heat produced helps the reaction proceed. Most of the uranium, which makes up the
bulk of the fuel, is converted to uranium hexafluoride, the form of uranium used in uranium enrichment, which has
a very low boiling point. Technetium, the main long-lived fission product, is also efficiently converted to its volatile
hexafluoride. A few other elements also form similarly volatile hexafluorides, pentafluorides, or heptafluorides. The
volatile fluorides can be separated from excess fluorine by condensation, then separated from each other by fractional
distillation or selective reduction. Uranium hexafluoride and technetium hexafluoride have very similar boiling points
and vapor pressures, which makes complete separation more difficult.

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CHAPTER 7. NUCLEAR REPROCESSING

Blue elements have volatile fluorides or are already volatile; green elements do not but have volatile chlorides; red elements have
neither, but the elements themselves or their oxides are volatile at very high temperatures. Yields at 100,1,2,3 years after fission, not
considering later neutron capture, fraction of 100% not 200%. Beta decay Kr-85→Rb, Sr-90→Zr, Ru-106→Pd, Sb-125→Te,
Cs-137→Ba, Ce-144→Nd, Sm-151→Eu, Eu-155→Gd visible.

Many of the fission products volatilized are the same ones volatilized in non-fluorinated, higher-temperature volatilization, such as iodine, tellurium and molybdenum; notable differences are that technetium is volatilized, but caesium
is not.
Some transuranium elements such as plutonium, neptunium and americium can form volatile fluorides, but these
compounds are not stable when the fluorine partial pressure is decreased.[37] Most of the plutonium and some of the
uranium will initially remain in ash which drops to the bottom of the flame fluorinator. The plutonium-uranium ratio
in the ash may even approximate the composition needed for fast neutron reactor fuel. Further fluorination of the
ash can remove all the uranium, neptunium, and plutonium as volatile fluorides; however, some other minor actinides
may not form volatile fluorides and instead remain with the alkaline fission products. Some noble metals may not
form fluorides at all, but remain in metallic form; however ruthenium hexafluoride is relatively stable and volatile.
Distillation of the residue at higher temperatures can separate lower-boiling transition metal fluorides and alkali
metal (Cs, Rb) fluorides from higher-boiling lanthanide and alkaline earth metal (Sr, Ba) and yttrium fluorides. The
temperatures involved are much higher, but can be lowered somewhat by distilling in a vacuum. If a carrier salt like
lithium fluoride or sodium fluoride is being used as a solvent, high-temperature distillation is a way to separate the
carrier salt for reuse.
Molten salt reactor designs carry out fluoride volatility reprocessing continuously or at frequent intervals. The goal
is to return actinides to the molten fuel mixture for eventual fission, while removing fission products that are neutron
poisons, or that can be more securely stored outside the reactor core while awaiting eventual transfer to permanent
storage.
Chloride volatility and solubility
Many of the elements that form volatile high-valence fluorides will also form volatile high-valence chlorides. Chlorination and distillation is another possible method for separation. The sequence of separation may differ usefully
from the sequence for fluorides; for example, zirconium tetrachloride and tin tetrachloride have relatively low boiling points of 331 °C and 114.1 °C. Chlorination has even been proposed as a method for removing zirconium fuel
cladding,[28] instead of mechanical decladding.
Chlorides are likely to be easier than fluorides to later convert back to other compounds, such as oxides.

7.4. ECONOMICS

147

Chlorides remaining after volatilization may also be separated by solubility in water. Chlorides of alkaline elements like americium, curium, lanthanides, strontium, caesium are more soluble than those of uranium, neptunium,
plutonium, and zirconium.

7.3.3

Radioanalytical separations

In order to determine the distribution of radioactive metals for analytical purposes, Solvent Impregnated Resins (SIRs)
can be used. SIRs are porous particles, which contain an extractant inside their pores. This approach avoids the liquidliquid separation step required in conventional liquid-liquid extraction. For the preparation of SIRs for radioanalytical
separations, organic Amberlite XAD-4 or XAD-7 can be used. Possible extractants are e.g. trihexyltetradecylphosphonium chloride(CYPHOS IL-101) or N,N0-dialkyl-N,N0-diphenylpyridine-2,6-dicarboxyamides (R-PDA; R =
butyl, octy I, decyl, dodecyl).[38]

7.4 Economics
The relative economics of reprocessing-waste disposal and interim storage-direct disposal has been the focus of much
debate over the past ten years. Studies[39] have modeled the total fuel cycle costs of a reprocessing-recycling system
based on one-time recycling of plutonium in existing thermal reactors (as opposed to the proposed breeder reactor
cycle) and compare this to the total costs of an open fuel cycle with direct disposal. The range of results produced by
these studies is very wide, but all are agreed that under current (2005) economic conditions the reprocessing-recycle
option is the more costly.[40]
If reprocessing is undertaken only to reduce the radioactivity level of spent fuel it should be taken into account that
spent nuclear fuel becomes less radioactive over time. After 40 years its radioactivity drops by 99.9%,[41] though it
still takes over a thousand years for the level of radioactivity to approach that of natural uranium.[42] However the level
of transuranic elements, including plutonium-239, remains high for over 100,000 years, so if not reused as nuclear
fuel, then those elements need secure disposal because of nuclear proliferation reasons as well as radiation hazard.
On 25 October 2011 a commission of the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission revealed during a meeting calculations about the costs of recycling nuclear fuel for power generation. These costs could be twice the costs of direct
geological disposal of spent fuel: the cost of extracting plutonium and handling spent fuel was estimated at 1.98 to
2.14 yen per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated. Discarding the spent fuel as waste would cost only 1 to 1.35 yen
per kilowatt-hour.[43][44]
In July 2004 Japanese newspapers reported that the Japanese Government had estimated the costs of disposing
radioactive waste, contradicting claims four months earlier that no such estimates had been made. The cost of nonreprocessing options was estimated to be between a quarter and a third ($5.5–7.9 billion) of the cost of reprocessing
($24.7 billion). At the end of the year 2011 it became clear that Masaya Yasui, who had been director of the Nuclear
Power Policy Planning Division in 2004, had instructed his subordinate in April 2004 to conceal the data. The fact
that the data were deliberately concealed obliged the ministry to re-investigate the case and to reconsider whether to
punish the officials involved.[45][46]

7.5 List of sites
7.6 See also
• Nuclear fuel cycle
• Breeder reactor
• Nuclear fusion-fission hybrid
• Spent nuclear fuel shipping cask
• Global Nuclear Energy Partnership announced February, 2006

148

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7.7 References
[1] Andrews, A. (27 March 2008). Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing: U.S. Policy. CRS Report For Congress. Retrieved 25 March
2011
[2] MOX fuel can extend the energy extracted by about 12% but slightly reduces plutonium stocks. Information from the
World Nuclear Association about MOX
[3] “Supply of Uranium”. World Nuclear Association. Retrieved 29 January 2010.
[4] “Fast Neutron Reactors”. World Nuclear Association. Retrieved 11 March 2012.
[5] Harold Feiveson et al (2011). “Managing nuclear spent fuel: Policy lessons from a 10-country study”. Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists.
[6] “Adieu to nuclear recycling”. Nature 460 (7252): 152. 2009. Bibcode:2009Natur.460R.152.. doi:10.1038/460152b.
[7] “Plutonium Recovery from Spent Fuel Reprocessing by Nuclear Fuel Services at West Valley, New York from 1966 to
1972”. U.S. Department of Energy. February 1996. Retrieved 17 June 2007.
[8] Gerald Ford October 28 1976 Statement on Nuclear Policy. Retrieved 30 June 2012.
[9] Dr. Ned Xoubi (2008). “The Politics, Science, Environment, and common sense of Spent Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing 3
decades Later”. Symposium on the Technology of Peaceful Nuclear Energy, Irbid, Jordan.
[10] Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing: U.S. Policy Development. (PDF). Retrieved 10 December 2011.
[11] Duke, Cogema, Stone & Webster (DCS) Reports sent to NRC. Nrc.gov. Retrieved 10 December 2011.
[12] New Doubts About Turning Plutonium Into a Fuel, April 10, 2011
[13] Irvine, Maxwell (2011). Nuclear power : a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 55. ISBN
9780199584970.
[14] “Nuclear Energy: Fuel of the Future?". Princeton University. Retrieved 6 April 2013.
[15] C. Hill, D. Guillaneux, X. Hérès, N. Boubals and L. Ramain SANEX-BTP PROCESS DEVELOPMENT STUDIES
[16] C. Hill, L. Berthon, P. Bros, J-P. Dancausse and D. Guillaneux SANEX-BTP PROCESS DEVELOPMENT STUDIES.
Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique
[17] Béatrice Rat, Xavier Hérès Modelling and achievement of a SANEX process flowsheet for trivalent actinides/lanthanides
separation using BTP extractant (bis-1,2,4-triazinyl-pyridine).
[18] “U.S.-Russia Team Makes Treating Nuclear Waste Easier”. U.S. embassy press release(?). 19 December 2001. Retrieved
14 June 2007.
[19] J. Banaee et al. (1 September 2001). “INTEC High-Level Waste Studies Universal Solvent Extraction Feasibility Study”.
INEEL Technical report.
[20] Law, Jack D.; Herbst, R. Scott; Todd, Terry A.; Romanovskiy, Valeriy N.; Babain, Vasily A.; Esimantovskiy, Vyatcheslav
M.; Smirnov, Igor V.; Zaitsev, Boris N. (2001). “The Universal Solvent Extraction (Unex) Process. Ii. Flowsheet Development and Demonstration of the Unex Process for the Separation of Cesium, Strontium, and Actinides from Actual
Acidic Radioactive Waste”. Solvent Extraction and Ion Exchange 19: 23. doi:10.1081/SEI-100001371.
[21] Romanovskiy, Valeriy N.; Smirnov, Igor V.; Babain, Vasily A.; Todd, Terry A.; Herbst, R. Scott; Law, Jack D.; Brewer,
Ken N. (2001). “The Universal Solvent Extraction (Unex) Process. I. Development of the Unex Process Solvent for the
Separation of Cesium, Strontium, and the Actinides from Acidic Radioactive Waste”. Solvent Extraction and Ion Exchange
19: 1. doi:10.1081/SEI-100001370.
[22] J.D. Law et al. (1 March 2001). “Flowsheet testing of the universal solvent extraction process for the simultaneous separation of caesium, strontium, and the actinides from dissolved INEEL calcine” (PDF). WM 2001 conference proceedings.
Retrieved 17 June 2006.
[23] Asanuma, Noriko et al. (2006). “Andodic dissociation of UO2 pellet containing simulated fission products in ammonium
carbonate solution”. Journal of Nuclear Science and Technology 43 (3): 255–262. doi:10.3327/jnst.43.255.
[24] Gerber, Michelle. “The plutonium production story at the Hanford Site: processes and facilities history (WHC-MR-0521)
(excerpts)". Department of Energy.

7.7. REFERENCES

149

[25] Seaborg, Glenn T. et al. (23 August 1960). “Method for separation of plutonium from uranium and fission products by
solvent extraction”. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. U.S. Patent 2,950,166
[26] L.W. Gray (15 April 1999). “From separations to reconstitution—a short history of plutonium in the U.S. and Russia
(UCRL-JC-133802)" (PDF). Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory preprint.
[27] “PYROPROCESSING PROGRESS AT IDAHO NATIONAL LABORATORY” (PDF). Idaho National Laboratory article. September 2007.
[28] Guillermo D. Del Cul, et al. “Advanced Head-End Processing of Spent Fuel: A Progress Report” (PDF). 2005 ANS annual
meeting. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. DOE. Retrieved 3 May 2008.
[29] “Limited Proliferation-Resistance Benefits from Recycling Unseparated Transuranics and Lanthanides from Light-Water
Reactor Spent Fuel” (PDF). p. 4.
[30] “Development of pyro-process fuel cell technology” (PDF). CRIEPI News. July 2002. Retrieved 22 June 2009.
[31] Masatoshi Iizuka (12 December 2001). “Development of plutonium recovery process by molten salt electrorefining with
liquid cadmium cathode” (PDF). Proceedings of the 6th information exchange meeting on actinide and fission product
partitioning and transmutation (Madrid, Spain). Retrieved 22 June 2009.
[32] R. Tulackova (Zvejskova), K. Chuchvalcova Bimova, P. Soucek, F. Lisy Study of Electrochemical Processes for Separation
of the Actinides and Lanthanides in Molten Fluoride Media (PPT file). Nuclear Research Institute Rez plc, Czech Republic
[33] Elecrochemical Behaviours of Lanthanide Fluorides in the Electrolysis System with LiF-NaF-KF Salt. (PDF) . Retrieved
10 December 2011.
[34] Ionic Liquids/Molten Salts and Lanthanides/Actinides Reference List. Merck.de. Retrieved 10 December 2011.
[35] “Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative”. U.S. Department of Energy. Retrieved 3 May 2008.
[36] Wolverton, Daren et al. (11 May 2005). “Removal of caesium from spent nuclear fuel destined for the electrorefiner fuel
treatment process” (PDF). University of Idaho (dissertation?).
[37] Neeb, Karl-Heinz (1997). “The radiochemistry of nuclear power plants with light water reactors”. Walter de Gruyter.
ISBN 3-11-013242-7.
[38] Kabay, N.; Cortina, J.L.; Trochimczuk, A.; Streat, M. (2010). “Solvent-impregnated resins (SIRs) – Methods of preparation and their applications.” React. Funct. Polym. 70: 484–496.
[39] “Advanced Fuel Cycle Cost Basis”. Idaho National Laboratory, United States Department of Energy. Retrieved 19 December 2010.
[40] Recycled Nuclear Fuel Cost Calculator designed by the WISE Uranium Project
[41] “Waste Management and Disposal”. World Nuclear Association. Retrieved 3 May 2008.
[42] “Radioactive Wastes: Myths and Realities”. World Nuclear Association. June 2006. Retrieved 3 May 2008.
[43] NHK-world (26 October 2011) Nuclear fuel recycling costs
[44] JAIF (26 October 2011) Nuclear fuel recycling costs
[45] “Cover-up of estimated costs to dispose of radioactive waste raises serious questions”. The Mainichi Daily News. 2 January
2012. Retrieved 8 January 2012.
[46] Mycle, Schneider. “Japanese mislead about spent fuel reprocessing costs”. International Panel on Fissile Materials. Retrieved 8 January 2012.
[47] “Reprocessing plants, world-wide”. European Nuclear Society. Retrieved 29 July 2008.
[48] “Estimating China’s Production of Plutonium for Weapons”. doi:10.1080/08929880390214133.
[49] All Things Nuclear • China and Reprocessing: Separating Fact from Fiction. Allthingsnuclear.org (11 January 2011).
Retrieved 10 December 2011.
[50] “Marcoule – Valrho”. Global Security. Retrieved 30 July 2008.
[51] Dominique Warin (2007). “Status of the French Research Program on Partitioning and Transmutation”. Journal of Nuclear
Science and Technology 44 (3): 410. doi:10.3327/jnst.44.410.

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[52] “BASSE-NORMANDIE- LOWER NORMANDY, La Hague”. France Nucleaire. Retrieved 31 July 2008.
[53] “Processing of Used Nuclear Fuel”. World Nuclear Association. September 2013. Retrieved 5 December 2013.
[54] “CIRUS and DHRUVA Reactors, Trombay”. Global Security. Retrieved 30 July 2008.
[55] “Kalpakkam Atomic Reprocessing Plant [KARP]". Global Security. Retrieved 30 July 2008.
[56] PM to dedicate Tarapur nuke reprocessing unit next week. Business-standard.com. Retrieved 10 December 2011.
[57] “Tokai Reprocessing Plant (TRP)". Global Security. Retrieved 30 July 2008.
[58] Kramer, D. (2012). “Is Japan ready to forgo nuclear reprocessing?". Physics Today 65 (3): 25–42. Bibcode:2012PhT....65c..25K.
doi:10.1063/PT.3.1469.
[59] “Rawalpindi / Nilhore”. Federation of American Scientists. Retrieved 8 March 2000.
[60] “Pakistan’s Indigenous Nuclear Reactor Starts Up,” Islamabad The Nation, April 13, 1998”.
[61] “Chelyabinsk-65”. Global Security. Retrieved 29 July 2008.
[62] S. Guardini et al. (16 June 2003). “Modernization and Enhancement of NMAC at the Mayak RT-1 Plant” (PDF). INMM.
Retrieved 9 August 2008.
[63] “T Plant overview”. Department of energy. Retrieved 9 April 2011.
[64] LeVerne Fernandez. “Savannah River Site Canyons—Nimble Behemoths of the Atomic Age (WSRC-MS-2000-00061)".

7.8 Further reading
• Williamson, M.A.; Willit, J.L. (2011). “Pyroprocessing Flowsheets for Recycling Used Nuclear Fuel”. Nuclear
Engineering and Technology (Korean Nuclear Society) 43 (4): 329–334. doi:10.5516/NET.2011.43.4.329.
• Till, C.E.; Chang, Y.I; Hannum, W.H. (1997). “The integral fast reactor-an overview”. Progress in Nuclear
Energy (Elsevier) 31 (1-2): 3–11. doi:10.1016/0149-1970(96)00001-7.
• OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, The Economics of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, Paris, 1994
• I. Hensing and W Schultz, Economic Comparison of Nuclear Fuel Cycle Options, Energiewirtschaftlichen
Instituts, Cologne, 1995.
• Cogema, Reprocessing-Recycling: the Industrial Stakes, presentation to the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Bonn,
9 May 1995.
• OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, Plutonium Fuel: An Assessment, Paris, 1989.
• National Research Council, “Nuclear Wastes: Technologies for Separation and Transmutation”, National
Academy Press, Washington D.C. 1996.

7.9 External links
• Processing of Used Nuclear Fuel, World Nuclear Association
• PUREX Process, European Nuclear Society
• Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) – World Nuclear Association
• Disposal Options for Surplus Weapons-Usable Plutonium – Congressional Research Service Report for Congress
• , Annotated bibliography on nuclear reprocessing from the Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues
• Brief History of Fuel Reprocessing
• Annotated bibliography for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from the Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues

Chapter 8

Isotope
This article is about the atomic variants of chemical elements. For the British jazz fusion band, see Isotope (band).
For other uses, see Isotope (disambiguation).
“Isotopes” redirects here. For the minor league baseball team, see Albuquerque Isotopes.
Not to be confused with isotrope.
Isotopes are variants of a particular chemical element which differ in neutron number, although all isotopes of a

The three naturally-occurring isotopes of hydrogen. The fact that each isotope has one proton makes them all variants of hydrogen:
the identity of the isotope is given by the number of neutrons. From left to right, the isotopes are protium (1 H) with zero neutrons,
deuterium (2 H) with one neutron, and tritium (3 H) with two neutrons.

given element have the same number of protons in each atom. The term isotope is formed from the Greek roots isos
(ἴσος “equal”) and topos (τόπος “place”), meaning “the same place”. Thus, different isotopes of a single element
occupy the same position on the periodic table. The number of protons within the atom’s nucleus is called atomic
number and is equal to the number of electrons in the neutral (un-ionized) atom. Each atomic number identifies a
specific element, but not the isotope; an atom of a given element may have a wide range in its number of neutrons.
The number of nucleons (both protons and neutrons) in the nucleus is the atom’s mass number, and each isotope of
a given element has a different mass number.
For example, carbon-12, carbon-13 and carbon-14 are three isotopes of the element carbon with mass numbers 12,
13 and 14 respectively. The atomic number of carbon is 6, which means that every carbon atom has 6 protons, so
that the neutron numbers of these isotopes are 6, 7 and 8 respectively.
151

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CHAPTER 8. ISOTOPE

8.1 Isotope vs. nuclide
Nuclide refers to a nucleus rather than to an atom. Identical nuclei belong to one nuclide, for example each nucleus of
the carbon-13 nuclide is composed of 6 protons and 7 neutrons. The nuclide concept (referring to individual nuclear
species) emphasizes nuclear properties over chemical properties, while the isotope concept (grouping all atoms of
each element) emphasizes chemical over nuclear. The neutron number has large effects on nuclear properties, but its
effect on chemical properties is negligible for most elements. Even in the case of the very lightest elements where
the ratio of neutron number to atomic number varies the most between isotopes it usually has only a small effect,
although it does matter in some circumstances (for hydrogen, the lightest element, the isotope effect is large enough
to strongly affect biology). Since isotope is the older term, it is better known than nuclide, and is still sometimes used
in contexts where nuclide might be more appropriate, such as nuclear technology and nuclear medicine.

8.2 Notation
An isotope and/or nuclide is specified by the name of the particular element (this indicates the atomic number implicitly) followed by a hyphen and the mass number (e.g. helium-3, helium-4, carbon-12, carbon-14, uranium-235
and uranium-239).[1] When a chemical symbol is used, e.g., “C” for carbon, standard notation (now known as “AZE
notation” because A is the mass number, Z the atomic number, and E for element) is to indicate the number of nucleons with a superscript at the upper left of the chemical symbol and to indicate the atomic number with a subscript
at the lower left (e.g. 3
2He, 4
2He, 12
6C, 14
6C, 235
92U, and 239
92U, respectively).[2] Since the atomic number is implied by the element symbol, it is common to state only the mass
number in the superscript and leave out the atomic number subscript (e.g. 3He, 4He, 12C, 14C, 235U, and 239U,
respectively). The letter m is sometimes appended after the mass number to indicate a nuclear isomer, a metastable
or energetically-excited nuclear state (rather than the lowest-energy ground state), for example 180m
73Ta (tantalum-180m).

8.3 Radioactive, primordial, and stable isotopes
Some isotopes are radioactive, and are therefore described as radioisotopes or radionuclides, while others have never
been observed to undergo radioactive decay and are described as stable isotopes or stable nuclides. For example,
14C is a radioactive form of carbon while 12C and 13C are stable isotopes. There are about 339 naturally occurring
nuclides on Earth,[3] of which 288 are primordial nuclides, meaning that they have existed since the solar system’s
formation.
Primordial nuclides include 35 nuclides with very long half-lives (over 80 million years) and 254 that are formally
considered as "stable nuclides",[3] since they have not been observed to decay. In most cases, for obvious reasons,
if an element has stable isotopes, those isotopes predominate in the elemental abundance found on Earth and in the
solar system. However, in the cases of three elements (tellurium, indium, and rhenium) the most abundant isotope
found in nature is actually one (or two) extremely long lived radioisotope(s) of the element, despite these elements
having one or more stable isotopes.
Theory predicts that many apparently “stable” isotopes/nuclides are radioactive, with extremely long half-lives (discounting the possibility of proton decay, which would make all nuclides ultimately unstable). Of the 254 nuclides
never observed to decay, only 90 of these (all from the first 40 elements) are theoretically stable to all known forms
of decay. Element 41 (niobium) is theoretically unstable via spontaneous fission, but this has never been detected.
Many other stable nuclides are in theory energetically susceptible to other known forms of decay, such as alpha decay
or double beta decay, but no decay products have yet been observed, and so these isotopes are described as “observationally stable”. The predicted half-lives for these nuclides often greatly exceed the estimated age of the universe,
and in fact there are also 27 known radionuclides (see primordial nuclide) with half-lives longer than the age of the
universe.
Adding in the radioactive nuclides that have been created artificially, there are more than 3100 currently known

8.4. HISTORY

153

nuclides.[4] These include 905 nuclides that are either stable or have half-lives longer than 60 minutes. See list of
nuclides for details.

8.4 History
8.4.1

Radioactive isotopes

The existence of isotopes was first suggested in 1913 by the radiochemist Frederick Soddy, based on studies of radioactive decay chains that indicated about 40 different species described as radioelements (i.e. radioactive elements)
between uranium and lead, although the periodic table only allowed for 11 elements from uranium to lead.[5][6]
Several attempts to separate these new radioelements chemically had failed.[7] For example, Soddy had shown in
1910 that mesothorium (later shown to be 228 Ra), radium (226 Ra, the longest-lived isotope), and thorium X (224 Ra)
are impossible to separate.[8] Attempts to place the radioelements in the periodic table led Soddy and Kazimierz
Fajans independently to propose their radioactive displacement law in 1913, to the effect that alpha decay produced
an element two places to the left in the periodic table, while beta decay emission produced an element one place to
the right.[9] Soddy recognized that emission of an alpha particle followed by two beta particles led to the formation of
an element chemically identical to the initial element but with a mass four units lighter and with different radioactive
properties.
Soddy proposed that several types of atoms (differing in radioactive properties) could occupy the same place in the
table. For example, the alpha-decay of uranium-235 forms thorium-231, while the beta decay of actinium-230 forms
thorium-230.[7] The term “isotope”, Greek for “at the same place”, was suggested to Soddy by Margaret Todd, a
Scottish physician and family friend, during a conversation in which he explained his ideas to her.[8][10][11][12][13][14]
In 1914 T. W. Richards found variations between the atomic weight of lead from different mineral sources, attributable
to variations in isotopic composition due to different radioactive origins.[7][15]

8.4.2

Stable isotopes

The first evidence for multiple isotopes of a stable (non-radioactive) element was found by J. J. Thomson in 1913 as
part of his exploration into the composition of canal rays (positive ions).[16][17] Thomson channeled streams of neon
ions through a magnetic and an electric field and measured their deflection by placing a photographic plate in their
path. Each stream created a glowing patch on the plate at the point it struck. Thomson observed two separate patches
of light on the photographic plate (see image), which suggested two different parabolas of deflection. Thomson
eventually concluded that some of the atoms in the neon gas were of higher mass than the rest.
F. W. Aston subsequently discovered multiple stable isotopes for numerous elements using a mass spectrograph. In
1919 Aston studied neon with sufficient resolution to show that the two isotopic masses are very close to the integers
20 and 22, and that neither is equal to the known molar mass (20.2) of neon gas. This is an example of Aston’s
whole number rule for isotopic masses, which states that large deviations of elemental molar masses from integers
are primarily due to the fact that the element is a mixture of isotopes. Aston similarly showed that the molar mass of
chlorine (35.45) is a weighted average of the almost integral masses for the two isotopes 35 Cl and 37 Cl.[18]

8.5 Variation in properties between isotopes
See also: Neutron-proton ratio

8.5.1

Chemical and molecular properties

A neutral atom has the same number of electrons as protons. Thus, different isotopes of a given element all have
the same number of protons and share a similar electronic structure. Because the chemical behavior of an atom is
largely determined by its electronic structure, different isotopes exhibit nearly identical chemical behavior. The main
exception to this is the kinetic isotope effect: due to their larger masses, heavier isotopes tend to react somewhat more
slowly than lighter isotopes of the same element. This is most pronounced for protium (1H), deuterium (2H), and

154

CHAPTER 8. ISOTOPE

In the bottom right corner of J. J. Thomson's photographic plate are the separate impact marks for the two isotopes of neon: neon-20
and neon-22.

tritium (3H), because deuterium has twice the mass of protium and tritium has thrice the mass of protium. The mass
differences between deuterium and tritium and the relatively light protium also affects the behavior of their respective

8.5. VARIATION IN PROPERTIES BETWEEN ISOTOPES

155

chemical bonds, by means of changing the center of gravity (reduced mass) of the atomic systems. However, for
heavier elements, which have more neutrons than lighter elements, the ratio of the nuclear mass to the collective
electronic mass is far greater, and the relative mass difference between isotopes is much less. For these two reasons,
the mass-difference effects on chemistry are usually negligible.

stable
1014 yr
160

1012 yr
1010 yr

140

108 yr
106 yr

120

104 yr
100 yr

100

1 yr
Z=N

80

106 s
104 s
100 s

60

1s
40

10−2 s
10−4 s

20

N

10−6 s

Z

20

40

60

80

100

10−8 s
unstable

Isotope half-lives. Note that the plot for stable isotopes diverges from the line Z = N as the element number Z becomes larger

In similar manner, two molecules that differ only in the isotopic nature of their atoms (isotopologues) have identical
electronic structure, and therefore almost indistinguishable physical and chemical properties (again with deuterium
and tritium providing the primary exceptions to this rule). The vibrational modes of a molecule are determined by
its shape and by the masses of its constituent atoms. As a consequence, isotopologues have different sets of vibrational
modes. Since vibrational modes allow a molecule to absorb photons of corresponding energies, isotopologues have
different optical properties in the infrared range.

156

8.5.2

CHAPTER 8. ISOTOPE

Nuclear properties and stability

See also: Stable isotope, List of nuclides and List of elements by stability of isotopes
Atomic nuclei consist of protons and neutrons bound together by the residual strong force. Because protons are
positively charged, they repel each other. Neutrons, which are electrically neutral, stabilize the nucleus in two ways.
Their copresence pushes protons slightly apart, reducing the electrostatic repulsion between the protons, and they
exert the attractive nuclear force on each other and on protons. For this reason, one or more neutrons are necessary
for two or more protons to bind into a nucleus. As the number of protons increases, so does the ratio of neutrons to
protons necessary to ensure a stable nucleus (see graph at right). For example, although the neutron:proton ratio of 3
2He is 1:2, the neutron:proton ratio of 238
92U is greater than 3:2. A number of lighter elements have stable nuclides with the ratio 1:1 (Z = N). The nuclide 40
20Ca (calcium-40) is observationally the heaviest stable nuclide with the same number of neutrons and protons;
(theoretically, the heaviest stable one is sulfur-32). All stable nuclides heavier than calcium-40 contain more neutrons
than protons.

8.5.3

Numbers of isotopes per element

Of the 81 elements with a stable isotope, the largest number of stable isotopes observed for any element is ten (for
the element tin). No element has nine stable isotopes. Xenon is the only element with eight stable isotopes. Four
elements have seven stable isotopes, eight have six stable isotopes, ten have five stable isotopes, nine have four stable
isotopes, five have three stable isotopes, 16 have two stable isotopes (counting 180m
73Ta as stable), and 26 elements have only a single stable isotope (of these, 19 are so-called mononuclidic elements,
having a single primordial stable isotope that dominates and fixes the atomic weight of the natural element to high
precision; 3 radioactive mononuclidic elements occur as well).[19] In total, there are 254 nuclides that have not been
observed to decay. For the 80 elements that have one or more stable isotopes, the average number of stable isotopes
is 254/80 = 3.2 isotopes per element.

8.5.4

Even and odd nucleon numbers

Main article: Even and odd atomic nuclei
The proton:neutron ratio is not the only factor affecting nuclear stability. It depends also on evenness or oddness of
its atomic number Z, neutron number N and, consequently, of their sum, the mass number A. Oddness of both Z and
N tends to lower the nuclear binding energy, making odd nuclei, generally, less stable. This remarkable difference
of nuclear binding energy between neighbouring nuclei, especially of odd-A isobars, has important consequences:
unstable isotopes with a nonoptimal number of neutrons or protons decay by beta decay (including positron decay),
electron capture or other exotic means, such as spontaneous fission and cluster decay.
The majority of stable nuclides are even-proton-even-neutron, where all numbers Z, N, and A are even. The odd-A
stable nuclides are divided (roughly evenly) into odd-proton-even-neutron, and even-proton-odd-neutron nuclides.
Odd-proton-odd-neutron nuclei are the least common.
Even atomic number
The 148 even-proton, even-neutron (EE) nuclides comprise ~ 58% of all stable nuclides and all have spin 0 because
of pairing. There are also 22 primordial long-lived even-even nuclides. As a result, each of the 41 even-numbered
elements from 2 to 82 has at least one stable isotope, and most of these elements have several primordial isotopes.
Half of these even-numbered elements have six or more stable isotopes. The extreme stability of helium-4 due to
a double pairing of 2 protons and 2 neutrons prevents any nuclides containing five or eight nucleons from existing
for long enough to serve as platforms for the buildup of heavier elements via nuclear fusion in stars (see triple alpha
process).
These 53 stable nuclides have an even number of protons and an odd number of neutrons. They are a minority in
comparison to the even-even isotopes, which are about 3 times as numerous. Among the 41 even-Z elements that
have a stable nuclide, only three elements (argon, cerium, and lead) have no even-odd stable nuclides. One element

8.5. VARIATION IN PROPERTIES BETWEEN ISOTOPES

157

(tin) has three. There are 24 elements that have one even-odd nuclide and 13 that have two odd-even nuclides. Of
35 primordial radionuclides there exist four even-odd nuclides (see table at right), including the fissile 235
92U. Because of their odd neutron numbers, the even-odd nuclides tend to have large neutron capture cross sections,
due to the energy that results from neutron-pairing effects. These stable even-proton odd-neutron nuclides tend to be
uncommon by abundance in nature, generally because, to form and enter into primordial abundance, they must have
escaped capturing neutrons to form yet other stable even-even isotopes, during both the s-process and r-process of
neutron capture, during nucleosynthesis in stars. For this reason, only 195
78Pt and 9
4Be are the most naturally abundant isotopes of their element.

Odd atomic number
48 stable odd-proton-even-neutron nuclides, stabilized by their even numbers of paired neutrons, form most of the
stable isotopes of the odd-numbered elements; the very few odd-odd nuclides comprise the others. There are 41
odd-numbered elements with Z = 1 through 81, with 39 of these having any stable isotopes (the elements technetium
(
43Tc) and promethium (
61Pm) have no stable isotopes). Of these 39 odd Z elements, 30 elements (including hydrogen-1 where 0 neutrons is
even) have one stable odd-even isotope, and nine elements: chlorine (
17Cl), potassium (
19K), copper (
29Cu), gallium (
31Ga), bromine (
35Br), silver (
47Ag), antimony (
51Sb), iridium (
77Ir), and thallium (
81Tl), have two odd-even stable isotopes each. This makes a total 30 + 2(9) = 48 stable odd-even isotopes.
There are also five primordial long-lived radioactive odd-even isotopes, 87
37Rb, 115
49In, 187
75Re, 151
63Eu, and 209
83Bi. The last two were only recently found to decay, with half-lives greater than 1018 years.
Only five stable nuclides contain both an odd number of protons and an odd number of neutrons. The first four
“odd-odd” nuclides occur in low mass nuclides, for which changing a proton to a neutron or vice versa would lead to
a very lopsided proton-neutron ratio (2
1H, 6
3Li, 10
5B, and 14
7N; spins 1, 1, 3, 1). The only other entirely “stable” odd-odd nuclide is 180m
73Ta (spin 9), the only primordial nuclear isomer, which has not yet been observed to decay despite experimental
attempts.[20] Hence, all observationally stable odd-odd nuclides have nonzero integer spin. This is because the single
unpaired neutron and unpaired proton have a larger nuclear force attraction to each other if their spins are aligned
(producing a total spin of at least 1 unit), instead of anti-aligned. See deuterium for the simplest case of this nuclear
behavior.
Many odd-odd radionuclides (like tantalum-180) with comparatively short half lives are known. Usually, they betadecay to their nearby even-even isobars that have paired protons and paired neutrons. Of the nine primordial odd-odd
nuclides (five stable and four radioactive with long half lives), only 14
7N is the most common isotope of a common element. This is the case because it is a part of the CNO cycle. The
nuclides 6
3Li and 10
5B are minority isotopes of elements that are themselves rare compared to other light elements, while the other six
isotopes make up only a tiny percentage of the natural abundance of their elements. For example, 180m
73Ta is thought to be the rarest of the 254 stable isotopes.

158

CHAPTER 8. ISOTOPE

Odd neutron number
Actinides with odd neutron number are generally fissile (with thermal neutrons), while those with even neutron number
are generally not, though they are fissionable with fast neutrons. Only 195
78Pt, 9
4Be and 14
7N have odd neutron number and are the most naturally abundant isotope of their element.

8.6 Occurrence in nature
See also: Abundance of the chemical elements
Elements are composed of one or more naturally occurring isotopes. The unstable (radioactive) isotopes are either
primordial or postprimordial. Primordial isotopes were a product of stellar nucleosynthesis or another type of nucleosynthesis such as cosmic ray spallation, and have persisted down to the present because their rate of decay is so
slow (e.g., uranium-238 and potassium-40). Postprimordial isotopes were created by cosmic ray bombardment as
cosmogenic nuclides (e.g., tritium, carbon-14), or by the decay of a radioactive primordial isotope to a radioactive
radiogenic nuclide daughter (e.g., uranium to radium). A few isotopes are naturally synthesized as nucleogenic nuclides, by some other natural nuclear reaction, such as when neutrons from natural nuclear fission are absorbed by
another atom.
As discussed above, only 80 elements have any stable isotopes, and 26 of these have only one stable isotope. Thus,
about two thirds of stable elements occur naturally on Earth in multiple stable isotopes, with the largest number of
stable isotopes for an element being ten, for tin (
50Sn). There are about 94 elements found naturally on Earth (up to plutonium inclusive), though some are detected
only in very tiny amounts, such as plutonium-244. Scientists estimate that the elements that occur naturally on Earth
(some only as radioisotopes) occur as 339 isotopes (nuclides) in total.[21] Only 254 of these naturally occurring
isotopes are stable in the sense of never having been observed to decay as of the present time. An additional 35
primordial nuclides (to a total of 289 primordial nuclides), are radioactive with known half-lives, but have half-lives
longer than 80 million years, allowing them to exist from the beginning of the solar system. See list of nuclides for
details.
All the known stable isotopes occur naturally on Earth; the other naturally occurring-isotopes are radioactive but
occur on Earth due to their relatively long half-lives, or else due to other means of ongoing natural production. These
include the afore-mentioned cosmogenic nuclides, the nucleogenic nuclides, and any radiogenic radioisotopes formed
by ongoing decay of a primordial radioactive isotope, such as radon and radium from uranium.
An additional ~3000 radioactive isotopes not found in nature have been created in nuclear reactors and in particle
accelerators. Many short-lived isotopes not found naturally on Earth have also been observed by spectroscopic analysis, being naturally created in stars or supernovae. An example is aluminium-26, which is not naturally found on
Earth, but is found in abundance on an astronomical scale.
The tabulated atomic masses of elements are averages that account for the presence of multiple isotopes with different
masses. Before the discovery of isotopes, empirically determined noninteger values of atomic mass confounded
scientists. For example, a sample of chlorine contains 75.8% chlorine-35 and 24.2% chlorine-37, giving an average
atomic mass of 35.5 atomic mass units.
According to generally accepted cosmology theory, only isotopes of hydrogen and helium, traces of some isotopes
of lithium and beryllium, and perhaps some boron, were created at the Big Bang, while all other isotopes were
synthesized later, in stars and supernovae, and in interactions between energetic particles such as cosmic rays, and
previously produced isotopes. (See nucleosynthesis for details of the various processes thought responsible for isotope
production.) The respective abundances of isotopes on Earth result from the quantities formed by these processes,
their spread through the galaxy, and the rates of decay for isotopes that are unstable. After the initial coalescence
of the solar system, isotopes were redistributed according to mass, and the isotopic composition of elements varies
slightly from planet to planet. This sometimes makes it possible to trace the origin of meteorites.

8.7. ATOMIC MASS OF ISOTOPES

159

8.7 Atomic mass of isotopes
The atomic mass (mᵣ) of an isotope is determined mainly by its mass number (i.e. number of nucleons in its nucleus).
Small corrections are due to the binding energy of the nucleus (see mass defect), the slight difference in mass between
proton and neutron, and the mass of the electrons associated with the atom, the latter because the electron:nucleon
ratio differs among isotopes.
The mass number is a dimensionless quantity. The atomic mass, on the other hand, is measured using the atomic
mass unit based on the mass of the carbon-12 atom. It is denoted with symbols “u” (for unified atomic mass unit) or
“Da” (for dalton).
The atomic masses of naturally occurring isotopes of an element determine the atomic mass of the element. When
the element contains N isotopes, the expression below is applied for the average atomic mass ma :
ma = m1 x1 + m2 x2 + ... + mN xN
where m1 , m2 , ..., mN are the atomic masses of each individual isotope, and x1 , ..., xN are the relative abundances
of these isotopes.

8.8 Applications of isotopes
8.8.1

Purification of isotopes

Main article: isotope separation
Several applications exist that capitalize on properties of the various isotopes of a given element. Isotope separation
is a significant technological challenge, particularly with heavy elements such as uranium or plutonium. Lighter
elements such as lithium, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen are commonly separated by gas diffusion of their compounds
such as CO and NO. The separation of hydrogen and deuterium is unusual since it is based on chemical rather than
physical properties, for example in the Girdler sulfide process. Uranium isotopes have been separated in bulk by gas
diffusion, gas centrifugation, laser ionization separation, and (in the Manhattan Project) by a type of production mass
spectrometry.

8.8.2

Use of chemical and biological properties

Main articles: isotope geochemistry, cosmochemistry and paleoclimatology

• Isotope analysis is the determination of isotopic signature, the relative abundances of isotopes of a given element
in a particular sample. For biogenic substances in particular, significant variations of isotopes of C, N and O
can occur. Analysis of such variations has a wide range of applications, such as the detection of adulteration in
food products[22] or the geographic origins of products using isoscapes. The identification of certain meteorites
as having originated on Mars is based in part upon the isotopic signature of trace gases contained in them.[23]
• Isotopic substitution can be used to determine the mechanism of a chemical reaction via the kinetic isotope
effect.
• Another common application is isotopic labeling, the use of unusual isotopes as tracers or markers in chemical reactions. Normally, atoms of a given element are indistinguishable from each other. However, by using
isotopes of different masses, even different nonradioactive stable isotopes can be distinguished by mass spectrometry or infrared spectroscopy. For example, in 'stable isotope labeling with amino acids in cell culture
(SILAC)' stable isotopes are used to quantify proteins. If radioactive isotopes are used, they can be detected
by the radiation they emit (this is called radioisotopic labeling).
• Isotopes are commonly used to determine the concentration of various elements or substances using the isotope
dilution method, whereby known amounts of isotopically-substituted compounds are mixed with the samples
and the isotopic signatures of the resulting mixtures are determined with mass spectrometry.

160

8.8.3

CHAPTER 8. ISOTOPE

Use of nuclear properties

• A technique similar to radioisotopic labeling is radiometric dating: using the known half-life of an unstable
element, one can calculate the amount of time that has elapsed since a known level of isotope existed. The
most widely known example is radiocarbon dating used to determine the age of carbonaceous materials.
• Several forms of spectroscopy rely on the unique nuclear properties of specific isotopes, both radioactive and
stable. For example, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy can be used only for isotopes with a
nonzero nuclear spin. The most common isotopes used with NMR spectroscopy are 1 H, 2 D,15 N, 13 C, and
31
P.
• Mössbauer spectroscopy also relies on the nuclear transitions of specific isotopes, such as 57 Fe.
• Radionuclides also have important uses. Nuclear power and nuclear weapons development require relatively
large quantities of specific isotopes. Nuclear medicine and radiation oncology utilize radioisotopes respectively
for medical diagnosis and treatment.

8.9 See also
• Abundance of the chemical elements
• Atom
• Table of nuclides
• Table of nuclides (complete)
• List of isotopes
• List of isotopes by half-life
• List of elements by stability of isotopes
• Isotones
• Isobars
• Radionuclide (or radioisotope)
• Nuclear medicine (includes medical isotopes)
• Isotopomer
• List of particles
• Geotraces
• Isotope dilution

8.10 Notes
• Isotopes are nuclides having the same number of protons; compare:
• Isotones are nuclides having the same number of neutrons. N = A − Z
• Isobars are nuclides having the same mass number, i.e. sum of protons plus neutrons. A
• Nuclear isomers are different excited states of the same type of nucleus. A transition from one isomer to
another is accompanied by emission or absorption of a gamma ray, or the process of internal conversion.
Isomers are by definition both isotopic and isobaric. (Not to be confused with chemical isomers.)
• Isodiaphers are nuclides having the same neutron excess, i.e. number of neutrons minus number of
protons. D = N − Z
• Bainbridge mass spectrometer

8.11. REFERENCES

161

8.11 References
[1] IUPAC (Connelly, N. G.; Damhus, T.; Hartshorn, R. M.; and Hutton, A. T.), Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry –
IUPAC Recommendations 2005, The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2005; IUPAC (McCleverty, J. A.; and Connelly, N. G.),
Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry II. Recommendations 2000, The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2001; IUPAC (Leigh,
G. J.), Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry (recommendations 1990), Blackwell Science, 1990; IUPAC, Nomenclature of
Inorganic Chemistry, Second Edition, 1970; probably in the 1958 first edition as well
[2] This notation seems to have been introduced in the second half of the 1930s. Before that, various notations were used,
such as Ne(22) for neon-22 (1934), Ne22 for neon-22 (1935), or even Pb210 for lead-210 (1933).
[3] “Radioactives Missing From The Earth”.
[4] “NuDat 2 Description”.
[5] Choppin, G.; Liljenzin, J. O. and Rydberg, J. (1995) Radiochemistry and Nuclear Chemistry (2nd ed.) ButterworthHeinemann, pp. 3–5
[6] Others had also suggested the possibility of isotopes; e.g.,
• Strömholm, Daniel and Svedberg, Theodor (1909) “Untersuchungen über die Chemie der radioactiven Grundstoffe
II.” (Investigations into the chemistry of the radioactive elements, part 2), Zeitschrift für anorganischen Chemie, 63:
197–206; see especially page 206.
• Alexander Thomas Cameron, Radiochemistry (London, England: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1910), p. 141. (Cameron also
anticipated the displacement law.)
[7] Scerri, Eric R. (2007) The Periodic Table Oxford University Press, pp. 176–179 ISBN 0195305736
[8] Nagel, Miriam C. (1982). “Frederick Soddy: From Alchemy to Isotopes”. Journal of Chemical Education 59 (9): 739–740.
Bibcode:1982JChEd..59..739N. doi:10.1021/ed059p739.
[9] See:
• Kasimir Fajans (1913) "Über eine Beziehung zwischen der Art einer radioaktiven Umwandlung und dem elektrochemischen Verhalten der betreffenden Radioelemente” (On a relation between the type of radioactive transformation and the electrochemical behavior of the relevant radioactive elements), Physikalische Zeitschrift, 14: 131–136.
• Soddy announced his “displacement law” in: Soddy, Frederick (1913). “The Radio-Elements and the Periodic Law”.
Nature 91 (2264): 57. Bibcode:1913Natur..91...57S. doi:10.1038/091057a0..
• Soddy elaborated his displacement law in: Soddy, Frederick (1913) “Radioactivity,” Chemical Society Annual Report,
10: 262–288.
• Alexander Smith Russell (1888–1972) also published a displacement law: Russell, Alexander S. (1913) “The periodic
system and the radio-elements,” Chemical News and Journal of Industrial Science, 107: 49–52.
[10] Soddy first used the word “isotope” in: Soddy, Frederick (1913). “Intra-atomic charge”. Nature 92 (2301): 399–400.
Bibcode:1913Natur..92..399S. doi:10.1038/092399c0.
[11] Fleck, Alexander (1957). “Frederick Soddy”. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 3: 203–216. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1957.0014.
p. 208: Up to 1913 we used the phrase 'radio elements chemically non-separable' and at that time the word isotope was
suggested in a drawing-room discussion with Dr. Margaret Todd in the home of Soddy’s father-in-law, Sir George Beilby.
[12] Budzikiewicz H and Grigsby RD (2006). “Mass spectrometry and isotopes: a century of research and discussion”. Mass
spectrometry reviews 25 (1): 146–57. doi:10.1002/mas.20061. PMID 16134128.
[13] Scerri, Eric R. (2007) The Periodic Table, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0195305736, Ch. 6, note 44 (p. 312) citing
Alexander Fleck, described as a former student of Soddy’s.
[14] In his 1893 book, William T. Preyer also used the word “isotope” to denote similarities among elements. From p. 9 of
William T. Preyer, Das genetische System der chemischen Elemente [The genetic system of the chemical elements] (Berlin,
Germany: R. Friedländer & Sohn, 1893): “Die ersteren habe ich der Kürze wegen isotope Elemente genannt, weil sie in
jedem der sieben Stämmme der gleichen Ort, nämlich dieselbe Stuffe, einnehmen.” (For the sake of brevity, I have named
the former “isotopic” elements, because they occupy the same place in each of the seven families [i.e., columns of the
periodic table], namely the same step [i.e., row of the periodic table].)
[15] The origins of the conceptions of isotopes Frederick Soddy, Nobel prize lecture
[16] Thomson, J. J. (1912). “XIX. Further experiments on positive rays”. Philosophical Magazine Series 6 24 (140): 209.
doi:10.1080/14786440808637325.

162

CHAPTER 8. ISOTOPE

[17] Thomson, J. J. (1910). “LXXXIII. Rays of positive electricity”. Philosophical Magazine Series 6 20 (118): 752. doi:10.1080/1478644100863696
[18] Mass spectra and isotopes Francis W. Aston, Nobel prize lecture 1922
[19] Sonzogni, Alejandro (2008). “Interactive Chart of Nuclides”. National Nuclear Data Center: Brookhaven National Laboratory. Retrieved 2013-05-03.
[20] Hult, Mikael; Wieslander, J. S.; Marissens, Gerd; Gasparro, Joël; Wätjen, Uwe; Misiaszek, Marcin (2009). “Search for
the radioactivity of 180mTa using an underground HPGe sandwich spectrometer”. Applied Radiation and Isotopes 67 (5):
918–21. doi:10.1016/j.apradiso.2009.01.057. PMID 19246206.
[21] “Radioactives Missing From The Earth”. Don-lindsay-archive.org. Retrieved 2012-06-16.
[22] E. Jamin et al.; Guérin, Régis; Rétif, Mélinda; Lees, Michèle; Martin, Gérard J. (2003). “Improved Detection of Added
Water in Orange Juice by Simultaneous Determination of the Oxygen-18/Oxygen-16 Isotope Ratios of Water and Ethanol
Derived from Sugars”. J. Agric. Food Chem. 51 (18): 5202. doi:10.1021/jf030167m.
[23] A. H. Treiman, J. D. Gleason and D. D. Bogard (2000). “The SNC meteorites are from Mars”. Planet. Space Sci. 48
(12–14): 1213. Bibcode:2000P&SS...48.1213T. doi:10.1016/S0032-0633(00)00105-7.

8.12 External links
• The Nuclear Science web portal Nucleonica
• The Karlsruhe Nuclide Chart
• National Nuclear Data Center Portal to large repository of free data and analysis programs from NNDC
• National Isotope Development Center Coordination and management of the production, availability, and distribution of isotopes, and reference information for the isotope community
• Isotope Development & Production for Research and Applications (IDPRA) U.S. Department of Energy program for isotope production and production research and development
• International Atomic Energy Agency Homepage of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an Agency
of the United Nations (UN)
• Atomic Weights and Isotopic Compositions for All Elements Static table, from NIST (National Institute of
Standards and Technology)
• Atomgewichte, Zerfallsenergien und Halbwertszeiten aller Isotope
• Exploring the Table of the Isotopes at the LBNL
• Current isotope research and information isotope.info
• Emergency Preparedness and Response: Radioactive Isotopes by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention)
• Chart of Nuclides Interactive Chart of Nuclides (National Nuclear Data Center)
• Interactive Chart of the nuclides, isotopes and Periodic Table
• The LIVEChart of Nuclides – IAEA with isotope data.
• Annotated bibliography for isotopes from the Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues

Chapter 9

Nucleosynthesis
For the song by Vangelis, see Albedo 0.39.
Nucleosynthesis is the process that creates new atomic nuclei from pre-existing nucleons, primarily protons and
neutrons. The first nuclei were formed about three minutes after the Big Bang, through the process called Big Bang
nucleosynthesis. It was then that hydrogen and helium formed to become the content of the first stars, and is responsible for the present hydrogen/helium ratio of the cosmos.
With the formation of stars, heavier nuclei were created from hydrogen and helium by stellar nucleosynthesis, a
process that continues today. Some of these elements, particularly those lighter than iron, continue to be delivered
to the interstellar medium when low mass stars eject their outer envelope before they collapse to form white dwarfs.
The remains of their ejected mass form the planetary nebulae observable throughout our galaxy.
Supernova nucleosynthesis within exploding stars by fusing carbon and oxygen is responsible for the abundances of
elements between magnesium (atomic number 12) and nickel (atomic number 28).[1] Supernova nucleosynthesis is
also thought to be responsible for the creation of rarer elements heavier than iron and nickel, in the last few seconds of
a type II supernova event. The synthesis of these heavier elements absorbs energy (endothermic) as they are created,
from the energy produced during the supernova explosion. Some of those elements are created from the absorption
of multiple neutrons (the R process) in the period of a few seconds during the explosion. The elements formed in
supernovas include the heaviest elements known, such as the long-lived elements uranium and thorium.
Cosmic ray spallation, caused when cosmic rays impact the interstellar medium and fragment larger atomic species,
is a significant source of the lighter nuclei, particularly 3 He, 9 Be and 10,11 B, that are not created by stellar nucleosynthesis.
In addition to the fusion processes responsible for the growing abundances of elements in the universe, a few minor
natural processes continue to produce very small numbers of new nuclides on Earth. These nuclides contribute little to their abundances, but may account for the presence of specific new nuclei. These nuclides are produced via
radiogenesis (decay) of long-lived, heavy, primordial radionuclides such as uranium and thorium. Cosmic ray bombardment of elements on Earth also contribute to the presence of rare, short-lived atomic species called cosmogenic
nuclides.

9.1 Timeline
It is thought that the primordial nucleons themselves were formed from the quark–gluon plasma during the Big Bang
as it cooled below two trillion degrees. A few minutes afterward, starting with only protons and neutrons, nuclei up
to lithium and beryllium (both with mass number 7) were formed, but the abundances of other elements dropped
sharply with growing atomic mass. Some boron may have been formed at this time, but the process stopped before
significant carbon could be formed, as this element requires a far higher product of helium density and time than were
present in the short nucleosynthesis period of the Big Bang. That fusion process essentially shut down at about 20
minutes, due to drops in temperature and density as the universe continued to expand. This first process, Big Bang
nucleosynthesis, was the first type of nucleogenesis to occur in the universe.
The subsequent nucleosynthesis of the heavier elements requires the extreme temperatures and pressures found within
163

164

CHAPTER 9. NUCLEOSYNTHESIS

B

Big
Bang

C

Cosmic
rays

H
B

Li Be
C

C

Na Mg
L

K
L

Ca Sc Ti V
L
L

Cs Ba
$

L

Fr Ra
$

Large
stars

S

Small
stars

$

Supernovae

M

Manmade

L
L

Rb Sr Y
$

L

$

L

$ L

$ L

He
B

B

C

N

O

F

Ne

C

S L

S L

S L

L

S L

Al Si P

S

$ L

S L

$ L

L

L

L

L

Cr Mn Fe Co Ni Cu Zn Ga Ge As Se Br Kr
L

L

$ L

$

$

L

L

$

$

L

$

Zr Nb Mo Tc Ru Rh Pd Ag Cd In Sn Sb Te
L

Cl Ar

$ L

L

$ L

$

$ L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

I

Xe

$

$

Hf Ta W Re Os Ir Pt Au Hg Tl Pb Bi Po At Rn
$ L

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

$

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

$

La Ce Pr Nd Pm Sm Eu Gd Tb Dy Ho Er Tm Yb Lu
L

L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

$

$

$

$ L

$

Ac Th Pa U Np Pu Am Cm Bk Cf Es Fm Md No Lr
$

$

$

$

$

$

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

Periodic table showing the cosmogenic origin of each element. Elements from carbon up to sulfur may be made in small stars by the
alpha process. Elements beyond iron are made in large stars with slow neutron capture (s-process), followed by expulsion to space
in gas ejections (see planetary nebulae. Elements heavier than iron may be made in supernovae after the r-process, involving a dense
burst of neutrons and rapid capture by the element.

stars and supernovas. These processes began as hydrogen and helium from the Big Bang collapsed into the first stars
at 500 million years. Star formation has occurred continuously in the galaxy since that time. The elements found
on Earth, the so-called primordial elements, were created prior to Earth’s formation by stellar nucleosynthesis and
by supernova nucleosynthesis. They range in atomic numbers from Z=6 (carbon) to Z=94 (plutonium). Synthesis
of these elements occurred either by nuclear fusion (including both rapid and slow multiple neutron capture) or to a
lesser degree by nuclear fission followed by beta decay.
A star gains heavier elements by combining its lighter nuclei, hydrogen, deuterium, beryllium, lithium, and boron,
which were found in the initial composition of the interstellar medium and hence the star. Interstellar gas therefore
contains declining abundances of these light elements, which are present only by virtue of their nucleosynthesis during
the Big Bang. Larger quantities of these lighter elements in the present universe are therefore thought to have been
restored through billions of years of cosmic ray (mostly high-energy proton) mediated breakup of heavier elements
in interstellar gas and dust. The fragments of these cosmic-ray collisions include the light elements Li, Be and B.

9.2 History of nucleosynthesis theory
The first ideas on nucleosynthesis were simply that the chemical elements were created at the beginning of the universe,
but no rational physical scenario for this could be identified. Gradually it became clear that hydrogen and helium are
much more abundant than any of the other elements. All the rest constitute less than 2% of the mass of the solar
system, and of other star systems as well. At the same time it was clear that oxygen and carbon were the next two most
common elements, and also that there was a general trend toward high abundance of the light elements, especially
those composed of whole numbers of helium-4 nuclei.
Arthur Stanley Eddington first suggested in 1920, that stars obtain their energy by fusing hydrogen into helium. This
idea was not generally accepted, as the nuclear mechanism was not understood. In the years immediately before World
War II, Hans Bethe first elucidated those nuclear mechanisms by which hydrogen is fused into helium. However,
neither of these early works on stellar power addressed the origin of the elements heavier than helium.
Fred Hoyle's original work on nucleosynthesis of heavier elements in stars, occurred just after World War II.[2] His
work explained the production of all heavier elements, starting from hydrogen. Hoyle proposed that hydrogen is
continuously created in the universe from vacuum and energy, without need for universal beginning.
Hoyle’s work explained how the abundances of the elements increased with time as the galaxy aged. Subsequently,
Hoyle’s picture was expanded during the 1960s by contributions from William A. Fowler, Alastair G. W. Cameron,
and Donald D. Clayton, followed by many others. In the seminal 1957 review paper by E. M. Burbidge, G. R.

9.3. PROCESSES

165

Burbidge, Fowler and Hoyle (see Ref. list) is a well-known summary of the state of the field in 1957. That paper
defined new processes for the transformation of one heavy nucleus into others within stars, processes that could be
documented by astronomers.
The Big Bang itself had been proposed in 1931, long before this period, by Georges Lemaître, a Belgian physicist and
Roman Catholic priest, who suggested that the evident expansion of the Universe in time required that the Universe,
if contracted backwards in time, would continue to do so until it could contract no further. This would bring all the
mass of the Universe to a single point, a “primeval atom”, to a state before which time and space did not exist. Hoyle
later gave Lemaître’s model the derisive term of Big Bang, not realizing that Lemaître’s model was needed to explain
the existence of deuterium and nuclides between helium and carbon, as well as the fundamentally high amount of
helium present, not only in stars but also in interstellar space. As it happened, both Lemaître and Hoyle’s models of
nucleosynthesis would be needed to explain the elemental abundances in the universe.
The goal of the theory of nucleosynthesis is to explain the vastly differing abundances of the chemical elements and
their several isotopes from the perspective of natural processes. The primary stimulus to the development of this
theory was the shape of a plot of the abundances verses the atomic number of the elements. Those abundances, when
plotted on a graph as a function of atomic number, have a jagged sawtooth structure that varies by factors up to ten
million. A very influential stimulus to nucleosynthesis research was an abundance table created by Hans Suess and
Harold Urey that was based on the unfractionated abundances of the non-volatile elements found within unevolved
meteorites.[3] Such a graph of the abundances is displayed on a logarithmic scale below, where the dramatically jagged
structure is visually suppressed by the many powers of ten spanned in the vertical scale of this graph. See Handbook
of Isotopes in the Cosmos for more data and discussion of abundances of the isotopes.[4]

Abundances of the chemical elements in the Solar system. Hydrogen and helium are most common, residuals within the paradigm
of the Big Bang.[5] The next three elements (Li, Be, B) are rare because they are poorly synthesized in the Big Bang and also in stars.
The two general trends in the remaining stellar-produced elements are: (1) an alternation of abundance of elements according to
whether they have even or odd atomic numbers, and (2) a general decrease in abundance, as elements become heavier. Within this
trend is a peak at abundances of iron and nickel, which is especially visible on a logarithmic graph spanning fewer powers of ten,
say between logA=2 (A=100) and logA=6 (A=1,000,000).

9.3 Processes
There are a number of astrophysical processes which are believed to be responsible for nucleosynthesis. The majority
of these occur in shells within stars, and the chain of those nuclear fusion processes are known as hydrogen burning
(via the proton-proton chain or the CNO cycle), helium burning, carbon burning, neon burning, oxygen burning and
silicon burning. These processes are able to create elements up to and including iron and nickel. This is the region of
nucleosynthesis within which the isotopes with the highest binding energy per nucleon are created. Heavier elements
can be assembled within stars by a neutron capture process known as the s-process or in explosive environments,
such as supernovae, by a number of other processes. Some of those others include the r-process, which involves rapid
neutron captures, the rp-process, and the p-process (sometimes known as the gamma process), which results in the
photodisintegration of existing nuclei.

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9.4 The major types of nucleosynthesis
9.4.1

Big Bang nucleosynthesis

Main article: Big Bang nucleosynthesis
Big Bang nucleosynthesis occurred within the first three minutes of the beginning of the universe and is responsible
for much of the abundance of 1 H (protium), 2 H (D, deuterium), 3 He (helium-3), and 4 He (helium-4). Although
4
He continues to be produced by stellar fusion and alpha decays and trace amounts of 1 H continue to be produced
by spallation and certain types of radioactive decay, most of the mass of the isotopes in the universe are thought to
have been produced in the Big Bang. The nuclei of these elements, along with some 7 Li and 7 Be are considered to
have been formed between 100 and 300 seconds after the Big Bang when the primordial quark–gluon plasma froze
out to form protons and neutrons. Because of the very short period in which nucleosynthesis occurred before it was
stopped by expansion and cooling (about 20 minutes), no elements heavier than beryllium (or possibly boron) could
be formed. Elements formed during this time were in the plasma state, and did not cool to the state of neutral atoms
until much later.

Chief nuclear reactions responsible for the relative abundances of light atomic nuclei observed throughout the universe.

9.4.2

Stellar nucleosynthesis

Main articles: Stellar nucleosynthesis, Proton-proton chain, Triple-alpha process, CNO cycle, s-process, p-process
and photodisintegration
Stellar nucleosynthesis is the nuclear process by which new nuclei are produced. It occurs naturally in stars during
stellar evolution. It is responsible for the galactic abundances of elements from carbon to iron. Stars are thermonuclear
furnaces in which H and He are fused into heavier nuclei by increasingly high temperatures as the composition of
the core evolves.[6] Of particular importance is carbon, because its formation from He is a bottleneck in the entire
process. Carbon is produced by the triple-alpha process in all stars. Carbon is also the main element that causes the
release of free neutrons within stars, giving rise to the s-process, in which the slow absorption of neutrons converts
iron into elements heavier than iron and nickel.[7]
The products of stellar nucleosynthesis are generally dispersed into the interstellar gas through mass loss episodes
and the stellar winds of low mass stars. The mass loss events can be witnessed today in the planetary nebulae phase
of low-mass star evolution, and the explosive ending of stars, called supernovae, of those with more than eight times
the mass of the sun.
The first direct proof that nucleosynthesis occurs in stars was the astronomical observation that interstellar gas has
become enriched with heavy elements as time passed. As a result, stars that were born from it late in the galaxy,
formed with much higher initial heavy element abundances than those that had formed earlier. The detection of
technetium in the atmosphere of a red giant star in 1952,[8] by spectroscopy, provided the first evidence of nuclear
activity within stars. Because technetium is radioactive, with a half-life much less than the age of the star, its abun-

9.4. THE MAJOR TYPES OF NUCLEOSYNTHESIS

167

dance must reflect its recent creation within that star. Equally convincing evidence of the stellar origin of heavy
elements, is the large overabundances of specific stable elements found in stellar atmospheres of asymptotic giant
branch stars. Observation of barium abundances some 20-50 times greater than found in unevolved stars is evidence
of the operation of the s-process within such stars. Many modern proofs of stellar nucleosynthesis are provided by
the isotopic compositions of stardust, solid grains that have condensed from the gases of individual stars and which
have been extracted from meteorites. Stardust is one component of cosmic dust, and is frequently called presolar
grains. The measured isotopic compositions in stardust grains demonstrate many aspects of nucleosynthesis within
the stars from which the grains condensed during the star’s late-life mass-loss episodes.[9]

9.4.3

Explosive nucleosynthesis

Main articles: r-process, rp-process and Supernova nucleosynthesis
Supernova nucleosynthesis occurs in the energetic environment in supernovae, in which the elements between silicon
and nickel are synthesized in quasiequilibrium[10] established during fast fusion that attaches by reciprocating balanced
nuclear reactions to 28 Si. Quasiequilibrium can be thought of as almost equilibrium except for a high abundance of the
28
Si nuclei in the feverishly burning mix. This concept[11] was the most important discovery in nucleosynthesis theory
of the intermediate-mass elements since Hoyle’s 1954 paper because it provided an overarching understanding of the
abundant and chemically important elements between silicon (A=28) and nickel (A=60). It replaced the incorrect
although much cited alpha process of the B2FH paper, which inadvertently obscured Hoyle’s better 1954 theory.[12]
Further nucleosynthesis processes can occur, in particular the r-process (rapid process) described by the B2FH paper
and first calculated by Seeger, Fowler and Clayton,[13] in which the most neutron-rich isotopes of elements heavier
than nickel are produced by rapid absorption of free neutrons. The creation of free neutrons by electron capture
during the rapid compression of the supernova core along with assembly of some neutron-rich seed nuclei makes the
r-process a primary process, and one that can occur even in a star of pure H and He. This is in contrast to the B2FH
designation of the process as a secondary process. This promising scenario, though generally supported by supernova
experts, has yet to achieve a totally satisfactory calculation of r-process abundances. The primary r-process has been
confirmed by astronomers who have observed old stars born when galactic metallicity was still small, that nonetheless
contain their complement of r-process nuclei; thereby demonstrating that the metallicity is a product of an internal
process. The r-process is responsible for our natural cohort of radioactive elements, such as uranium and thorium, as
well as the most neutron-rich isotopes of each heavy element.
The rp-process (rapid proton) involves the rapid absorption of free protons as well as neutrons, but its role and its
existence are less certain.
Explosive nucleosynthesis occurs too rapidly for radioactive decay to decrease the number of neutrons, so that many
abundant isotopes with equal and even numbers of protons and neutrons are synthesized by the silicon quasiequilibrium process.[14] During this process, the burning of oxygen and silicon fuses nuclei that themselves have equal
numbers of protons and neutrons to produce nuclides which consist of whole numbers of helium nuclei, up to 15 (representing 60 Ni). Such multiple-alpha-particle nuclides are totally stable up to 40 Ca (made of 10 helium nuclei), but
heavier nuclei with equal and even numbers of protons and neutrons are tightly bound but unstable. The quasiequilibrium produces radioactive isobars 44 Ti, 48 Cr, 52 Fe, and 56 Ni, which (except 44 Ti) are created in abundance but
decay after the explosion and leave the most stable isotope of the corresponding element at the same atomic weight.
The most abundant and extant isotopes of elements produced in this way are 48 Ti, 52 Cr, and 56 Fe. These decays are
accompanied by the emission of gamma-rays (radiation from the nucleus), whose spectroscopic lines can be used to
identify the isotope created by the decay. The detection of these emission lines were an important early product of
gamma-ray astronomy.[15]
The most convincing proof of explosive nucleosynthesis in supernovae occurred in 1987 when those gamma-ray
lines were detected emerging from supernova 1987A. Gamma ray lines identifying 56 Co and 57 Co nuclei, whose
radioactive halflives limit their age to about a year, proved that they were created by their radioactive cobalt parents. This nuclear astronomy observation was predicted in 1969[16] as a way to confirm explosive nucleosynthesis
of the elements, and that prediction played an important role in the planning for NASA’s Compton Gamma-Ray
Observatory.
Other proofs of explosive nucleosynthesis are found within the stardust grains that condensed within the interiors of
supernovae as they expanded and cooled. Stardust grains are one component of cosmic dust. In particular, radioactive
44
Ti was measured to be very abundant within supernova stardust grains at the time they condensed during the
supernova expansion.[17] This confirmed a 1975 prediction of the identification of supernova stardust (SUNOCONs),

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CHAPTER 9. NUCLEOSYNTHESIS

which became part of the pantheon of presolar grains. Other unusual isotopic ratios within these grains reveal many
specific aspects of explosive nucleosynthesis.

9.4.4

Cosmic ray spallation

Main article: Cosmic ray spallation
Cosmic ray spallation process reduces the atomic weight of interstellar matter by the impact with cosmic rays, to
produce some of the lightest elements present in the universe (though not a significant amount of deuterium). Most
notably spallation is believed to be responsible for the generation of almost all of 3 He and the elements lithium,
beryllium, and boron, although some 7Li and 7Be are thought to have been produced in the Big Bang. The spallation
process results from the impact of cosmic rays (mostly fast protons) against the interstellar medium. These impacts
fragment carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen nuclei present. The process results in the light elements beryllium, boron, and
lithium in cosmos at much greater abundances than they are within solar atmospheres. The light elements 1 H and 4 He
nuclei are not a product of spallation and are represented in the cosmos with approximately primordial abundance.
Beryllium and boron are not significantly produced by stellar fusion processes, due to the instability of any 8 Be formed
from two 4 He nuclei.

9.5 Empirical evidence
Theories of nucleosynthesis are tested by calculating isotope abundances and comparing those results with observed
results. Isotope abundances are typically calculated from the transition rates between isotopes in a network. Often
these calculations can be simplified as a few key reactions control the rate of other reactions.

9.6 Minor mechanisms and processes
Very small amounts of certain nuclides are produced on Earth by artificial means. Those are our primary source,
for example, of technetium. However, some nuclides are also produced by a number of natural means that have
continued after primordial elements were in place. These often act to produce new elements in ways that can be used
to date rocks or to trace the source of geological processes. Although these processes do not produce the nuclides in
abundance, they are assumed to be the entire source of the existing natural supply of those nuclides.
These mechanisms include:
• Radioactive decay may lead to radiogenic daughter nuclides. The nuclear decay of many long-lived primordial
isotopes, especially uranium-235, uranium-238, and thorium-232 produce many intermediate daughter nuclides, before they too finally decay to isotopes of lead. The Earth’s natural supply of elements like radon and
polonium is via this mechanism. The atmosphere’s supply of argon-40 is due mostly to the radioactive decay
of potassium-40 in the time since the formation of the Earth. Little of the atmospheric argon is primordial.
Helium-4 is produced by alpha-decay, and the helium trapped in Earth’s crust is also mostly non-primordial.
In other types of radioactive decay, such as cluster decay, larger species of nuclei are ejected (for example,
neon-20), and these eventually become newly formed stable atoms.
• Radioactive decay may lead to spontaneous fission. This is not cluster decay, as the fission products may be
split among nearly any type of atom. Thorium-232, uranium-235, and uranium-238 are primordial isotopes
that undergo spontaneous fission. Natural technetium and promethium are produced in this manner.
• Nuclear reactions. Naturally-occurring nuclear reactions powered by radioactive decay give rise to so-called
nucleogenic nuclides. This process happens when an energetic particle from a radioactive decay, often an alpha
particle, reacts with a nucleus of another atom to change the nucleus into another nuclide. This process may
also cause the production of further subatomic particles, such as neutrons. Neutrons can also be produced
in spontaneous fission and by neutron emission. These neutrons can then go on to produce other nuclides via
neutron-induced fission, or by neutron capture. For example, some stable isotopes such as neon-21 and neon-22
are produced by several routes of nucleogenic synthesis, and thus only part of their abundance is primordial.

9.7. SEE ALSO

169

• Nuclear reactions due to cosmic rays. By convention, these reaction-products are not termed “nucleogenic”
nuclides, but rather cosmogenic nuclides. Cosmic rays continue to produce new elements on Earth by the same
cosmogenic processes discussed above that produce primordial beryllium and boron. One important example
is carbon-14, produced from nitrogen-14 in the atmosphere by cosmic rays. Iodine-129 is another example.
In addition to artificial processes, it is postulated that neutron star collision is the main source of elements heavier
than iron.[18]

9.7 See also
• Stellar evolution
• Supernova nucleosynthesis
• Cosmic dust
• Metallicity

9.8 References
[1] Donald D. Clayton, Handbook of isotopes in the cosmos, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge 2003)
[2] Actually, before the war ended, he learned abut the problem of spherical implosion of plutonium in the Manhattan project.
He saw an analogy between the plutonium fission reaction and the newly discovered supernovae, and he was able to show
that exploding super novae produced all of the elements in the same proportion as existed on earth. He felt that he had
accidentally fallen into a subject that would make his career. Autobiography William A. Fowler
[3] H.E. Suess and H.C. Urey, Abundances of the elements, Revs. Mod. Phys., 28, 53 (1957)
[4] Donald D. Clayton, Handbook of isotopes in the cosmos, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge U.K. 2003)
[5] Massimo S. Stiavelli. From First Light to Reionization. John Wiley & Sons, Apr 22, 2009. Pg 8.
[6] Donald D. Clayton, Principles of Stellar Evolution and Nucleosynthesis, McGraw-Hill (New York 1968) Chapter 5; reissued
by University of Chicago Press (Chicago 1883)
[7] D.D. Clayton, W.A. Fowler, T. Hull and B. Zimmerman, Neutron capture chains in heavy element synthesis, Ann. Phys.,
12, 331-408 (1961); Donald D. Clayton, Principles of Stellar Evolution and Nucleosynthesis, McGraw-Hill (New York
1968) Chapter 7
[8] S. Paul W. Merrill (1952). “Spectroscopic Observations of Stars of Class S”. The Astrophysical Journal 116: 21. Bibcode:1952ApJ...116...21M.
doi:10.1086/145589.
[9] Donald D. Clayton and L. R. Nittler (2004). “Astrophysics with Presolar Stardust”. Annual Review of Astronomy and
Astrophysics 42 (1): 39–78. Bibcode:2004ARA&A..42...39C. doi:10.1146/annurev.astro.42.053102.134022.
[10] D. Bodansky, Donald D. Clayton, and W. A. Fowler, Nuclear quasi-equilibrium during silicon burning, Astrophys. J. Suppl.
No. 148, 16, 299-371,(1968)
[11] See also Chapter 7 of Donald D. Clayton, Principles of Stellar Evolution and Nucleosynthesis, McGraw-Hill, New York
(1968)
[12] Donald D. Clayton, Hoyle’s Equation, Science, 318, 1876-77 (2007)
[13] P.A.Seeger, W. A. Fowler, and Donald D. Clayton, Nucleosynthesis of heavy elements by neutron capture, Astrophys. J.
Suppl, 11, 121-66, (1965)
[14] D. Bodansky, Donald D. Clayton, and W. A. Fowler, Nuclear quasi-equilibrium during silicon burning, Astrophys. J. Suppl.
No. 148, 16, 299-371,(1968)
[15] Donald D. Clayton, Stirling A. Colgate and G. J. Fishman, Gamma ray lines from young supernova remnants, Astrophys.
J.. 155. 175 (1969)

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[16] D. D. Clayton, S.A. Colgate, G.J. Fishman (1969). “Gamma ray lines from young supernova remnants”. The Astrophysical
Journal 155: 75–82. Bibcode:1969ApJ...155...75C. doi:10.1086/149849.
[17] D. D. Clayton, L. R.Nittler (2004). “Astrophysics with Presolar stardust”. Annual Reviews of Astronomy and Astrophysics
42 (1): 39–78. Bibcode:2004ARA&A..42...39C. doi:10.1146/annurev.astro.42.053102.134022.
[18] Stromberg, Joseph. “All the Gold in the Universe Could Come From the Collisions of Neutron Stars”. Smithsonian.
Retrieved 27 April 2014.

9.9 Further reading
• E. M. Burbidge, G. R. Burbidge, W. A. Fowler, F. Hoyle, Synthesis of the Elements in Stars, Rev. Mod. Phys.
29 (1957) 547 (article at the Physical Review Online Archive (subscription required)).
• M. Meneguzzi, J. Audouze, H. Reeves, « The production of the elements Li, Be, B by galactic cosmic rays in
space and its relation with stellar observations », Astronomy and Astrophysics, vol. 15, 1971, p. 337-359
• F. Hoyle, Monthly Notices Roy. Astron. Soc. 106, 366 (1946)
• F. Hoyle, Astrophys. J. Suppl. 1, 121 (1954)
• D. D. Clayton, “Principles of Stellar Evolution and Nucleosynthesis”, McGraw-Hill, 1968; University of
Chicago Press, 1983, ISBN 0-226-10952-6
• C. E. Rolfs, W. S. Rodney, Cauldrons in the Cosmos, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988, ISBN 0-226-72457-3.
• D. D. Clayton, “Handbook of Isotopes in the Cosmos”, Cambridge University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-521-823811.
• C. Iliadis, “Nuclear Physics of Stars”, Wiley-VCH, 2007, ISBN 978-3-527-40602-9

Chapter 10

Big Bang nucleosynthesis
In physical cosmology, Big Bang nucleosynthesis (abbreviated BBN, also known as primordial nucleosynthesis)
refers to the production of nuclei other than those of the lightest isotope of hydrogen (hydrogen-1, 1 H, having a
single proton as a nucleus) during the early phases of the universe. Primordial nucleosynthesis is believed by most
cosmologists to have taken place from 10 seconds to 20 minutes after the Big Bang, and is calculated to be responsible
for the formation of most of the universe’s helium as the isotope helium-4 (4 He), along with small amounts of the
hydrogen isotope deuterium (2 H or D), the helium isotope helium-3 (3 He), and a very small amount of the lithium
isotope lithium-7 (7 Li). In addition to these stable nuclei, two unstable or radioactive isotopes were also produced: the
heavy hydrogen isotope tritium (3 H or T); and the beryllium isotope beryllium-7 (7 Be); but these unstable isotopes
later decayed into 3 He and 7 Li, as above.
Essentially all of the elements that are heavier than lithium and beryllium were created much later, by stellar nucleosynthesis in evolving and exploding stars.

10.1 Characteristics
There are two important characteristics of Big Bang nucleosynthesis (BBN):
• The era began at temperatures of around 10 MeV (116 gigakelvin) and ended at temperatures below 100 keV
(1.16 gigakelvin).[1] The corresponding time interval was from a few tenths of a second to up to 103 seconds.[2]
The temperature/time relation in this era can be given by the equation:
tT 2 = 0.74(10.75/g∗ )1/2
where t is time in seconds, T is temperature in MeV and g* is the effective number of particle species.[3] (g* includes
contributions of 2 from photons, 7/2 from electron-positron pairs and 7/4 from each neutrino flavor. In the standard
model g* is 10.75). This expression also shows how a different number of neutrino flavors will change the rate of
cooling of the early universe.
• It was widespread, encompassing the entire observable universe.
The key parameter which allows one to calculate the effects of BBN is the number of photons per baryon. This
parameter corresponds to the temperature and density of the early universe and allows one to determine the conditions
under which nuclear fusion occurs. From this we can derive elemental abundances. Although the baryon per photon
ratio is important in determining elemental abundances, the precise value makes little difference to the overall picture.
Without major changes to the Big Bang theory itself, BBN will result in mass abundances of about 75% of hydrogen1, about 25% helium-4, about 0.01% of deuterium, trace amounts (on the order of 10−10 ) of lithium and beryllium,
and no other heavy elements. (Traces of boron have been found in some old stars, giving rise to the question whether
some boron, not really predicted by the theory, might have been produced in the Big Bang. The question is not
presently resolved.[4] ) That the observed abundances in the universe are generally consistent with these abundance
numbers is considered strong evidence for the Big Bang theory.
In this field it is customary to quote percentages by mass, so that 25% helium-4 means that helium-4 atoms account
for 25% of the mass, but only about 8% of the atoms would be helium-4 atoms.
171

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CHAPTER 10. BIG BANG NUCLEOSYNTHESIS

10.2 Important parameters
The creation of light elements during BBN was dependent on a number of parameters; among those was the neutronproton ratio (calculable from Standard Model physics) and the baryon-photon ratio.

10.2.1

Neutron-proton ratio

Neutrons can react with positrons or electron neutrinos to create protons and other products in one of the following
reactions:
n + e+ ↔ anti-νₑ + p
n + νₑ ↔ p + e−
These reactions continue until expansion of the universe outpaces the reactions, which occurs at about T = 0.7 MeV
and is called the freeze out temperature.[5] At freeze out, the neutron-proton ratio is about 1/7. Almost all neutrons
that exist after the freeze out ended up combined into helium-4, due to the fact that helium-4 has the highest binding
energy per nucleon among light elements. This predicts that about 8% of all atoms should be helium-4, leading to a
mass fraction of helium-4 of about 25%, which is in line with observations. Some deuterium and helium-3 remained
as there was insufficient time and density for them to react and form helium-4.

10.2.2

Baryon-photon ratio

The baryon-photon ratio, η, is a strong indicator of the abundance of light elements present in the early universe.
Baryons can react with light elements in the following reactions:
(p,n) + 2 H → (3 He, 3 H)
(3 He, 3 H) + (n,p) → 4 He
It is evident that reactions with baryons during BBN would ultimately result in helium-4, and also that the abundance
of primordial deuterium is indirectly related to the baryon density or baryon-photon ratio. That is, the larger the
baryon-photon ratio the more reactions there will be and the more deuterium will be eventually transformed into
helium-4. This result makes deuterium a very useful tool in measuring the baryon-to-photon ratio.

10.3 Sequence
Big Bang nucleosynthesis began a few seconds after the big bang, when the universe had cooled sufficiently to allow
deuterium nuclei to survive disruption by high-energy photons. This time is essentially independent of dark matter
content, since the universe was highly radiation dominated until much later, and this dominant component controls
the temperature/time relation. The relative abundances of protons and neutrons follow from simple thermodynamical
arguments, combined with the way that the mean temperature of the universe changes over time. If the reactions
needed to reach the thermodynamically favoured equilibrium values are too slow compared to the temperature change
brought about by the expansion, abundances would have remained at some specific non-equilibrium value. Combining
thermodynamics and the changes brought about by cosmic expansion, one can calculate the fraction of protons and
neutrons based on the temperature at this point. The answer is that there are about seven protons for every neutron
at the beginning of nucleosynthesis. This fraction is in favour of protons, primarily because their lower mass with
respect to the neutron favors their production. Free neutrons decay to protons with a half-life of about 10.2 minutes,
but this time-scale is longer than the first three minutes of nucleogenesis, during which time a substantial fraction of
them were combined with protons into deuterium and then He-4. The sequence of these reaction chains is shown on
the image.[6]
One feature of BBN is that the physical laws and constants that govern the behavior of matter at these energies are
very well understood, and hence BBN lacks some of the speculative uncertainties that characterize earlier periods in
the life of the universe. Another feature is that the process of nucleosynthesis is determined by conditions at the start
of this phase of the life of the universe, and proceeds independently of what happened before.

10.3. SEQUENCE

173

The main nuclear reaction chains for Big Bang nucleosynthesis

As the universe expands, it cools. Free neutrons and protons are less stable than helium nuclei, and the protons
and neutrons have a strong tendency to form helium-4. However, forming helium-4 requires the intermediate step of
forming deuterium. Before nucleosynthesis began, the temperature was high enough for many photons to have energy
greater than the binding energy of deuterium; therefore any deuterium that was formed was immediately destroyed
(a situation known as the deuterium bottleneck). Hence, the formation of helium-4 is delayed until the universe
became cool enough for deuterium to survive (at about T = 0.1 MeV); after which there was a sudden burst of element
formation. However, very shortly thereafter, at twenty minutes after the Big Bang, the universe became too cool for
any further nuclear fusion and nucleosynthesis to occur. At this point, the elemental abundances were nearly fixed,
and only change was the result of the radioactive decay of some products of BBN (such as tritium).[7]

10.3.1

History of theory

The history of Big Bang nucleosynthesis began with the calculations of Ralph Alpher in the 1940s. Alpher published
the seminal Alpher–Bethe–Gamow paper that outlined the theory of light-element production in the early universe.
During the 1970s, there was a major puzzle in that the density of baryons as calculated by Big Bang nucleosynthesis
was much less than the observed mass of the universe based on calculations of the expansion rate. This puzzle was

174

CHAPTER 10. BIG BANG NUCLEOSYNTHESIS

resolved in large part by postulating the existence of dark matter.

10.3.2

Heavy elements

H
B

B

Li Be
C

C

C

Na Mg
L

K
L

L
L
L

Fr Ra
$

Cosmic
rays

S

Ca Sc Ti V

Cs Ba
$

L

Large
stars

$

Small
stars

M

Supernovae
Manmade

L
L

Rb Sr Y
$

Big
Bang

$

$ L

$ L

He
B

B

C

N

O

F

Ne

C

S L

S L

S L

L

S L

Al Si P

S

$ L

S L

$ L

L

L

L

L

L

Cr Mn Fe Co Ni Cu Zn Ga Ge As Se Br Kr
L

L

$ L

$

$

L

L

$

$

L

$

Zr Nb Mo Tc Ru Rh Pd Ag Cd In Sn Sb Te

L

Cl Ar

$ L

L

$ L

$

$ L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

I

Xe

$

$

Hf Ta W Re Os Ir Pt Au Hg Tl Pb Bi Po At Rn
$ L

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

$

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

$

La Ce Pr Nd Pm Sm Eu Gd Tb Dy Ho Er Tm Yb Lu
L

L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

$

$

$

$ L

$

Ac Th Pa U Np Pu Am Cm Bk Cf Es Fm Md No Lr
$

$

$

$

$

$

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

A version of the periodic table indicating the origins – including big bang nucleosynthesis – of the elements. All elements above 103
(lawrencium) are also manmade and are not included.

Big Bang nucleosynthesis produced no elements heavier than beryllium, due to a bottleneck: the absence of a stable
nucleus with 8 or 5 nucleons. This deficit of larger atoms also limited the amounts of lithium-7 and beryllium-9
produced during BBN. In stars, the bottleneck is passed by triple collisions of helium-4 nuclei, producing carbon (the
triple-alpha process). However, this process is very slow, taking tens of thousands of years to convert a significant
amount of helium to carbon in stars, and therefore it made a negligible contribution in the minutes following the Big
Bang.

10.3.3

Helium-4

Main article: Helium-4
Big Bang nucleosynthesis predicts a primordial abundance of about 25% helium-4 by mass, irrespective of the initial
conditions of the universe. As long as the universe was hot enough for protons and neutrons to transform into each
other easily, their ratio, determined solely by their relative masses, was about 1 neutron to 7 protons (allowing for some
decay of neutrons into protons). Once it was cool enough, the neutrons quickly bound with an equal number of protons
to form first deuterium, then helium-4. Helium-4 is very stable and is nearly the end of this chain if it runs for only
a short time, since helium neither decays nor combines easily to form heavier nuclei (since there are no stable nuclei
with mass numbers of 5 or 8, helium does not combine easily with either protons, or with itself). Once temperatures
are lowered, out of every 16 nucleons (2 neutrons and 14 protons), 4 of these (25% of the total particles and total
mass) combine quickly into one helium-4 nucleus. This produces one helium for every 12 hydrogens, resulting in a
universe that is a little over 8% helium by number of atoms, and 25% helium by mass.
One analogy is to think of helium-4 as ash, and the amount of ash that one forms when one completely burns a piece
of wood is insensitive to how one burns it. The resort to the BBN theory of the helium-4 abundance is necessary as
there is far more helium-4 in the universe than can be explained by stellar nucleosynthesis. In addition, it provides
an important test for the Big Bang theory. If the observed helium abundance is much different from 25%, then this
would pose a serious challenge to the theory. This would particularly be the case if the early helium-4 abundance was
much smaller than 25% because it is hard to destroy helium-4. For a few years during the mid-1990s, observations
suggested that this might be the case, causing astrophysicists to talk about a Big Bang nucleosynthetic crisis, but
further observations were consistent with the Big Bang theory.[8]

10.4. MEASUREMENTS AND STATUS OF THEORY

10.3.4

175

Deuterium

Main article: Deuterium
Deuterium is in some ways the opposite of helium-4 in that while helium-4 is very stable and very difficult to destroy,
deuterium is only marginally stable and easy to destroy. The temperatures, time, and densities were sufficient to
combine a substantial fraction of the deuterium nuclei to form helium-4 but insufficient to carry the process further
using helium-4 in the next fusion step. BBN did not convert all of the deuterium in the universe to helium-4 due
to the expansion that cooled the universe and reduced the density and so, cut that conversion short before it could
proceed any further. One consequence of this is that unlike helium-4, the amount of deuterium is very sensitive to
initial conditions. The denser the initial universe was, the more deuterium would be converted to helium-4 before
time ran out, and the less deuterium would remain.
There are no known post-Big Bang processes which can produce significant amounts of deuterium. Hence observations about deuterium abundance suggest that the universe is not infinitely old, which is in accordance with the Big
Bang theory.
During the 1970s, there were major efforts to find processes that could produce deuterium, but those revealed ways of
producing isotopes other than deuterium. The problem was that while the concentration of deuterium in the universe
is consistent with the Big Bang model as a whole, it is too high to be consistent with a model that presumes that
most of the universe is composed of protons and neutrons. If one assumes that all of the universe consists of protons
and neutrons, the density of the universe is such that much of the currently observed deuterium would have been
burned into helium-4. The standard explanation now used for the abundance of deuterium is that the universe does
not consist mostly of baryons, but that non-baryonic matter (also known as dark matter) makes up most of the mass
of the universe. This explanation is also consistent with calculations that show that a universe made mostly of protons
and neutrons would be far more clumpy than is observed.
It is very hard to come up with another process that would produce deuterium other than by nuclear fusion. Such
a process would require that the temperature be hot enough to produce deuterium, but not hot enough to produce
helium-4, and that this process should immediately cool to non-nuclear temperatures after no more than a few minutes.
It would also be necessary for the deuterium to be swept away before it reoccurs.
Producing deuterium by fission is also difficult. The problem here again is that deuterium is very unlikely due to
nuclear processes, and that collisions between atomic nuclei are likely to result either in the fusion of the nuclei, or
in the release of free neutrons or alpha particles. During the 1970s, cosmic ray spallation was proposed as a source
of deuterium. That theory failed to account for the abundance of deuterium, but led to explanations of the source of
other light elements.

10.4 Measurements and status of theory
The theory of BBN gives a detailed mathematical description of the production of the light “elements” deuterium,
helium-3, helium-4, and lithium-7. Specifically, the theory yields precise quantitative predictions for the mixture of
these elements, that is, the primordial abundances at the end of the big-bang.
In order to test these predictions, it is necessary to reconstruct the primordial abundances as faithfully as possible, for
instance by observing astronomical objects in which very little stellar nucleosynthesis has taken place (such as certain
dwarf galaxies) or by observing objects that are very far away, and thus can be seen in a very early stage of their
evolution (such as distant quasars).
As noted above, in the standard picture of BBN, all of the light element abundances depend on the amount of ordinary
matter (baryons) relative to radiation (photons). Since the universe is presumed to be homogeneous, it has one unique
value of the baryon-to-photon ratio. For a long time, this meant that to test BBN theory against observations one had
to ask: can all of the light element observations be explained with a single value of the baryon-to-photon ratio? Or
more precisely, allowing for the finite precision of both the predictions and the observations, one asks: is there some
range of baryon-to-photon values which can account for all of the observations?
More recently, the question has changed: Precision observations of the cosmic microwave background radiation[9][10]
with the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) give an independent value for the baryon-to-photon ratio.
Using this value, are the BBN predictions for the abundances of light elements in agreement with the observations?
The present measurement of helium-4 indicates good agreement, and yet better agreement for helium-3. But for

176

CHAPTER 10. BIG BANG NUCLEOSYNTHESIS

lithium-7, there is a significant discrepancy between BBN and WMAP, and the abundance derived from Population
II stars. The discrepancy is a factor of 2.4―4.3 below the theoretically predicted value and is considered a problem
for the original models,[11] that have resulted in revised calculations of the standard BBN based on new nuclear data,
and to various reevaluation proposals for primordial proton-proton nuclear reactions, especially the abundances of
7
Be(n,p)7 Li versus 7 Be(d,p)8 Be.[12]

10.5 Non-standard scenarios
In addition to the standard BBN scenario there are numerous non-standard BBN scenarios. These should not be
confused with non-standard cosmology: a non-standard BBN scenario assumes that the Big Bang occurred, but
inserts additional physics in order to see how this affects elemental abundances. These pieces of additional physics
include relaxing or removing the assumption of homogeneity, or inserting new particles such as massive neutrinos.
There have been, and continue to be, various reasons for researching non-standard BBN. The first, which is largely of
historical interest, is to resolve inconsistencies between BBN predictions and observations. This has proved to be of
limited usefulness in that the inconsistencies were resolved by better observations, and in most cases trying to change
BBN resulted in abundances that were more inconsistent with observations rather than less. The second reason for
researching non-standard BBN, and largely the focus of non-standard BBN in the early 21st century, is to use BBN
to place limits on unknown or speculative physics. For example, standard BBN assumes that no exotic hypothetical
particles were involved in BBN. One can insert a hypothetical particle (such as a massive neutrino) and see what has
to happen before BBN predicts abundances which are very different from observations. This has been usefully done
to put limits on the mass of a stable tau neutrino.

10.6 See also
• Nucleosynthesis
• Stellar nucleosynthesis
• Ultimate fate of the Universe
• Timeline of the Big Bang
• Chronology of the universe
• Big Bang

10.7 References
[1] Doglov, A. D. “Big Bang :Nucleosynthesis.” Nucl.Phys.Proc.Suppl. (2002): 137-43. ArXiv. 17 Jan. 2002. Web. 14 Jan.
2013.
[2] Grupen, Claus. “Big Bang Nucleosynthesis.” Astroparticle Physics. Berlin: Springer, 2005. 213-28. Print.
[3] J. Beringer et al. (Particle Data Group), "Big-Bang cosmology" Phys. Rev. D86, 010001 (2012): (21.43)
[4] “Hubble Observations Bring Some Surprises”. The New York Times. 1992-01-14. Retrieved 2010-04-26.
[5] Gary Steigman (December 2007). “Primordial Nucleosynthesis in the Precision Cosmology Era”. Annual Review of Nuclear and Particle Science: 463–491. arXiv:0712.1100. Bibcode:2007ARNPS..57..463S. doi:10.1146/annurev.nucl.56.080805.140437.
[6] Bertulani, Carlos A. (2013). Nuclei in the Cosmos. World Scientific. ISBN 978-981-4417-66-2.
[7] Weiss, Achim. “Equilibrium and change: The physics behind Big Bang Nucleosynthesis”. Einstein Online. Archived from
the original on 8 February 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-24.
[8] Bludman, S. A. (December 1998). “Baryonic Mass Fraction in Rich Clusters and the Total Mass Density in the Cosmos”.
Astrophysical Journal 508 (2): 535–38. arXiv:astro-ph/9706047. Bibcode:1998ApJ...508..535B. doi:10.1086/306412.
[9] David Toback(2009)"Chapter 12: Cosmic Background Radiation"

10.8. EXTERNAL LINKS

177

[10] David Toback(2009)"Unit 4: The Evolution Of The Universe"
[11] R. H. Cyburt, B. D. Fields & K. A. Olive (2008). “A Bitter Pill: The Primordial Lithium Problem Worsens”. arXiv:0808.2818.
[12] Weiss, Achim. “Elements of the past: Big Bang Nucleosynthesis and observation”. Einstein Online. Archived from the
original on 8 February 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-24.
For a recent calculation of BBN predictions, see A. Coc et al. (2004). “Updated Big Bang Nucleosynthesis confronted
to WMAP observations and to the Abundance of Light Elements”. Astrophysical Journal 600 (2): 544. arXiv:astroph/0309480. Bibcode:2004ApJ...600..544C. doi:10.1086/380121.
For the observational values, see the following articles:
• Helium-4: K. A. Olive & E. A. Skillman (2004). “A Realistic Determination of the Error on the Primordial Helium Abundance”. Astrophysical Journal 617 (1): 29. arXiv:astro-ph/0405588. Bibcode:2004ApJ...617...29O.
doi:10.1086/425170.
• Helium-3: T. M. Bania, R. T. Rood & D. S. Balser (2002). “The cosmological density of baryons from observations
of 3He+ in the Milky Way”. Nature 415 (6867): 54–7. Bibcode:2002Natur.415...54B. doi:10.1038/415054a. PMID
11780112.
• Deuterium: J. M. O'Meara, et al. (2001). “The Deuterium to Hydrogen Abundance Ratio Towards a Fourth QSO:
HS0105+1619”. Astrophysical Journal 552 (2): 718. arXiv:astro-ph/0011179. Bibcode:2001ApJ...552..718O.
doi:10.1086/320579.
• Lithium-7: C. Charbonnel & F. Primas (2005). “The Lithium Content of the Galactic Halo Stars”. Astronomy & Astrophysics 442 (3): 961. arXiv:astro-ph/0505247. Bibcode:2005A&A...442..961C. doi:10.1051/0004-6361:20042491.
A. Korn et al. (2006). “A probable stellar solution to the cosmological lithium discrepancy”. Nature 442 (7103):
657–9. arXiv:astro-ph/0608201. Bibcode:2006Natur.442..657K. doi:10.1038/nature05011. PMID 16900193.

10.8 External links
10.8.1

For a general audience

• Weiss, Achim. “Big Bang Nucleosynthesis: Cooking up the first light elements”. Einstein Online. Archived
from the original on 8 February 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-24.
• White, Martin: Overview of BBN
• Wright, Ned: BBN (cosmology tutorial)
• Big Bang nucleosynthesis on arxiv.org
• Burles, Scott; Nollett, Kenneth M.; Turner, Michael S. (1999-03-19). “Big-Bang Nucleosynthesis: Linking
Inner Space and Outer Space”. arXiv:astro-ph/9903300.

10.8.2

Technical articles

• Burles, Scott, and Kenneth M. Nollett, Michael S. Turner (2001). “What Is The BBN Prediction for the Baryon
Density and How Reliable Is It?". Phys. Rev. D 63 (6): 063512. arXiv:astro-ph/0008495. Bibcode:2001PhRvD..63f3512B.
doi:10.1103/PhysRevD.63.063512. Report-no: FERMILAB-Pub-00-239-A
• Jedamzik, Karsten, "Non-Standard Big Bang Nucleosynthesis Scenarios". Max-Planck-Institut für Astrophysik,
Garching.
• Steigman, Gary, Primordial Nucleosynthesis: Successes And Challenges arXiv:astro-ph/0511534; Forensic
Cosmology: Probing Baryons and Neutrinos With BBN and the CBR arXiv:hep-ph/0309347; and Big Bang
Nucleosynthesis: Probing the First 20 Minutes arXiv:astro-ph/0307244
• R. A. Alpher, H. A. Bethe, G. Gamow, The Origin of Chemical Elements, Physical Review 73 (1948), 803. The
so-called αβγ paper, in which Alpher and Gamow suggested that the light elements were created by hydrogen
ions capturing neutrons in the hot, dense early universe. Bethe’s name was added for symmetry
• G. Gamow, The Origin of Elements and the Separation of Galaxies, Physical Review 74 (1948), 505. These
two 1948 papers of Gamow laid the foundation for our present understanding of big-bang nucleosynthesis

178

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• G. Gamow, Nature 162 (1948), 680
• R. A. Alpher, “A Neutron-Capture Theory of the Formation and Relative Abundance of the Elements,” Physical
Review 74 (1948), 1737
• R. A. Alpher and R. Herman, “On the Relative Abundance of the Elements,” Physical Review 74 (1948), 1577.
This paper contains the first estimate of the present temperature of the universe
• R. A. Alpher, R. Herman, and G. Gamow Nature 162 (1948), 774
• Java Big Bang element abundance calculator

Chapter 11

Stellar nucleosynthesis
Stellar nucleosynthesis is the process by which the natural abundances of the chemical elements within stars vary due
to nuclear fusion reactions in the cores and overlying mantles of stars. Stars are said to evolve (age) with changes in the
abundances of the elements within. Core fusion increases the atomic weight of its gaseous elements, causing pressure
loss and contraction accompanied by increase of temperature.[1] Structural changes of the star (evolution) become
necessary to stabilize it. Stars lose most of their mass when it is ejected late in their stellar lifetimes, thereby increasing
the abundance of elements heavier than helium in the interstellar medium. The term supernova nucleosynthesis is
used to describe the creation of elements during the evolution and explosion of a presupernova star, as Fred Hoyle
advocated presciently in 1954.[2] One stimulus to the development of the theory of nucleosynthesis was the variations
in the abundances of elements found in the universe. Those abundances, when plotted on a graph as a function
of atomic number of the element, have a jagged sawtooth shape that varies by factors of tens of millions. This
suggested a natural process other than a random distribution. Such a graph of the abundances can be seen at History
of nucleosynthesis theory. Stellar nucleosynthesis is the dominating contributor to several processes that also occur
under the collective term nucleosynthesis.
A second stimulus to understanding the processes of stellar nucleosynthesis occurred during the 20th century, when
it was realized that the energy released from nuclear fusion reactions accounted for the longevity of the Sun as a
source[3] of heat and light. The fusion of nuclei in a star, starting from its initial hydrogen and helium abundance,
provides that energy and synthesizes new nuclei as a byproduct of that fusion process. This became clear during the
decade prior to World War II. The fusion product nuclei are restricted to those only slightly heavier than the fusing
nuclei; thus they do not contribute heavily to the natural abundances of the elements. Nonetheless, this insight raised
the plausibility of explaining all of the natural abundances of elements in this way. The prime energy producer in the
sun is the fusion of hydrogen to form helium, which occurs at a solar-core temperature of 14 million kelvin.

11.1 History
In 1920, Arthur Eddington, on the basis of the precise measurements of atoms by F.W. Aston and a preliminary
suggestion by Jean Perrin, proposed that stars obtained their energy from nuclear fusion of hydrogen to form helium.[4]
This was a preliminary step toward the idea of nucleosynthesis. In 1928, George Gamow derived what is now called
the Gamow factor, a quantum-mechanical formula that gave the probability of bringing two nuclei sufficiently close for
the strong nuclear force to overcome the Coulomb barrier. The Gamow factor was used in the decade that followed
by Atkinson and Houtermans and later by Gamow himself and Edward Teller to derive the rate at which nuclear
reactions would proceed at the high temperatures believed to exist in stellar interiors.
In 1939, in a paper entitled “Energy Production in Stars”, Hans Bethe analyzed the different possibilities for reactions
by which hydrogen is fused into helium.[5] He defined two processes that he believed to be the sources of energy
in stars. The first one, the proton–proton chain reaction, is the dominant energy source in stars with masses up to
about the mass of the Sun. The second process, the carbon-nitrogen-oxygen cycle, which was also considered by
Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker in 1938, is most important in more massive stars. These works concerned the energy
generation capable of keeping stars hot. A clear physical description of the p-p chain and of the CNO cycle appears
in a 1968 textbook.[6] Bethe’s two papers did not address the creation of heavier nuclei, however. That theory was
begun by Fred Hoyle in 1946 with his argument that a collection of very hot nuclei would assemble into iron.[7] Hoyle
followed that in 1954 with a large paper describing how advanced fusion stages within stars would synthesize elements
179

180

CHAPTER 11. STELLAR NUCLEOSYNTHESIS

In 1920 Arthur Eddington proposed that stars obtained their energy from nuclear fusion of hydrogen to form helium.

between carbon and iron in mass.[8] This is the dominant work in stellar nucleosynthesis.[9] It provided the roadmap
to how the most abundant elements on earth had been synthesized from initial hydrogen and helium, making clear
how those abundant elements increased their galactic abundances as the galaxy aged.
Quickly, Hoyle’s theory was expanded to other processes, beginning with the publication of a celebrated review paper
in 1957 by Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler and Hoyle (commonly referred to as the B2 FH paper).[10] This review paper
collected and refined earlier research into a heavily cited picture that gave promise of accounting for the observed
relative abundances of the elements; but it did not itself enlarge Hoyle’s 1954 picture for the origin of primary nuclei
as much as many assumed, except in the understanding of nucleosynthesis of those elements heavier than iron. Sig-

11.2. KEY REACTIONS

181

nificant improvements were made by Alastair GW Cameron and by Donald D. Clayton. Cameron presented his own
independent approach[11] (following Hoyle’s approach for the most part) of nucleosynthesis. He introduced computers into time-dependent calculations of evolution of nuclear systems. Clayton calculated the first time-dependent
models of the S-process[12] and of the R-process,[13] as well as of the burning of silicon into the abundant alphaparticle nuclei and iron-group elements,[14] and discovered radiogenic chronologies[15] for determining the age of the
elements. The entire research field expanded rapidly in the 1970s.

11.2 Key reactions

Cross section of a red giant showing nucleosynthesis and elements formed.

The most important reactions in stellar nucleosynthesis:
• Hydrogen fusing:
• Deuterium burning
• The proton-proton chain
• The carbon-nitrogen-oxygen cycle
• Helium burning:
• The triple-alpha process
• The alpha process
• Burning of heavier elements:
• Lithium burning: a process found most commonly in brown dwarfs
• Carbon burning process

182

CHAPTER 11. STELLAR NUCLEOSYNTHESIS

B

Big
Bang

C

Cosmic
rays

H
B

Li Be
C

C

Na Mg
L

K
L

Ca Sc Ti V
L

L

L

L

Cs Ba
$

L
$

$ L

S

Small
stars

$

Supernovae

M

Manmade

He
B

B

C

N

O

F

Ne

C

S L

S L

S L

L

S L

Al Si P

S

$ L

S L

$ L

L

$ L

L

L

Cl Ar
L

L

Cr Mn Fe Co Ni Cu Zn Ga Ge As Se Br Kr
L

L

$ L

$

$

L

L

$

$

L

$

Zr Nb Mo Tc Ru Rh Pd Ag Cd In Sn Sb Te
$ L

L

$ L

$

$ L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

I

Xe

$

$

Hf Ta W Re Os Ir Pt Au Hg Tl Pb Bi Po At Rn
$ L

Fr Ra
$

Large
stars

L

Rb Sr Y
$

L

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

$

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

$

La Ce Pr Nd Pm Sm Eu Gd Tb Dy Ho Er Tm Yb Lu
L

L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

$

$

$

$ L

$

Ac Th Pa U Np Pu Am Cm Bk Cf Es Fm Md No Lr
$

$

$

$

$

$

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

A version of the periodic table indicating the origins – including stellar nucleosynthesis – of the elements. All elements above 103
(lawrencium) are also manmade and are not included.

• Neon burning process
• Oxygen burning process
• Silicon burning process

• Production of elements heavier than iron:

• Neutron capture:
• The R-process
• The S-process
• Proton capture:
• The Rp-process
• Photo-disintegration:
• The P-process

11.2. KEY REACTIONS

11.2.1

183

Hydrogen burning

Main articles: Proton-proton chain reaction, CNO cycle and Deuterium burning
1
1
1
1
H
H
H
H

ν
2

ν
1

H

1

H

2

H

γ

γ
3

1

γ
ν

H

3

He

He

1

H

H
Proton

Gamma Ray

4

Neutrino

He

Neutron
Positron

Illustration of the proton–proton chain reaction sequence
4

1

He

1

H

H
C

12

N

15

N

13

O

15

C

13

N

14

1
1

H

H

Proton

Gamma Ray

Neutron

Neutrino

Positron

Overview of the CNO-I cycle. The helium nucleus is released at the top-left step.
“Hydrogen burning” is an expression that astronomers sometimes use for the stellar process that results in the nuclear
fusion of four protons to form a nucleus of helium-4.[16] (This should not be confused with the chemical combustion
of hydrogen in an oxidizing atmosphere.) There are two predominant processes by which stellar hydrogen burning
occurs.
In the cores of lower mass main sequence stars such as the Sun, the dominant process is the proton-proton chain
reaction (pp-chain reaction). This creates a helium-4 nucleus through a sequence of chain reactions that begin with the
fusion of two protons to form a nucleus of deuterium.[17] The subsequent process of deuterium burning will consume
any pre-existing deuterium found at the core. The pp-chain reaction cycle is relatively insensitive to temperature, so
this hydrogen burning process can occur in up to a third of the star’s radius and occupy half the star’s mass. As a
result, for stars above 35% of the Sun’s mass,[18] the energy flux toward the surface is sufficiently low that the core
region remains a radiative zone, rather than becoming convective.[19] In each complete fusion cycle, the p-p chain
reaction releases about 26.2 MeV.[17]
In higher mass stars, the dominant process is the CNO cycle, which is a catalytic cycle that uses nuclei of carbon,
nitrogen and oxygen as intermediaries to produce a helium nucleus.[17] During a complete CNO cycle, 25.0 MeV of
energy is released. The difference in energy compared to the p-p chain reaction is accounted for by the energy lost
through neutrino emission.[17] The CNO cycle is very temperature sensitive, so it is strongly concentrated at the core.
About 90% of the CNO cycle energy generation occurs within the inner 15% of the star’s mass.[20] This results in

184

CHAPTER 11. STELLAR NUCLEOSYNTHESIS

an intense outward energy flux that can not be sustained by radiative transfer. As a result, the core region becomes a
convection zone, which stirs the hydrogen burning region and keeps it well mixed with the surrounding proton-rich
region.[21] This core convection occurs in stars where the CNO cycle contributes more than 20% of the total energy.
As the star ages and the core temperature increases, the region occupied by the convection zone slowly shrinks from
20% of the mass down to the inner 8% of the mass.[20]
The type of hydrogen burning process that dominates inside a star is determined by the temperature dependency
differences between the two reactions. The pp-chain reaction starts at temperatures around 4×106 K,[22] making it
the dominant mechanism in smaller stars. A self-maintaining CNO chain requires a higher temperature of approximately 15×106 K, but thereafter it increases more rapidly in efficiency than the pp-chain reaction as the temperature
grows.[23] Above approximately 17×106 K, the CNO cycle becomes the dominant source of energy. This temperature
is achieved in the cores of main sequence stars with at least 1.3 times the mass of the Sun.[24] The Sun itself has a core
temperature of around 15.7×106 K and only 0.8% of the energy being produced in the Sun comes from the CNO
cycle.[25] As a main sequence star ages, the core temperature will rise, resulting in a steadily increasing contribution
from its CNO cycle.[20]
Once a star with about 0.5–10 times the mass of the Sun has consumed nearly all the hydrogen at its core, it begins to
evolve up the red giant branch. Hydrogen burning occurs in a shell surrounding an inert helium core until the steadily
increasing core temperature exceeds 1×108 K. At that point helium burning begins with a thermal runaway process
called the helium flash with hydrogen burning continuing in a thin shell surrounding the now active helium core.[19]

11.3 References
[1] Donald D. Clayton, Principles of Stellar Evolution and Nucleosynthesis, Mc-Graw Hill, New York (1968) Chapter 6
[2] F. Hoyle, Synthesis of the elements between carbon and nickel, Astrophys. J. Suppl., 1, 121 (1954)
[3] Donald D. Clayton, Principles of stellar Evolution and Nucleosynthesis. McGraw-Hill, New York (1968); reissued by
University of Chicago Press (1983)
[4] Why the Stars Shine D.Selle, Guidestar (Houston Astronomical Society), October 2012, p.6-8
[5] Energy Production in Stars by Hans Bethe
[6] Donald D. Clayton, Principles of Stellar Evolution and Nucleosynthesis, McGraw-Hill, New York (1968)
[7] F. Hoyle (1946). “The synthesis of the elements from hydrogen”. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 106:
343–383. Bibcode:1946MNRAS.106..343H. doi:10.1093/mnras/106.5.343.
[8] F. Hoyle, Synthesis of the elements between carbon and nickel, Astrophys. J. Suppl., 1, 121 (1954)
[9] D. D. Clayton, Hoyle’s equation, Science, 318, 1876–77 (2007)
[10] E. M. Burbidge, G. R. Burbidge, W. A. Fowler, F. Hoyle (1957). “Synthesis of the Elements in Stars”. Reviews of Modern
Physics 29 (4): 547–650. Bibcode:1957RvMP...29..547B. doi:10.1103/RevModPhys.29.547.
[11] A. G. W. Cameron, Stellar Evolution, Nuclear astrophysics and nucleogenesis, Chalk River (Canada) Report CRL-41
(1957)
[12] Donald D. Clayton, W. A. Fowler, T. E. Hull, and B. A. Zimmerman, “Neutron capture chains in heavy element synthesis”,
Ann. Phys., 12, 331–408, (1961)
[13] Seeger, P. A., W. A. Fowler, and Donald D. Clayton, “Nucleosynthesis of heavy elements by neutron capture”, Astrophys.
J. Suppl, XI, 121–66, (1965)
[14] Bodansky, D., Donald D. Clayton, and W. A. Fowler, “Nucleosynthesis during silicon burning”, Phys. Rev. Letters, 20,
161–64, (1968); Bodansky, D., Donald D. Clayton, and W. A. Fowler, Nuclear quasi-equilibrium during silicon burning,
Astrophys. J. Suppl. No. 148, 16, 299–371, (1968)
[15] Donald D. Clayton, “Cosmoradiogenic chronologies of nucleosynthesis”, Astrophys. J., 139, 637–63, (1964)
[16] Jones, Lauren V. (2009), Stars and galaxies, Greenwood guides to the universe, ABC-CLIO, pp. 65–67, ISBN 0-31334075-7
[17] Böhm-Vitense, Erika (1992), Introduction to Stellar Astrophysics 3, Cambridge University Press, pp. 93–100, ISBN 0-52134871-4

11.4. FURTHER READING

185

[18] Reiners, A.; Basri, G. (March 2009). “On the magnetic topology of partially and fully convective stars”. Astronomy and
Astrophysics 496 (3): 787–790. arXiv:0901.1659. Bibcode:2009A&A...496..787R. doi:10.1051/0004-6361:200811450.
[19] de Loore, Camiel W. H.; Doom, C. (1992), Structure and evolution of single and binary stars, Astrophysics and space
science library 179, Springer, pp. 200–214, ISBN 0-7923-1768-8
[20] Jeffrey, C. Simon (2010), “Stellar structure and evolution: an introduction”, in Goswami, A.; Reddy, B. E., Principles and
Perspectives in Cosmochemistry, Springer, pp. 64–66, ISBN 3-642-10368-5
[21] Karttunen, Hannu; Oja, Heikki (2007), Fundamental astronomy (5th ed.), Springer, p. 247, ISBN 3-540-34143-9
[22] Reid, I. Neill; Hawley, Suzanne L. (2005), New light on dark stars: red dwarfs, low-mass stars, brown dwarfs, SpringerPraxis books in astrophysics and astronomy (2nd ed.), Springer, p. 108, ISBN 3-540-25124-3
[23] Salaris, Maurizio; Cassisi, Santi (2005), Evolution of stars and stellar populations, John Wiley and Sons, pp. 119–123,
ISBN 0-470-09220-3
[24] Schuler, S. C.; King, J. R.; The, L.-S. (2009), “Stellar Nucleosynthesis in the Hyades Open Cluster”, The Astrophysical
Journal 701 (1): 837–849, arXiv:0906.4812, Bibcode:2009ApJ...701..837S, doi:10.1088/0004-637X/701/1/837
[25] Goupil, M. J.; Lebreton, Y.; Marques, J. P.; Samadi, R.; Baudin, F. (January 2011), “Open issues in probing interiors of
solar-like oscillating main sequence stars 1. From the Sun to nearly suns”, Journal of Physics: Conference Series 271 (1):
012031, arXiv:1102.0247, Bibcode:2011JPhCS.271a2031G, doi:10.1088/1742-6596/271/1/012031

11.4 Further reading
• Bethe, H. A. (1939). “Energy Production in Stars”. Physical Review 55 (1): 103. Bibcode:1939PhRv...55..103B.
doi:10.1103/PhysRev.55.103.
• Bethe, H. A. (1939). “Energy Production in Stars”. Physical Review 55 (5): 434–456. Bibcode:1939PhRv...55..434B.
doi:10.1103/PhysRev.55.434.
• Hoyle, F. (1954). “On Nuclear Reactions occurring in very hot stars: Synthesis of elements from carbon to
nickel”. Astrophys. J. 1 (Supplement 1): 121–146. Bibcode:1954ApJS....1..121H. doi:10.1086/190005.
• Clayton, Donald D. (1968). Principles of Stellar Evolution and Nucleosynthesis. New York: McGraw-Hill.
• Ray (2004). “Stars as thermonuclear reactors: Their fuels and ashes”. arXiv:astro-ph/0405568 [astro-ph].
• G. Wallerstein; I. Iben Jr.; P. Parker; A.M. Boesgaard; G.M. Hale; A. E. Champagne; C.A. Barnes; F. Käppeler; V.V. Smith; R.D. Hoffman; F.X. Timmes; C. Sneden; R.N. Boyd; B.S. Meyer; D.L. Lambert (1999).
“Synthesis of the elements in stars: forty years of progress” (pdf). Reviews of Modern Physics 69 (4): 995–
1084. Bibcode:1997RvMP...69..995W. doi:10.1103/RevModPhys.69.995. Retrieved 2006-08-04.
• Woosley, S. E.; A. Heger; T. A. Weaver (2002). “The evolution and explosion of massive stars”. Reviews of
Modern Physics 74 (4): 1015–1071. Bibcode:2002RvMP...74.1015W. doi:10.1103/RevModPhys.74.1015.
• Clayton, Donald D. (2003). Handbook of Isotopes in the Cosmos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
ISBN 0-521-82381-1.

11.5 External links
• How the Sun Shines by John N. Bahcall
• Nucleosynthesis in NASA's Cosmicopia

Chapter 12

Supernova nucleosynthesis
Supernova nucleosynthesis is the production of new chemical elements inside supernovae, a picture due to Fred
Hoyle.[1] It occurs primarily due to explosive nucleosynthesis during explosive oxygen burning and silicon burning.[2]
Those fusion reactions create the elements silicon, sulfur, chlorine, argon, sodium, potassium, calcium, scandium,
titanium and iron peak elements: vanadium, chromium, manganese, iron, cobalt, and nickel. These are called “primary elements”, in that they can be fused from pure hydrogen and helium in massive stars. As a result of their ejection
from supernovae, their abundances increase within the interstellar medium. Elements heavier than nickel are created
primarily by a rapid capture of neutrons in a process called the r-process. However, these are much less abundant
than the primary chemical elements. Other processes thought to be responsible for some of the nucleosynthesis of
underabundant heavy elements, notably a proton capture process known as the rp-process and a photodisintegration
process known as the gamma (or p) process. The latter synthesizes the lightest, most neutron-poor, isotopes of the
heavy elements.

12.1 Supernova
Main article: Supernova
A supernova is a massive explosion of a star that occurs under two principal scenarios. The first is that a white
dwarf star undergoes a nuclear based explosion after it reaches its Chandrasekhar limit after absorbing mass from
a neighboring star (usually a red giant). The second, and more common, cause is when a massive star, usually a
supergiant, reaches nickel-56 in its nuclear fusion (or burning) processes. This isotope undergoes radioactive decay
into iron-56, which has one of the highest binding energies of all of the isotopes, and is the last element that produces
a net release of energy by nuclear fusion, exothermically. All nuclear fusion reactions that produce heavier elements
cause the star to lose energy or are said to be endothermic reactions. The pressure that supports the star’s outer layers
drops sharply. As the outer envelope is no longer sufficiently supported by the radiation pressure, the star’s gravity
pulls its outer layers rapidly inward. The star collapses very quickly, and strikes the incompressible core causing a
shockwave that progresses outward through the unfused material of the outer shell. The pressures and densities in
the shockwave are sufficient to induce fusion in that material and the star explodes.

12.2 Elements fused
In nuclear fusion processes during stellar nucleosynthesis, the maximum weight for an element fused is that of iron,
reaching an isotope with an atomic mass of 56. Prior to a supernova, fusion of elements between silicon and iron
occurs only in the largest of stars, in the silicon burning process. (A slow neutron capture process, known as the
s-process which also occurs during normal stellar nucleosynthesis can create elements up to bismuth with an atomic
mass of approximately 209. However, the s-process occurs primarily in low-mass stars that evolve more slowly.)
Once the core fails to produce enough energy to support the outer envelope of gases the star explodes as a supernova
producing the bulk of elements beyond iron. Production of elements from iron to uranium occurs within seconds
in a supernova explosion. Due to the large amounts of energy released, much higher temperatures and densities are
186

12.3. THE R-PROCESS

187

Composite image of Kepler’s supernova from pictures by the Spitzer Space Telescope, Hubble Space Telescope, and Chandra X-ray
Observatory.

reached than at normal stellar temperatures. These conditions allow for an environment where transuranium elements
might be formed.

12.3 The r-process
Main article: r-process
During supernova nucleosynthesis, the r-process (r for rapid) creates very neutron-rich heavy isotopes, which decay
after the event to the first stable isotope, thereby creating the neutron-rich stable isotopes of all heavy elements.
This neutron capture process occurs in high neutron density with high temperature conditions. In the r-process, any
heavy nuclei are bombarded with a large neutron flux to form highly unstable neutron rich nuclei which very rapidly
undergo beta decay to form more stable nuclei with higher atomic number and the same atomic weight. The neutron
flux is astonishingly high, about 1022 neutrons per square centimeter per second. First calculation of a dynamic rprocess, showing the evolution of calculated results with time,[3] also suggested that the r-process abundances are a
superposition of differing neutron fluences. Small fluence produces the first r-process abundance peak near atomic
weight A=130 but no actinides, whereas large fluence produces the actinides uranium and thorium but no longer
contains the A=130 abundance peak. These processes occur in a fraction of a second to a few seconds, depending on
details. Hundreds of subsequent papers published have utilized this time-dependent approach. Interestingly, the only
modern nearby supernova, 1987A, has not revealed r-process enrichments. Modern thinking is that the r-process
yield may be ejected from some supernovae but swallowed up in others as part of the residual neutron star or black
hole.

188

CHAPTER 12. SUPERNOVA NUCLEOSYNTHESIS

B

Big
Bang

C

Cosmic
rays

H
B

Li Be
C

C

Na Mg
L

K
L

Ca Sc Ti V
L

L

L

L

Cs Ba
$

L

Fr Ra
$

Large
stars

S

Small
stars

$

Supernovae

M

Manmade

L

Rb Sr Y
$

L

$

$ L

$ L

He
B

B

C

N

O

F

Ne

C

S L

S L

S L

L

S L

Al Si P

S

$ L

S L

$ L

L

L

L

L

Cr Mn Fe Co Ni Cu Zn Ga Ge As Se Br Kr
L

L

$ L

$

$

L

L

$

$

L

$

Zr Nb Mo Tc Ru Rh Pd Ag Cd In Sn Sb Te
L

Cl Ar

$ L

L

$ L

$

$ L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

I

Xe

$

$

Hf Ta W Re Os Ir Pt Au Hg Tl Pb Bi Po At Rn
$ L

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

$

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

$

La Ce Pr Nd Pm Sm Eu Gd Tb Dy Ho Er Tm Yb Lu
L

L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

$

$

$

$ L

$

Ac Th Pa U Np Pu Am Cm Bk Cf Es Fm Md No Lr
$

$

$

$

$

$

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

A version of the periodic table indicating the origins – including supernova nucleosynthesis – of the elements. All elements above
103 (lawrencium) are also manmade and are not included.

12.4 See also
• Big bang nucleosynthesis
• Critical mass
• Nuclear decay
• Nuclear fission
• Nuclear fusion
• Nucleosynthesis
• Primordial nuclide
• Stellar nucleosynthesis
• Supernova

12.5 References
[1] “Synthesis of the laments from carbon to nickel” Astrophys. J. Suppl. 1, 121 (1954)
[2] Woosley, S.E., W. D. Arnett and D. D. Clayton (1973). “Explosive burning of oxygen and silicon”. The Astrophysical
Journal Supplement 26: 231–312. Bibcode:1973ApJS...26..231W. doi:10.1086/190282.
[3] P. A. Seeger, W.A. Fowler, D. D. Clayton (1965). “Nucleosynthesis of heavy elements by neutron capture”. The Astrophysical Journal Supplement 11: 121–166. Bibcode:1965ApJS...11..121S. doi:10.1086/190111.

12.6 Other reading
• E. M. Burbidge, G. R. Burbidge, W. A. Fowler, F. Hoyle, Synthesis of the Elements in Stars, Rev. Mod. Phys.
29 (1957) 547 (article at the Physical Review Online Archive).
• D. D. Clayton, “Handbook of Isotopes in the Cosmos”, Cambridge University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-521-823811.

12.7. EXTERNAL LINKS

189

12.7 External links
• Atom Smashers Shed Light on Supernovae, Big Bang Sky & Telescope Online, April 22, 2005
• G. Gonzalez, D. Brownlee, P. Ward (2001). “The Galactic Habitable Zone: Galactic Chemical Evolution”
(PDF). Icarus 152: 185–200. arXiv:astro-ph/0103165. Bibcode:2001Icar..152..185G. doi:10.1006/icar.2001.6617.

Chapter 13

Type II supernova

The expanding remnant of SN 1987A, a Type II-P supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud. NASA image.

A Type II supernova (plural: supernovae) results from the rapid collapse and violent explosion of a massive star. A
star must have at least 8 times, and no more than 40–50 times, the mass of the Sun for this type of explosion.[1] It
is distinguished from other types of supernovae by the presence of hydrogen in its spectrum. Type II supernovae are
mainly observed in the spiral arms of galaxies and in H II regions, but not in elliptical galaxies.
Stars generate energy by the nuclear fusion of elements. Unlike the Sun, massive stars possess the mass needed to
fuse elements that have an atomic mass greater than hydrogen and helium, albeit at increasingly higher temperatures
and pressures, causing increasingly shorter stellar life spans. The degeneracy pressure of electrons and the energy
generated by these fusion reactions are sufficient to counter the force of gravity and prevent the star from collapsing,
maintaining stellar equilibrium. The star fuses increasingly higher mass elements, starting with hydrogen and then
helium, progressing up through the periodic table until a core of iron and nickel is produced. Fusion of iron or nickel
190

13.1. FORMATION

191

produces no net energy output, so no further fusion can take place, leaving the nickel-iron core inert. Due to the lack
of energy output allowing outward pressure, equilibrium is broken.
When the mass of the inert core exceeds the Chandrasekhar limit of about 1.4 solar masses, electron degeneracy
alone is no longer sufficient to counter gravity and maintain stellar equilibrium. A cataclysmic implosion takes place
within seconds, in which the outer core reaches an inward velocity of up to 23% of the speed of light and the inner
core reaches temperatures of up to 100 billion kelvin. Neutrons and neutrinos are formed via reversed beta-decay,
releasing about 1046 joules (100 foes) in a ten-second burst. The collapse is halted by neutron degeneracy, causing
the implosion to rebound and bounce outward. The energy of this expanding shock wave is sufficient to accelerate the
surrounding stellar material to escape velocity, forming a supernova explosion, while the shock wave and extremely
high temperature and pressure briefly allow for the production of elements heavier than iron.[2] Depending on initial
size of the star, the remnants of the core form a neutron star or a black hole. Because of the underlying mechanism,
the resulting nova is also described as a core-collapse supernova.
There exist several categories of Type II supernova explosions, which are categorized based on the resulting light
curve—a graph of luminosity versus time—following the explosion. Type II-L supernovae show a steady (linear)
decline of the light curve following the explosion, whereas Type II-P display a period of slower decline (a plateau)
in their light curve followed by a normal decay. Type Ib and Ic supernovae are a type of core-collapse supernova for
a massive star that has shed its outer envelope of hydrogen and (for Type Ic) helium. As a result, they appear to be
lacking in these elements.

13.1 Formation
Stars far more massive than the sun evolve in more complex ways. In the core of the star, hydrogen is fused into
helium, releasing thermal energy that heats the sun’s core and provides outward pressure that supports the sun’s layers
against collapse in a process known as stellar or hydrostatic equilibrium. The helium produced in the core accumulates
there since temperatures in the core are not yet high enough to cause it to fuse. Eventually, as the hydrogen at the
core is exhausted, fusion starts to slow down, and gravity causes the core to contract. This contraction raises the
temperature high enough to initiate a shorter phase of helium fusion, which accounts for less than 10% of the star’s
total lifetime. In stars with fewer than eight solar masses, the carbon produced by helium fusion does not fuse, and
the star gradually cools to become a white dwarf.[3][4] White dwarf stars, if they have a near companion, may then
become Type Ia supernovae.
A much larger star, however, is massive enough to create temperatures and pressures needed to cause the carbon in
the core to begin to fuse once the star contracts at the end of the helium-burning stage. The cores of these massive
stars become layered like onions as progressively heavier atomic nuclei build up at the center, with an outermost layer
of hydrogen gas, surrounding a layer of hydrogen fusing into helium, surrounding a layer of helium fusing into carbon
via the triple-alpha process, surrounding layers that fuse to progressively heavier elements. As a star this massive
evolves, it undergoes repeated stages where fusion in the core stops, and the core collapses until the pressure and
temperature are sufficient to begin the next stage of fusion, reigniting to halt collapse.[3][4]

13.2 Core collapse
The factor limiting this process is the amount of energy that is released through fusion, which is dependent on the
binding energy that holds together these atomic nuclei. Each additional step produces progressively heavier nuclei,
which release progressively less energy when fusing. In addition, from carbon-burning onwards, energy loss via
neutrino production becomes significant, leading to a higher rate of reaction than would otherwise take place.[6] This
continues until nickel-56 is produced, which decays radioactively into cobalt-56 and then iron-56 over the course of
a few months. As iron and nickel have the highest binding energy per nucleon of all the elements,[7] energy cannot
be produced at the core by fusion, and a nickel-iron core grows.[4][8] This core is under huge gravitational pressure.
As there is no fusion to further raise the star’s temperature to support it against collapse, it is supported only by
degeneracy pressure of electrons. In this state, matter is so dense that further compaction would require electrons to
occupy the same energy states. However, this is forbidden for identical fermion particles, such as the electron – a
phenomenon called the Pauli exclusion principle.

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CHAPTER 13. TYPE II SUPERNOVA

The onion-like layers of a massive, evolved star just before core collapse. (Not to scale.)

When the core’s mass exceeds the Chandrasekhar limit of about 1.4 solar masses, degeneracy pressure can no longer
support it, and catastrophic collapse ensues.[9] The outer part of the core reaches velocities of up to 70,000 km/s (23%
of the speed of light) as it collapses toward the center of the star.[10] The rapidly shrinking core heats up, producing
high-energy gamma rays that decompose iron nuclei into helium nuclei and free neutrons via photodisintegration. As
the core’s density increases, it becomes energetically favorable for electrons and protons to merge via inverse beta
decay, producing neutrons and elementary particles called neutrinos. Because neutrinos rarely interact with normal
matter, they can escape from the core, carrying away energy and further accelerating the collapse, which proceeds
over a timescale of milliseconds. As the core detaches from the outer layers of the star, some of these neutrinos are
absorbed by the star’s outer layers, beginning the supernova explosion.[11]
For Type II supernovae, the collapse is eventually halted by short-range repulsive neutron-neutron interactions, mediated by the strong force, as well as by degeneracy pressure of neutrons, at a density comparable to that of an atomic
nucleus. Once collapse stops, the infalling matter rebounds, producing a shock wave that propagates outward. The
energy from this shock dissociates heavy elements within the core. This reduces the energy of the shock, which can
stall the explosion within the outer core.[12]
The core collapse phase is so dense and energetic that only neutrinos are able to escape. As the protons and electrons combine to form neutrons by means of electron capture, an electron neutrino is produced. In a typical Type
II supernova, the newly formed neutron core has an initial temperature of about 100 billion kelvin, 104 times the
temperature of the sun’s core. Much of this thermal energy must be shed for a stable neutron star to form, otherwise

13.3. THEORETICAL MODELS

193

the neutrons would “boil away”. This is accomplished by a further release of neutrinos.[13] These 'thermal' neutrinos
form as neutrino-antineutrino pairs of all flavors, and total several times the number of electron-capture neutrinos.[14]
The two neutrino production mechanisms convert the gravitational potential energy of the collapse into a ten second
neutrino burst, releasing about 1046 joules (100 foes).[15]
Through a process that is not clearly understood, about 1044 joules (1 foe) is reabsorbed by the stalled shock, producing an explosion.[a][12] The neutrinos generated by a supernova were actually observed in the case of Supernova
1987A, leading astronomers to conclude that the core collapse picture is basically correct. The water-based Kamiokande
II and IMB instruments detected antineutrinos of thermal origin,[13] while the gallium−71-based Baksan instrument
detected neutrinos (lepton number = 1) of either thermal or electron-capture origin.

Within a massive, evolved star (a) the onion-layered shells of elements undergo fusion, forming a nickel-iron core (b) that reaches
Chandrasekhar-mass and starts to collapse. The inner part of the core is compressed into neutrons (c), causing infalling material
to bounce (d) and form an outward-propagating shock front (red). The shock starts to stall (e), but it is re-invigorated by neutrino
interaction. The surrounding material is blasted away (f), leaving only a degenerate remnant.

When the progenitor star is below about 20 solar masses – depending on the strength of the explosion and the amount
of material that falls back – the degenerate remnant of a core collapse is a neutron star.[10] Above this mass, the
remnant collapses to form a black hole.[4][16] The theoretical limiting mass for this type of core collapse scenario is
about 40–50 solar masses. Above that mass, a star is believed to collapse directly into a black hole without forming
a supernova explosion,[17] although uncertainties in models of supernova collapse make calculation of these limits
uncertain.

13.3 Theoretical models
The Standard Model of particle physics is a theory which describes three of the four known fundamental interactions
between the elementary particles that make up all matter. This theory allows predictions to be made about how
particles will interact under many conditions. The energy per particle in a supernova is typically one to one hundred
and fifty picojoules (tens to hundreds of MeV).[18] The per-particle energy involved in a supernova is small enough
that the predictions gained from the Standard Model of particle physics are likely to be basically correct. But the

194

CHAPTER 13. TYPE II SUPERNOVA

high densities may require corrections to the Standard Model.[19] In particular, Earth-based particle accelerators can
produce particle interactions which are of much higher energy than are found in supernovae,[20] but these experiments
involve individual particles interacting with individual particles, and it is likely that the high densities within the
supernova will produce novel effects. The interactions between neutrinos and the other particles in the supernova
take place with the weak nuclear force, which is believed to be well understood. However, the interactions between
the protons and neutrons involve the strong nuclear force, which is much less well understood.[21]
The major unsolved problem with Type II supernovae is that it is not understood how the burst of neutrinos transfers
its energy to the rest of the star producing the shock wave which causes the star to explode. From the above discussion,
only one percent of the energy needs to be transferred to produce an explosion, but explaining how that one percent
of transfer occurs has proven very difficult, even though the particle interactions involved are believed to be well
understood. In the 1990s, one model for doing this involved convective overturn, which suggests that convection,
either from neutrinos from below, or infalling matter from above, completes the process of destroying the progenitor
star. Heavier elements than iron are formed during this explosion by neutron capture, and from the pressure of the
neutrinos pressing into the boundary of the “neutrinosphere”, seeding the surrounding space with a cloud of gas and
dust which is richer in heavy elements than the material from which the star originally formed.[22]
Neutrino physics, which is modeled by the Standard Model, is crucial to the understanding of this process.[19] The
other crucial area of investigation is the hydrodynamics of the plasma that makes up the dying star; how it behaves
during the core collapse determines when and how the “shock wave” forms and when and how it “stalls” and is
reenergized.[23]
In fact, some theoretical models incorporate a hydrodynamical instability in the stalled shock known as the “Standing
Accretion Shock Instability” (SASI). This instability comes about as a consequence of non-spherical perturbations
oscillating the stalled shock thereby deforming it. The SASI is often used in tandem with neutrino theories in computer
simulations for re-energizing the stalled shock.[24]
Computer models have been very successful at calculating the behavior of Type II supernovae once the shock has
been formed. By ignoring the first second of the explosion, and assuming that an explosion is started, astrophysicists
have been able to make detailed predictions about the elements produced by the supernova and of the expected light
curve from the supernova.[25][26][27]

13.4 Light curves for Type II-L and Type II-P supernovae
When the spectrum of a Type II supernova is examined, it normally displays Balmer absorption lines – reduced flux at
the characteristic frequencies where hydrogen atoms absorb energy. The presence of these lines is used to distinguish
this category of supernova from a Type I supernova.
When the luminosity of a Type II supernova is plotted over a period of time, it shows a characteristic rise to a peak
brightness followed by a decline. These light curves have an average decay rate of 0.008 magnitudes per day; much
lower than the decay rate for Type Ia supernovae. Type II are sub-divided into two classes, depending on the shape
of the light curve. The light curve for a Type II-L supernova shows a steady (linear) decline following the peak
brightness. By contrast, the light curve of a Type II-P supernova has a distinctive flat stretch (called a plateau) during
the decline; representing a period where the luminosity decays at a slower rate. The net luminosity decay rate is lower,
at 0.0075 magnitudes per day for Type II-P, compared to 0.012 magnitudes per day for Type II-L.[28]
The difference in the shape of the light curves is believed to be caused, in the case of Type II-L supernovae, by the
expulsion of most of the hydrogen envelope of the progenitor star.[28] The plateau phase in Type II-P supernovae
is due to a change in the opacity of the exterior layer. The shock wave ionizes the hydrogen in the outer envelope
– stripping the electron from the hydrogen atom – resulting in a significant increase in the opacity. This prevents
photons from the inner parts of the explosion from escaping. Once the hydrogen cools sufficiently to recombine, the
outer layer becomes transparent.[29]

13.5 Type IIn supernovae
The “n” denotes narrow, which indicates the presence of intermediate or very narrow width H emission lines in the
spectra. In the intermediate width case, the ejecta from the explosion may be interacting strongly with gas around
the star – the circumstellar medium. [30][31] There are indications that they originate as stars similar to Luminous

13.6. TYPE IIB SUPERNOVAE

195

This graph of the luminosity as a function of time shows the characteristic shapes of the light curves for a Type II-L and II-P
supernova.

blue variables with large mass losses before exploding.[32] SN 2005gl is one example of Type IIn; SN 2006gy, an
extremely energetic supernova, may be another example.[33]

13.6 Type IIb supernovae
A Type IIb supernova has a weak hydrogen line in its initial spectrum, which is why it is classified as a Type II.
However, later on the H emission becomes undetectable, and there is also a second peak in the light curve that has a
spectrum which more closely resembles a Type Ib supernova. The progenitor could have been a giant star which lost
most of its hydrogen envelope due to interactions with a companion in a binary system, leaving behind the core that
consisted almost entirely of helium.[34] As the ejecta of a Type IIb expands, the hydrogen layer quickly becomes more
transparent and reveals the deeper layers.[34] The classic example of a Type IIb supernova is Supernova 1993J,[35][36]
while another example is Cassiopeia A.[37] The IIb class was first introduced (as a theoretical concept) by Ensman &
Woosley 1987.

13.7 Hypernovae (collapsars)
Main article: Hypernova
Hypernovae are a rare type of supernova substantially more luminous and energetic than standard supernovae. Examples are 1997ef (type Ic) and 1997cy (type IIn). Hypernovae are produced by more than one type of event: relativistic
jets during formation of a black hole from fallback of material onto the neutron star core, the collapsar model; interaction with a dense envelope of circumstellar material, the CSM model; the highest mass pair instability supernovae;
possibly others such as binary and quark star model.
Stars with initial masses between about 25 and 90 times the sun develop cores large enough that after a supernova
explosion, some material will fall back onto the neutron star core and create a black hole. In many cases this reduces
the luminosity of the supernova, and above 90 masses the star collapses directly into a black hole without a supernova

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CHAPTER 13. TYPE II SUPERNOVA

explosion. However if the progenitor is spinning quickly enough the infalling material generates relativistic jets that
emit more energy than the original explosion.[38] They may also be seen directly if beamed towards us, giving the
impression of an even more luminous object. In some cases these can produce gamma-ray bursts, although not all
gamma-ray bursts are from supernovae.[39]
In some cases a type II supernova occurs when the star is surrounded by a very dense cloud of material, most likely
expelled during luminous blue variable eruptions. This material is shocked by the explosion and becomes more
luminous than a standard supernova. It is likely that there is a range of luminosities for these type IIn supernovae with
only the brightest qualifying as a hypernova.
Pair instability supernovae occur when an oxygen core in an extremely massive star becomes hot enough that gamma
rays spontaneously produce electron-positron pairs.[40] This causes the core to collapse, but where the collapse of an
iron core causes endothermic fusion to heavier elements, the collapse of an oxygen core creates runaway exothermic
fusion which completely unbinds the star. The total energy emitted depends on the initial mass, with much of the
core being converted to 56 Ni and ejected which then powers the supernova for many months. At the lower end stars
of about 140 solar masses produce supernovae that are long-lived but otherwise typical, while the highest mass stars
of around 250 solar masses produce supernovae that are extremely luminous and also very long lived; hypernovae.
More massive stars die by photodisintegration. Only population III stars, with very low metallicity, can reach this
stage. Stars with more heavy elements are more opaque and blow away their outer layers until they are small enough
to explode as a normal type Ib/c supernova. It is thought that even in our own galaxy, mergers of old low metallicity
stars may form massive stars capable of creating a pair instability supernova.

13.8 See also
• History of supernova observation
• Supernova nucleosynthesis
• Supernova remnant

13.9 References
[1] Gilmore, Gerry (2004). “The Short Spectacular Life of a Superstar”. Science 304 (5697): 1915–1916. doi:10.1126/science.1100370.
PMID 15218132.
[2] Staff (2006-09-07). “Introduction to Supernova Remnants”. NASA Goddard/SAO. Retrieved 2007-05-01.
[3] Richmond, Michael. “Late stages of evolution for low-mass stars”. Rochester Institute of Technology. Retrieved 200608-04.
[4] Hinshaw, Gary (2006-08-23). “The Life and Death of Stars”. NASA Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP)
Mission. Retrieved 2006-09-01.
[5] Woosley, S.; Janka, H.-T. (December 2005). “The Physics of Core-Collapse Supernovae”. Nature Physics 1 (3): 147–154.
arXiv:astro-ph/0601261. Bibcode:2005NatPh...1..147W. doi:10.1038/nphys172.
[6] Clayton, Donald (1983). Principles of Stellar Evolution and Nucleosynthesis. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0226-10953-4.
[7] Fewell, M. P. (1995). “The atomic nuclide with the highest mean binding energy”. American Journal of Physics 63 (7):
653–658. Bibcode:1995AmJPh..63..653F. doi:10.1119/1.17828.
[8] Fleurot, Fabrice. “Evolution of Massive Stars”. Laurentian University. Retrieved 2007-08-13.
[9] Lieb, E. H.; Yau, H.-T. (1987). “A rigorous examination of the Chandrasekhar theory of stellar collapse”. Astrophysical
Journal 323 (1): 140–144. Bibcode:1987ApJ...323..140L. doi:10.1086/165813.
[10] Fryer, C. L.; New, K. C. B. (2006-01-24). “Gravitational Waves from Gravitational Collapse”. Max Planck Institute for
Gravitational Physics. Retrieved 2006-12-14.
[11] Hayakawa, T.; Iwamoto, N.; Kajino, T.; Shizuma, T.; Umeda, H.; Nomoto, K. (2006). “Principle of Universality of
Gamma-Process Nucleosynthesis in Core-Collapse Supernova Explosions”. The Astrophysical Journal 648 (1): L47–L50.
Bibcode:2006ApJ...648L..47H. doi:10.1086/507703.

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197

[12] Fryer, C. L.; New, K. B. C. (2006-01-24). “Gravitational Waves from Gravitational Collapse, section 3.1”. Los Alamos
National Laboratory. Retrieved 2006-12-09.
[13] Mann, Alfred K. (1997). Shadow of a star: The neutrino story of Supernova 1987A. New York: W. H. Freeman. p. 122.
ISBN 0-7167-3097-9.
[14] Gribbin, John R.; Gribbin, Mary (2000). Stardust: Supernovae and Life – The Cosmic Connection. New Haven: Yale
University Press. p. 173. ISBN 978-0-300-09097-0.
[15] Barwick, S.; Beacom, J. et al. (2004-10-29). “APS Neutrino Study: Report of the Neutrino Astrophysics and Cosmology
Working Group” (PDF). American Physical Society. Retrieved 2006-12-12.
[16] Fryer, Chris L. (2003). “Black Hole Formation from Stellar Collapse”. Classical and Quantum Gravity 20 (10): S73–S80.
Bibcode:2003CQGra..20S..73F. doi:10.1088/0264-9381/20/10/309.
[17] Fryer, Chris L. (1999). “Mass Limits For Black Hole Formation”. The Astrophysical Journal 522 (1): 413–418. arXiv:astroph/9902315. Bibcode:1999ApJ...522..413F. doi:10.1086/307647.
[18] Izzard, R. G.; Ramirez-Ruiz, E.; Tout, C. A. (2004). “Formation rates of core-collapse supernovae and gamma-ray bursts”.
Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 348 (4): 1215. arXiv:astro-ph/0311463. Bibcode:2004MNRAS.348.1215I.
doi:10.1111/j.1365-2966.2004.07436.x.
[19] Rampp, M.; Buras, R.; Janka, H.-Th.; Raffelt, G. (February 11–16, 2002). “Proceedings of the 11th Workshop on “Nuclear
Astrophysics"". Ringberg Castle, Tegernsee, Germany. pp. 119–125. Bibcode:2002nuas.conf..119R. |chapter= ignored
(help)
[20] The OPAL Collaboration; Ackerstaff, K. et al. (1998). “Tests of the Standard Model and Constraints on New Physics
from Measurements of Fermion-pair Production at 189 GeV at LEP”. Submitted to The European Physical Journal C 2 (3):
441–472. doi:10.1007/s100529800851. Retrieved 2007-03-18.
[21] Staff (2004-10-05). “The Nobel Prize in Physics 2004”. Nobel Foundation. Retrieved 2007-05-30.
[22] Stover, Dawn (2006). “Life In A Bubble”. Popular Science 269 (6): 16.
[23] Janka, H.-Th.; Langanke, K.; Marek, A.; Martinez-Pinedo, G.; Mueller, B. (2006). “Theory of Core-Collapse Supernovae”. Bethe Centennial Volume of Physics Reports (submitted) 142 (1–4): 229. arXiv:astro-ph/0612072. Bibcode:1993JHyd..142..229H.
doi:10.1016/0022-1694(93)90012-X.
[24] Wakana Iwakami; Kei Kotake; Naofumi Ohnishi; Shoichi Yamada; Keisuke Sawada (March 10–15, 2008). “3D Simulations of Standing Accretion Shock Instability in Core-Collapse Supernovae”. 3D Simulations of Standing Accretion Shock
Instability in Core-Collapse Supernovae. 14th Workshop on “Nuclear Astrophysics”. Retrieved 30 January 2013.
[25] Blinnikov, S.I.; Röpke, F. K.; Sorokina, E. I.; Gieseler, M.; Reinecke, M.; Travaglio, C.; Hillebrandt, W.; Stritzinger,
M. (2006). “Theoretical light curves for deflagration models of type Ia supernova”. Astronomy and Astrophysics 453 (1):
229–240. arXiv:astro-ph/0603036. Bibcode:2006A&A...453..229B. doi:10.1051/0004-6361:20054594.
[26] Young, Timothy R. (2004). “A Parameter Study of Type II Supernova Light Curves Using 6 M He Cores”. The Astrophysical Journal 617 (2): 1233–1250. arXiv:astro-ph/0409284. Bibcode:2004ApJ...617.1233Y. doi:10.1086/425675.
[27] Rauscher, T.; Heger, A.; Hoffman, R. D.; Woosley, S. E. (2002). “Nucleosynthesis in Massive Stars With Improved Nuclear
and Stellar Physics”. The Astrophysical Journal 576 (1): 323–348. arXiv:astro-ph/0112478. Bibcode:2002ApJ...576..323R.
doi:10.1086/341728.
[28] Doggett, J. B.; Branch, D. (1985). “A Comparative Study of Supernova Light Curves”. Astronomical Journal 90: 2303–
2311. Bibcode:1985AJ.....90.2303D. doi:10.1086/113934.
[29] “Type II Supernova Light Curves”. Swinburne University of Technology. Retrieved 2007-03-17.
[30] Filippenko, A. V. (1997). “Optical Spectra of Supernovae”. Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics 35: 309–330.
Bibcode:1997ARA&A..35..309F. doi:10.1146/annurev.astro.35.1.309.
[31] Pastorello, A.; Turatto, M.; Benetti, S.; Cappellaro, E.; Danziger, I. J.; Mazzali, P. A.; Patat, F.; Filippenko, A. V.;
Schlegel, D. J.; Matheson, T. (2002). “The type IIn supernova 1995G: interaction with the circumstellar medium”. Monthly
Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 333 (1): 27–38. arXiv:astro-ph/0201483. Bibcode:2002MNRAS.333...27P.
doi:10.1046/j.1365-8711.2002.05366.x.
[32] Michael Kiewe; Avishay Gal-Yam; Iair Arcavi; Leonard; Emilio Enriquez; Bradley Cenko; Fox; Dae-Sik Moon; Sand;
Soderberg, Alicia M.; Cccp, The (2010). “Caltech Core-Collapse Project (CCCP) observations of type IIn supernovae: typical properties and implications for their progenitor stars”. ApJ 744 (10): 10. arXiv:1010.2689. Bibcode:2012ApJ...744...10K.
doi:10.1088/0004-637X/744/1/10.

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[33] Smith, N.; Chornock, R.; Silverman, J. M.; Filippenko, A. V.; Foley, R. J. (2010). “Spectral Evolution of the Extraordinary
Type IIn Supernova 2006gy” (pdf). The Astrophysical Journal 709 (2): 856–883. arXiv:0906.2200. Bibcode:2010ApJ...709..856S.
doi:10.1088/0004-637X/709/2/856.
[34] Utrobin, V. P. (1996). “Nonthermal ionization and excitation in Type IIb supernova 1993J”. Astronomy and Astrophysics
306 (5940): 219–231. Bibcode:1996A&A...306..219U.
[35] Nomoto, K.; Suzuki, T.; Shigeyama, T.; Kumagai, S.; Yamaoka, H.; Saio, H. (1993). “A type IIb model for supernova
1993J”. Nature 364 (6437): 507. Bibcode:1993Natur.364..507N. doi:10.1038/364507a0.
[36] Chevalier, R. A.; Soderberg, A. M. (2010). “Type IIb Supernovae with Compact and Extended Progenitors”. The Astrophysical Journal 711: L40. arXiv:0911.3408. Bibcode:2010ApJ...711L..40C. doi:10.1088/2041-8205/711/1/L40.
[37] Krause, O.; Birkmann, S.; Usuda, T.; Hattori, T.; Goto, M.; Rieke, G.; Misselt, K. (2008). “The Cassiopeia A supernova
was of type IIb”. Science 320 (5880): 1195–1197. arXiv:0805.4557. Bibcode:2008Sci...320.1195K. doi:10.1126/science.1155788.
PMID 18511684.
[38] Nomoto, K. I.; Tanaka, M.; Tominaga, N.; Maeda, K. (2010). “Hypernovae, gamma-ray bursts, and first stars”. New
Astronomy Reviews 54 (3–6): 191. Bibcode:2010NewAR..54..191N. doi:10.1016/j.newar.2010.09.022.
[39] “Cosmological Gamma-Ray Bursts and Hypernovae Conclusively Linked”. European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO). 2003-06-18. Retrieved 2006-10-30.
[40] Kasen, D.; Woosley, S. E.; Heger, A. (2011). “Pair Instability Supernovae: Light Curves, Spectra, and Shock Breakout”
(pdf). The Astrophysical Journal 734 (2): 102. arXiv:1101.3336. Bibcode:2011ApJ...734..102K. doi:10.1088/0004637X/734/2/102.

13.10 External links
• Merrifield, Michael. “Type II Supernova”. Sixty Symbols. Brady Haran for the University of Nottingham.

Chapter 14

R-process

r-process

rapid neutron captures

X(n,γ)Y
proton
capture
neutron
capture
β decay

Z

β decay
stable
unstable

N
synthesis of neutron-rich nuclei
A > 60
Nucleosynthesis of neutron-rich nuclei via rapid neutron capture.

The r-process is a nucleosynthesis process that occurs in core-collapse supernovae (see also supernova nucleosynthesis) and is responsible for the creation of approximately half of the neutron-rich atomic nuclei heavier than iron.
The process entails a succession of rapid neutron captures (hence the name r-process) by heavy seed nuclei, typically
56
Fe or other more neutron-rich heavy isotopes.
The other predominant mechanism for the production of heavy elements in the universe (and in our Solar System) is
the s-process, which is nucleosynthesis by means of slow captures of neutrons, primarily occurring in AGB stars. The
199

200

CHAPTER 14. R-PROCESS

s-process is secondary, meaning that it requires preexisting heavy isotopes as seed nuclei to be converted into other
heavy nuclei. Taken together these two processes account for a majority of galactic chemical evolution of elements
heavier than iron.
The r-process occurs to a slight extent in thermonuclear weapon explosions, and was responsible for the historical
discovery of the elements einsteinium (element 99) and fermium (element 100).

14.1 History
The need for some kind of rapid capture of neutrons was seen from the relative abundances of isotopes of heavy
elements given in a newly published table of abundances by Hans Suess and Harold Urey in 1956. Radioactive
isotopes must capture another neutron faster than they can undergo beta decay in order to create abundance peaks
at germanium, xenon, and platinum. According to the nuclear shell model, radioactive nuclei that would decay into
isotopes of these elements have closed neutron shells near the neutron drip line, where more neutrons cannot be added.
Those abundance peaks created by rapid neutron capture implied that other nuclei could be accounted for by such a
process. That process of rapid neutron capture in neutron-rich isotopes is called the r-process. A table apportioning
the heavy isotopes phenomenologically between s-process and r-process was published in the famous B2FH review
paper in 1957,[1] which named that process and outlined the physics that guides it. B2FH also elaborated the theory
of stellar nucleosynthesis and set substantial frame-work for contemporary nuclear astrophysics.
The r-process described by the B2FH paper was first computed time-dependently at Caltech by Phillip Seeger,
William A. Fowler and Donald D. Clayton,[2] who achieved the first successful caricature of the r-process abundances and showed its evolution in time. They were also able using theoretical production calculations to construct
more quantitative apportionment between s-process and r-process of the abundance table of heavy isotopes, thereby
establishing a more reliable abundance curve for the r-process isotopes than B2FH had been able to define. Today,
the r-process abundances are determined using their technique of subtracting the more reliable s-process isotopic
abundances from the total isotopic abundances and attributing the remainder to the r-process nucleosynthesis. That
r-process abundance curve (vs. atomic weight) gratifyingly resembles computations of abundances synthesized by
the physical process.
Most neutron-rich isotopes of elements heavier than nickel are produced, either exclusively or in part, by the beta
decay of very radioactive matter synthesized during the r-process by rapid absorption, one after another, of free
neutrons created during the explosions. The creation of free neutrons by electron capture during the rapid collapse
to high density of the supernova core along with assembly of some neutron-rich seed nuclei makes the r-process a
primary process; namely, one that can occur even in a star of pure H and He, in contrast to the B2FH designation as
a secondary process building on preexisting iron.
Observational evidence of the r-process enrichment of stars, as applied to the abundance evolution of the galaxy of
stars, was laid out by Truran in 1981.[3] He and many subsequent astronomers showed that the pattern of heavyelement abundances in the earliest metal-poor stars matched that of the shape of the solar r-process curve, as if the
s-process component were missing. This was consistent with the hypothesis that the s-process had not yet begun in
these young stars, for it requires about 100 million years of galactic history to get started. These stars were born
earlier than that, showing that the r-process emerges immediately from quickly-evolving massive stars that become
supernovae. The primary nature of the r-process from observed abundance spectra in old stars born when the galactic
metallicity was still small but that nonetheless contain their complement of r-process nuclei.
This scenario, though generally supported by supernova experts, has yet to achieve a totally satisfactory calculation of
r-process abundances because the overall problem is numerically formidable; but existing results are very supportive.
The r-process is responsible for our natural cohort of radioactive elements, such as uranium and thorium, as well as
the most neutron-rich isotopes of each heavy element.

14.2 Nuclear physics
Immediately after the severe compression of electrons in a core-collapse supernova, beta-minus decay is blocked.
This is because the high electron density fills all available free electron states up to a Fermi energy which is greater
than the energy of nuclear beta decay. But nuclear capture of those free electrons still occurs, and causes increasing
neutronization of matter. There results an extremely high density of free neutrons which cannot decay, and as a result
a large neutron flux (on the order of 1022 neutrons per cm2 per second ) and high temperatures. As this re-expands

14.3. ASTROPHYSICAL SITES

B

Big
Bang

C

Cosmic
rays

H
B

Li Be
C

C

Na Mg
L

K
L

Ca Sc Ti V
L
L

Cs Ba
$

L

Fr Ra
$

L

Large
stars

S

Small
stars

$

Supernovae

M

Manmade

L
L

Rb Sr Y
$

201

$

L

$ L

$ L

He
B

B

C

N

O

F

Ne

C

S L

S L

S L

L

S L

Al Si P

S

$ L

S L

$ L

L

L

L

L

Cr Mn Fe Co Ni Cu Zn Ga Ge As Se Br Kr
L

L

$ L

$

$

L

L

$

$

L

$

Zr Nb Mo Tc Ru Rh Pd Ag Cd In Sn Sb Te
L

Cl Ar

$ L

L

$ L

$

$ L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

I

Xe

$

$

Hf Ta W Re Os Ir Pt Au Hg Tl Pb Bi Po At Rn
$ L

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

$

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

$

La Ce Pr Nd Pm Sm Eu Gd Tb Dy Ho Er Tm Yb Lu
L

L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

$

$

$

$ L

$

Ac Th Pa U Np Pu Am Cm Bk Cf Es Fm Md No Lr
$

$

$

$

$

$

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

Periodic table showing the cosmogenic origin of each element. The elements heavier than iron with origins in supernovae are typically
those produced by the r-process, which is powered by supernovae neutron bursts

and cools, neutron capture by still-existing heavy nuclei occurs much faster than beta-minus decay. As a consequence,
the r-process runs up along the neutron drip line and highly-unstable neutron-rich nuclei are created.
Three processes which affect the process of climbing the neutron drip line are; a notable decrease in the neutroncapture cross section at nuclei with closed neutron shells, the inhibiting process of photodisintegration, and the degree
of nuclear stability in the heavy-isotope region. This last phenomenon terminates the r-process when its heaviest nuclei
become unstable to spontaneous fission, which is currently believed to be in the neutron-rich region of the table of
nuclides when the total number of nucleons approaches 270. After the neutron flux decreases, these highly unstable
radioactive nuclei undergo a rapid succession of beta decays until they reach more stable, neutron-rich nuclei.[4]
So, while the s-process creates an abundance of stable nuclei having closed neutron shells, the r-process creates an
abundance of nuclei about 10 amu below the s-process peaks as a result of the decay back towards stability.

14.3 Astrophysical sites
The most probable candidate sites for the r-process are core-collapse supernovae (spectral Type Ib, Ic and II), which
provide the necessary physical conditions for the r-process. However, the abundance of r-process nuclei requires that
either only a small fraction of supernovae eject r-process nuclei to the interstellar medium, or that each supernova
ejects only a very small amount of r-process material. An alternative site proposed in 1989[5] (see also [6] ) is that
neutron star mergers (a binary star system of two neutron stars that collide) may also play a role in the production of
r-process nuclei, but this may now be starting to be observationally confirmed.[7][8]

14.4 References
[1] E. M. Burbidge, G. R. Burbidge, W. A. Fowler, and F. Hoyle (1957). “Synthesis of the Elements in Stars”. Reviews of
Modern Physics 29 (4): 547. Bibcode:1957RvMP...29..547B. doi:10.1103/RevModPhys.29.547.
[2] P.A.Seeger, W. A. Fowler, and Donald D. Clayton, Nucleosynthesis of heavy elements by neutron capture, Astrophys. J.
Suppl, 11, 121–66, (1965)
[3] J. W. Truran, A new interpretation of the heavy-element abundances in metal-deficient stars, Astron. Astrophys.,97,392-93
(1981)
[4] Donald D. Clayton, Principles of Stellar Evolution and Nucleosynthesis, Mc-Graw-Hill (New York 1968), pages 577–91,
provides a clear technical introduction to these features. More technical is the previously cited paper by Seeger et al.

202

CHAPTER 14. R-PROCESS

[5] Eichler, David; Livio, Mario; Piran, Tsvi; Schramm, David N."Nucleosynthesis, neutrino bursts and gamma-rays from
coalescing neutron stars”. NATURE, 340, 126, 1989.
[6] Freiburghaus, C.; Rosswog, S.; Thielemann, F.-K. “R-Process in Neutron Star Mergers”. The Astrophysical Journal,
Volume 525, Issue 2, pp. L121-L124. 11/1999
[7] http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/news/2013-19
[8] http://arxiv.org/abs/1306.3960

Chapter 15

S-process
The s-process or slow-neutron-capture-process is a nucleosynthesis process that occurs at relatively low neutron
density and intermediate temperature conditions in stars. Under these conditions heavier nuclei are created by neutron
capture, increasing the atomic weight of the nucleus by one. A neutron in the new nucleus decays by beta-minus decay
to a proton, creating a nucleus of higher atomic number. The rate of neutron capture by atomic nuclei is slow relative
to the rate of radioactive beta-minus decay, hence the name. Although considerable variability exists, one gets the
right idea to think that the time between successive neutron captures is about 100 years, whereas the time for beta
decay is about one minute. Thus if beta decay can occur at all, it almost always occurs before another neutron can be
captured. This process produces stable isotopes by moving along the valley of beta-decay stable isobars in the chart of
isotopes. The s-process produces approximately half of the isotopes of the elements heavier than iron, and therefore
plays an important role in the galactic chemical evolution. The more rapid r-process differs from the s-process by its
faster rate of neutron capture of more than one neutron before beta-decay takes place.

15.1 History
The s-process was seen to be needed from the relative abundances of isotopes of heavy elements and from a newly
published table of abundances by Hans Suess and Harold Urey in 1956. Among other things, these data showed
abundance peaks for strontium, barium, and lead, which, according to quantum mechanics and the nuclear shell
model, are particularly stable nuclei, much like the noble gases are chemically inert. This implied that some abundant
nuclei must be created by slow neutron capture, and it was only a matter of determining how other nuclei could
be accounted for by such a process. A table apportioning the heavy isotopes between s-process and r-process was
published in the famous B2 FH review paper in 1957.[1] There it was also argued that the s-process occurs in red
giant stars. In a particularly illustrative case, the element technetium, whose longest half-life is 4.2 million years, had
been discovered in S-, M-, and N-type stars in 1952.[2][3] Since these stars were thought to be billions of years old,
the presence of technetium in their outer atmospheres was taken as evidence of its recent creation there, probably
unconnected with the nuclear fusion in the deep interior of the star that provides its power.
A calculable model for creating the heavy isotopes from iron seed nuclei in a time-dependent manner was not provided
until 1961.[4] That work showed that the large overabundances of barium observed by astronomers in certain redgiant stars could be created from iron seed nuclei if the total fluence (number of neutrons per unit area) of neutrons
was appropriate. It also showed that no one single value for the fluence could account for the observed s-process
abundances, but that a wide range of fluences is required. The numbers of iron seed nuclei that were exposed to a
given fluence must decrease as the fluence becomes stronger. This work also showed that the curve of the product of
neutron-capture cross section times abundance is not a smoothly falling curve, as B2 FH had sketched, but rather has a
ledge-precipice structure. A series of papers[5][6][7][8][9] in the 1970s by Donald D. Clayton utilizing an exponentially
declining neutron fluence as a function of the number of iron seed exposed became the standard model of the sprocess and remained so until the details of AGB-star nucleosynthesis became advanced enough that they became
a standard model based on the stellar structure models. Important series of measurements of neutron-capture cross
sections were reported from Oak Ridge National Lab in 1965[10] and by Karlsruhe Nuclear Physics Center in 1982[11]
and subsequently. These placed the s-process on the firm quantitative basis that it enjoys today.
203

204

CHAPTER 15. S-PROCESS

B

Big
Bang

C

Cosmic
rays

H
B

Li Be
C

C

Na Mg
L

K
L

Ca Sc Ti V
L

L

L

L

Cs Ba
$

S

Small
stars

$

Supernovae

M

Manmade

He
B

$ L

$ L

B

C

N

O

F

Ne

C

S L

S L

S L

L

S L

Al Si P

S

$ L

S L

$ L

L

Cl Ar
L

L

L

$ L

$

$

L

L

$

$

L

$

Zr Nb Mo Tc Ru Rh Pd Ag Cd In Sn Sb Te
L

L

L

Cr Mn Fe Co Ni Cu Zn Ga Ge As Se Br Kr
$ L

L

$ L

$

$ L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

I

Xe

$

$

Hf Ta W Re Os Ir Pt Au Hg Tl Pb Bi Po At Rn

L

$ L

Fr Ra
$

Large
stars

L

Rb Sr Y
$

L

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

$

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

$

La Ce Pr Nd Pm Sm Eu Gd Tb Dy Ho Er Tm Yb Lu

$

L

L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$ L

$

$

$

$

$

$

$

$ L

$

Ac Th Pa U Np Pu Am Cm Bk Cf Es Fm Md No Lr
$

$

$

$

$

$

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

M

Periodic table showing the cosmogenic origin of each element. The elements heavier than iron with origins in large stars are typically
those produced by the s-process, which is characterized by slow neutron diffusion and capture over long periods in such stars

15.2 The s-process in stars
The s-process is believed to occur mostly in asymptotic giant branch stars. In contrast to the r-process which is
believed to occur over time scales of seconds in explosive environments, the s-process is believed to occur over time
scales of thousands of years, passing decades between neutron captures. The extent to which the s-process moves up
the elements in the chart of isotopes to higher mass numbers is essentially determined by the degree to which the star
in question is able to produce neutrons. The quantitative yield is also proportional to the amount of iron in the star’s
initial abundance distribution. Iron is the “starting material” (or seed) for this neutron capture – beta-minus decay
sequence of synthesizing new elements.
The main neutron source reactions are:

Sb
Sn

114

112

113

In
Cd

Ag

115

110

111

112

116
115

113

114

109

N

117

118

119

In
116

121

123

120

122

Sb
Sn

124

Nuclear reactions
Cd

beta decay (β⁻)
neutron capture

The s-process acting in the range from Ag to Sb.

One distinguishes the main and the weak s-process component. The main component produces heavy elements
beyond Sr and Y, and up to Pb in the lowest metallicity stars. The production sites of the main component are lowmass asymptotic giant branch stars.[12] The main component relies on the 13 C neutron source above.[13] The weak

15.3. THE S-PROCESS MEASURED IN STARDUST

205

component of the s-process, on the other hand, synthesizes s-process isotopes of elements from iron group seed nuclei
to 58 Fe on up to Sr and Y, and takes place at the end of helium- and carbon-burning in massive stars. It employs
primarily the 22 Ne neutron source. These stars will become supernovae at their demise and spew those s isotopes
into interstellar gas.
The s-process is sometimes approximated over a small mass region using the so-called “local approximation”, by
which the ratio of abundances is inversely proportional to the ratio of neutron-capture cross-sections for nearby
isotopes on the s-process path. This approximation is – as the name indicates – only valid locally, meaning for
isotopes of nearby mass numbers, but it is invalid at magic numbers where the ledge-precipice structure dominates.
Because of the relatively low neutron fluxes expected to occur during the s-process (on the order of 105 to 1011
neutrons per cm2 per second), this process does not have the ability to produce any of the heavy radioactive isotopes
such as thorium or uranium. The cycle that terminates the s-process is:
209Bi captures a neutron, producing 210Bi, which decays to 210Po by β- decay. 210Po in turn decays to 206Pb by
α decay:

206Pb then captures three neutrons, producing 209Pb, which decays to 209Bi by β- decay, restarting the cycle:

The net result of this cycle therefore is that 4 neutrons are converted into one alpha particle, two electrons, two
anti-electron neutrinos and gamma radiation:

The process thus terminates in bismuth, the heaviest “stable” element, and polonium, the first non-primordial element
after bismuth. (Bismuth is actually slightly radioactive, but with a half-life so long—a billion times the present age
of the universe—that it is effectively stable over the lifetime of any existing star.)

15.3 The s-process measured in stardust
Stardust is one component of cosmic dust. Stardust is individual solid grains that condensed during mass loss from
various long-dead stars. Stardust existed throughout interstellar gas before the birth of the solar system and was
trapped in meteorites when they assembled from interstellar matter contained in the planetary accretion disk in early
solar system. Today they are found in meteorites, where they have been preserved. Meteoriticists habitually refer to
them as presolar grains. The s-process enriched grains are mostly silicon-carbide (SiC). The origin of these grains
is demonstrated by laboratory measurements of extremely unusual isotopic abundance ratios within the grain. First
experimental detection of s process xenon isotopes was made in 1978,[14] confirming earlier predictions that s process
isotopes would be enriched, nearly pure, in stardust from red giant stars.[15] These discoveries launched new insight
into astrophysics and into the origin of meteorites in our solar system.[16] Silicon-carbide (SiC) grains condense in
the atmospheres of AGB stars and thus trap isotopic abundance ratios as they existed in that star. Because the AGB
stars are the main site of the s-process in the galaxy, the heavy elements in the SiC grains contain almost pure sprocess isotopes in elements heavier than iron. This fact has been demonstrated repeatedly by sputtering-ion mass
spectrometer studies of these stardust presolar grains.[16] Several surprising results have shown that within them the
ratio of s-process and r-process abundances is somewhat different from that which was previously assumed. It has also
been shown with trapped isotopes of krypton and xenon that the s-process abundances in the AGB-star atmospheres
changed with time or from star to star, presumably with the strength of neutron fluence in that star or perhaps the
temperature. This is a frontier of s-process studies today.

15.4 References
[1] E. M. Burbidge, G. R. Burbidge, W. A. Fowler, F. Hoyle (1957). “Synthesis of the Elements in Stars”. Reviews of Modern
Physics 29 (4): 547–650. Bibcode:1957RvMP...29..547B. doi:10.1103/RevModPhys.29.547.

206

CHAPTER 15. S-PROCESS

[2] Hammond, C. R. (2004). The Elements, in Handbook of Chemistry and Physics 81st edition. CRC press. ISBN 0-84930485-7.
[3] Moore, CE (1951). “Technetium in the Sun.”. Science 114 (2951): 59–61. Bibcode:1951Sci...114...59M. doi:10.1126/science.114.2951.59.
PMID 17782983.
[4] D. D. Clayton, W. A. Fowler, T. E. Hull, B. A. Zimmerman (1961). “Neutron capture chains in heavy element synthesis”.
Annals of Physics 12 (3): 331–408. Bibcode:1961AnPhy..12..331C. doi:10.1016/0003-4916(61)90067-7.
[5] Clayton, D. D., and M. E. Rassbach, Termination of the s-process, Astrophys. J. 148, 69–85, (1967)
[6] Donald D. Clayton, Distribution of neutron-source strengths for the s-process, in Nucleosynthesis, W. D. Arnett, C. J.
Hansen, J. W. Truran, and A. G. W. Cameron (eds.), Gordon and Breach (New York 1968) 225–240
[7] Peters, James G., William A. Fowler, and Donald D. Clayton, Weak s-process irradiations, Astrophys. J., 173, 637–648,
(1972)
[8] Clayton, D. D., and M. J. Newman, s-process studies: Exact solution to a chain having two distinct cross section values, Astrophys. J., 192, 501–05 (1974); Donald D. Clayton and R. A. Ward, s-process studies: Exact evaluation of an exponential
distribution of exposures, Astrophys. J., 193, 397–99 (1974)
[9] Ward, R. A., M. J. Newman, and Donald D. Clayton, s-process studies: Branching and the time scale, Astrophys. J.,
Supplement, 31, 33–59 (1976)
[10] R. L. Macklin, J. H. Gibbons (1965). “Neutron Capture Data at Stellar Temperatures”. Reviews of Modern Physics 37 (1):
166–176. Bibcode:1965RvMP...37..166M. doi:10.1103/RevModPhys.37.166.
[11] F. Kaeppeler, H. Beer, K. Wisshak, D. D. Clayton, R. L. Macklin, R. A. Ward (1982). “S process studies in the light of new
experimental cross sections”. Astrophysical Journal 257: 821–846. Bibcode:1982ApJ...257..821K. doi:10.1086/160033.
[12] A. I. Boothroyd (2006). “Heavy elements in stars”. Science 314 (5806): 1690–1691. doi:10.1126/science.1136842. PMID
17170281.
[13] M. Busso, R. Gallino and G. J. Wasserburg, Nucleosynthesis in AGB stars, Ann. Rev. Astron. Astrophys., 37, 239–309
(1999)
[14] B. Srinivasan & E.Anders, Science 201,51
[15] D.D. Clayton &R.A.Ward, Astrophys. J. 224, 1000 (1978)
[16] D. D. Clayton, L. R. Nittler (2004). “Astrophysics with Presolar stardust”. Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics
42 (1): 39–78. Bibcode:2004ARA&A..42...39C. doi:10.1146/annurev.astro.42.053102.134022.

Chapter 16

CNO cycle
4

1

He

1

H

H
C

12

N

15

N

13

O

15

C

13

N

14

1
1

H

H

Proton

Gamma Ray

Neutron

Neutrino

Positron
Overview of the CNO-I Cycle

The CNO cycle (for carbon–nitrogen–oxygen) is one of the two (known) sets of fusion reactions by which stars
convert hydrogen to helium, the other being the proton–proton chain reaction. Unlike the latter, the CNO cycle is a
catalytic cycle. Theoretical models show that the CNO cycle is the dominant source of energy in stars more massive
207

208

CHAPTER 16. CNO CYCLE

than about 1.3 times the mass of the Sun.[1] The proton–proton chain is more important in stars the mass of the
Sun or less. This difference stems from temperature dependency differences between the two reactions; pp-chain
reactions start occurring at temperatures around 4×106 K[2] (4 megakelvins), making it the dominant energy source
in smaller stars. A self-maintaining CNO chain starts occurring at approximately 15 MK, but its energy output rises
much more rapidly with increasing temperatures.[1] At approximately 17 MK, the CNO cycle starts becoming the
dominant source of energy.[3] The Sun has a core temperature of around 15.7 MK, and only 1.7% of 4He nuclei
being produced in the Sun are born in the CNO cycle. The CNO-I process was independently proposed by Carl von
Weizsäcker[4] and Hans Bethe[5] in 1938 and 1939, respectively.
In the CNO cycle, four protons fuse, using carbon, nitrogen and oxygen isotopes as a catalyst, to produce one alpha
particle, two positrons and two electron neutrinos. Although there are various paths and catalysts involved in the CNO
cycles, simply speaking all these cycles have the same net result:
41
1H + 2 e− → 4
2He + 2 e+ + 2 e− + 2 ν
e + 3 γ + 24.7 MeV → 4
2He + 2 ν
e + 3 γ + 26.7 MeV
The positrons will almost instantly annihilate with electrons, releasing energy in the form of gamma rays. The neutrinos escape from the star carrying away some energy. One nucleus goes to become carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen
isotopes through a number of transformations in an endless loop.

16.1 Cold CNO cycles
Under typical conditions found in stellar plasmas, catalytic hydrogen burning by the CNO cycles is limited by proton
captures. Specifically, the timescale for beta decay of radioactive nuclei produced is faster than the timescale for
fusion. Because of the long timescales involved, the cold CNO cycles convert hydrogen to helium slowly, allowing
them to power stars in quiescent equilibrium for many years.

16.1.1

CNO-I

The first proposed catalytic cycle for the conversion of hydrogen into helium was at first simply called the carbon–
nitrogen cycle (CN cycle), also honorarily referred to as the Bethe–Weizsäcker cycle, because it does not involve a
stable isotope of oxygen. Bethe’s original calculations suggested the CN-cycle was the Sun’s primary source of energy,
owing to the belief at the time that the Sun’s composition was 10% nitrogen;[5] the solar abundance of nitrogen is
now known to be less than half a percent. This cycle is now recognized as the first part of the larger CNO nuclear
burning network. The main reactions of the CNO-I cycle are 12
6C→13
7N→13
6C→14
7N→15
8O→15
7N→12
6C:[6]

where the Carbon-12 nucleus used in the first reaction is regenerated in the last reaction. After the two positrons
emitted annihilate with two ambient electrons producing an additional 2.04 MeV, the total energy released in one
cycle is 26.73 MeV; it should be noted that in some texts, authors are erroneously including the positron annihilation
energy in with the beta-decay Q-value and then neglecting the equal amount of energy released by annihilation,
leading to possible confusion. All values are calculated with reference to the Atomic Mass Evaluation 2003.[8]
The limiting (slowest) reaction in the CNO-I cycle is the proton capture on 14
7N. In 2006 it was experimentally measured down to stellar energies, revising the calculated age of globular clusters
by around 1 billion years.[9]

16.1. COLD CNO CYCLES

209

The neutrinos emitted in beta decay will have a spectrum of energy ranges, because although momentum is conserved,
the momentum can be shared in any way between the positron and neutrino, with either being emitted at rest and
the other taking away the full energy, or anything in between, so long as all the energy from the Q-value is used.
All momentum which get the electron and the neutrino together is not great enough to cause a significant recoil of
the much heavier daughter nucleus and hence, its contribution to kinetic energy of the products, for the precision of
values given here, can be neglected. Thus the neutrino emitted during the decay of nitrogen-13 can have an energy
from zero up to 1.20 MeV, and the neutrino emitted during the decay of oxygen-15 can have an energy from zero up
to 1.73 MeV. On average, about 1.7 MeV of the total energy output is taken away by neutrinos for each loop of the
cycle, leaving about 25 MeV available for producing luminosity.[10]

16.1.2

CNO-II

In a minor branch of the reaction, occurring in the Sun’s inner part, the core, just 0.04% of the time, the final reaction
shown above does not produce carbon-12 and an alpha particle, but instead produces oxygen-16 and a photon and
continues 15
7N→16
8O→17
9F→17
8O→14
7N→15
8O→15
7N:

Like the carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen involved in the main branch, the fluorine produced in the minor branch is
merely an intermediate product and at steady state, does not accumulate in the star.

16.1.3

CNO-III

This subdominant branch is significant only for massive stars. The reactions are started when one of the reactions in
CNO-II results in fluorine-18 and gamma instead of nitrogen-14 and alpha, and continues 17
8O→18
9F→18
8O→15
7N→16
8O→17
9F→17
8O:

16.1.4

CNO-IV

Like the CNO-III, this branch is also only significant in massive stars. The reactions are started when one of the
reactions in CNO-III results in fluorine-19 and gamma instead of nitrogen-15 and alpha, and continues 19
9F→16
8O→17
9F→17
8O→18
9F→18
8O→19
9F:

210

CHAPTER 16. CNO CYCLE

A proton reacts with a nucleus causing release of an alpha particle.

16.2 Hot CNO cycles
Under conditions of higher temperature and pressure, such as those found in novae and x-ray bursts, the rate of
proton captures exceeds the rate of beta-decay, pushing the burning to the proton drip line. The essential idea is
that a radioactive species will capture a proton more quickly than it can beta decay, opening new nuclear burning
pathways that are otherwise inaccessible. Because of the higher temperatures involved, these catalytic cycles are
typically referred to as the hot CNO cycles; because the timescales are limited by beta decays instead of proton
captures, they are also called the beta-limited CNO cycles.

16.2.1

HCNO-I

The difference between the CNO-I cycle and the HCNO-I cycle is that 13
7N captures a proton instead of decaying, leading to the total sequence 12
6C→13
7N→14
8O→14
7N→15
8O→15
7N→12
6C:

16.2.2

HCNO-II

The notable difference between the CNO-II cycle and the HCNO-II cycle is that 17
9F captures a proton instead of decaying, and helium is produced in a subsequent reaction on 18
9F, leading to the total sequence 15
7N→16
8O→17
9F→18

16.3. USE IN ASTRONOMY

211

10Ne→18
9F→15
8O→15
7N:

16.2.3

HCNO-III

An alternative to the HCNO-II cycle is that 18
9F captures a proton moving towards higher mass and using the same helium production mechanism as the CNO-IV
cycle as 18
9F→19
10Ne→19
9F→16
8O→17
9F→18
10Ne→18
9F:

16.3 Use in astronomy
While the total number of “catalytic” CNO nuclei are conserved in the cycle, in stellar evolution the relative proportions of the nuclei are altered. When the cycle is run to equilibrium, the ratio of the carbon-12/carbon-13 nuclei
is driven to 3.5, and nitrogen-14 becomes the most numerous nucleus, regardless of initial composition. During
a star’s evolution, convective mixing episodes bring material in which the CNO cycle has operated from the star’s
interior to the surface, altering the observed composition of the star. Red giant stars are observed to have lower
carbon-12/carbon-13 and carbon-12/nitrogen-14 ratios than main sequence stars, which is considered to be convincing evidence for the operation of the CNO cycle.
The presence of the heavier elements carbon, nitrogen and oxygen places an upper bound of approximately 150 solar
masses on the maximum size of massive stars. It is thought that the "metal-poor” early universe could have had stars,
called Population III stars, up to 250 solar masses without interference from the CNO cycle at the beginning of their
lifetime.

16.4 See also
• Stellar nucleosynthesis, the whole topic
• Triple-alpha process, how 12C is produced from lighter nuclei

16.5 References
[1] Salaris, Maurizio; Cassisi, Santi (2005), Evolution of stars and stellar populations, John Wiley and Sons, pp. 119–121,
ISBN 0-470-09220-3
[2] Reid, I. Neill; Suzanne L., Hawley (2005), New light on dark stars: red dwarfs, low-mass stars, brown dwarfs, SpringerPraxis books in astrophysics and astronomy (2nd ed.), Springer, p. 108, ISBN 3-540-25124-3
[3] Schuler, S. C.; King, J. R.; The, L.-S. (2009). “Stellar Nucleosynthesis in the Hyades Open Cluster”. The Astrophysical
Journal 701 (1): 837–849. arXiv:0906.4812. Bibcode:2009ApJ...701..837S. doi:10.1088/0004-637X/701/1/837.
[4] von Weizsäcker, C. F. (1938). "Über Elementumwandlungen in Innern der Sterne II”. Physikalische Zeitschrift 39: 633–46.

212

CHAPTER 16. CNO CYCLE

[5] Bethe, H. A. (1939). “Energy Production in Stars”. Physical Review 55 (5): 434–56. Bibcode:1939PhRv...55..434B.
doi:10.1103/PhysRev.55.434.
[6] Krane, K. S. (1988). Introductory Nuclear Physics. John Wiley & Sons. p. 537. ISBN 0-471-80553-X.
[7] Principles and Perspectives in Cosmochemistry, Springer, 2010, ISBN 9783642103681, page 233
[8] Wapstra, Aaldert; Audi, Georges (18 November 2003). “The 2003 Atomic Mass Evaluation”. Atomic Mass Data Center.
Retrieved 25 October 2011.
[9] LUNA Collaboration; Lemut, A.; Bemmerer, D.; Confortola, F.; Bonetti, R.; Broggini, C.; Corvisiero, P.; Costantini,
H.; Cruz, J.; Formicola, A.; Fülöp, Zs.; Gervino, G. et al. (2006). “First measurement of the 14 N(p,gamma)15 O cross
section down to 70 keV”. Physics Letters B 634: 483–487. arXiv:nucl-ex/0602012. Bibcode:2006PhLB..634..483L.
doi:10.1016/j.physletb.2006.02.021.
[10] Scheffler, Helmut; Elsässer, Hans (1990). Die Physik der Sterne und der Sonne. Bibliographisches Institut (Mannheim,
Wien, Zürich). ISBN 3-411-14172-7.

16.6 Further reading
• Bethe, H. A. (1939). “Energy Production in Stars”. Physical Review 55 (5): 434–56. Bibcode:1939PhRv...55..434B.
doi:10.1103/PhysRev.55.434.
• Iben, I. (1967). “Stellar Evolution Within and off the Main Sequence”. Annual Review of Astronomy and
Astrophysics 5: 571. Bibcode:1967ARA&A...5..571I. doi:10.1146/annurev.aa.05.090167.003035.

Chapter 17

Deuterium burning
Deuterium burning is a nuclear fusion reaction that occurs in stars and some substellar objects, in which a deuterium
nucleus and a proton combine to form a helium-3 nucleus. It occurs as the second stage of the proton–proton chain
reaction, in which a deuterium nucleus formed from two protons fuses with a further proton, but can also proceed
from primordial deuterium.

17.1 In protostars
Deuterium is the most easily fused nucleus available to accreting protostars,[1] and burning in the center of protostars
can proceed when temperatures exceed 106 K.[2] The reaction rate is so sensitive to temperature that the temperature
does not rise very much above this.[2] Deuterium burning drives convection, which carries the heat generated to the
surface.[1]
If there were no deuterium burning, then there should be no stars with masses more than about two or three times
the mass of the Sun in the pre-main-sequence phase because hydrogen burning would occur while the object was
still accreting matter.[2] Deuterium burning prevents this by acting as a thermostat that stops the central temperature
rising above about one million degrees, which is not hot enough for hydrogen burning.[3] Only after energy transport
switches from convective to radiative, forming a radiative barrier around a deuterium exhausted core, does central
deuterium burning stop. Then the central temperature of the protostar can increase.[2][3]
The matter surrounding the radiative zone is still rich in deuterium and burning proceeds in a shell that gradually
moves outwards as the star becomes more and more radiative. The generation of nuclear energy in these low-density
outer regions causes the protostar to swell, delaying the gravitational contraction of the object and postponing its
arrival onto the main sequence.[2] The total energy available by deuterium burning is comparable to that released by
gravitational contraction.[3]
Due to the scarcity of deuterium in the universe, a protostar’s supply of it is limited. After a few million years it will
have effectively been completely consumed.[4]

17.2 In substellar objects
Since hydrogen burning requires much higher temperatures and pressures than deuterium burning does, there are
objects massive enough to burn deuterium but not massive enough to burn hydrogen. These objects are called brown
dwarfs, and have masses between about 13 and 80 times the mass of Jupiter.[5] Brown dwarfs may shine for a hundred
million years at most before their deuterium supply is burned out.[6]

17.3 Other reactions
Though fusion with a proton is the dominant method of consuming deuterium, other reactions are possible. These
include fusion with another deuterium nucleus to form helium-3, tritium, or (more rarely) helium-4, or with helium
213

214

CHAPTER 17. DEUTERIUM BURNING

to form various isotopes of lithium.[7]

17.4 References
[1] Adams, Fred C. (1996). Zuckerman, Ben; Malkan, Mathew, eds. The Origin and Evolution of the Universe. United
Kingdom: Jones & Bartlett. p. 47.
[2] Palla, Francesco; Zinnecker, Hans (2002). Physics of Star Formation in Galaxies. Springer-Verlag. pp. 21–22, 24–25.
ISBN 3-540-43102-0.
[3] Bally, John; Reipurth, Bo (2006). The birth of stars and planets. Cambridge University Press. p. 61.
[4] Adams, Fred (2002). Origins of existence: how life emerged in the universe. The Free Press. p. 102. ISBN 0-7432-1262-2.
[5] LeBlanc, Francis (2010). An Introduction to Stellar Astrophysics. United Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons. p. 218. ISBN
978-0-470-69956-0.
[6] Lewis, John S. (2004). Physics and chemistry of the solar system. United Kingdom: Elsevier Academic Press. p. 600.
ISBN 0-12-446744-X.
[7] Rolfs, Claus E.; Rodney, William S. (1988). Cauldrons in the cosmos: nuclear astrophysics. University of Chicago Press.
p. 338. ISBN 0-226-72456-5.

Chapter 18

Lithium burning
For combustion of lithium, see combustion.
Lithium is generally present in brown dwarfs and not in low-mass stars. Stars, which by definition must achieve
the high temperature (2.5 × 106 K) necessary for fusing hydrogen, rapidly deplete their lithium. This occurs by a
collision of lithium-7 and a proton producing two helium-4 nuclei. The temperature necessary for this reaction is just
below the temperature necessary for hydrogen fusion. Convection in low-mass stars ensures that lithium in the whole
volume of the star is depleted. Therefore, the presence of the lithium line in a candidate brown dwarf’s spectrum is
a strong indicator that it is indeed substellar.
From a study of lithium abundances in 53 T Tauri stars, it has been found that lithium depletion varies strongly with
size, suggesting that lithium burning by the P-P chain, during the last highly convective and unstable stages during the
pre–main sequence later phase of the Hayashi contraction may be one of the main sources of energy for T Tauri stars.
Rapid rotation tends to improve mixing and increase the transport of lithium into deeper layers where it is destroyed.
T Tauri stars generally increase their rotation rates as they age, through contraction and spin-up, as they conserve
angular momentum. This causes an increased rate of lithium loss with age. Lithium burning will also increase with
higher temperatures and mass, and will last for at most a little over 100 million years.
The P-P chain for lithium burning is as follows

It will not occur in stars less than sixty times the mass of Jupiter. In this way, the rate of lithium depletion can be
used to calculate the age of the star.
The use of lithium to distinguish candidate brown dwarfs from low-mass stars is commonly referred to as the lithium
test, and was pioneered by Rafael Rebolo and colleagues. Heavier stars like our sun can retain lithium in their outer
atmospheres, which never get hot enough for lithium depletion, but those are distinguishable from brown dwarfs by
their size. Brown dwarfs at the high end of their mass range can be hot enough to deplete their lithium when they
are young. Dwarfs of mass greater than 65 MJ can burn off their lithium by the time they are half a billion years
old[Kulkarni] , thus this test is not perfect.

215

Chapter 19

Proton–proton chain reaction
The proton–proton chain reaction is one of several fusion reactions by which stars convert hydrogen to helium, the
primary alternative being the CNO cycle. The proton–proton chain dominates in stars the size of the Sun or smaller.
In general, proton–proton fusion can occur only if the temperature (i.e. kinetic energy) of the protons is high enough
to overcome their mutual electrostatic or Coulomb repulsion.[1]
In the Sun, deuterium-producing events are so rare (diprotons, the much more common result of nuclear reactions
within the star, immediately decay back into two protons) that a complete conversion of the star’s hydrogen would
take more than 1010 (ten billion) years at the prevailing conditions of its core.[2] The fact that the Sun is still shining
is due to the slow nature of this reaction; if it went more quickly, the Sun would have exhausted its hydrogen long
ago.

19.1 History of the theory
The theory that proton–proton reactions were the basic principle by which the Sun and other stars burn was advocated
by Arthur Stanley Eddington in the 1920s. At the time, the temperature of the Sun was considered too low to
overcome the Coulomb barrier. After the development of quantum mechanics, it was discovered that tunneling
of the wavefunctions of the protons through the repulsive barrier allows for fusion at a lower temperature than the
classical prediction.
Even so, it was unclear how proton–proton fusion might proceed, because the most obvious product, helium-2
(diproton), is unstable and immediately dissociates back into a pair of protons. In 1939, Hans Bethe proposed
that one of the protons could beta decay into a neutron via the weak interaction during the brief moment of fusion,
making deuterium the initial product in the chain.[3] This idea was part of the body of work in stellar nucleosynthesis
for which Bethe won the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physics.

19.2 The proton–proton chain reaction
The first step involves the fusion of two 1H nuclei (protons) into deuterium, releasing a positron and a neutrino as one
proton changes into a neutron. It is a two-stage process; first, two protons fuse to form a diproton:

followed by the beta-plus decay of the diproton to deuterium:

with the overall formula:

216

19.2. THE PROTON–PROTON CHAIN REACTION

1

1

H

217

1

H

1

H

ν
2

ν
1

H

H

1

2

H

γ

H

γ
3

1

γ
ν

H

He

3

He

1

H

H
Proton

Gamma Ray

Neutrino

4

He

Neutron
Positron

The proton–proton chain reaction dominates in stars the size of the Sun or smaller.

This first step is extremely slow, because the beta-plus decay of the diproton to deuterium is extremely rare (the vast
majority of the time, it decays back into hydrogen-1 through proton emission).

218

CHAPTER 19. PROTON–PROTON CHAIN REACTION

The positron immediately annihilates with an electron, and their mass energy, as well as their kinetic energy, is carried
off by two gamma ray photons.

After this, the deuterium produced in the first stage can fuse with another proton to produce a light isotope of helium,
3He:

From here there are four possible paths to generate the helium isotope 4He. In pp I helium-4 comes from fusing two
of the helium-3 nuclei produced; the pp II and pp III branches fuse 3He with a pre-existing 4He to make beryllium.
In the Sun, branch pp I takes place with a frequency of 86%, pp II with 14% and pp III with 0.11%. There is also an
extremely rare pp IV branch. Additionally, other even less frequent reactions may occur; however, the rate of these
reactions is very low due to very small cross-sections, or because the number of reacting particles is so low that any
reactions that might happen are statistically insignificant. This is partly why no mass-5 or mass-8 elements are seen.
The reactions that would produce them, such as a proton + helium-4 producing lithium-5, or two helium-4 nuclei
coming together to form beryllium-8, while they may actually happen, do not show up because there are no stable
isotopes of mass 5 or 8; the resulting products immediately decay into their initial reactants.

19.2.1

The pp I branch

The complete pp I chain reaction releases a net energy of 26.22 MeV[4] The pp I branch is dominant at temperatures
of 10 to 14 MK. Below 10 MK, the PP chain does not produce much 4He.

19.2.2

The pp II branch

See also: lithium burning

The pp II branch is dominant at temperatures of 14 to 23 MK.
90% of the neutrinos produced in the reaction 7Be(e−,ν
e)7Li* carry an energy of 0.861 MeV, while the remaining 10% carry 0.383 MeV (depending on whether lithium-7
is in the ground state or an excited state, respectively).

19.2.3

The pp III branch

The pp III chain is dominant if the temperature exceeds 23 MK.
The pp III chain is not a major source of energy in the Sun (only 0.11%), but was very important in the solar neutrino
problem because it generates very high energy neutrinos (up to 14.06 MeV).

19.2.4

The pp IV (Hep) branch

This reaction is predicted but has never been observed due to its great rarity (about 0.3 ppm in the Sun). In this
reaction, Helium-3 reacts directly with a proton to give helium-4, with an even higher possible neutrino energy (up
to 18.8 MeV).

19.2. THE PROTON–PROTON CHAIN REACTION

219

γ
ν
ν

Gamma Ray

Proton

Neutrino

Neutron

Hydrogen-1

Positron

Hydrogen-2

Helium-4

Beryllium-7
Lithium-7

Helium-3

γ

γ
ν

Proton–proton II chain reaction

19.2.5

Energy release

Comparing the mass of the final helium-4 atom with the masses of the four protons reveals that 0.007 or 0.7% of the
mass of the original protons has been lost. This mass has been converted into energy, in the form of gamma rays and
neutrinos released during each of the individual reactions. The total energy yield of one whole chain is 26.73 MeV.
Energy released as gamma rays will interact with electrons and protons and heat the interior of the Sun. Also kinetic
energy of fusion products (e.g. of two protons and He4 from pp-I reaction) increases the temperature of plasma in
the Sun. This heating supports the Sun and prevents it from collapsing under its own weight.
Neutrinos do not interact significantly with matter and do not help support the Sun against gravitational collapse.
The neutrinos in the ppI, ppII and ppIII chains carry away 2.0%, 4.0%, and 28.3% of the energy in those reactions,
respectively.[5]

220

CHAPTER 19. PROTON–PROTON CHAIN REACTION

Proton–proton III chain reaction

19.3 The pep reaction
Deuterium can also be produced by the rare pep (proton–electron–proton) reaction (electron capture):

19.4. SEE ALSO

221

pp

pep

p⁺ + p⁺ → ²H + e⁺ + νe

99,77 %

0,23 %

p⁺ + e⁻ + p⁺ → ²H + νe

10⁻⁵ %
84,92 %

²H + p⁺ → ³He + γ

³He + p⁺ → ⁴He + e⁺ + νe
hep

15,08 %

³He + ⁴He → ⁷Be + γ
⁷Be

0,1 %

99,9 %

⁷Be + e⁻ → ⁷Li + νe

⁷Be + p⁺ → ⁸B + γ
⁸B

³He + ³He → ⁴He + 2p⁺

⁷Li + p⁺ → ⁴He + ⁴He

ppI

⁸B → ⁸Be* + e⁺ + νe

ppII

⁸Be* → ⁴He + ⁴He
ppIII
Proton–proton and electron-capture chain reactions in a star.

In the Sun, the frequency ratio of the pep reaction versus the pp reaction is 1:400. However, the neutrinos released by
the pep reaction are far more energetic: while neutrinos produced in the first step of the pp reaction range in energy
up to 0.42 MeV, the pep reaction produces sharp-energy-line neutrinos of 1.44 MeV. Detection of solar neutrinos
from this reaction were reported by the Borexino collaboration in 2012.[6]
Both the pep and pp reactions can be seen as two different Feynman representations of the same basic interaction,
where the electron passes to the right side of the reaction as an anti-electron. This is represented in the figure of
proton–proton and electron-capture chain reactions in a star, available at the NDM'06 web site.[7]

19.4 See also
• Triple-alpha process
• CNO cycle

19.5 References
[1] Ishfaq Ahmad, The Nucleus, 1:42,59, (1971), The Proton type-nuclear fission reaction
[2] Kenneth S. Krane, Introductory Nuclear Physics , Wiley , 1987, p. 537.
[3] Hans A. Bethe, Physical Review 55:103, 434 (1939); cited in Donald D. Clayton, Principles of Stellar Evolution and Nucleosynthesis, The University of Chicago Press, 1983, p. 366.
[4] Burbidge, E.; Burbidge, G.; Fowler, William; Hoyle, F. (1 October 1957). “Synthesis of the Elements in Stars”. Reviews
of Modern Physics 29 (4): 547–650. Bibcode:1957RvMP...29..547B. doi:10.1103/RevModPhys.29.547.
[5] Claus E. Rolfs and William S. Rodney, Cauldrons in the Cosmos, The University of Chicago Press, 1988, p. 354.
[6] “First Evidence of pep Solar Neutrinos by Direct Detection in Borexino” (preprint on arXiv): Phys. Rev. Lett. 108, (5),
051302 (2012)

222

CHAPTER 19. PROTON–PROTON CHAIN REACTION

[7] Int'l Conference on Neutrino and Dark Matter, Thursday 07 Sept 2006, http://indico.lal.in2p3.fr/getFile.py/access?contribId=
s16t1&sessionId=s16&resId=1&materialId=0&confId=a05162 Session 14.

Chapter 20

Alpha process
The alpha process, also known as the alpha ladder, is one of two classes of nuclear fusion reactions by which stars
convert helium into heavier elements, the other being the triple-alpha process.[1] While the triple-alpha process only
requires helium, once some carbon is present, other reactions that consume helium are possible:
12
6 C

+ 42 He → 16
8 O + γ + Q , Q = 7.16 МeV

16
8 O

+ 42 He → 20
10 Ne + γ + Q , Q = 4.73 МeV

20
10 Ne

+ 42 He → 24
12 Mg + γ + Q , Q = 9.31 МeV

24
12 Mg

+ 42 He → 28
14 Si + γ + Q , Q = 9.98 МeV

28
14 Si
32
16 S

+ 42 He → 32
16 S + γ + Q , Q = 6.95 МeV

+ 42 He → 36
18 Ar + γ

36
18 Ar

+ 42 He → 40
20 Ca + γ

40
20 Ca

+ 42 He → 44
22 Ti + γ

44
22 Ti

+ 42 He → 48
24 Cr + γ

48
24 Cr

+ 42 He → 52
26 Fe + γ

52
26 Fe

+ 42 He → 56
28 Ni + γ

56
28 Ni

+ 42 He + γ → 60
30 Zn

All these reactions have a very low rate and therefore do not contribute significantly to the energy production in stars;
with elements heavier than neon (atomic number > 10), they occur even less easily due to the increasing Coulomb
barrier.
Alpha process elements (or alpha elements) are so-called since their most abundant isotopes are integer multiples
of four, the mass of the helium nucleus (the alpha particle). Alpha elements are Z ≤ 22: (C, N), O, Ne, Mg, Si, S, Ar,
Ca, Ti. They are synthesized by alpha capture prior to the silicon fusing process, a precursor to Type II supernovae.
Silicon and calcium are purely alpha process elements. Magnesium can be burned by proton capture reactions. As
for oxygen, some authors consider it an alpha element, while others do not. Oxygen is surely an alpha element in
low-metallicity population II stars. It is produced in Type II supernovae and its enhancement is well correlated with an
enhancement of other alpha process elements. Sometimes carbon and nitrogen are considered alpha process elements,
since they are synthesized in nuclear alpha-capture reactions.
The abundance of alpha elements in stars is usually expressed in a logarithmic manner:
(
[α/F e] = log10


NF e

(

)
− log10
Star


NF e

)
Sun

223

224

CHAPTER 20. ALPHA PROCESS

Here Nα and NF e are the number of alpha elements and iron nuclei per unit volume. Theoretical galactic evolution
models predict that early in the universe there were more alpha elements relative to iron. Type II supernovae mainly
synthesize oxygen and the alpha-elements (Ne, Mg, Si, S, Ar, Ca and Ti) while Type Ia supernovae produce elements
of the iron peak (V, Cr, Mn, Fe, Co and Ni).

20.1 References
[1] Narlikar, Jayant V (1995). From Black Clouds to Black Holes. World Scientific. ISBN 9810220332.

20.2 External links
• The Age, Metallicity and Alpha-Element Abundance of Galactic Globular Clusters from Single Stellar Population Models

Chapter 21

Triple-alpha process
“Helium burning” redirects here. It is not to be confused with alpha process.
The triple-alpha process is a set of nuclear fusion reactions by which three helium-4 nuclei (alpha particles) are

Overview of the triple-alpha process.

transformed into carbon.[1][2]
Older stars start to accumulate helium produced by the proton–proton chain reaction and the carbon–nitrogen–oxygen
cycle in their cores. The products of further nuclear fusion reactions of helium with hydrogen or another helium
nucleus produce lithium-5 and beryllium-8 respectively, both of which are highly unstable and decay almost instantly
back into smaller nuclei.[3] When the star starts to run out of hydrogen to fuse, the core of the star begins to collapse
until the central temperature rises to 108 K (8.6 keV). At this point helium nuclei are fusing together faster than their
product, beryllium-8, decays back into two helium nuclei.
Once beryllium-8 is produced a little faster than it decays, the number of beryllium-8 nuclei in the stellar core increases
to a large number. Then in its core there will be many beryllium-8 nuclei that can fuse with another helium nucleus
to form carbon-12, which is stable:

225

226

CHAPTER 21. TRIPLE-ALPHA PROCESS

The net energy release of the process is 1.166 pJ.
Because the triple-alpha process is unlikely, it needs a long time to produce much carbon. One consequence of this
is that no significant amount of carbon was produced in the Big Bang because within minutes after the Big Bang, the
temperature fell below that necessary for nuclear fusion.
Ordinarily, the probability of the triple alpha process is extremely small. However, the beryllium-8 ground state
has almost exactly the energy of two alpha particles. In the second step, 8 Be + 4 He has almost exactly the energy
of an excited state of 12 C. These resonances greatly increase the probability that an incoming alpha particle will
combine with beryllium-8 to form carbon. The existence of this resonance was predicted by Fred Hoyle before its
actual observation, based on the physical necessity for it to exist, in order for carbon to be formed in stars. In turn,
prediction and then discovery of this energy resonance and process gave very significant support to Hoyle’s hypothesis
of stellar nucleosynthesis, which posited that all chemical elements had originally been formed from hydrogen, the
true primordial substance.
As a side effect of the process, some carbon nuclei can fuse with additional helium to produce a stable isotope of
oxygen and release energy:

12
6C + 4
2He → 16
8O + γ (+7.162 MeV)

See alpha process for more details about this reaction and further steps in the chain of stellar nucleosynthesis.
This creates a situation in which stellar nucleosynthesis produces large amounts of carbon and oxygen but only a small
fraction of these elements is converted into neon and heavier elements. Both oxygen and carbon make up the 'ash' of
helium-4 burning. The anthropic principle has been controversially cited to explain the fact that nuclear resonances
are sensitively arranged to create large amounts of carbon and oxygen in the Universe.
Fusion processes produce nuclides only up to nickel-56 (which decays later to iron); heavier elements (those beyond
Ni) are created mainly by neutron capture. The slow capture of neutrons, the s-process, produces about half of these
heavy elements. The other half are produced by rapid neutron capture, the r-process, which probably occurs in a
core-collapse supernova.

21.1 Reaction rate and stellar evolution
The triple-alpha steps are strongly dependent on the temperature and density of the stellar material. The power
released by the reaction is approximately proportional to the temperature to the 40th power, and the density squared.[4]
Contrast this to the PP chain which produces energy at a rate proportional to the fourth power of temperature and
directly with density.
This strong temperature dependence has consequences for the late stage of stellar evolution, the red giant stage.
For lower mass stars, the helium accumulating in the core is prevented from further collapse only by electron degeneracy pressure. The pressure in the core is thus nearly independent of temperature. A consequence of this is that once
a smaller star begins burning using the triple-alpha process, the core does not expand and cool in response; the temperature can only increase, which results in the reaction rate increasing further still and becoming a runaway reaction.
This process, known as the helium flash, lasts a matter of seconds but burns 60–80% of the helium in the core. The
core flash allows the star’s energy production to reach approximately 1011 solar luminosities which is comparable to
the luminosity of a whole galaxy,[5] although no effects will be immediately observed in electromagnetic radiation.
For higher mass stars, the helium burning occurs in a shell surrounding a degenerate carbon core. Since the helium
shell is not degenerate, the increased thermal pressure due to energy released by helium burning causes the star to
expand. The expansion cools the helium layer and shuts off the reaction, and the star contracts again. This cyclical
process causes the star to become strongly variable, and results in it blowing off material from its outer layers.

21.2. DISCOVERY

227

21.2 Discovery
The triple alpha process is highly dependent on carbon-12 and beryllium-8 having resonances with the same energy as
helium-4, and before 1952, no such energy levels were known. The astrophysicist Fred Hoyle used the fact that carbon12 is abundant in the universe as evidence for the existence of a carbon-12 resonance. This could be considered to
be an example of the application of the anthropic principle: we are here, and we are made of carbon, thus the carbon
must have been produced somehow. The only physically conceivable way is through a triple alpha process that requires
the existence of a resonance in a given very specific location in the spectra of carbon-12 nuclei.
Hoyle went boldly into nuclear physicist William Alfred Fowler's lab at Caltech and said that there had to be a
resonance of 7.69 MeV in the carbon-12 nucleus, and that all of the physicists in the world had missed it. Fred
Hoyle’s audacity in doing this is remarkable, and initially all the nuclear physicists in the lab were skeptical to say the
least. But he was persistent and kept coming back to the lab and talked to every assistant and associate individually.
Finally, a junior physicist, Ward Whaling, fresh from Rice University, who was looking for a project started believing
Hoyle, and decided to look for the resonance. Fowler gave Ward permission to use an old Van de Graaff generator
that no one else was using, and everyone joined in with suggestions for Ward. The experiment took 6 months, and
Hoyle was back in Cambridge when his outrageous prediction was verified. They put Hoyle as first author on a
paper delivered by Ward Whaling at the Summer meeting of the American Physical Society. A long and fruitful
collaboration between Hoyle and Fowler soon followed, with Fowler even coming to Cambridge.[6] By 1952, Fowler
had discovered the beryllium-8 resonance, and Edwin Salpeter calculated the reaction rate taking this resonance into
account.[7][8]
This helped to explain the rate of the process, but the rate calculated by Salpeter was still somewhat too low. A
few years later, after a project by his research group at the Kellogg Radiation Laboratory at the California Institute of
Technology, Fowler discovered a carbon-12 resonance near 7.65 MeV. This eliminated the final discrepancy between
the nuclear theory and the theory of stellar evolution.
The final reaction product lies in a 0+ state. Since the Hoyle State was predicted to be either a 0+ or a 2+ state,
electron–positron pairs or gamma rays were expected to be seen. However, when experiments were carried out, the
gamma emission reaction channel was not observed, and this meant the state must be a 0+ state. This state completely
suppresses single gamma emission, since single gamma emission must carry away at least 1 unit of angular momentum.
Pair production from an excited 0+ state is possible because their combined spins (0) can couple to a reaction that
has a change in angular momentum of 0.[9]

21.3 Improbability and fine-tuning
Main article: Fine-tuned universe
Carbon is a vital component of human biology.
to three factors:

12

C, a stable isotope of carbon, is abundantly produced in stars due

1. The decay lifetime of a 8 Be nucleus is four orders of magnitude larger than the time for two 4 He nuclei (alpha
particles) to scatter.[10]
2. An excited state of the 12 C nucleus exists just above the energy level 8 Be + 4 He. This is necessary because the
ground state of 12 C is 7.3367 MeV below the energy of 8 Be + 4 He. Therefore a 8 Be nucleus and a 4 He nucleus
cannot reasonably fuse directly into a ground-state 12 C nucleus. The excited Hoyle state of 12 C is 7.656 MeV
above the ground state of 12 C. This allows 8 Be and 4 He to use the kinetic energy of their collision to fuse into
the excited 12 C, which can then transition to its stable ground state. According to one calculation, the energy
level of this excited state must be between about 7.3 and 7.9 MeV to produce sufficient carbon for life to exist,
and must be further “fine-tuned” to between 7.596 MeV and 7.716 MeV in order to produce the abundant level
of 12 C observed in nature.[11]
3. Conversion of 12 C + 4 He to 16 O is much more difficult than the production of carbon; no resonance exists for
this reaction. Were this not true, insufficient carbon would exist in nature; it would almost all have converted
to oxygen.[10]
The 7.656 MeV Hoyle resonance, in particular, has been cited by physicists arguing for the existence of a multiverse
where different regions of a vast multiverse have different fundamental constants. According to this controversial

228

CHAPTER 21. TRIPLE-ALPHA PROCESS

fine-tuning hypothesis, life can only evolve in rare patches of the multiverse where the fundamental constants are
fine-tuned to support the existence of life.

21.4 References
[1] Appenzeller, Harwit, Kippenhahn, Strittmatter, & Trimble, ed. (1998). Astrophysics Library (3rd ed.). New York:
Springer. ISBN.
[2] Ostlie, D.A. & Carroll, B.W. (2007). An Introduction to Modern Stellar Astrophysics. Addison Wesley, San Francisco.
ISBN 0-8053-0348-0.
[3] G. Audia,§, O. Bersillonb, J. Blachotb and A.H. Wapstrac, http://www.nndc.bnl.gov/amdc/nubase/Nubase2003.pdf/ The
NUBASE evaluation of nuclear and decay properties, (2001)
[4] Carroll, Bradley W.; Ostlie, Dale A. (2006). An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics (2nd ed.). Addison-Wesley, San
Francisco. pp. 312–313. ISBN 0-8053-0402-9.
[5] Carroll, Bradley W.; Ostlie, Dale A. (2006). An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics (2nd ed.). Addison-Wesley, San
Francisco. pp. 461–462. ISBN 0-8053-0402-9.
[6] Fred Hoyle, A Life in Science, Simon Mitton, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pages 205 - 209.
[7] Salpeter, E. E. (1952). “Nuclear Reactions in Stars Without Hydrogen”. The Astrophysical Journal 115: 326–328.
Bibcode:1952ApJ...115..326S. doi:10.1086/145546.
[8] Salpeter, E. E. (2002). “A GENERALIST LOOKS BACK”. Annu. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 40: 1–25. Bibcode:2002ARA&A..40....1S.
doi:10.1146/annurev.astro.40.060401.093901.
[9] Cook, CW; Fowler, W.; Lauritsen, C.; Lauritsen, T. (1957). “12B, 12C, and the Red Giants”. Physical Review 107 (2):
508–515. Bibcode:1957PhRv..107..508C. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.107.508.
[10] Uzan, Jean-Philippe (April 2003). “The fundamental constants and their variation: observational and theoretical status”.
Reviews of Modern Physics 75 (2): 403–455. doi:10.1103/RevModPhys.75.403.
[11] Livio, M.; Hollowell, D.; Weiss, A.; Truran, J. W. (27 July 1989). “The anthropic significance of the existence of an excited
state of 12C”. Nature 340 (6231): 281–284. doi:10.1038/340281a0.

Chapter 22

Carbon-burning process
“Carbon burning” redirects here. For combustion of carbon containing compounds, see combustion.
The carbon-burning process or carbon fusion is a set of nuclear fusion reactions that take place in massive stars
(at least 8 M⊙ at birth) that have used up the lighter elements in their cores. It requires high temperatures (> 5×108
K or 50 keV) and densities (> 3×109 kg/m3 ).[1]
These figures for temperature and density are only a guide. More massive stars burn their nuclear fuel more quickly,
since they have to offset greater gravitational forces to stay in (approximate) hydrostatic equilibrium. That generally means higher temperatures, although lower densities, than for less massive stars.[2] To get the right figures for a
particular mass, and a particular stage of evolution, it is necessary to use a numerical stellar model computed with
computer algorithms.[3] Such models are continually being refined based on particle physics experiments (which measure nuclear reaction rates) and astronomical observations (which include direct observation of mass loss, detection
of nuclear products from spectrum observations after convection zones develop from the surface to fusion-burning
regions – known as 'dredge-up' events – and so bring nuclear products to the surface, and many other observations
relevant to models).[4]

22.1 Fusion reactions
The principal reactions are:[5]

22.2 Reaction products
This sequence of reactions can be understood by thinking of the two interacting carbon nuclei as coming together to
form an excited state of the Mg-24 nucleus, which then decays in one of the five ways listed above.[6] The first two
reactions are strongly exothermic, as indicated by the large positive energies released, and are the most frequent results
of the interaction. The third reaction is strongly endothermic, as indicated by the large negative energy indicating
that energy is absorbed rather than emitted. This makes it much less likely, yet still possible in the high-energy
environment of carbon burning.[5] But the production of a few neutrons by this reaction is important, since these
neutrons can combine with heavy nuclei, present in tiny amounts in most stars, to form even heavier isotopes in the
s-process.[7]
The fourth reaction might be expected to be the most common from its large energy release, but in fact it is extremely
improbable because it proceeds via the electromagnetic interaction,[5] as it produces a gamma ray photon, rather than
utilising the strong force between nucleons as do the first two reactions. Nucleons look a lot bigger to each other than
they do to photons of this energy. However, the Mg-24 produced in this reaction is the only magnesium left in the
core when the carbon-burning process ends, as Mg-23 is radioactive.
The last reaction is also very unlikely since it involves three reaction products,[5] as well as being endothermic—think
229

230

CHAPTER 22. CARBON-BURNING PROCESS

of the reaction proceeding in reverse, it would require the three products all to converge at the same time, which is
less likely than two-body interactions.
The protons produced by the second reaction can take part in the proton-proton chain reaction, or the CNO cycle, but
they can also be captured by Na-23 to form Ne-20 plus a He-4 nucleus.[5] In fact, a significant fraction of the Na-23
produced by the second reaction gets used up this way.[6] The oxygen (O-16) already produced by helium fusion in
the previous stage of stellar evolution manages to survive the carbon-burning process pretty well, despite some of
it being used up by capturing He-4 nuclei, in stars between 9 and 11 solar masses.[1][8] So the end result of carbon
burning is a mixture mainly of oxygen, neon, sodium and magnesium.[3][5]
The fact that the mass-energy sum of the two carbon nuclei is similar to that of an excited state of the magnesium nucleus is known as 'resonance'. Without this resonance, carbon burning would only occur at temperatures one hundred
times higher. The experimental and theoretical investigation of such resonances is still a subject of research.[9] A
similar resonance increases the probability of the triple-alpha process, which is responsible for the original production
of carbon.

22.3 Neutrino losses
Neutrino losses start to become a major factor in the fusion processes in stars at the temperatures and densities of
carbon burning. Though the main reactions don't involve neutrinos, the side reactions such as the proton-proton chain
reaction do. But the main source of neutrinos at these high temperatures involves a process in quantum theory known
as pair production. A high energy gamma ray which has a greater energy than the rest mass of two electrons (massenergy equivalence) can interact with electromagnetic fields of the atomic nuclei in the star, and become a particle
and anti-particle pair of an electron and positron.
Normally, the positron quickly annihilates with another electron, producing two photons, and this process can be
safely ignored at lower temperatures. But around 1 in 1019 pair productions[2] end with a weak interaction of the
electron and positron, which replaces them with a neutrino and anti-neutrino pair. Since they move at virtually the
speed of light and interact very weakly with matter, these neutrino particles usually escape the star without interacting,
carrying away their mass-energy. This energy loss is comparable to the energy output from the carbon fusion.
Neutrino losses, by this and similar processes, play an increasingly important part in the evolution of the most massive
stars. They force the star to burn its fuel at a higher temperature to offset them.[2] Fusion processes are very sensitive
to temperature so the star can produce more energy to retain hydrostatic equilibrium, at the cost of burning through
successive nuclear fuels ever more rapidly. Fusion produces less energy per unit mass as the fuel nuclei get heavier,
and the core of the star contracts and heats up when switching from one fuel to the next, so both these processes also
significantly reduce the lifetime of each successive fusion-burning fuel.
Up to helium burning, the neutrino losses are negligible, but from carbon burning the reduction in lifetime due to
them roughly matches that due to fuel change and core contraction. In successive fuel changes in the most massive
stars, the reduction in lifetime is dominated by the neutrino losses. For example, a star of 25 solar masses burns
hydrogen in the core for 107 years, helium for 106 years and carbon for only 103 years.[10]

22.4 Stellar evolution
Main article: Stellar evolution
During helium fusion, stars build up an inert core rich in carbon and oxygen. The inert core eventually reaches
sufficient mass to collapse due to gravitation, whilst the helium burning moves gradually outward. This decrease
in the inert core volume raises the temperature to the carbon ignition temperature. This will raise the temperature
around the core and allow helium to burn in a shell around the core.[11] Outside this is another shell burning hydrogen.
The resulting carbon burning provides energy from the core to restore the star’s mechanical equilibrium. However,
the balance is only short-lived; in a star of 25 solar masses, the process will use up most of the carbon in the core in
only 600 years. The duration of this process varies significantly depending on the mass of the star.[12]
Stars with below 8–9 Solar masses never reach high enough core temperature to burn carbon, instead ending their lives
as carbon-oxygen white dwarfs after shell helium flashes gently expel the outer envelope in a planetary nebula.[3][13]
In the late stages of carbon burning, stars with masses between 8 and 11 solar masses develop a massive stellar wind,

22.5. SEE ALSO

231

which quickly ejects the outer envelope in a planetary nebula leaving behind an O-Ne-Na-Mg white dwarf core of
about 1.1 solar masses.[3] The core never reaches high enough temperature for further fusion burning of heavier
elements than carbon.[13]
Stars with more than 11 solar masses proceed with the neon-burning process after contraction of the inert (O, Ne,
Na, Mg) core raises the temperature sufficiently.[13]

22.5 See also
• Proton–proton chain reaction
• CNO process
• Triple alpha process
• Alpha process
• Carbon detonation
• Neon burning

22.6 References
[1] Ryan, Sean G.; Norton, Andrew J. (2010). Stellar Evolution and Nucleosynthesis. Cambridge University Press. p. 135.
ISBN 978-0-521-13320-3.
[2] Clayton, Donald (1983). Principles of Stellar Evolution and Nucleosynthesis. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0226-10953-4.
[3] Siess L. (2007). “Evolution of massive AGB stars. I. Carbon burning phase”. Astronomy and Astrophysics 476 (2): 893–
909. Bibcode:2006A&A...448..717S. doi:10.1051/0004-6361:20053043.
[4] Hernandez, G. et al (Dec 2006). “Rubidium-Rich Asymptotic Giant Branch Stars”. Science 314 (5806): 1751–1754.
arXiv:astro-ph/0611319. Bibcode:2006Sci...314.1751G. doi:10.1126/science.1133706. PMID 17095658.
[5] Camiel, W. H.; de Loore; C. Doom (1992). “Structure and evolution of single and binary stars”. In Camiel W. H. de
Loore. Volume 179 of Astrophysics and space science library. Springer. pp. 95–97. ISBN 978-0-7923-1768-5.
[6] Rose,, William K. (1998). Advanced Stellar Astrophysics. Cambridge University Press. pp. 227–229. ISBN 978-0-52158833-1.
[7] Rose (1998), pp. 229–234
[8] Camiel (1992), pp.97–98
[9] Strandberg, E. et al (May 2008). “Mg24(α,γ)Si28 resonance parameters at low α-particle energies”. Physical Review C 77
(5): 055801–+. Bibcode:2008PhRvC..77e5801S. doi:10.1103/PhysRevC.77.055801.
[10] Woosley, S.; Janka, H.-T. (2006-01-12). “The Physics of Core-Collapse Supernovae”. Nature Physics 1 (3): 147–154.
arXiv:astro-ph/0601261. Bibcode:2005NatPh...1..147W. doi:10.1038/nphys172.
[11] Ostlie, Dale A. and Carrol, Bradley W., An introduction to Modern Stellar Astrophysics, Addison-Wesley (2007)
[12] Anderson, Scott R., Open Course: Astronomy: Lecture 19: Death of High-Mass Stars, GEM (2001)
[13] Ryan (2010), pp.147–148

Chapter 23

Neon-burning process
The neon-burning process is a set of nuclear fusion reactions that take place in massive stars (at least 8 Solar masses).
Neon burning requires high temperatures and densities (around 1.2×109 K or 100 KeV and 4×109 kg/m3 ).
At such high temperatures photodisintegration becomes a significant effect, so some neon nuclei decompose, releasing
alpha particles:[1]

Alternatively:

where the neutron consumed in the first step is regenerated in the second.
Neon burning takes place after carbon burning has consumed all carbon in the core and built up a new oxygen-neonmagnesium core. The core ceases producing fusion energy and contracts. This contraction increases density and
temperature up to the ignition point of neon burning. The increased temperature around the core allows carbon to
burn in a shell, and there will be shells burning helium and hydrogen outside.
During neon burning, oxygen and magnesium accumulate in the central core while neon is consumed. After a few
years the star consumes all its neon and the core ceases producing fusion energy and contracts. Again, gravitational
pressure takes over and compresses the central core, increasing its density and temperature until the oxygen-burning
process can start.

23.1 See also
• Carbon-burning process
• Oxygen-burning process

23.2 References
[1] Clayton, Donald. Principles of Stellar Evolution and Nucleosynthesis, (1983)

232

Chapter 24

Oxygen-burning process
The oxygen-burning process is a set of nuclear fusion reactions that take place in massive stars that have used up the
lighter elements in their cores. It occurs at temperatures around 1.5×109 K / 130 keV and densities of 1010 kg/m3 .
The principal reactions are:[1]

With the neon-burning process an inert core of O-Mg forms in the centre of the star. As the neon burning turns
off, the core contracts and heats up to the ignition point for the oxygen burning. In about six months to one year the
star consumes its oxygen, accumulating a new core rich in silicon. This core is inert because it is not hot enough for
silicon burning. Once oxygen is exhausted, the core ceases producing fusion energy and contracts. This contraction
heats it up to the point that the silicon-burning process ignites. Proceeding outward, there is an oxygen-burning shell,
followed by the neon shell, the carbon shell, the helium shell, and the hydrogen shell.
The oxygen-burning process is the last nuclear reaction in the star’s core which does not proceed via the alpha process.

24.1 References
[1] Clayton, Donald. Principles of Stellar Evolution and Nucleosynthesis, (1983)
[2] Langer, N. (2012). “Nucleosynthesis” (lectures). Bonn University.

24.2 External links
• The Astrophysics spectator

233

Chapter 25

Silicon-burning process
In astrophysics, silicon burning is a very brief[1] sequence of nuclear fusion reactions that occur in massive stars
with a minimum of about 8–11 solar masses. Silicon burning is the final stage of fusion for massive stars that have
run out of the fuels that power them for their long lives in the main sequence on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. It
follows the previous stages of hydrogen, helium, carbon, neon and oxygen burning processes.
Silicon burning begins when gravitational contraction raises the star’s core temperature to 2.7–3.5 billion kelvins
(GK). The exact temperature depends on mass. When a star has completed the silicon-burning phase, no further
fusion is possible. The star catastrophically collapses and may explode in what is known as a Type II supernova.

25.1 Nuclear fusion sequence and the alpha process
After a star completes the oxygen burning process, its core is composed primarily of silicon and sulfur.[2] If it has
sufficiently high mass, it further contracts until its core reaches temperatures in the range of 2.7–3.5 GK (230–300
keV). At these temperatures, silicon and other elements can photodisintegrate, emitting a proton or alpha particle.[2]
Silicon burning entails the alpha process, which creates new elements by adding one of these alpha particles[2] (the
equivalent of a helium nucleus, two protons plus two neutrons) per step in the following sequence:

The entire silicon-burning sequence lasts about one day and stops when nickel-56 has been produced. The star can
no longer release energy via nuclear fusion because a nucleus with 56 nucleons has the lowest mass per nucleon (any
proton or neutron) of all the elements in the alpha process sequence. Although iron-58 and nickel-62 have slightly
higher binding energies per nucleon than iron-56,[3] the next step up in the alpha process would be zinc−60, which
has slightly more mass per nucleon and thus, is less thermodynamically favorable. Nickel-56 (which has 28 protons)
has a half-life of 6.02 days and decays via β+ decay to cobalt−56 (27 protons), which in turn has a half-life of 77.3
days as it decays to iron-56 (26 protons). However, only minutes are available for the nickel-56 to decay within the
core of a massive star. The star has run out of nuclear fuel and within minutes begins to contract.
During this phase of the contraction, the potential energy of gravitational contraction heats the interior to 5 GK (430
keV) and this opposes and delays the contraction. However, since no additional heat energy can be generated via new
fusion reactions, the final unopposed contraction rapidly accelerates into a collapse lasting only a few seconds. The
central portion of the star is now crushed into either a neutron star or, if the star is massive enough, a black hole. The
outer layers of the star are blown off in an explosion known as a Type II supernova that lasts days to months. The
supernova explosion releases a large burst of neutrons, which synthesizes, in about one second while-inside the star,
roughly half of the supply of elements in the universe that are heavier than iron, via a neutron-capture mechanism
known as the r-process (where the “r” stands for rapid neutron capture).
234

25.2. BINDING ENERGY

235

9

Average binding energy per nucleon (MeV)

O 16
8 C 12
7
6
5

U 235
U 238

Fe 56

He 4

Li 7
Li 6

4
3

H3
He 3

2
2
1 H
1
0 H
0

30

60

90
120
150
180
Number of nucleons in nucleus

210

240

270

Curve of binding energy

25.2 Binding energy
Main articles: Nuclear binding energy and Iron peak
The graph above shows the binding energy per nucleon of various elements. As can be seen, light elements such
as hydrogen release large amounts of energy (a big increase in binding energy) when combined to form heavier
elements—the process of fusion. Conversely, heavy elements such as uranium release energy when broken into
lighter elements—the process of nuclear fission. In stars, rapid nucleosynthesis proceeds by adding helium nuclei
(alpha particles) to heavier nuclei. Although nuclei with 58 (iron-58) and 62 (nickel-62) nucleons have the very
highest binding energy per nucleon, converting nickel-56 (14 alphas) to the next element, zinc-60 (15 alphas), is a
decrease in binding energy per nucleon and actually consumes energy rather than releasing any. Accordingly, nickel56 is the last fusion product produced in the core of a high-mass star. Decay of nickel-56 explains the large amount
of iron-56 seen in metallic meteorites and the cores of rocky planets.

25.3 See also
• Stellar evolution
• Supernova nucleosynthesis
• Neutron capture: p-process, r-process, s-process

25.4 Notes
[1] Energy is produced in the isolated fusion reaction of nickel-56 with helium-4, but production of the latter (by photodisintegration of heavier nuclei) is costly, and consumes energy, causing alpha buildup of nickel to be shut off due to the essential
fact that nickel-56 has nucleon binding energy less zinc-60.

236

CHAPTER 25. SILICON-BURNING PROCESS

25.5 References
[1] Woosley, S.; Janka, T. (2006). “The physics of core collapse supernovae”. arXiv:astro-ph/0601261.
[2] Clayton, Donald D. (1983). Principles of Stellar Evolution and Nucleosynthesis. University of Chicago Press. pp. 519–524.
ISBN 9780226109534.
[3] Citation: The atomic nuclide with the highest mean binding energy, Fewell, M. P., American Journal of Physics, Volume
63, Issue 7, pp. 653–658 (1995). Click here for a high-resolution graph, The Most Tightly Bound Nuclei, which is part of
the Hyperphysics project at Georgia State University.

25.6 External links
• Stellar Evolution: The Life and Death of Our Luminous Neighbors, by Arthur Holland and Mark Williams of
the University of Michigan
• The Evolution and Death of Stars, by Ian Short
• Origin of Heavy Elements, by Tufts University
• Chapter 21: Stellar Explosions, by G. Hermann

Chapter 26

P-process
The term p-process (p is for proton) is used in two ways in the scientific literature concerning the astrophysical origin
of the elements (nucleosynthesis). Originally it referred to a proton capture process which is the source of certain,
naturally occurring, proton-rich isotopes of the elements from selenium to mercury.[1][2] These nuclides are called pnuclei and their origin is still not completely understood. Although it was shown that the originally suggested process
cannot produce the p-nuclei, later on the term p-process was sometimes used to generally refer to any nucleosynthesis
process supposed to be responsible for the p-nuclei.[3]
Often, the two meanings are confused. Recent scientific literature therefore suggests to use the term p-process only
for the actual proton capture process, as it is customary with other nucleosynthesis processes in astrophysics.[4]

26.1 The proton capture p-process
Proton-rich nuclides can be produced by sequentially adding one or more protons to an atomic nucleus. Such a nuclear
reaction of type (p,γ) is called proton capture reaction. By adding a proton to a nucleus, the element is changed because
the chemical element is defined by the proton number of a nucleus. At the same time the ratio of protons to neutrons
is changed, resulting in a proton-richer isotope of the next element. This led to the original idea for the production
of p-nuclei: free protons (the nuclei of hydrogen atoms are present in stellar plasmas) should be captured on heavy
nuclei (seed nuclei) also already present in the stellar plasma (previously produced in the s- and/or r-process).[1][2]
Such proton captures on stable nuclides (or nearly stable), however, are not very efficient in producing p-nuclei,
especially the heavier ones, because the electric charge increases with each added proton, leading to an increased
repulsion of the next proton to be added, according to Coulomb’s law. In the context of nuclear reactions this is
called a Coulomb barrier. The higher the Coulomb barrier the more kinetic energy a proton requires to get close to a
nucleus and be captured by it. The average energy of the available protons is given by the temperature of the stellar
plasma. Even if this temperature could be increased arbitrarily (which is not the case in stellar environments), protons
would be removed faster from a nucleus by photodisintegration than they could be captured at high temperature. A
possible alternative would be to have a very large number of protons available to increase the effective number of
proton captures per second without having to raise the temperature too much. Such conditions, however, are not
found in core-collapse supernovae which were supposed to be the site of the p-process.[3][4]
Proton captures at extremely high proton densities are called rapid proton capture processes. They are distinct from
the p-process not only by the required high proton density but also by the fact that very short-lived radionuclides
are involved and the reaction path is located close to the proton drip line. Rapid proton capture processes are the
rp-process, the νp-process, and the pn-process.

26.2 History
The term p-process was originally proposed in the famous "B2 FH paper" in 1957. The authors assumed that this
process was solely responsible for the p-nuclei and proposed that it occurs in the hydrogen-shell (see also stellar
evolution) of a star exploding as a type II supernova.[1] It was shown later that the required conditions are not found
in such supernovae.[5]
237

238

CHAPTER 26. P-PROCESS

At the same time as B2 FH, Alastair Cameron independently realized the necessity to add another nucleosynthesis
process to neutron capture nucleosynthesis but simply mentioned proton captures without assigning a special name
to the process. He also thought about alternatives, for example photodisintegration (called the γ-process today) or a
combination of p-process and photodisintegration.[2]

26.3 See also
• p-Nuclei
• Nucleosynthesis
• rp-Process

26.4 References
[1] Burbidge, E. M.; Burbidge, G. R.; Fowler, W. A.; Hoyle, F. (1957). “Synthesis of the Elements in Stars”. Reviews of
Modern Physics 29 (4): 547–650. Bibcode:1957RvMP...29..547B. doi:10.1103/RevModPhys.29.547.
[2] Cameron, A. G. W. (1957). “Nuclear Reactions in Stars and Nucleogenesis”. Publications of the Astronomical Society of
the Pacific 69 (408): 201–222. Bibcode:1957PASP...69..201C. doi:10.1086/127051. JSTOR 40676435.
[3] Arnould, M.; Goriely, S. (2003). “The p-Process of Stellar Nucleosynthesis: Astrophysics and Nuclear Physics Status”.
Physics Reports 384 (1–2): 1–84. Bibcode:2003PhR...384....1A. doi:10.1016/S0370-1573(03)00242-4.
[4] Rauscher, T. (2010). “Origin of p-Nuclei in Explosive Nucleosynthesis”. Proceedings of Science. NIC XI (059). arXiv:1012.2213.
[5] Audouze, J.; Truran, J. W. (1975). “p-Process Nucleosynthesis in Postshock Supernova Envelope Environments”. The
Astrophysical Journal 202 (1): 204–213. Bibcode:1975ApJ...202..204A. doi:10.1086/153965.

Chapter 27

Rp-process

rp-process

rapid proton captures

X(p,γ)Y
proton
capture
neutron
capture
β decay

Z

β decay
stable
unstable

N
synthesis of proton-rich nuclei
A ~ 100
Nucleosynthesis of proton-rich nuclei via rapid proton capture.

The rp-process (rapid proton capture process) consists of consecutive proton captures onto seed nuclei to produce
heavier elements.[1] It is a nucleosynthesis process and, along with the s process and the r process, may be responsible
239

240

CHAPTER 27. RP-PROCESS

for the generation of many of the heavy elements present in the universe. However, it is notably different from the
other processes mentioned in that it occurs on the proton-rich side of stability as opposed to on the neutron-rich side
of stability. The end point of the rp-process (the highest mass element it can create) is not yet well established, but
recent research has indicated that in neutron stars it cannot progress beyond tellurium.[2] The rp-process is inhibited
by alpha decay, which puts an upper limit on the end point at 105 Te, the lightest observed alpha decaying nuclide,[3]
though lighter isotopes of tellurium could potentially be proton-bound and alpha decaying.

27.1 Conditions
The process has to occur in very high temperature environments (above 109 kelvin) so that the protons can overcome
the large Coulomb barrier for charged particle reactions. A hydrogen-rich environment is also a prerequisite due to the
large proton flux needed. The seed nuclei needed for this process to occur are thought to be formed during breakout
reactions from the hot CNO cycle. Typically proton capture in the rp-process will compete with (α,p) reactions, as
most environments with a high flux of hydrogen are also rich in helium. The time-scale for the rp-process is set by β+
decays at or near the proton drip line, because the weak interaction is notoriously slower than the strong interaction
and electromagnetic force at these high temperatures.

27.2 Possible sites
Sites suggested for the rp-process are accreting binary systems where one star is a neutron star. In these systems
the donor star is accreting material onto its compact partner star. The accreted material is usually rich in hydrogen
and helium because of its origin from the surface layers of the donor star. Because such compact stars have high
gravitational fields, the material falls with a high velocity towards the compact star, usually colliding with other accreted material en route, forming an accretion disk. In the case of accretion onto a neutron star, as this material
slowly builds up on the surface, it will have a high temperature, typically around 108 K. Eventually, it is believed
that thermonuclear instabilities arise in this hot atmosphere, allowing the temperature to continue to rise until it leads
to a runaway thermonuclear explosion of the hydrogen and helium. During the flash, the temperature quickly rises,
becoming high enough for the rp-process to occur. While the initial flash of hydrogen and helium lasts only a second,
the rp-process typically takes up to 100 seconds. Therefore, the rp-process is observed as the tail of the resulting
X-ray burst.

27.3 See also
• p-Nuclei

27.4 References
[1] Lars Bildsten, “Thermonuclear Burning on Rapidly Accreting Neutron Stars” in The Many Faces of Neutron Stars, ed. R.
Buccheri, J. van Paradijs, & M. A. Alpar (Kluwer), 419 (1998)
[2] Schatz, H.; A. Aprahamian; V. Barnard; L. Bildsten; A. Cumming et al. (April 2001). “End Point of the rp Process on
Accreting Neutron Stars” (subscription required). Physical Review Letters 86 (16): 3471–3474. arXiv:astro-ph/0102418.
Bibcode:2001PhRvL..86.3471S. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.86.3471. PMID 11328001. Retrieved 2006-08-24.
[3] Tuli, Jagdish K. (2005). Nuclear Wallet Cards (7th ed.). National Nuclear Data Center. Retrieved 2007-08-16.

Chapter 28

Beta decay

β− decay in an atomic nucleus (the accompanying antineutrino is omitted). The inset shows beta decay of a free neutron. In both
processes, the intermediate emission of a virtual W− boson (which then decays to electron and antineutrino) is not shown.

In nuclear physics, beta decay (β decay) is a type of radioactive decay in which a proton is transformed into a neutron,
or vice versa, inside an atomic nucleus. This process allows the atom to move closer to the optimal ratio of protons
and neutrons. As a result of this transformation, the nucleus emits a detectable beta particle, which is an electron or
positron.[1]
Beta decay is mediated by the weak force. There are two types of beta decay, known as beta minus and beta plus.
Beta minus (β− ) decay produces an electron and electron antineutrino, while beta plus (β+ ) decay produces a positron
and electron neutrino; β+ decay is thus also known as positron emission.[2]
An example of electron emission (β− decay) is the decay of carbon-14 into nitrogen-14:
14
6C → 14
7N + e− + ν
e
241

242

CHAPTER 28. BETA DECAY

In this form of decay, the original element becomes a new chemical element in a process known as nuclear transmutation. This new element has an unchanged mass number A but an atomic number Z that is increased by one. As in
all nuclear decays, the decaying element (in this case 14
6C) is known as the parent nuclide while the resulting element (in this case 14
7N) is known as the daughter nuclide. The emitted electron or positron is known as a beta particle.
An example of positron emission (β+ decay) is the decay of magnesium-23 into sodium-23:
23
12Mg → 23
11Na + e+ + ν
e
In contrast to β− decay, β+ decay is accompanied by the emission of an electron neutrino. β+ decay also results in
nuclear transmutation, with the resulting element having an atomic number that is decreased by one.
Electron capture is sometimes included as a type of beta decay, because the basic nuclear process, mediated by
the weak force, is the same. In electron capture, an inner atomic electron is captured by a proton in the nucleus,
transforming it into a neutron, and an electron neutrino is released. An example of electron capture is the decay of
krypton-81 into bromine-81:
81
36Kr + e− → 81
35Br + ν
e
Electron capture is a competing (simultaneous) decay process for all nuclei that can undergo β+ decay. The converse,
however, is not true: electron capture is the only type of decay that is allowed in proton-rich nuclides that do not have
sufficient energy to emit a positron and neutrino.[3]

28.1 β− decay
In β− decay, the weak interaction converts an atomic nucleus into a nucleus with one higher atomic number while
emitting an electron (e−) and an electron antineutrino (ν
e). The generic equation is:
A
ZX → A
Z+1X’ + e− + ν
e [1]
where A and Z are the mass number and atomic number of the decaying nucleus, and X and X’ are the initial and
final elements, respectively.
Another example is when the free neutron (1
0n) decays by β− decay into a proton (p):
n → p + e− + ν
e.
At the fundamental level (as depicted in the Feynman diagram on the right), this is caused by the conversion of the
negatively charged (−1 ⁄3 e) down quark to the positively charged (+2 ⁄3 e) up quark by emission of a W− boson; the
W− boson subsequently decays into an electron and an electron antineutrino:
d → u + e− + ν
e.
β− decay generally occurs in neutron-rich nuclei.[4]

28.2. Β+ DECAY

243

The Feynman diagram for β− decay of a neutron into a proton, electron, and electron antineutrino via an intermediate W− boson.

28.2 β+ decay
Main article: Positron emission
In β+ decay, or “positron emission”, the weak interaction converts a nucleus into its next-lower neighbor on the
periodic table while emitting a positron (e+) and an electron neutrino (ν
e). The generic equation is:
A
ZX → A
Z−1X’ + e+ + ν
e [1]
β+ decay cannot occur in an isolated proton because it requires energy due to the mass of the neutron being greater
than the mass of the proton. β+ decay can only happen inside nuclei when the daughter nucleus has a greater binding
energy (and therefore a lower total energy) than the mother nucleus. The difference between these energies goes
into the reaction of converting a proton into a neutron, a positron and a neutrino and into the kinetic energy of these
particles. In an opposite process to negative beta decay, the weak interaction converts a proton into a neutron by
converting an up quark into a down quark by having it emit a W+ or absorb a W−.

244

CHAPTER 28. BETA DECAY

Energy spectrum of beta particle in beta decay

28.3 Electron capture (K-capture)
Main article: Electron capture
In all cases where β+ decay of a nucleus is allowed energetically, the electron capture process is also allowed, in which
the same nucleus captures an atomic electron with the emission of a neutrino:
A
ZX + e− → A
Z−1X’ + ν
e
The emitted neutrino is mono-energetic. In proton-rich nuclei where the energy difference between initial and final
states is less than 2mₑc2 , β+ decay is not energetically possible, and electron capture is the sole decay mode.[3]
This decay is also called K-capture because the innermost electron of an atom belongs to the K-shell of the electronic
configuration of the atom, and this has the highest probability to interact with the nucleus.[5]

28.4 Competition of beta decay types
Three types of beta decay in competition are illustrated by the single isotope copper-64 (29 protons, 35 neutrons),
which has a half-life of about 12.7 hours. This isotope has one unpaired proton and one unpaired neutron, so either
the proton or the neutron can decay. This particular nuclide (though not all nuclides in this situation) is almost equally
likely to decay through proton decay by positron emission (18%) or electron capture (43%), as through neutron decay
by electron emission (39%).

28.5. ENERGY RELEASE

245

28.5 Energy release
The Q value is defined as the total amount of energy released in a given nuclear decay. In beta decay, Q is therefore
also the sum of the kinetic energies of the emitted beta particle, neutrino, and recoiling nucleus. (Because of the large
mass of the nucleus compared to that of the beta particle and neutrino, the kinetic energy of the recoiling nucleus
can generally be neglected.) Beta particles can therefore be emitted with any kinetic energy ranging from 0 to Q.[1]
A typical Q is around 1 MeV, but can range from a few keV to a few tens of MeV.
Since the rest mass of the electron is 511 keV, the most energetic beta particles are ultrarelativistic, with speeds very
close to the speed of light.

28.5.1

β− decay

Consider the generic equation for beta decay
A
ZX → A
Z+1X’ + e− + ν
e.
The Q value for this decay is
)
] 2
(A
[
( )

Q = mN A
Z X − mN Z+1 X − me − mνe c
( )
where mN A
Z X is the mass of the nucleus of the A
ZX atom, me is the mass of the electron, and mν e is the mass of the electron antineutrino. In other words, the total
energy released is the mass energy of the initial nucleus, minus the mass energy of the final nucleus, electron, and
antineutrino. The mass of the nucleus mN is related to the standard atomic mass m by

m

Z

(A ) 2
(A ) 2
2
X
c
=
m
X
c
+
Zm
c

Bi
N
e
Z
Z
i=1

That is, the total atomic mass is the mass of the nucleus, plus the mass of the electrons, minus the binding energy Bᵢ
of each electron. Substituting this into our original equation, while neglecting the nearly-zero antineutrino mass and
difference in electron binding energy, which is very small for high-Z atoms, we have
[ ( )
(A
)] 2

Q= m A
c
Z X − m Z+1 X
This energy is carried away as kinetic energy by the electron and neutrino.
Because the reaction will proceed only when the Q-value is positive, β− decay can occur when the mass of atom A
ZX is greater than the mass of atom A
Z+1X’.[6]

28.5.2

β+ decay

The equations for β+ decay are similar, with the generic equation
A
ZX → A
Z−1X’ + e+ + ν
e

246

CHAPTER 28. BETA DECAY

giving
[
( )
(A
)
] 2

Q = mN A
Z X − mN Z−1 X − me − mνe c
However, in this equation, the electron masses do not cancel, and we are left with
] 2
[ ( )
(A
)

Q= m A
Z X − m Z−1 X − 2me c
Because the reaction will proceed only when the Q-value is positive, β+ decay can occur when the mass of atom A
ZX exceeds that of A
Z−1X’ by at least twice the mass of the electron.[6]

28.5.3

Electron capture

The analogous calculation for electron capture must take into account the binding energy of the electrons. This is
because the atom will be left in an excited state after capturing the electron, and the binding energy of the captured
innermost electron is significant. Using the generic equation for electron capture
A
ZX + e− → A
Z−1X’ + ν
e
we have
[
( )
(A
)
] 2

Q = mN A
Z X + me − mN Z−1 X − mνe c
which simplifies to
)] 2
(A
[ ( )

c − Bn
Q= m A
Z X − m Z−1 X
where B is the binding energy of the captured electron.
Because the binding energy of the electron is much less than the mass of the electron, nuclei that can undergo β+
decay can always also undergo electron capture, but the reverse is not true.[6]

28.6 Nuclear transmutation
If the proton and neutron are part of an atomic nucleus, these decay processes transmute one chemical element into
another. For example:

Beta decay does not change the number A of nucleons in the nucleus but changes only its charge Z. Thus the set of all
nuclides with the same A can be introduced; these isobaric nuclides may turn into each other via beta decay. Among
them, several nuclides (at least one for any given mass number A) are beta stable, because they present local minima
of the mass excess: if such a nucleus has (A, Z) numbers, the neighbour nuclei (A, Z−1) and (A, Z+1) have higher
mass excess and can beta decay into (A, Z), but not vice versa. For all odd mass numbers A, there is only one known
beta-stable isobar. For even A, there are up to three different beta-stable isobars experimentally known; for example,
96
40Zr, 96

28.6. NUCLEAR TRANSMUTATION

247

42Mo, and 96
44Ru are all beta-stable. There are about 355 known beta-decay stable nuclides total.[7]
Usually unstable nuclides are clearly either “neutron rich” or “proton rich”, with the former undergoing beta decay
and the latter undergoing electron capture (or more rarely, due to the higher energy requirements, positron decay).

248

CHAPTER 28. BETA DECAY

However, in a few cases of odd-proton, odd-neutron radionuclides, it may be energetically favorable for the radionuclide to decay to an even-proton, even-neutron isobar either by undergoing beta-positive or beta-negative decay. An
often-cited example is 64
29Cu, which decays by positron emission 61% of the time to 64
28Ni, and 39% of the time by (negative) beta decay to 64
30Zn.[8]
Most naturally occurring isotopes on Earth are beta stable. Those that are not have half-lives ranging from under a
second to periods of time significantly greater than the age of the universe. One common example of a long-lived
isotope is the odd-proton odd-neutron nuclide 40
19K, which undergoes all three types of beta decay (β−, β+ and electron capture) with a half-life of 1.277×109
years.[9]

28.7 Double beta decay
Main article: Double beta decay
Some nuclei can undergo double beta decay (ββ decay) where the charge of the nucleus changes by two units. Double
beta decay is difficult to study, as the process has an extremely long half-life. In nuclei for which both β decay and ββ
decay are possible, the rarer ββ decay process is effectively impossible to observe. However, in nuclei where β decay
is forbidden but ββ decay is allowed, the process can be seen and a half-life measured.[10] Thus, ββ decay is usually
studied only for beta stable nuclei. Like single beta decay, double beta decay does not change A; thus, at least one of
the nuclides with some given A has to be stable with regard to both single and double beta decay.
“Ordinary” double beta decay results in the emission of two electrons and two antineutrinos. If neutrinos are Majorana
particles (i.e., they are their own antiparticles), then a decay known as neutrinoless double beta decay will occur. Most
neutrino physicists believe that neutrinoless double beta decay has never been observed.[10]

28.8 Bound-state β− decay
A very small minority of free neutron decays (about four per million) are so-called “two-body decays”, in which the
proton, electron and antineutrino are produced, but the electron fails to gain the 13.6 eV necessary energy to escape
the proton, and therefore simply remains bound to it, as a neutral hydrogen atom.[11] In this type of beta decay, in
essence all of the neutron decay energy is carried off by the antineutrino.
For fully ionized atoms (bare nuclei), it is possible in likewise manner for electrons to fail to escape the atom, and
to be emitted from the nucleus into low-lying atomic bound states (orbitals). This can not occur for neutral atoms
whose low-lying bound states are already filled by electrons.
The phenomenon in fully ionized atoms was first observed for 163 Dy66+ in 1992 by Jung et al. of the Darmstadt
Heavy-Ion Research group. Although neutral 163 Dy is a stable isotope, the fully ionized 163 Dy66+ undergoes β decay
into the K and L shells with a half-life of 47 days.[12]
Another possibility is that a fully ionized atom undergoes greatly accelerated β decay, as observed for 187 Re by Bosch
et al., also at Darmstadt. Neutral 187 Re does undergo β decay with a half-life of 42 × 109 years, but for fully ionized
187
Re75+ this is shortened by a factor of 109 to only 32.9 years.[13] For comparison the variation of decay rates of
other nuclear processes due to chemical environment is less than 1%.

28.9 Forbidden transitions
Beta decays can be classified according to the L-value of the emitted radiation. When L > 0, the decay is referred to
as “forbidden”. Nuclear selection rules require high L-values to be accompanied by changes in nuclear spin (J) and
parity (π). The selection rules for the Lth forbidden transitions are:

∆J = L − 1, L, L + 1; ∆π = (−1)L ,

28.10. BETA EMISSION SPECTRUM

249

where Δπ = 1 or −1 corresponds to no parity change or parity change, respectively. The special case of a 0+ →
0+ transition (which in gamma decay is absolutely forbidden) is referred to as “superallowed” for beta decay, and
proceeds very quickly by this decay route. (It competes with internal conversion for decay of excited nuclei where
the ratio of neutrons to protons does not favor a beta decay in either direction). The following table lists the ΔJ and
Δπ values for the first few values of L:

28.10 Beta emission spectrum
Beta decay can be considered as a perturbation as described in quantum mechanics, and thus Fermi’s Golden Rule
can be applied. This leads to an expression for the kinetic energy spectrum N(T) of emitted betas as follows:[14]

N (T ) = CL (T )F (Z, T )pE(Q − T )2
where T is the kinetic energy, CL is a shape function that depends on the forbiddenness of the decay (it is constant
for allowed decays), F(Z, T) is the Fermi Function (see below) with Z the charge of the final-state nucleus, E = T +
mc2 is the total energy, p =√(E/c)2 − (mc)2 is the momentum, and Q is the Q value of the decay. The kinetic energy
of the emitted neutrino is given approximately by Q minus the kinetic energy of the beta.

28.10.1

Fermi function

The Fermi function that appears in the beta spectrum formula accounts for the Coulomb attraction / repulsion between
the emitted beta and the final state nucleus. Approximating the associated wavefunctions to be spherically symmetric,
the Fermi function can be analytically calculated to be:[15]

F (Z, T ) =

2(1 + S)
(2pρ)2S−2 eπη |Γ(S + iη)|2 ,
Γ(1 + 2S)2

where S =√1 − α2 Z 2 (α is the fine-structure constant), η = ± αZE/pc (+ for electrons, − for positrons), ρ = rN/ℏ (rN
is the radius of the final state nucleus), and Γ is the Gamma function.
For non-relativistic betas (Q ≪ mₑc2 ), this expression can be approximated by:[16]

F (Z, T ) ≈

2πη
.
1 − e−2πη

Other approximations can be found in the literature.[17][18]

28.10.2

Kurie plot

A Kurie plot (also known as a Fermi–Kurie plot) is a graph used in studying beta decay developed by Franz N.
D. Kurie, in which the square root of the number of beta particles whose momenta (or energy) lie within a certain
narrow range, divided by the Fermi function, is plotted against beta-particle energy.[19][20] It is a straight line for
allowed transitions and some forbidden transitions, in accord with the Fermi beta-decay theory. The energy-axis
(x-axis) intercept of a Kurie plot corresponds to the maximum energy imparted to the electron/positron (the decay’s
Q-value). With Kurie plot one can find the limit on effective mass of neutrino.[21]

28.11 History
28.11.1

Discovery and characterization of β− decay

Radioactivity was discovered in 1896 by Henri Becquerel in uranium, and subsequently observed by Marie and Pierre
Curie in thorium and in the new elements polonium and radium. In 1899, Ernest Rutherford separated radioactive

250

CHAPTER 28. BETA DECAY

emissions into two types: alpha and beta (now beta minus), based on penetration of objects and ability to cause
ionization. Alpha rays could be stopped by thin sheets of paper or aluminium, whereas beta rays could penetrate
several millimetres of aluminium. (In 1900, Paul Villard identified a still more penetrating type of radiation, which
Rutherford identified as a fundamentally new type in 1903, and termed gamma rays).
In 1900, Becquerel measured the mass-to-charge ratio (m/e) for beta particles by the method of J.J. Thomson used
to study cathode rays and identify the electron. He found that m/e for a beta particle is the same as for Thomson’s
electron, and therefore suggested that the beta particle is in fact an electron.
In 1901, Rutherford and Frederick Soddy showed that alpha and beta radioactivity involves the transmutation of
atoms into atoms of other chemical elements. In 1913, after the products of more radioactive decays were known,
Soddy and Kazimierz Fajans independently proposed their radioactive displacement law, which states that beta (i.e.,
β−) emission from one element produces another element one place to the right in the periodic table, while alpha
emission produces an element two places to the left.

28.11.2

Neutrinos in beta decay

Historically, the study of beta decay provided the first physical evidence of the neutrino. In 1911, Lise Meitner and
Otto Hahn performed an experiment that showed that the energies of electrons emitted by beta decay had a continuous
rather than discrete spectrum. This was in apparent contradiction to the law of conservation of energy, as it appeared
that energy was lost in the beta decay process. A second problem was that the spin of the nitrogen-14 atom was 1, in
contradiction to the Rutherford prediction of ½.
In 1920–1927, Charles Drummond Ellis (along with James Chadwick and colleagues) established clearly that the
beta decay spectrum is really continuous, ending all controversies. It also had an effective upper bound in energy,
which was a severe blow to Bohr’s suggestion that conservation of energy might be true only in a statistical sense, and
might be violated in any given decay. Now the problem of how to account for the variability of energy in known beta
decay products, as well as for conservation of momentum and angular momentum in the process, became acute.
In a famous letter written in 1930, Wolfgang Pauli suggested that in addition to electrons and protons atoms also
contained an extremely light neutral particle which he called the neutron. He suggested that this “neutron” was also
emitted during beta decay (thus accounting for the known missing energy, momentum, and angular momentum) and
had simply not yet been observed. In 1931, Enrico Fermi renamed Pauli’s “neutron” to neutrino, and in 1934, Fermi
published a very successful model of beta decay in which neutrinos were produced. The neutrino interaction with
matter was so weak that detecting it proved a severe experimental challenge, and was not accomplished until 1956.
However, the properties of neutrinos were (with a few minor modifications) as predicted by Pauli and Fermi.

28.11.3

Discovery of other types of beta decay

In 1934, Frédéric and Irène Joliot-Curie bombarded aluminium with alpha particles to effect the nuclear reaction 4
2He + 27
13Al → 30
15P + 1
0n, and observed that the product isotope 30
15P emits a positron identical to those found in cosmic rays by Carl David Anderson in 1932. This was the first
example of β+ decay (positron emission), which they termed artificial radioactivity since 30
15P is a short-lived nuclide which does not exist in nature.
The theory of electron capture was first discussed by Gian-Carlo Wick in a 1934 paper, and then developed by Hideki
Yukawa and others. K-electron capture was first observed in 1937 by Luis Alvarez, in the nuclide 48 V.[22][23][24]
Alvarez went on to study electron capture in 67 Ga and other nuclides.[22][25][26]

28.12 See also
• Double beta decay
• Electron capture
• Neutrino

28.13. REFERENCES

251

• Alpha decay
• Betavoltaics
• Particle radiation
• Radionuclide
• Tritium illumination, a form of fluorescent lighting powered by beta decay
• Pandemonium effect
• Total absorption spectroscopy

28.13 References
• Tuli, J. K. (2011). Nuclear Wallet Cards (8th ed.). Brookhaven National Laboratory.
[1] Konya, J.; Nagy, N. M. (2012). Nuclear and Radiochemistry. Elsevier. pp. 74–75. ISBN 978-0-12-391487-3.
[2] Basdevant, Jean-Louis; Rich, James; Spiro, Michael (2005). Fundamentals in Nuclear Physics: From Nuclear Structure to
Cosmology. Springer. ISBN 978-0387016726.
[3] Zuber, Kai (2011). Neutrino Physics (2 ed.). CRC Press. p. 466. ISBN 9781420064711.
[4] Loveland, Walter D. (2005). Modern Nuclear Chemistry. Wiley. p. 232. ISBN 0471115320.
[5] Tatjana Jevremovic (21 April 2009). Nuclear Principles in Engineering. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 201. ISBN
978-0-387-85608-7.
[6] Kenneth S. Krane (5 November 1987). Introductory Nuclear Physics. Wiley. ISBN 978-0-471-80553-3.
[7] “Interactive Chart of Nuclides”. National Nuclear Data Center, Brookhaven National Laboratory. Retrieved 2014-09-18.
[8] “WWW Table of Radioactive Isotopes, Copper 64”. LBNL Isotopes Project. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Retrieved 2014-09-18.
[9] “WWW Table of Radioactive Isotopes, Potassium 40”. LBNL Isotopes Project. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Retrieved 2014-09-18.
[10] S.M. Bilenky (October 5, 2010). “Neutrinoless double beta-decay”. Physics of Particles and Nuclei 41 (5). doi:10.1134/S1063779610050035.
[11] An Overview Of Neutron Decay J. Byrne in Quark-Mixing, CKM Unitarity (H.Abele and D.Mund, 2002), see p.XV
[12] Jung, M.; et al. (1992). “First observation of bound-state β− decay”. Physical Review Letters 69 (15): 2164–2167.
Bibcode:1992PhRvL..69.2164J. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.69.2164. PMID 10046415.
[13] Bosch, F.; et al. (1996). “Observation of bound-state beta minus decay of fully ionized 187 Re: 187 Re–187 Os Cosmochronometry”. Physical Review Letters 77 (26): 5190–5193. Bibcode:1996PhRvL..77.5190B. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.77.5190.
PMID 10062738.
[14] Nave, C. R. “Energy and Momentum Spectra for Beta Decay”. HyperPhysics. Retrieved 2013-03-09.
[15] Fermi, E. (1934). “Versuch einer Theorie der β-Strahlen. I”. Zeitschrift für Physik 88 (3–4): 161–177. Bibcode:1934ZPhy...88..161F.
doi:10.1007/BF01351864.
[16] Mott, N. F.; Massey, H. S. W. (1933). The Theory of Atomic Collisions. Clarendon Press. LCCN 34001940.
[17] Venkataramaiah, P.; Gopala, K.; Basavaraju, A.; Suryanarayana, S. S.; Sanjeeviah, H. (1985). “A simple relation for the
Fermi function”. Journal of Physics G 11 (3): 359–364. Bibcode:1985JPhG...11..359V. doi:10.1088/0305-4616/11/3/014.
[18] Schenter, G. K.; Vogel, P. (1983). “A simple approximation of the fermi function in nuclear beta decay”. Nuclear Science
and Engineering 83 (3): 393–396. OSTI 5307377.
[19] Kurie, F. N. D.; Richardson, J. R.; Paxton, H. C. (1936). “The Radiations Emitted from Artificially Produced Radioactive
Substances. I. The Upper Limits and Shapes of the β-Ray Spectra from Several Elements”. Physical Review 49 (5):
368–381. Bibcode:1936PhRv...49..368K. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.49.368.

252

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[20] Kurie, F. N. D. (1948). “On the Use of the Kurie Plot”. Physical Review 73 (10): 1207. Bibcode:1948PhRv...73.1207K.
doi:10.1103/PhysRev.73.1207.
[21] Rodejohann, Werner (2012). “Neutrinoless double beta decay and neutrino physics”. arXiv:1206.25602.
[22] Segré, E. (1987). “K-Electron Capture by Nuclei”. In Trower, P. W. Discovering Alvarez: Selected Works of Luis W.
Alvarez. University of Chicago Press. pp. 11–12. ISBN 978-0-226-81304-2.
[23] “The Nobel Prize in Physics 1968: Luis Alvarez”. The Nobel Foundation. Retrieved 2009-10-07.
[24] Alvarez, L. W. (1937). “Nuclear K Electron Capture”. Physical Review 52 (2): 134–135. Bibcode:1937PhRv...52..134A.
doi:10.1103/PhysRev.52.134.
[25] Alvarez, L. W. (1938). “Electron Capture and Internal Conversion in Gallium 67”. Physical Review 53 (7): 606. Bibcode:1938PhRv...53..606A.
doi:10.1103/PhysRev.53.606.
[26] Alvarez, L. W. (1938). “The Capture of Orbital Electrons by Nuclei”. Physical Review 54 (7): 486–497. Bibcode:1938PhRv...54..486A.
doi:10.1103/PhysRev.54.486.

28.14 External links

The Live Chart of Nuclides - IAEA with filter on decay type

• Definition of Beta Disintegration (Decay) at Science Dictionary

Chapter 29

Radioactive decay
For particle decay in a more general context, see Particle decay. For more information on hazards of various kinds
of radiation from decay, see Ionizing radiation.
“Radioactive” redirects here. For other uses, see Radioactive (disambiguation).
“Radioactivity” redirects here. For other uses, see Radioactivity (disambiguation).
Radioactive decay, also known as nuclear decay or radioactivity, is the process by which a nucleus of an unstable

Alpha decay is one example type of radioactive decay, in which an atomic nucleus emits an alpha particle, and thereby transforms
(or 'decays’) into an atom with a mass number decreased by 4 and atomic number decreased by 2. Many other types of decays are
possible.

atom loses energy by emitting ionizing radiation. A material that spontaneously emits this kind of radiation—which
includes the emission of alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays—is considered radioactive.
Radioactive decay is a stochastic (i.e. random) process at the level of single atoms, in that, according to quantum
theory, it is impossible to predict when a particular atom will decay.[1] However, the chance that a given atom will
decay never changes, that is, it does not matter how long the atom has existed. For a large number of atoms however,
the decay rate for the collection can be calculated from the measured decay constants, and the half-lives of the
nuclides calculated. These numbers have no known limits for shortness or length of duration, and range over 55
253

254

CHAPTER 29. RADIOACTIVE DECAY

orders of magnitude in time.
There are many types of radioactive decay (see table below). A decay, or loss of energy, results when an atom with one
type of nucleus, called the parent radionuclide (or parent radioisotope[note 1] ), transforms into an atom with a nucleus
in a different state, or with a nucleus containing a different number of protons and neutrons. The product is called
the daughter nuclide. In some decays, the parent and the daughter nuclides are different chemical elements, and thus
the decay process results in the creation of an atom of a different element. This is known as a nuclear transmutation.
The first decay processes to be discovered were alpha decay, beta decay, and gamma decay. Alpha decay occurs
when the nucleus ejects an alpha particle (helium nucleus). This is the most common process of emitting nucleons,
but in rarer types of decays, nuclei can eject protons, or specific nuclei of other elements in a process called cluster
decay. Beta decay occurs when the nucleus emits an electron or positron and a neutrino, in a process that changes a
proton to a neutron or the other way about. The nucleus may capture an orbiting electron, causing a proton to convert
into a neutron in a process called electron capture. All of these processes result in a nuclear transmutation.
By contrast, there are radioactive decay processes that do not result in a transmutation. The energy of an excited
nucleus may be emitted as a gamma ray in a process called gamma decay, or be used to eject an orbital electron by
its interaction with the excited nucleus, in a process called internal conversion. Highly excited neutron-rich nuclei,
formed as the product of other types of decay, occasionally lose energy by way of neutron emission, resulting in a
change of an element from one isotope to another. Another type of radioactive decay results in products that are not
defined, but appear in a range of “pieces” of the original nucleus. This decay, called spontaneous fission, happens
when a large unstable nucleus spontaneously splits into two (and occasionally three) smaller daughter nuclei, and
generally leads to the emission of gamma rays, neutrons, or other particles from those.
For a summary table showing the number of stable and radioactive nuclides in each category, see radionuclide. There
exist twenty-eight chemical elements on Earth that are radioactive. They are those that contain thirty-four radionuclides that date before the time of formation of the solar system. Well-known examples are uranium and thorium
but also included are naturally occurring long-lived radioisotopes such as potassium-40. Another fifty or so shorterlived radionuclides, such as radium and radon, found on Earth, are the products of decay chains that began with the
primordial nuclides, and ongoing cosmogenic processes, such as the production of carbon-14 from nitrogen-14 by
cosmic rays. Radionuclides may also be produced artificially in particle accelerators or nuclear reactors, resulting
in 650 of these with half-lives over an hour, and several thousand more with even shorter half-lives. See this list of
nuclides for a list by half life.

29.1 History of discovery
Radioactivity was discovered in 1896 by the French scientist Henri Becquerel, while working on phosphorescent
materials.[2] These materials glow in the dark after exposure to light, and he suspected that the glow produced in
cathode ray tubes by X-rays might be associated with phosphorescence. He wrapped a photographic plate in black
paper and placed various phosphorescent salts on it. All results were negative until he used uranium salts. The result
with these compounds was to cause a blackening of the plate in spite of the plate being wrapped in black paper. These
radiations were given the name “Becquerel Rays”.
It soon became clear that the blackening of the plate had nothing to do with phosphorescence, as the plate recorded the
presence of the mineral while wrapped and non-phosphorescent salts of uranium and metallic uranium also blackened
the plate. It was clear that there was a form of invisible radiation that could pass through paper and was causing the
plate to react as if exposed to light and so become black.
At first, it seemed as though the new radiation was similar to the then recently discovered X-rays. Further research by
Becquerel, Ernest Rutherford, Paul Villard, Pierre Curie, Marie Curie, and others showed that this form of radioactivity was significantly more complicated. Rutherford was the first to realize that they all decay in accordance with
the same mathematical exponential formula, and Rutherford and his student Frederick Soddy were the first to realize
that many decay processes resulted in the transmutation of one element to another. Subsequently, the radioactive
displacement law of Fajans and Soddy was formulated to describe the products of alpha and beta decay.[3][4]
The early researchers also discovered that many other chemical elements, besides uranium, have radioactive isotopes.
A systematic search for the total radioactivity in uranium ores also guided Pierre and Marie Curie to isolate two new
elements: polonium and radium. Except for the radioactivity of radium, the chemical similarity of radium to barium
made these two elements difficult to distinguish.

29.1. HISTORY OF DISCOVERY

255

Pierre and Marie Curie in their Paris laboratory, before 1907

29.1.1

Early dangers

The dangers of radioactivity and radiation were not immediately recognized. The discovery of x‑rays in 1895 led
to widespread experimentation by scientists, physicians, and inventors. Many people began recounting stories of
burns, hair loss and worse in technical journals as early as 1896. In February of that year, Professor Daniel and Dr.
Dudley of Vanderbilt University performed an experiment involving x-raying Dudley’s head that resulted in his hair
loss. A report by Dr. H.D. Hawks, a graduate of Columbia College, of his suffering severe hand and chest burns
in an x-ray demonstration, was the first of many other reports in Electrical Review.[5] Many experimenters including
Elihu Thomson at Thomas Edison's lab, William J. Morton, and Nikola Tesla also reported burns. Elihu Thomson
deliberately exposed a finger to an x-ray tube over a period of time and suffered pain, swelling, and blistering.[6] Other
effects, including ultraviolet rays and ozone were sometimes blamed for the damage.[7] Many physicians claimed that
there were no effects from x-ray exposure at all.[6]
Before the biological effects of radiation were known, many physicians and corporations began marketing radioactive
substances as patent medicine in the form of glow-in-the-dark pigments. Examples were radium enema treatments,
and radium-containing waters to be drunk as tonics. Marie Curie protested against this sort of treatment, warning
that the effects of radiation on the human body were not well understood. Curie later died from aplastic anaemia,
likely caused by exposure to ionizing radiation. By the 1930s, after a number of cases of bone necrosis and death
of radium treatment enthusiasts, radium-containing medicinal products had been largely removed from the market
(radioactive quackery).

29.1.2

Radiation protection

Main article: Radiation protection
See also: Sievert and Ionizing radiation

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CHAPTER 29. RADIOACTIVE DECAY

Taking an X-ray image with early Crookes tube apparatus in 1896. The Crookes tube is visible in the centre. The standing man is
viewing his hand with a fluoroscope screen. No precautions against radiation exposure are being taken; its hazards were not known
at the time.

Only a year after Röntgen’s discovery of X rays, the American engineer Wolfram Fuchs (1896) gave what is probably
the first protection advice, but it was not until 1925 that the first International Congress of Radiology (ICR) was held
and considered establishing international protection standards. The effects of radiation on genes, including the effect
of cancer risk, were recognized much later. In 1927, Hermann Joseph Muller published research showing genetic
effects and, in 1946, was awarded the Nobel prize for his findings.
The second ICR was held in Stockholm in 1928 and proposed the adoption of the rontgen unit, and the 'International
X-ray and Radium Protection Committee' (IXRPC) was formed. Rolf Sievert was named Chairman, but a driving
force was George Kaye of the British National Physical Laboratory. The committee met at each of the ICR meetings in
Paris in 1931, Zurich in 1934, and Chicago in 1937. The first post-war ICR convened in London in 1950, and adopted
the present name, the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP).[8] The ICRP has developed the
present international system of radiation protection.

29.2 Units of radioactivity
The International System of Units (SI) unit of radioactive activity is the becquerel (Bq), named in honour of the
scientist Henri Becquerel. One Bq is defined as one transformation (or decay or disintegration) per second.
An older unit of radioactivity is the curie, Ci, which was originally defined as the amount of radium emanation
(radon-222) in equilibrium with one gram of pure radium, isotope Ra-226. Today, it is defined as the activity of any
radionuclide decaying with a rate of 3.7×1010 Bq, so that 1 curie (Ci) = 3.7×1010 Bq. For radiological protection
purposes, although the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission permits the use of the unit curie alongside
SI units,[9] the European Union European units of measurement directives required that its use for “public health ...
purposes” be phased out by 31 December 1985.[10]

29.3. TYPES OF DECAY

257

Graphic showing relationships between radioactivity and detected ionizing radiation

29.3 Types of decay
Early researchers found that an electric or magnetic field could split radioactive emissions into three types of beams.
The rays were given the alphabetic names alpha, beta, and gamma, in order of their ability to penetrate matter. While
alpha decay was seen only in heavier elements of atomic number 52, tellurium, and greater, the other two types of
decay were seen in all of the elements. Lead, atomic number 82, is the heaviest element to have any isotopes stable
(to the limit of measurement) to radioactive decay. Radioactive decay is seen in all isotopes of all elements of atomic
number 83 (bismuth) or greater. Bismuth, however, is only very slightly radioactive.
In analysing the nature of the decay products, it was obvious from the direction of the electromagnetic forces applied
to the radiations by external magnetic and electric fields that alpha particles from decay carried a positive charge,
beta particles carried a negative charge, and gamma rays were neutral. From the magnitude of deflection, it was clear
that alpha particles were much more massive than beta particles. Passing alpha particles through a very thin glass
window and trapping them in a discharge tube allowed researchers to study the emission spectrum of the captured gas,
and ultimately proved that alpha particles are helium nuclei. Other experiments showed the similarity between beta
radiation resulting from decay and cathode rays: They are both streams of high-speed electrons. Likewise, gamma
radiation and X-rays were found to be similar high-energy electromagnetic radiation.
The relationship between the types of decays also began to be examined: For example, gamma decay was almost
always found to be associated with other types of decay, and occurred at about the same time, or afterwards. Gamma
decay as a separate phenomenon, with its own half-life and now termed isomeric transition), was found in natural
radioactivity to be a result of the gamma decay of excited metastable nuclear isomers, which were in turn created
from other types of decay.
Although alpha, beta, and gamma radiations were most commonly found, other types of decay were eventually discovered. Shortly after the discovery of the positron in cosmic ray products, it was realized that the same process
that operates in classical beta decay can also produce positrons (positron emission). In an analogous process, instead
of emitting positrons and neutrinos, some proton-rich nuclides were found to capture their own atomic electrons, a
process called electron capture, and emit only a neutrino and usually also a gamma ray. Each of these types of decay

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CHAPTER 29. RADIOACTIVE DECAY

α
β

γ
Alpha particles may be completely stopped by a sheet of paper, beta particles by aluminium shielding. Gamma rays can only be
reduced by much more substantial mass, such as a very thick layer of lead.

involves the capture or emission of nuclear electrons or positrons, and acts to move a nucleus toward the ratio of
neutrons to protons that has the least energy for a given total number of nucleons, producing a more stable nucleus.
A theoretical process of positron capture, analogous to electron capture, is possible in antimatter atoms, but has not
been observed since the antimatter atoms are not available.[11] This would require antimatter atoms at least as complex
as beryllium-7, which is the lightest known isotope of normal matter to undergo decay by electron capture.

29.3. TYPES OF DECAY

259

EC
+
β
p

Parent
atom

n
N

β

α
Z

Transition diagram for decay modes of a radionuclide, with neutron number N and atomic number Z (shown are α, β± , p+ , and n0
emissions, EC denotes electron capture).

Shortly after the discovery of the neutron in 1932, Enrico Fermi realized that certain rare beta-decay reactions immediately yield neutrons as a decay particle (neutron emission). Isolated proton emission was eventually observed
in some elements. It was also found that some heavy elements may undergo spontaneous fission into products that
vary in composition. In a phenomenon called cluster decay, specific combinations of neutrons and protons other than
alpha particles (helium nuclei) were found to be spontaneously emitted from atoms.
Other types of radioactive decay that emit previously-seen particles were found, but by different mechanisms. An
example is internal conversion, which results in electron and sometimes high-energy photon emission, even though it
involves neither beta nor gamma decay. A neutrino is not emitted, and neither the electron nor photon originate in the
nucleus. Internal conversion decay, like isomeric transition gamma decay and neutron emission, involves an excited
nuclide releasing energy, without the transmutation of one element into another.
Rare events that involve a combination of two beta-decay type events happening simultaneously are known (see
below). Any decay process that does not violate the conservation of energy or momentum laws (and perhaps other
particle conservation laws) is permitted to happen, although not all have been detected. An interesting example
discussed in a final section, is bound state beta decay of rhenium-187. In this process, an inverse of electron capture,
beta electron-decay of the parent nuclide is not accompanied by beta electron emission, because the beta particle has
been captured into the K-shell of the emitting atom. An antineutrino, however, is emitted.

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CHAPTER 29. RADIOACTIVE DECAY

Types of radioactive decay related to N and Z numbers

Radionuclides can undergo a number of different reactions. These are summarized in the following table. A nucleus
with mass number A and atomic number Z is represented as (A, Z). The column “Daughter nucleus” indicates the
difference between the new nucleus and the original nucleus. Thus, (A − 1, Z) means that the mass number is one

29.4. RADIOACTIVE DECAY RATES

261

less than before, but the atomic number is the same as before.
If energy circumstances are favorable, a given radionuclide may undergo many competing types of decay, with some
atoms decaying by one route, and others decaying by another. An example is copper-64, which has 29 protons, and 35
neutrons, which decays with a half-life of about 12.7 hours. This isotope has one unpaired proton and one unpaired
neutron, so either the proton or the neutron can decay to the opposite particle. This particular nuclide (though not
all nuclides in this situation) is almost equally likely to decay through proton decay by positron emission (18%) or
electron capture (43%), as through neutron decay by electron emission (39%). The excited energy states produced
by some of these decays, which fail to decay to the ground energy state, also produce later internal conversion and
gamma decay in almost 0.5% of decays.
Radioactive decay results in a reduction of summed rest mass, once the released energy (the disintegration energy)
has escaped in some way (for example, the products might be captured and cooled, and the heat allowed to escape).
Although decay energy is sometimes defined as associated with the difference between the mass of the parent nuclide
products and the mass of the decay products, this is true only of rest mass measurements, where some energy has been
removed from the product system. This is true because the decay energy must always carry mass with it, wherever
it appears (see mass in special relativity) according to the formula E = mc2 . The decay energy is initially released
as the energy of emitted photons plus the kinetic energy of massive emitted particles (that is, particles that have rest
mass). If these particles come to thermal equilibrium with their surroundings and photons are absorbed, then the
decay energy is transformed to thermal energy, which retains its mass.
Decay energy therefore remains associated with a certain measure of mass of the decay system, called invariant
mass, which does not change in the decay, even though the energy of decay is distributed among decay particles.
The energy of photons, the kinetic energy of emitted particles, and, later, the thermal energy of the surrounding
matter, all contribute to the invariant mass of the system. Thus, while the sum of rest masses of the particles is
not conserved in radioactive decay, the system mass and system invariant mass (and also the system total energy) is
conserved throughout any decay process. This is a restatement of the equivalent laws of conservation of energy and
conservation of mass.

29.4 Radioactive decay rates
The decay rate, or activity, of a radioactive substance is characterized by:
Constant quantities:
• The half-life—t₁/₂, is the time taken for the activity of a given amount of a radioactive substance to decay to
half of its initial value; see List of nuclides.
• The decay constant— λ, "lambda" the inverse of the mean lifetime, sometimes referred to as simply decay rate.
• The mean lifetime— τ, "tau" the average lifetime of a radioactive particle before decay.
Although these are constants, they are associated with statistically random behaviour of populations of atoms. In
consequence, predictions using these constants are less accurate for small number of atoms.
In principle a half-life, a third-life, or even a (1/√2)-life, can be used in exactly the same way as half-life; but the
mean life and half-life t₁/₂ have been adopted as standard times associated with exponential decay.
Time-variable quantities:
• Total activity— A, is the number of decays per unit time of a radioactive sample.
• Number of particles—N, is the total number of particles in the sample.
• Specific activity—SA, number of decays per unit time per amount of substance of the sample at time set to zero
(t = 0). “Amount of substance” can be the mass, volume or moles of the initial sample.
These are related as follows:

t1/2 =

ln(2)
= τ ln(2)
λ

262

CHAPTER 29. RADIOACTIVE DECAY

dN
= λN
dt

dN
SA a0 = −
= λN0
dt
A=−

t=0

where N 0 is the initial amount of active substance — substance that has the same percentage of unstable particles as
when the substance was formed.

29.5 Mathematics of radioactive decay
For the mathematical details of exponential decay in general context, see exponential decay.
For related derivations with some further details, see half-life.
For the analogous mathematics in 1st order chemical reactions, see Consecutive reactions.

29.5.1

Universal law of radioactive decay

Radioactivity is one very frequently given example of exponential decay. The law describes the statistical behaviour
of a large number of nuclides, rather than individual atoms. In the following formalism, the number of nuclides or
the nuclide population N, is of course a discrete variable (a natural number)—but for any physical sample N is so
large that it can be treated as a continuous variable. Differential calculus is needed to set up differential equations for
the modelling the behaviour of the nuclear decay.
The mathematics of radioactive decay depend on a key assumption that a nucleus of a radionuclide has no “memory”
or way of translating its history into its present behavior. A nucleus does not “age” with the passage of time. Thus, the
probability of its breaking down does not increase with time, but stays constant no matter how long the nucleus has
existed. This constant probability may vary greatly between different types of nuclei, leading to the many different
observed decay rates. However, whatever the probability is, it does not change. This is in marked contrast to complex
objects which do show aging, such as automobiles and humans. These systems do have a chance of breakdown per
unit of time, that increases from the moment they begin their existence.
One-decay process
Consider the case of a nuclide A that decays into another B by some process A → B (emission of other particles, like
electron neutrinos ν
e and electrons e– as in beta decay, are irrelevant in what follows). The decay of an unstable nucleus is entirely random
and it is impossible to predict when a particular atom will decay.[1] However, it is equally likely to decay at any instant
in time. Therefore, given a sample of a particular radioisotope, the number of decay events −dN expected to occur
in a small interval of time dt is proportional to the number of atoms present N, that is[12]

dN
∝ N.
dt

Particular radionuclides decay at different rates, so each has its own decay constant λ. The expected decay −dN/N is
proportional to an increment of time, dt:

The negative sign indicates that N decreases as time increases, as the decay events follow one after another. The
solution to this first-order differential equation is the function:

N (t) = N0 e−λt = N0 e−t/τ ,
where N 0 is the value of N at time t = 0.[12]

29.5. MATHEMATICS OF RADIOACTIVE DECAY

263

We have for all time t:

NA + NB = Ntotal = NA0 ,
where N ₒ ₐ is the constant number of particles throughout the decay process, which is clearly equal to the initial
number of A nuclides since this is the initial substance.
If the number of non-decayed A nuclei is:

NA = NA0 e−λt
then the number of nuclei of B, i.e. the number of decayed A nuclei, is
)
(
NB = NA0 − NA = NA0 − NA0 e−λt = NA0 1 − e−λt .
The number of decays observed over a given interval obeys Poisson statistics. If the average number of decays is
<N>, the probability of a given number of decays N is[12]

P (N ) =

⟨N ⟩N exp(−⟨N ⟩)
.
N!

Chain-decay processes
Chain of two decays
Now consider the case of a chain of two decays: one nuclide A decaying into another B by one process, then B
decaying into another C by a second process, i.e. A → B → C. The previous equation cannot be applied to the decay
chain, but can be generalized as follows. Since A decays into B, then B decays into C, the activity of A adds to the
total number of B nuclides in the present sample, before those B nuclides decay and reduce the number of nuclides
leading to the later sample. In other words, the number of second generation nuclei B increases as a result of the first
generation nuclei decay of A, and decreases as a result of its own decay into the third generation nuclei C.[13] The
sum of these two terms gives the law for a decay chain for two nuclides:
dNB
= −λB NB + λA NA .
dt
The rate of change of NB, that is dNB/dt, is related to the changes in the amounts of A and B, NB can increase as B
is produced from A and decrease as B produces C.
Re-writing using the previous results:

The subscripts simply refer to the respective nuclides, i.e. NA is the number of nuclides of type A, NA₀ is the initial
number of nuclides of type A, λA is the decay constant for A - and similarly for nuclide B. Solving this equation for
NB gives:

NB =

)
NA0 λA ( −λA t
e
− e−λB t .
λB − λA

Naturally, in the case where B is a stable nuclide (λB = 0), this equation reduces to the previous solution, in the case :
[
lim

λB →0

]
)
)
(
)
NA0 λA ( −λA t
NA0 λA ( −λA t
−λB t
=
e
−e
e
− 1 = NA0 1 − e−λA t ,
λB − λA
0 − λA

264

CHAPTER 29. RADIOACTIVE DECAY

as shown above for one decay. The solution can be found by the integration factor method, where the integrating
factor is eλBt . This case is perhaps the most useful, since it can derive both the one-decay equation (above) and the
equation for multi-decay chains (below) more directly.
Chain of any number of decays
For the general case of any number of consecutive decays in a decay chain, i.e. A1 → A2 ··· → Ai ··· → AD, where
D is the number of decays and i is a dummy index (i = ₁, ₂, ₃, ...D), each nuclide population can be found in terms of
the previous population. In this case N 2 = 0, N 3 = 0,..., ND = 0. Using the above result in a recursive form:
dNj
= −λj Nj + λj−1 N(j−1)0 e−λj−1 t .
dt
The general solution to the recursive problem is given by Bateman’s equations:[14]

Alternative decay modes
In all of the above examples, the initial nuclide decays into only one product.[15] Consider the case of one initial
nuclide that can decay into either of two products, that is A → B and A → C in parallel. For example, in a sample of
potassium-40, 89.3% of the nuclei decay to calcium-40 and 10.7% to argon-40. We have for all time t:

N = NA + NB + NC
which is constant, since the total number of nuclides remains constant. Differentiating with respect to time:
dNA
=−
dt

(

dNB
dNC
+
dt
dt

)

−λNA = −NA (λB + λC )
defining the total decay constant λ in terms of the sum of partial decay constants λB and λC:

λ = λB + λC .
Notice that
dNA
dNB
dNC
< 0,
> 0,
> 0.
dt
dt
dt
Solving this equation for NA:

NA = NA0 e−λt .
where NA₀ is the initial number of nuclide A. When measuring the production of one nuclide, one can only observe
the total decay constant λ. The decay constants λB and λC determine the probability for the decay to result in products
B or C as follows:

NB =

(
)
λB
NA0 1 − e−λt ,
λ

(
)
λC
NA0 1 − e−λt .
λ
because the fraction λB/λ of nuclei decay into B while the fraction λC/λ of nuclei decay into C.

NC =

29.5. MATHEMATICS OF RADIOACTIVE DECAY

29.5.2

265

Corollaries of the decay laws

The above equations can also be written using quantities related to the number of nuclide particles N in a sample;
• The activity: A = λN.
• The amount of substance: n = N/L.
• The mass: M = Arn = ArN/L.
where L = 6.022×1023 is Avogadro’s constant, Ar is the relative atomic mass number, and the amount of the substance
is in moles.

29.5.3

Decay timing: definitions and relations

Time constant and mean-life
For the one-decay solution A → B:

N = N0 e−λt = N0 e−t/τ ,
the equation indicates that the decay constant λ has units of t−1 , and can thus also be represented as 1/τ, where τ is
a characteristic time of the process called the time constant.
In a radioactive decay process, this time constant is also the mean lifetime for decaying atoms. Each atom “lives” for
a finite amount of time before it decays, and it may be shown that this mean lifetime is the arithmetic mean of all the
atoms’ lifetimes, and that it is τ, which again is related to the decay constant as follows:

τ=

1
.
λ

This form is also true for two-decay processes simultaneously A → B + C, inserting the equivalent values of decay
constants (as given above)

λ = λB + λC
into the decay solution leads to:
1
1
1
= λ = λB + λC =
+
τ
τB
τC

Half-life
A more commonly used parameter is the half-life. Given a sample of a particular radionuclide, the half-life is the
time taken for half the radionuclide’s atoms to decay. For the case of one-decay nuclear reactions:

N = N0 e−λt = N0 e−t/τ ,
the half-life is related to the decay constant as follows: set N = N0 /2 and t = T₁/₂ to obtain

t1/2 =

ln 2
= τ ln 2.
λ

266

CHAPTER 29. RADIOACTIVE DECAY

This relationship between the half-life and the decay constant shows that highly radioactive substances are quickly
spent, while those that radiate weakly endure longer. Half-lives of known radionuclides vary widely, from more than
1019 years, such as for the very nearly stable nuclide 209 Bi, to 10−23 seconds for highly unstable ones.
The factor of ln(2) in the above relations results from the fact that concept of “half-life” is merely a way of selecting
a different base other than the natural base e for the lifetime expression. The time constant τ is the e −1 -life, the
time until only 1/e remains, about 36.8%, rather than the 50% in the half-life of a radionuclide. Thus, τ is longer
than t₁/₂. The following equation can be shown to be valid:
N (t) = N0 e−t/τ = N0 2−t/t1/2 .
Since radioactive decay is exponential with a constant probability, each process could as easily be described with a
different constant time period that (for example) gave its "(1/3)-life” (how long until only 1/3 is left) or "(1/10)-life”
(a time period until only 10% is left), and so on. Thus, the choice of τ and t1/2 for marker-times, are only for
convenience, and from convention. They reflect a fundamental principle only in so much as they show that the same
proportion of a given radioactive substance will decay, during any time-period that one chooses.
Mathematically, the nth life for the above situation would be found in the same way as above—by setting N = N0 /n,
{{{1}}} and substituting into the decay solution to obtain

t1/n =

ln n
= τ ln n.
λ

29.5.4

Example

A sample of 14 C, whose half-life is 5,730 years, has a decay rate of 14 disintegration per minute (dpm) per gram of
natural carbon. An artefact is found to have radioactivity of 4 dpm per gram of its present C, how old is the artefact?
Using the above equation, we have:
N = N0 e−t/τ ,
where:

τ=

N
N0

= 4/14 ≈ 0.286,

T1/2
≈ 8267
ln 2

t = −τ ln

N
≈ 10360
N0

29.6 Changing decay rates
The radioactive decay modes of electron capture and internal conversion are known to be slightly sensitive to chemical
and environmental effects that change the electronic structure of the atom, which in turn affects the presence of 1s
and 2s electrons that participate in the decay process. A small number of mostly light nuclides are affected. For
example, chemical bonds can affect the rate of electron capture to a small degree (in general, less than 1%) depending
on the proximity of electrons to the nucleus. In 7 Be, a difference of 0.9% has been observed between half-lives in
metallic and insulating environments.[16] This relatively large effect is because beryllium is a small atom whose valence
electrons are in 2s atomic orbitals, which are subject to electron capture in 7 Be because (like all s atomic orbitals in
all atoms) they naturally penetrate into the nucleus.
In 1992, Jung et al. of the Darmstadt Heavy-Ion Research group observed an accelerated β decay of 163 Dy66+ .
Although neutral 163 Dy is a stable isotope, the fully ionized 163 Dy66+ undergoes β decay into the K and L shells with
a half-life of 47 days.[17]
Rhenium-187 is another spectacular example. 187 Re normally beta decays to 187 Os with a half-life of 41.6 × 109
years,[18] but studies using fully ionised 187 Re atoms (bare nuclei) have found that this can decrease to only 33 years.

29.7. THEORETICAL BASIS OF DECAY PHENOMENA

267

This is attributed to "bound-state β− decay" of the fully ionised atom – the electron is emitted into the “K-shell” (1s
atomic orbital), which cannot occur for neutral atoms in which all low-lying bound states are occupied.[19]
A number of experiments have found that decay rates of other modes of artificial and naturally occurring radioisotopes
are, to a high degree of precision, unaffected by external conditions such as temperature, pressure, the chemical
environment, and electric, magnetic, or gravitational fields.[20] Comparison of laboratory experiments over the last
century, studies of the Oklo natural nuclear reactor (which exemplified the effects of thermal neutrons on nuclear
decay), and astrophysical observations of the luminosity decays of distant supernovae (which occurred far away so
the light has taken a great deal of time to reach us), for example, strongly indicate that unperturbed decay rates have
been constant (at least to within the limitations of small experimental errors) as a function of time as well.
Recent results suggest the possibility that decay rates might have a weak dependence on environmental factors. It
has been suggested that measurements of decay rates of silicon-32, manganese-54, and radium-226 exhibit small
seasonal variations (of the order of 0.1%),[21][22][23] while the decay of Radon-222 exhibit large 4% peak-to-peak
seasonal variations,[24] proposed to be related to either solar flare activity or distance from the Sun. However, such
measurements are highly susceptible to systematic errors, and a subsequent paper[25] has found no evidence for such
correlations in seven other isotopes (22 Na, 44 Ti, 108 Ag, 121 Sn, 133 Ba, 241 Am, 238 Pu), and sets upper limits on the
size of any such effects.

29.7 Theoretical basis of decay phenomena
The neutrons and protons that constitute nuclei, as well as other particles that approach close enough to them, are
governed by several interactions. The strong nuclear force, not observed at the familiar macroscopic scale, is the most
powerful force over subatomic distances. The electrostatic force is almost always significant, and, in the case of beta
decay, the weak nuclear force is also involved.
The interplay of these forces produces a number of different phenomena in which energy may be released by rearrangement of particles in the nucleus, or else the change of one type of particle into others. These rearrangements
and transformations may be hindered energetically, so that they do not occur immediately. In certain cases, random
quantum vacuum fluctuations are theorized to promote relaxation to a lower energy state (the “decay”) in a phenomenon known as quantum tunneling. Radioactive decay half-life of nuclides has been measured over timescales
of 55 orders of magnitude, from 2.3 x 10−23 seconds (for hydrogen-7) to 6.9 x 1031 seconds (for tellurium-128).[26]
The limits of these timescales are set by the sensitivity of instrumentation only, and there are no known natural limits
to how brief or long a decay half life for radioactive decay of a radionuclide may be.
The decay process, like all hindered energy transformations, may be analogized by a snowfield on a mountain. While
friction between the ice crystals may be supporting the snow’s weight, the system is inherently unstable with regard
to a state of lower potential energy. A disturbance would thus facilitate the path to a state of greater entropy: The
system will move towards the ground state, producing heat, and the total energy will be distributable over a larger
number of quantum states. Thus, an avalanche results. The total energy does not change in this process, but, because
of the second law of thermodynamics, avalanches have only been observed in one direction and that is toward the
"ground state" — the state with the largest number of ways in which the available energy could be distributed.
Such a collapse (a decay event) requires a specific activation energy. For a snow avalanche, this energy comes as a
disturbance from outside the system, although such disturbances can be arbitrarily small. In the case of an excited
atomic nucleus, the arbitrarily small disturbance comes from quantum vacuum fluctuations. A radioactive nucleus (or
any excited system in quantum mechanics) is unstable, and can, thus, spontaneously stabilize to a less-excited system.
The resulting transformation alters the structure of the nucleus and results in the emission of either a photon or a
high-velocity particle that has mass (such as an electron, alpha particle, or other type).

29.8 Occurrence and applications
According to the Big Bang theory, stable isotopes of the lightest five elements (H, He, and traces of Li, Be, and B)
were produced very shortly after the emergence of the universe, in a process called Big Bang nucleosynthesis. These
lightest stable nuclides (including deuterium) survive to today, but any radioactive isotopes of the light elements
produced in the Big Bang (such as tritium) have long since decayed. Isotopes of elements heavier than boron were
not produced at all in the Big Bang, and these first five elements do not have any long-lived radioisotopes. Thus,
all radioactive nuclei are, therefore, relatively young with respect to the birth of the universe, having formed later

268

CHAPTER 29. RADIOACTIVE DECAY

in various other types of nucleosynthesis in stars (in particular, supernovae), and also during ongoing interactions
between stable isotopes and energetic particles. For example, carbon-14, a radioactive nuclide with a half-life of
only 5,730 years, is constantly produced in Earth’s upper atmosphere due to interactions between cosmic rays and
nitrogen.
Nuclides that are produced by radioactive decay are called radiogenic nuclides, whether they themselves are stable or
not. There exist stable radiogenic nuclides that were formed from short-lived extinct radionuclides in the early solar
system.[27][28] The extra presence of these stable radiogenic nuclides (such as Xe-129 from primordial I-129) against
the background of primordial stable nuclides can be inferred by various means.
Radioactive decay has been put to use in the technique of radioisotopic labeling, which is used to track the passage of
a chemical substance through a complex system (such as a living organism). A sample of the substance is synthesized
with a high concentration of unstable atoms. The presence of the substance in one or another part of the system is
determined by detecting the locations of decay events.
On the premise that radioactive decay is truly random (rather than merely chaotic), it has been used in hardware
random-number generators. Because the process is not thought to vary significantly in mechanism over time, it is
also a valuable tool in estimating the absolute ages of certain materials. For geological materials, the radioisotopes
and some of their decay products become trapped when a rock solidifies, and can then later be used (subject to many
well-known qualifications) to estimate the date of the solidification. These include checking the results of several
simultaneous processes and their products against each other, within the same sample. In a similar fashion, and also
subject to qualification, the rate of formation of carbon-14 in various eras, the date of formation of organic matter
within a certain period related to the isotope’s half-life may be estimated, because the carbon-14 becomes trapped
when the organic matter grows and incorporates the new carbon-14 from the air. Thereafter, the amount of carbon14 in organic matter decreases according to decay processes that may also be independently cross-checked by other
means (such as checking the carbon-14 in individual tree rings, for example).

29.9 Origins of radioactive nuclides
Main article: nucleosynthesis
Radioactive primordial nuclides found in the Earth are residues from ancient supernova explosions which occurred
before the formation of the solar system. They are the long-lived fraction of radionuclides surviving in the primordial
solar nebula through planet accretion until the present. The naturally occurring short-lived radiogenic radionuclides
found in rocks are the daughters of these radioactive primordial nuclides. Another minor source of naturally occurring radioactive nuclides are cosmogenic nuclides, formed by cosmic ray bombardment of material in the Earth’s
atmosphere or crust. The radioactive decay of these radionuclides in rocks within Earth’s mantle and crust contribute
significantly to Earth’s internal heat budget.

29.10 Decay chains and multiple modes
The daughter nuclide of a decay event may also be unstable (radioactive). In this case, it will also decay, producing
radiation. The resulting second daughter nuclide may also be radioactive. This can lead to a sequence of several
decay events. Eventually, a stable nuclide is produced. This is called a decay chain (see this article for specific details
of important natural decay chains).
An example is the natural decay chain of 238 U, which is as follows:
• decays, through alpha-emission, with a half-life of 4.5 billion years to thorium-234
• which decays, through beta-emission, with a half-life of 24 days to protactinium-234
• which decays, through beta-emission, with a half-life of 1.2 minutes to uranium-234
• which decays, through alpha-emission, with a half-life of 240 thousand years to thorium-230
• which decays, through alpha-emission, with a half-life of 77 thousand years to radium-226
• which decays, through alpha-emission, with a half-life of 1.6 thousand years to radon-222

29.11. ASSOCIATED HAZARD WARNING SIGNS

269

• which decays, through alpha-emission, with a half-life of 3.8 days to polonium-218
• which decays, through alpha-emission, with a half-life of 3.1 minutes to lead-214
• which decays, through beta-emission, with a half-life of 27 minutes to bismuth-214
• which decays, through beta-emission, with a half-life of 20 minutes to polonium-214
• which decays, through alpha-emission, with a half-life of 160 microseconds to lead-210
• which decays, through beta-emission, with a half-life of 22 years to bismuth-210
• which decays, through beta-emission, with a half-life of 5 days to polonium-210
• which decays, through alpha-emission, with a half-life of 140 days to lead-206, which is a stable nuclide.
Some radionuclides may have several different paths of decay. For example, approximately 36% of bismuth-212
decays, through alpha-emission, to thallium-208 while approximately 64% of bismuth-212 decays, through betaemission, to polonium-212. Both thallium-208 and polonium-212 are radioactive daughter products of bismuth-212,
and both decay directly to stable lead-208.

29.11 Associated hazard warning signs
• The trefoil symbol used to indicate ionising radiation.
• 2007 ISO radioactivity danger symbol intended for IAEA Category 1, 2 and 3 sources defined as dangerous
sources capable of death or serious injury.[1]
• The dangerous goods transport classification sign for radioactive materials
1. ^ IAEA news release Feb 2007

29.12 See also
• Actinides in the environment
• Background radiation
• Chernobyl disaster
• Crimes involving radioactive substances
• Decay chain
• Fallout shelter
• Half-life
• Lists of nuclear disasters and radioactive incidents
• National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements
• Nuclear engineering
• Nuclear medicine
• Nuclear pharmacy
• Nuclear physics
• Nuclear power
• Particle decay

270

CHAPTER 29. RADIOACTIVE DECAY

• Poisson process
• Radiation
• Radiation therapy
• Radioactive contamination
• Radioactivity in biology
• Radiometric dating
• Radionuclide a.k.a. “radio-isotope”
• Secular equilibrium
• Transient equilibrium

29.13 Notes
[1] Radionuclide is the more correct term, but radioisotope is also used. The difference between isotope and nuclide is explained at Isotope#Isotope vs. nuclide.

29.14 References
29.14.1

Inline

[1] “Decay and Half Life”. Retrieved 2009-12-14.
[2] Mould, Richard F. (1995). A century of x-rays and radioactivity in medicine : with emphasis on photographic records of
the early years (Reprint. with minor corr ed.). Bristol: Inst. of Physics Publ. p. 12. ISBN 9780750302241.
[3] Kasimir Fajans, “Radioactive transformations and the periodic system of the elements”. Berichte der Deutschen Chemischen Gesellschaft, Nr. 46, 1913, p. 422–439
[4] Frederick Soddy, “The Radio Elements and the Periodic Law”, Chem. News, Nr. 107, 1913, p.97–99
[5] Sansare, K.; Khanna, V.; Karjodkar, F. (2011). “Early victims of X-rays: a tribute and current perception”. Dentomaxillofacial Radiology 40 (2): 123–125. doi:10.1259/dmfr/73488299. ISSN 0250-832X. PMC 3520298. PMID 21239576.
[6] Ronald L. Kathern and Paul L. Ziemer, he First Fifty Years of Radiation Protection, physics.isu.edu
[7] Hrabak, M.; Padovan, R. S.; Kralik, M.; Ozretic, D.; Potocki, K. (July 2008). “Nikola Tesla and the Discovery of X-rays”.
RadioGraphics 28 (4): 1189–92. doi:10.1148/rg.284075206. PMID 18635636.
[8] Clarke, R.H.; J. Valentin (2009). “The History of ICRP and the Evolution of its Policies”. Annals of the ICRP. ICRP
Publication 109 39 (1): pp. 75–110. doi:10.1016/j.icrp.2009.07.009. Retrieved 12 May 2012.
[9] 10 CFR 20.1004. US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 2009.
[10] The Council of the European Communities (1979-12-21). “Council Directive 80/181/EEC of 20 December 1979 on
the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to Unit of measurement and on the repeal of Directive
71/354/EEC”. Retrieved 19 May 2012.
[11] Radioactive Decay
[12] Patel, S.B. (2000). Nuclear physics : an introduction. New Delhi: New Age International. pp. 62–72. ISBN 9788122401257.
[13] Introductory Nuclear Physics, K.S. Krane, 1988, John Wiley & Sons Inc, ISBN 978-0-471-80553-3
[14] Cetnar, Jerzy (May 2006). “General solution of Bateman equations for nuclear transmutations”. Annals of Nuclear Energy
33 (7): 640–645. doi:10.1016/j.anucene.2006.02.004.
[15] K.S. Krane (1988). Introductory Nuclear Physics. John Wiley & Sons Inc. p. 164. ISBN 978-0-471-80553-3.

29.15. EXTERNAL LINKS

271

[16] Wang, B.; Yan, S.; Limata, B. et al. (2006). “Change of the 7Be electron capture half-life in metallic environments”. The
European Physical Journal A 28 (3): 375–377. doi:10.1140/epja/i2006-10068-x. ISSN 1434-6001.
[17] Jung, M.; Bosch, F.; Beckert, K. et al. (1992). “First observation of bound-state β- decay”. Physical Review Letters 69
(15): 2164–2167. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.69.2164. ISSN 0031-9007. PMID 10046415.
[18] Smoliar, M.I.; Walker, R.J.; Morgan, J.W. (1996). “Re-Os ages of group IIA, IIIA, IVA, and IVB iron meteorites”. Science
271 (5252): 1099–1102. Bibcode:1996Sci...271.1099S. doi:10.1126/science.271.5252.1099.
[19] Bosch, F.; Faestermann, T.; Friese, J.; Heine, F.; Kienle, P.; Wefers, E.; Zeitelhack, K.; Beckert, K.; Franzke, B.; Klepper,
O.; Kozhuharov, C.; Menzel, G.; Moshammer, R.; Nolden, F.; Reich, H.; Schlitt, B.; Steck, M.; Stöhlker, T.; Winkler, T.;
Takahashi, K. (1996). “Observation of bound-state β– decay of fully ionized 187 Re:187 Re-187 Os Cosmochronometry”.
Physical Review Letters 77 (26): 5190–5193. Bibcode:1996PhRvL..77.5190B. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.77.5190. PMID
10062738.
[20] Emery, G.T. (1972). “Perturbation of Nuclear Decay Rates”. Annual Review of Nuclear Science (ACS Publications) 22:
165–202. Bibcode:1972ARNPS..22..165E. doi:10.1146/annurev.ns.22.120172.001121. Retrieved 6 August 2012.
[21] “The mystery of varying nuclear decay”. Physics World. 2 October 2008.
[22] Jenkins, Jere H.; Fischbach, Ephraim (2009). “Perturbation of Nuclear Decay Rates During the Solar Flare of 13 December
2006”. Astroparticle Physics 31 (6): 407–411. arXiv:0808.3156. Bibcode:2009APh....31..407J. doi:10.1016/j.astropartphys.2009.04.005.
[23] Jenkins, J. H.; et al., Ephraim; Buncher, John B.; Gruenwald, John T.; Krause, Dennis E.; Mattes, Joshua J. (2009).
“Evidence of correlations between nuclear decay rates and Earth–Sun distance”. Astroparticle Physics 32 (1): 42–46.
arXiv:0808.3283. Bibcode:2009APh....32...42J. doi:10.1016/j.astropartphys.2009.05.004.
[24] Peter A. Sturrock, Gideon Steinitz, Ephraim Fischbach, Daniel Javorsek, II, Jere H. Jenkins, Analysis of Gamma Radiation
from a Radon Source: Indications of a Solar Influence, Accessed on line September 2, 2012.
[25] Norman, E. B.; et al., Edgardo; Shugart, Howard A.; Joshi, Tenzing H.; Firestone, Richard B. (2009). “Evidence against
correlations between nuclear decay rates and Earth–Sun distance”. Astroparticle Physics 31 (2): 135–137. arXiv:0810.3265.
Bibcode:2009APh....31..135N. doi:10.1016/j.astropartphys.2008.12.004.
[26] NUBASE evaluation of nuclear and decay properties
[27] Clayton, Donald D. (1983). Principles of Stellar Evolution and Nucleosynthesis (2nd ed.). University of Chicago Press. p.
75. ISBN 0-226-10953-4.
[28] Bolt, B. A.; Packard, R. E.; Price, P. B. (2007). “John H. Reynolds, Physics: Berkeley”. The University of California,
Berkeley. Retrieved 2007-10-01.

29.14.2

General

• “Radioactivity”, Encyclopædia Britannica. 2006. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. December 18, 2006
• Radio-activity by Ernest Rutherford Phd, Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition

29.15 External links
• The Lund/LBNL Nuclear Data Search – Contains tabulated information on radioactive decay types and energies.
• Nomenclature of nuclear chemistry
• Specific activity and related topics.
• The Live Chart of Nuclides – IAEA
• Health Physics Society Public Education Website
• Beach, Chandler B., ed. (1914). "Becquerel Rays". The New Student’s Reference Work. Chicago: F. E.
Compton and Co.
• Annotated bibliography for radioactivity from the Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues

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• Stochastic Java applet on the decay of radioactive atoms by Wolfgang Bauer
• Stochastic Flash simulation on the decay of radioactive atoms by David M. Harrison
• “Henri Becquerel: The Discovery of Radioactivity”, Becquerel’s 1896 articles online and analyzed on BibNum
[click 'à télécharger' for English version].
• “Radioactive change”, Rutherford & Soddy article (1903), online and analyzed on Bibnum [click 'à télécharger'
for English version].

29.15. EXTERNAL LINKS

273

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Decay Rate of Radon-222 as a function of date and time of day. The color-bar gives the power of the observed signal and represents
~4% seasonal decay rate variation.

29.15. EXTERNAL LINKS

275

Gamma-ray energy spectrum of uranium ore (inset). Gamma-rays are emitted by decaying nuclides, and the gamma-ray energy can
be used to characterize the decay (which nuclide is decaying to which). Here, using the gamma-ray spectrum, several nuclides that
are typical of the decay chain of 238 U have been identified: 226 Ra, 214 Pb, 214 Bi.

Chapter 30

Star
For other uses, see Star (disambiguation).
A star is a massive, luminous sphere of plasma held together by its own gravity. The nearest star to Earth is the

A star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud. NASA/ESA image.

Sun, which is the source of most of the planet’s energy. Other stars are visible from Earth during the night, appearing
as a multitude of fixed luminous points due to their immense distance. Historically, the most prominent stars were
grouped into constellations and asterisms, and the brightest stars gained proper names. Extensive catalogues of stars
have been assembled by astronomers, which provide standardized star designations.
For at least a portion of its life, a star shines due to thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium in its core, releasing
energy that traverses the star’s interior and then radiates into outer space. Once the hydrogen in the core of a star
is nearly exhausted, almost all naturally occurring elements heavier than helium are created by stellar nucleosynthesis during the star’s lifetime and, for some stars, by supernova nucleosynthesis when it explodes. Near the end of
its life, a star can also contain degenerate matter. Astronomers can determine the mass, age, metallicity (chemical
composition), and many other properties of a star by observing its motion through space, luminosity, and spectrum
respectively. The total mass of a star is the principal determinant of its evolution and eventual fate. Other characteristics of a star, including diameter and temperature, change over its life, while the star’s environment affects its rotation
and movement. A plot of the temperature of many stars against their luminosities, known as a Hertzsprung–Russell
276

30.1. OBSERVATION HISTORY

277

False-color imagery of the Sun, a G-type main-sequence star, the closest to Earth

diagram (H–R diagram), allows the age and evolutionary state of a star to be determined.
A star’s life begins with the gravitational collapse of a gaseous nebula of material composed primarily of hydrogen,
along with helium and trace amounts of heavier elements. Once the stellar core is sufficiently dense, hydrogen becomes
steadily converted into helium through nuclear fusion, releasing energy in the process.[1] The remainder of the star’s
interior carries energy away from the core through a combination of radiative and convective processes. The star’s
internal pressure prevents it from collapsing further under its own gravity. Once the hydrogen fuel at the core is
exhausted, a star with at least 0.4 times the mass of the Sun[2] expands to become a red giant, in some cases fusing
heavier elements at the core or in shells around the core. The star then evolves into a degenerate form, recycling a
portion of its matter into the interstellar environment, where it will contribute to the formation of a new generation of
stars with a higher proportion of heavy elements.[3] Meanwhile, the core becomes a stellar remnant: a white dwarf,
a neutron star, or (if it is sufficiently massive) a black hole.
Binary and multi-star systems consist of two or more stars that are gravitationally bound, and generally move around
each other in stable orbits. When two such stars have a relatively close orbit, their gravitational interaction can have
a significant impact on their evolution.[4] Stars can form part of a much larger gravitationally bound structure, such
as a star cluster or a galaxy.

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People have seen patterns in the stars since ancient times.[5] This 1690 depiction of the constellation of Leo, the lion, is by Johannes
Hevelius.[6]

30.1 Observation history
Historically, stars have been important to civilizations throughout the world. They have been part of religious practices and used for celestial navigation and orientation. Many ancient astronomers believed that stars were permanently affixed to a heavenly sphere, and that they were immutable. By convention, astronomers grouped stars into
constellations and used them to track the motions of the planets and the inferred position of the Sun.[5] The motion of
the Sun against the background stars (and the horizon) was used to create calendars, which could be used to regulate
agricultural practices.[7] The Gregorian calendar, currently used nearly everywhere in the world, is a solar calendar
based on the angle of the Earth’s rotational axis relative to its local star, the Sun.
The oldest accurately dated star chart appeared in ancient Egyptian astronomy in 1534 BC.[8] The earliest known star
catalogues were compiled by the ancient Babylonian astronomers of Mesopotamia in the late 2nd millennium BC,
during the Kassite Period (ca. 1531–1155 BC).[9]
The first star catalogue in Greek astronomy was created by Aristillus in approximately 300 BC, with the help of
Timocharis.[10] The star catalog of Hipparchus (2nd century BC) included 1020 stars and was used to assemble
Ptolemy's star catalogue.[11] Hipparchus is known for the discovery of the first recorded nova (new star).[12] Many of
the constellations and star names in use today derive from Greek astronomy.
In spite of the apparent immutability of the heavens, Chinese astronomers were aware that new stars could appear.[13]
In 185 AD, they were the first to observe and write about a supernova, now known as the SN 185.[14] The brightest
stellar event in recorded history was the SN 1006 supernova, which was observed in 1006 and written about by the
Egyptian astronomer Ali ibn Ridwan and several Chinese astronomers.[15] The SN 1054 supernova, which gave birth
to the Crab Nebula, was also observed by Chinese and Islamic astronomers.[16][17][18]
Medieval Islamic astronomers gave Arabic names to many stars that are still used today, and they invented numerous
astronomical instruments that could compute the positions of the stars. They built the first large observatory research
institutes, mainly for the purpose of producing Zij star catalogues.[19] Among these, the Book of Fixed Stars (964) was
written by the Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, who observed a number of stars, star clusters (including
the Omicron Velorum and Brocchi’s Clusters) and galaxies (including the Andromeda Galaxy).[20] According to A.

30.1. OBSERVATION HISTORY

The constellation of Leo as it can be seen by the naked eye. Lines have been added.

279

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Zahoor, in the 11th century, the Persian polymath scholar Abu Rayhan Biruni described the Milky Way galaxy as a
multitude of fragments having the properties of nebulous stars, and also gave the latitudes of various stars during a
lunar eclipse in 1019.[21]
According to Josep Puig, the Andalusian astronomer Ibn Bajjah proposed that the Milky Way was made up of many
stars which almost touched one another and appeared to be a continuous image due to the effect of refraction from
sublunary material, citing his observation of the conjunction of Jupiter and Mars on 500 AH (1106/1107 AD) as
evidence.[22] Early European astronomers such as Tycho Brahe identified new stars in the night sky (later termed
novae), suggesting that the heavens were not immutable. In 1584 Giordano Bruno suggested that the stars were like
the Sun, and may have other planets, possibly even Earth-like, in orbit around them,[23] an idea that had been suggested
earlier by the ancient Greek philosophers, Democritus and Epicurus,[24] and by medieval Islamic cosmologists[25] such
as Fakhr al-Din al-Razi.[26] By the following century, the idea of the stars being the same as the Sun was reaching
a consensus among astronomers. To explain why these stars exerted no net gravitational pull on the Solar System,
Isaac Newton suggested that the stars were equally distributed in every direction, an idea prompted by the theologian
Richard Bentley.[27]
The Italian astronomer Geminiano Montanari recorded observing variations in luminosity of the star Algol in 1667.
Edmond Halley published the first measurements of the proper motion of a pair of nearby “fixed” stars, demonstrating
that they had changed positions from the time of the ancient Greek astronomers Ptolemy and Hipparchus.[23]
William Herschel was the first astronomer to attempt to determine the distribution of stars in the sky. During the
1780s, he performed a series of gauges in 600 directions, and counted the stars observed along each line of sight.
From this he deduced that the number of stars steadily increased toward one side of the sky, in the direction of the
Milky Way core. His son John Herschel repeated this study in the southern hemisphere and found a corresponding
increase in the same direction.[28] In addition to his other accomplishments, William Herschel is also noted for his
discovery that some stars do not merely lie along the same line of sight, but are also physical companions that form
binary star systems.
The science of stellar spectroscopy was pioneered by Joseph von Fraunhofer and Angelo Secchi. By comparing the
spectra of stars such as Sirius to the Sun, they found differences in the strength and number of their absorption lines—
the dark lines in a stellar spectra due to the absorption of specific frequencies by the atmosphere. In 1865 Secchi
began classifying stars into spectral types.[29] However, the modern version of the stellar classification scheme was
developed by Annie J. Cannon during the 1900s.

Alpha Centauri A and B over limb of Saturn

The first direct measurement of the distance to a star (61 Cygni at 11.4 light-years) was made in 1838 by Friedrich
Bessel using the parallax technique. Parallax measurements demonstrated the vast separation of the stars in the
heavens.[23] Observation of double stars gained increasing importance during the 19th century. In 1834, Friedrich
Bessel observed changes in the proper motion of the star Sirius, and inferred a hidden companion. Edward Pickering
discovered the first spectroscopic binary in 1899 when he observed the periodic splitting of the spectral lines of the
star Mizar in a 104-day period. Detailed observations of many binary star systems were collected by astronomers
such as William Struve and S. W. Burnham, allowing the masses of stars to be determined from computation of the

30.2. DESIGNATIONS

281

orbital elements. The first solution to the problem of deriving an orbit of binary stars from telescope observations
was made by Felix Savary in 1827.[30] The twentieth century saw increasingly rapid advances in the scientific study
of stars. The photograph became a valuable astronomical tool. Karl Schwarzschild discovered that the color of a
star, and hence its temperature, could be determined by comparing the visual magnitude against the photographic
magnitude. The development of the photoelectric photometer allowed very precise measurements of magnitude at
multiple wavelength intervals. In 1921 Albert A. Michelson made the first measurements of a stellar diameter using
an interferometer on the Hooker telescope.[31]
Important theoretical work on the physical structure of stars occurred during the first decades of the twentieth century.
In 1913, the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram was developed, propelling the astrophysical study of stars. Successful
models were developed to explain the interiors of stars and stellar evolution. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin first proposed
that stars were made primarily of hydrogen and helium in her 1925 PhD thesis.[32] The spectra of stars were further
understood through advances in quantum physics. This allowed the chemical composition of the stellar atmosphere
to be determined.[33]
With the exception of supernovae, individual stars have primarily been observed in our Local Group of galaxies,[34]
and especially in the visible part of the Milky Way (as demonstrated by the detailed star catalogues available for our
galaxy).[35] But some stars have been observed in the M100 galaxy of the Virgo Cluster, about 100 million light years
from the Earth.[36] In the Local Supercluster it is possible to see star clusters, and current telescopes could in principle
observe faint individual stars in the Local Cluster[37] (see Cepheids). However, outside the Local Supercluster of
galaxies, neither individual stars nor clusters of stars have been observed. The only exception is a faint image of a
large star cluster containing hundreds of thousands of stars located at a distance of one billion light years[38] —ten
times further than the most distant star cluster previously observed.

30.2 Designations
Main articles: Star designation, Astronomical naming conventions and Star catalogue
The concept of the constellation was known to exist during the Babylonian period. Ancient sky watchers imagined
that prominent arrangements of stars formed patterns, and they associated these with particular aspects of nature or
their myths. Twelve of these formations lay along the band of the ecliptic and these became the basis of astrology.[39]
Many of the more prominent individual stars were also given names, particularly with Arabic or Latin designations.
As well as certain constellations and the Sun itself, individual stars have their own myths.[40] To the Ancient Greeks,
some “stars”, known as planets (Greek πλανήτης (planētēs), meaning “wanderer”), represented various important
deities, from which the names of the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were taken.[40] (Uranus and
Neptune were also Greek and Roman gods, but neither planet was known in Antiquity because of their low brightness.
Their names were assigned by later astronomers.)
Circa 1600, the names of the constellations were used to name the stars in the corresponding regions of the sky.
The German astronomer Johann Bayer created a series of star maps and applied Greek letters as designations to the
stars in each constellation. Later a numbering system based on the star’s right ascension was invented and added to
John Flamsteed's star catalogue in his book “Historia coelestis Britannica” (the 1712 edition), whereby this numbering
system came to be called Flamsteed designation or Flamsteed numbering.[41][42]
The only internationally recognized authority for naming celestial bodies is the International Astronomical Union
(IAU).[43] A number of private companies sell names of stars, which the British Library calls an unregulated commercial
enterprise.[44][45] However, the IAU has disassociated itself from this commercial practice, and these names are neither recognized by the IAU nor used by them.[46] One such star naming company is the International Star Registry,
which, during the 1980s, was accused of deceptive practice for making it appear that the assigned name was official.
This now-discontinued ISR practice was informally labeled a scam and a fraud,[47][48][49][50] and the New York City
Department of Consumer Affairs issued a violation against ISR for engaging in a deceptive trade practice.[51][52]

30.3 Units of measurement
Although stellar parameters can be expressed in SI units or CGS units, it is often most convenient to express mass,
luminosity, and radii in solar units, based on the characteristics of the Sun:

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This view contains blue stars known as "Blue stragglers", for their apparent location on the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram

Large lengths, such as the radius of a giant star or the semi-major axis of a binary star system, are often expressed in
terms of the astronomical unit (AU)—approximately the mean distance between the Earth and the Sun (150 million
km or 93 million miles).

30.4 Formation and evolution
Main article: Stellar evolution
Stars form within extended regions of higher density in the interstellar medium, although the density is still lower
than the inside of a vacuum chamber. These regions - known as molecular clouds - consist mostly of hydrogen, with
about 23 to 28 percent helium and a few percent heavier elements. One example of such a star-forming region is the
Orion Nebula.[55] As massive stars form from molecular clouds, they powerfully illuminate those clouds. They also
ionize the hydrogen, creating an H II region.
All stars spend the majority of their existence as main sequence stars, fueled primarily by the nuclear fusion of
hydrogen into helium within their cores. However, stars of different masses have markedly different properties at
various stages of their development. The ultimate fate of more massive stars differs from that of less massive stars,
as do their luminosity and the impact they have on their environment. Accordingly, astronomers often group stars by
their mass:[56]
• Very low mass stars with masses below 0.5 M☉ do not enter the asymptotic giant branch (AGB) but evolve
directly into white dwarfs
• Low mass stars (including the Sun) with a mass above about 0.5 and below about 1.8–2.2 M☉ (depending on
composition) do enter the AGB, where they develop a degenerate helium core

30.4. FORMATION AND EVOLUTION

283

• Intermediate-mass stars undergo helium fusion and develop a degenerate carbon-oxygen core. Massive stars
have a minimum mass of 7–10 M☉, but this may be as low as 5–6 M☉. These stars undergo carbon fusion,
with their lives ending in a core-collapse supernova explosion.

30.4.1

Protostar formation

Main article: Star formation
The formation of a star begins with gravitational instability within a molecular cloud, caused by regions of higher
density - often triggered by shock-waves from nearby supernovae (massive stellar explosions), the collision of different
molecular clouds, or the collision of galaxies (as in a starburst galaxy). Once a region reaches a sufficient density of
matter to satisfy the criteria for Jeans instability, it begins to collapse under its own gravitational force.[57]

Artist’s conception of the birth of a star within a dense molecular cloud. NASA image

As the cloud collapses, individual conglomerations of dense dust and gas form "Bok globules". As a globule collapses
and the density increases, the gravitational energy converts into heat and the temperature rises. When the protostellar
cloud has approximately reached the stable condition of hydrostatic equilibrium, a protostar forms at the core.[58]
These pre–main sequence stars are often surrounded by a protoplanetary disk and powered mainly by the release of
gravitational energy. The period of gravitational contraction lasts about 10 to 15 million years.
Early stars of less than 2 M☉ are called T Tauri stars, while those with greater mass are Herbig Ae/Be stars. These
newly formed stars emit jets of gas along their axis of rotation, which may reduce the angular momentum of the
collapsing star and result in small patches of nebulosity known as Herbig–Haro objects.[59][60] These jets, in combination with radiation from nearby massive stars, may help to drive away the surrounding cloud from which the star
was formed.[61]
Early in their development, T Tauri stars follow the Hayashi track—they contract and decrease in luminosity while
remaining at roughly the same temperature. Less massive T Tauri stars follow this track to the main sequence, while
more massive stars turn onto the Henyey track.

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CHAPTER 30. STAR

Main sequence

Main article: Main sequence
Stars spend about 90% of their existence fusing hydrogen into helium in high-temperature and high-pressure reactions
near the core. Such stars are said to be on the main sequence and are called dwarf stars. Starting at zero-age main
sequence, the proportion of helium in a star’s core will steadily increase, the rate of nuclear fusion at the core will
slowly increase, as will the star’s temperature and luminosity.[62] The Sun, for example, is estimated to have increased
in luminosity by about 40% since it reached the main sequence 4.6 billion (4.6 × 109 ) years ago.[63]
Every star generates a stellar wind of particles that causes a continual outflow of gas into space. For most stars, the
mass lost is negligible. The Sun loses 10−14 M☉ every year,[64] or about 0.01% of its total mass over its entire lifespan.
However, very massive stars can lose 10−7 to 10−5 M☉ each year, significantly affecting their evolution.[65] Stars that
begin with more than 50 M☉ can lose over half their total mass while on the main sequence.[66]

An example of a Hertzsprung–Russell diagram for a set of stars that includes the Sun (center). (See “Classification” below.)

30.4. FORMATION AND EVOLUTION

285

The duration that a star spends on the main sequence depends primarily on the amount of fuel it has to fuse and the
rate at which it fuses that fuel, i.e. its initial mass and its luminosity. For the Sun, its life is estimated to be about
10 billion (1010 ) years. Massive stars consume their fuel very rapidly and are short-lived. Low mass stars consume
their fuel very slowly. Stars less massive than 0.25 M☉, called red dwarfs, are able to fuse nearly all of their mass
as fuel while stars of about 1 M☉ can only use about 10% of their mass as fuel. The combination of their slow fuelconsumption and relatively large usable fuel supply allows about 0.25 M☉ stars to last for about one trillion (1012 )
years according to stellar-evolution calculations, while the least-massive hydrogen-fusing stars (0.08 M☉) will last
for about 12 trillion years.[67] At the end of their lives, red dwarfs simply become dimmer and dimmer.[2] However,
since the lifespan of such stars is greater than the current age of the universe (13.8 billion years), no stars under about
0.85 M☉[68] are expected to have moved off the main sequence.
Besides mass, the elements heavier than helium can play a significant role in the evolution of stars. Astronomers consider all elements heavier than helium “metals”, and call the chemical concentration of these elements the metallicity.
The metallicity can influence the duration that a star will burn its fuel, control the formation of magnetic fields[69]
and modify the strength of the stellar wind.[70] Older, population II stars have substantially less metallicity than the
younger, population I stars due to the composition of the molecular clouds from which they formed. Over time these
clouds become increasingly enriched in heavier elements as older stars die and shed portions of their atmospheres.

30.4.3

Post-main sequence

Main article: Red giant
As stars of at least 0.4 M☉[2] exhaust their supply of hydrogen at their core, their outer layers expand greatly and cool
to form a red giant. In about 5 billion years, when the Sun enters this phase, it will expand to a maximum radius of
roughly 1 astronomical unit (150 million kilometres), 250 times its present size. As a giant, the Sun will lose roughly
30% of its current mass.[63][71]
In a red giant of up to 2.25 M☉, hydrogen fusion proceeds in a shell surrounding the core.[72] Eventually the core is
compressed enough to start helium fusion, and the star now gradually shrinks in radius and its surface temperature
increases. For larger stars, the core region transitions directly from fusing hydrogen to fusing helium.[4]
After the star has consumed the helium at the core, fusion continues in a shell around a hot core of carbon and
oxygen. The star then follows an evolutionary path that parallels the original red giant phase, but at a higher surfacetemperature.

Massive stars
Main article: Red supergiant
During their helium-burning phase, very high-mass stars with more than nine solar masses expand to form red supergiants. Once this fuel is exhausted at the core, they continue to fuse elements heavier than helium.
The core contracts until the temperature and pressure suffice to fuse carbon (see carbon burning process). This process
continues, with the successive stages being fueled by neon (see neon burning process), oxygen (see oxygen burning
process), and silicon (see silicon burning process). Near the end of the star’s life, fusion continues along a series of
onion-layer shells within the star. Each shell fuses a different element, with the outermost shell fusing hydrogen; the
next shell fusing helium, and so forth.[73]
The final stage occurs when a massive star begins producing iron. Since iron nuclei are more tightly bound than any
heavier nuclei, any fusion beyond iron does not produce a net release of energy—the process would, on the contrary,
consume energy. Likewise, since they are more tightly bound than all lighter nuclei, energy cannot be released by
fission.[72] In relatively old, very massive stars, a large core of inert iron will accumulate in the center of the star. The
heavier elements in these stars can work their way to the surface, forming evolved objects known as Wolf-Rayet stars
that have a dense stellar wind which sheds the outer atmosphere.

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Collapse
As a star’s core shrinks, the intensity of radiation from that surface increases, creating such radiation pressure on the
outer shell of gas that it will push those layers away, forming a planetary nebula. If what remains after the outer
atmosphere has been shed is less than 1.4 M☉, it shrinks to a relatively tiny object about the size of Earth, known
as a white dwarf. White dwarfs lack the mass for further gravitational compression to take place.[74] The electrondegenerate matter inside a white dwarf is no longer a plasma, even though stars are generally referred to as being
spheres of plasma. Eventually, white dwarfs fade into black dwarfs over a very long period of time.

The Crab Nebula, remnants of a supernova that was first observed around 1050 AD

In larger stars, fusion continues until the iron core has grown so large (more than 1.4 M☉) that it can no longer support
its own mass. This core will suddenly collapse as its electrons are driven into its protons, forming neutrons, neutrinos
and gamma rays in a burst of electron capture and inverse beta decay. The shockwave formed by this sudden collapse
causes the rest of the star to explode in a supernova. Supernovae become so bright that they may briefly outshine the
star’s entire home galaxy. When they occur within the Milky Way, supernovae have historically been observed by
naked-eye observers as “new stars” where none seemingly existed before.[75]
Supernova explosions blow away most of their stars’ matter (forming nebulae such as the Crab Nebula).[75] There
remains a neutron star (which sometimes manifests itself as a pulsar or X-ray burster) or, in the case of the largest
stars (large enough to leave a remnant greater than roughly 4 M☉), a black hole.[76] In a neutron star the matter is
in a state known as neutron-degenerate matter, with a more exotic form of degenerate matter, QCD matter, possibly

30.5. DISTRIBUTION

287

present in the core. Within a black hole the matter is in a state that is not currently understood.
The blown-off outer layers of dying stars include heavy elements, which may be recycled during the formation of new
stars. These heavy elements allow the formation of rocky planets. The outflow from supernovae and the stellar wind
of large stars play an important part in shaping the interstellar medium.[75]

30.5 Distribution

A white dwarf star in orbit around Sirius (artist’s impression). NASA image

In addition to isolated stars, a multi-star system can consist of two or more gravitationally bound stars that orbit each
other. The simplest and most common multi-star system is a binary star, but systems of three or more stars are also
found. For reasons of orbital stability, such multi-star systems are often organized into hierarchical sets of binary
stars.[77] Larger groups called star clusters also exist. These range from loose stellar associations with only a few stars,
up to enormous globular clusters with hundreds of thousands of stars.
It has been a long-held assumption that the majority of stars occur in gravitationally bound, multiple-star systems.
This is particularly true for very massive O and B class stars, where 80% of the stars are believed to be part of
multiple-star systems. However the proportion of single star systems increases for smaller stars, so that only 25% of
red dwarfs are known to have stellar companions. As 85% of all stars are red dwarfs, most stars in the Milky Way
are likely single from birth.[78]
Stars are not spread uniformly across the universe, but are normally grouped into galaxies along with interstellar gas
and dust. A typical galaxy contains hundreds of billions of stars, and there are more than 100 billion (1011 ) galaxies
in the observable universe.[79] A 2010 star count estimate was 300 sextillion (3 × 1023 ) in the observable universe.[80]
While it is often believed that stars only exist within galaxies, intergalactic stars have been discovered.[81]
The nearest star to the Earth, apart from the Sun, is Proxima Centauri, which is 39.9 trillion kilometres, or 4.2 lightyears away. Travelling at the orbital speed of the Space Shuttle (8 kilometres per second—almost 30,000 kilometres
per hour), it would take about 150,000 years to get there.[82] Distances like this are typical inside galactic discs,
including in the vicinity of the solar system.[83] Stars can be much closer to each other in the centres of galaxies and

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in globular clusters, or much farther apart in galactic halos.
Due to the relatively vast distances between stars outside the galactic nucleus, collisions between stars are thought
to be rare. In denser regions such as the core of globular clusters or the galactic center, collisions can be more
common.[84] Such collisions can produce what are known as blue stragglers. These abnormal stars have a higher
surface temperature than the other main sequence stars with the same luminosity in the cluster.[85]

30.6 Characteristics

The Sun is the nearest star to Earth.

Almost everything about a star is determined by its initial mass, including essential characteristics such as luminosity
and size, as well as its evolution, lifespan, and eventual fate.

30.6.1

Age

Most stars are between 1 billion and 10 billion years old. Some stars may even be close to 13.8 billion years old—the
observed age of the universe. The oldest star yet discovered, HD 140283, nicknamed Methuselah star, is an estimated
14.46 ± 0.8 billion years old.[86] (Due to the uncertainty in the value, this age for the star does not conflict with the
age of the Universe, determined by the Planck satellite as 13.798 ± 0.037.[86] )
The more massive the star, the shorter its lifespan, primarily because massive stars have greater pressure on their
cores, causing them to burn hydrogen more rapidly. The most massive stars last an average of a few million years,
while stars of minimum mass (red dwarfs) burn their fuel very slowly and can last tens to hundreds of billions of
years.[87][88]

30.6. CHARACTERISTICS

30.6.2

289

Chemical composition

See also: Metallicity and Molecules in stars

“From a chemist’s point of view, the surface or interior of a star…is boring—there are no molecules
there.”--Roald Hoffmann[89]
When stars form in the present Milky Way galaxy they are composed of about 71% hydrogen and 27% helium,[90]
as measured by mass, with a small fraction of heavier elements. Typically the portion of heavy elements is measured
in terms of the iron content of the stellar atmosphere, as iron is a common element and its absorption lines are
relatively easy to measure. Because the molecular clouds where stars form are steadily enriched by heavier elements,
a measurement of the chemical composition of a star can be used to infer its age.[91] The portion of heavier elements
may also be an indicator of the likelihood that the star has a planetary system.[92]
The star with the lowest iron content ever measured is the dwarf HE1327-2326, with only 1/200,000th the iron
content of the Sun.[93] By contrast, the super-metal-rich star μ Leonis has nearly double the abundance of iron as the
Sun, while the planet-bearing star 14 Herculis has nearly triple the iron.[94] There also exist chemically peculiar stars
that show unusual abundances of certain elements in their spectrum; especially chromium and rare earth elements.[95]

30.6.3

Diameter

Stars vary widely in size. In each image in the sequence, the right-most object appears as the left-most object in the next panel. The
Earth appears at right in panel 1 and the Sun is second from the right in panel 3. The rightmost star at panel 6 is UY Scuti, the largest
known star.

Due to their great distance from the Earth, all stars except the Sun appear to the unaided eye as shining points in the
night sky that twinkle because of the effect of the Earth’s atmosphere. The Sun is also a star, but it is close enough to
the Earth to appear as a disk instead, and to provide daylight. Other than the Sun, the star with the largest apparent
size is R Doradus, with an angular diameter of only 0.057 arcseconds.[96]
The disks of most stars are much too small in angular size to be observed with current ground-based optical telescopes,
and so interferometer telescopes are required to produce images of these objects. Another technique for measuring

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the angular size of stars is through occultation. By precisely measuring the drop in brightness of a star as it is occulted
by the Moon (or the rise in brightness when it reappears), the star’s angular diameter can be computed.[97]
Stars range in size from neutron stars, which vary anywhere from 20 to 40 km (25 mi) in diameter, to supergiants
like Betelgeuse in the Orion constellation, which has a diameter approximately 650 times that of the Sun—about
900,000,000 km (559,234,073 mi). Betelgeuse, however, has a much lower density than the Sun.[98]

30.6.4

Kinematics

Main article: Stellar kinematics
The motion of a star relative to the Sun can provide useful information about the origin and age of a star, as well

The Pleiades, an open cluster of stars in the constellation of Taurus. These stars share a common motion through space.[99] NASA
photo

as the structure and evolution of the surrounding galaxy. The components of motion of a star consist of the radial
velocity toward or away from the Sun, and the traverse angular movement, which is called its proper motion.
Radial velocity is measured by the doppler shift of the star’s spectral lines, and is given in units of km/s. The proper
motion of a star is determined by precise astrometric measurements in units of milli-arc seconds (mas) per year.
By determining the parallax of a star, the proper motion can then be converted into units of velocity. Stars with
high rates of proper motion are likely to be relatively close to the Sun, making them good candidates for parallax
measurements.[100]
Once both rates of movement are known, the space velocity of the star relative to the Sun or the galaxy can be
computed. Among nearby stars, it has been found that younger population I stars have generally lower velocities
than older, population II stars. The latter have elliptical orbits that are inclined to the plane of the galaxy.[101] A
comparison of the kinematics of nearby stars has also led to the identification of stellar associations. These are most
likely groups of stars that share a common point of origin in giant molecular clouds.[102]

30.6. CHARACTERISTICS

30.6.5

291

Magnetic field

Main article: Stellar magnetic field
The magnetic field of a star is generated within regions of the interior where convective circulation occurs. This

Surface magnetic field of SU Aur (a young star of T Tauri type), reconstructed by means of Zeeman-Doppler imaging

movement of conductive plasma functions like a dynamo, generating magnetic fields that extend throughout the star.
The strength of the magnetic field varies with the mass and composition of the star, and the amount of magnetic
surface activity depends upon the star’s rate of rotation. This surface activity produces starspots, which are regions
of strong magnetic fields and lower than normal surface temperatures. Coronal loops are arching magnetic fields that
reach out into the corona from active regions. Stellar flares are bursts of high-energy particles that are emitted due to
the same magnetic activity.[103]
Young, rapidly rotating stars tend to have high levels of surface activity because of their magnetic field. The magnetic
field can act upon a star’s stellar wind, functioning as a brake to gradually slow the rate of rotation with time. Thus,
older stars such as the Sun have a much slower rate of rotation and a lower level of surface activity. The activity levels
of slowly rotating stars tend to vary in a cyclical manner and can shut down altogether for periods of time.[104] During
the Maunder minimum, for example, the Sun underwent a 70-year period with almost no sunspot activity.

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CHAPTER 30. STAR

Mass

Main article: Stellar mass
One of the most massive stars known is Eta Carinae,[105] which, with 100–150 times as much mass as the Sun, will
have a lifespan of only several million years. A study of the Arches cluster suggests that 150 M☉ is the upper limit
for stars in the current era of the universe.[106] The reason for this limit is not precisely known, but it is partially due
to the Eddington luminosity which defines the maximum amount of luminosity that can pass through the atmosphere
of a star without ejecting the gases into space. However, a star named R136a1 in the Large Magellanic Cloud, RMC
136a star cluster has been measured at 265 M☉, which puts this limit into question.[107] A study determined that stars
larger than 150 M☉ in R136 were created through the collision and merger of massive stars in close binary systems,
providing a way to sidestep the 150 M☉ limit.[108]

The reflection nebula NGC 1999 is brilliantly illuminated by V380 Orionis (center), a variable star with about 3.5 times the mass of
the Sun. The black patch of sky is a vast hole of empty space and not a dark nebula as previously thought. NASA image

The first stars to form after the Big Bang may have been larger, up to 300 M☉ or more,[109] due to the complete
absence of elements heavier than lithium in their composition. This generation of supermassive, population III stars
is long extinct, however, and currently only theoretical.
With a mass only 93 times that of Jupiter (MJ), AB Doradus C, a companion to AB Doradus A, is the smallest

30.7. RADIATION

293

known star undergoing nuclear fusion in its core.[110] For stars with similar metallicity to the Sun, the theoretical
minimum mass the star can have, and still undergo fusion at the core, is estimated to be about 75 MJ.[111][112] When
the metallicity is very low, however, a recent study of the faintest stars found that the minimum star size seems to
be about 8.3% of the solar mass, or about 87 MJ.[112][113] Smaller bodies are called brown dwarfs, which occupy a
poorly defined grey area between stars and gas giants.
The combination of the radius and the mass of a star determines the surface gravity. Giant stars have a much lower
surface gravity than main sequence stars, while the opposite is the case for degenerate, compact stars such as white
dwarfs. The surface gravity can influence the appearance of a star’s spectrum, with higher gravity causing a broadening
of the absorption lines.[33]

30.6.7

Rotation

Main article: Stellar rotation
The rotation rate of stars can be determined through spectroscopic measurement, or more exactly determined by
tracking the rotation rate of starspots. Young stars can have a rapid rate of rotation greater than 100 km/s at the
equator. The B-class star Achernar, for example, has an equatorial rotation velocity of about 225 km/s or greater,
causing its equator to be slung outward and giving it an equatorial diameter that is more than 50% larger than the
distance between the poles. This rate of rotation is just below the critical velocity of 300 km/s where the star would
break apart.[114] By contrast, the Sun only rotates once every 25 – 35 days, with an equatorial velocity of 1.994 km/s.
The star’s magnetic field and the stellar wind serve to slow a main sequence star’s rate of rotation by a significant
amount as it evolves on the main sequence.[115]
Degenerate stars have contracted into a compact mass, resulting in a rapid rate of rotation. However they have
relatively low rates of rotation compared to what would be expected by conservation of angular momentum—the
tendency of a rotating body to compensate for a contraction in size by increasing its rate of spin. A large portion of
the star’s angular momentum is dissipated as a result of mass loss through the stellar wind.[116] In spite of this, the
rate of rotation for a pulsar can be very rapid. The pulsar at the heart of the Crab nebula, for example, rotates 30
times per second.[117] The rotation rate of the pulsar will gradually slow due to the emission of radiation.

30.6.8

Temperature

The surface temperature of a main sequence star is determined by the rate of energy production at the core and by
its radius, and is often estimated from the star’s color index.[118] The temperature is normally given as the effective
temperature, which is the temperature of an idealized black body that radiates its energy at the same luminosity per
surface area as the star. Note that the effective temperature is only a representative value, as the temperature increases
toward the core.[119] The temperature in the core region of a star is several million kelvins.[120]
The stellar temperature will determine the rate of ionization of various elements, resulting in characteristic absorption
lines in the spectrum. The surface temperature of a star, along with its visual absolute magnitude and absorption
features, is used to classify a star (see classification below).[33]
Massive main sequence stars can have surface temperatures of 50,000 K. Smaller stars such as the Sun have surface
temperatures of a few thousand K. Red giants have relatively low surface temperatures of about 3,600 K; but they
also have a high luminosity due to their large exterior surface area.[121]

30.7 Radiation
The energy produced by stars, as a product of nuclear fusion, radiates into space as both electromagnetic radiation
and particle radiation. The particle radiation emitted by a star is manifested as the stellar wind,[122] which streams
from the outer layers as free protons, and electrically charged alpha, and beta particles. Although almost massless
there also exists a steady stream of neutrinos emanating from the star’s core.
The production of energy at the core is the reason stars shine so brightly: every time two or more atomic nuclei fuse
together to form a single atomic nucleus of a new heavier element, gamma ray photons are released from the nuclear
fusion product. This energy is converted to other forms of electromagnetic energy of lower frequency, such as visible
light, by the time it reaches the star’s outer layers.

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The color of a star, as determined by the most intense frequency of the visible light, depends on the temperature of
the star’s outer layers, including its photosphere.[123] Besides visible light, stars also emit forms of electromagnetic
radiation that are invisible to the human eye. In fact, stellar electromagnetic radiation spans the entire electromagnetic
spectrum, from the longest wavelengths of radio waves through infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, to the shortest
of X-rays, and gamma rays. From the standpoint of total energy emitted by a star, not all components of stellar
electromagnetic radiation are significant, but all frequencies provide insight into the star’s physics.
Using the stellar spectrum, astronomers can also determine the surface temperature, surface gravity, metallicity and
rotational velocity of a star. If the distance of the star is known, such as by measuring the parallax, then the luminosity of the star can be derived. The mass, radius, surface gravity, and rotation period can then be estimated
based on stellar models. (Mass can be calculated for stars in binary systems by measuring their orbital velocities and
distances. Gravitational microlensing has been used to measure the mass of a single star.[124] ) With these parameters,
astronomers can also estimate the age of the star.[125]

30.7.1

Luminosity

The luminosity of a star is the amount of light and other forms of radiant energy it radiates per unit of time. It has
units of power. The luminosity of a star is determined by the radius and the surface temperature. However, many
stars do not radiate a uniform flux (the amount of energy radiated per unit area) across their entire surface. The
rapidly rotating star Vega, for example, has a higher energy flux at its poles than along its equator.[126]
Surface patches with a lower temperature and luminosity than average are known as starspots. Small, dwarf stars such
as our Sun generally have essentially featureless disks with only small starspots. Larger, giant stars have much larger,
more obvious starspots,[127] and they also exhibit strong stellar limb darkening. That is, the brightness decreases
towards the edge of the stellar disk.[128] Red dwarf flare stars such as UV Ceti may also possess prominent starspot
features.[129]

30.7.2

Magnitude

Main articles: Apparent magnitude and Absolute magnitude
The apparent brightness of a star is expressed in terms of its apparent magnitude, which is the brightness of a star
and is a function of the star’s luminosity, distance from Earth, and the altering of the star’s light as it passes through
Earth’s atmosphere. Intrinsic or absolute magnitude is directly related to a star’s luminosity and is what the apparent
magnitude a star would be if the distance between the Earth and the star were 10 parsecs (32.6 light-years).
Both the apparent and absolute magnitude scales are logarithmic units: one whole number difference in magnitude is
equal to a brightness variation of about 2.5 times[131] (the 5th root of 100 or approximately 2.512). This means that
a first magnitude star (+1.00) is about 2.5 times brighter than a second magnitude (+2.00) star, and approximately
100 times brighter than a sixth magnitude star (+6.00). The faintest stars visible to the naked eye under good seeing
conditions are about magnitude +6.
On both apparent and absolute magnitude scales, the smaller the magnitude number, the brighter the star; the larger
the magnitude number, the fainter. The brightest stars, on either scale, have negative magnitude numbers. The
variation in brightness (ΔL) between two stars is calculated by subtracting the magnitude number of the brighter star
(m ) from the magnitude number of the fainter star (m ), then using the difference as an exponent for the base number
2.512; that is to say:

∆m = mf − mb
2.512∆m = ∆L
Relative to both luminosity and distance from Earth, a star’s absolute magnitude (M) and apparent magnitude (m)
are not equivalent;[131] for example, the bright star Sirius has an apparent magnitude of −1.44, but it has an absolute
magnitude of +1.41.
The Sun has an apparent magnitude of −26.7, but its absolute magnitude is only +4.83. Sirius, the brightest star in
the night sky as seen from Earth, is approximately 23 times more luminous than the Sun, while Canopus, the second
brightest star in the night sky with an absolute magnitude of −5.53, is approximately 14,000 times more luminous than

30.8. CLASSIFICATION

295

the Sun. Despite Canopus being vastly more luminous than Sirius, however, Sirius appears brighter than Canopus.
This is because Sirius is merely 8.6 light-years from the Earth, while Canopus is much farther away at a distance of
310 light-years.
As of 2006, the star with the highest known absolute magnitude is LBV 1806-20, with a magnitude of −14.2. This
star is at least 5,000,000 times more luminous than the Sun.[132] The least luminous stars that are currently known are
located in the NGC 6397 cluster. The faintest red dwarfs in the cluster were magnitude 26, while a 28th magnitude
white dwarf was also discovered. These faint stars are so dim that their light is as bright as a birthday candle on the
Moon when viewed from the Earth.[133]

30.8 Classification
Main article: Stellar classification
The current stellar classification system originated in the early 20th century, when stars were classified from A to
Q based on the strength of the hydrogen line.[135] It was not known at the time that the major influence on the line
strength was temperature; the hydrogen line strength reaches a peak at over 9000 K, and is weaker at both hotter and
cooler temperatures. When the classifications were reordered by temperature, it more closely resembled the modern
scheme.[136]
Stars are given a single-letter classification according to their spectra, ranging from type O, which are very hot, to
M, which are so cool that molecules may form in their atmospheres. The main classifications in order of decreasing
surface temperature are: O, B, A, F, G, K, and M. A variety of rare spectral types have special classifications. The
most common of these are types L and T, which classify the coldest low-mass stars and brown dwarfs. Each letter
has 10 sub-divisions, numbered from 0 to 9, in order of decreasing temperature. However, this system breaks down
at extreme high temperatures: class O0 and O1 stars may not exist.[137]
In addition, stars may be classified by the luminosity effects found in their spectral lines, which correspond to their
spatial size and is determined by the surface gravity. These range from 0 (hypergiants) through III (giants) to V (main
sequence dwarfs); some authors add VII (white dwarfs). Most stars belong to the main sequence, which consists of
ordinary hydrogen-burning stars. These fall along a narrow, diagonal band when graphed according to their absolute
magnitude and spectral type.[137] The Sun is a main sequence G2V yellow dwarf of intermediate temperature and
ordinary size.
Additional nomenclature, in the form of lower-case letters, can follow the spectral type to indicate peculiar features
of the spectrum. For example, an "e" can indicate the presence of emission lines; "m" represents unusually strong
levels of metals, and "var" can mean variations in the spectral type.[137]
White dwarf stars have their own class that begins with the letter D. This is further sub-divided into the classes DA,
DB, DC, DO, DZ, and DQ, depending on the types of prominent lines found in the spectrum. This is followed by a
numerical value that indicates the temperature index.[138]

30.9 Variable stars
Main article: Variable star
Variable stars have periodic or random changes in luminosity because of intrinsic or extrinsic properties. Of the
intrinsically variable stars, the primary types can be subdivided into three principal groups.
During their stellar evolution, some stars pass through phases where they can become pulsating variables. Pulsating
variable stars vary in radius and luminosity over time, expanding and contracting with periods ranging from minutes
to years, depending on the size of the star. This category includes Cepheid and cepheid-like stars, and long-period
variables such as Mira.[139]
Eruptive variables are stars that experience sudden increases in luminosity because of flares or mass ejection events.[139]
This group includes protostars, Wolf-Rayet stars, and Flare stars, as well as giant and supergiant stars.
Cataclysmic or explosive variable stars are those that undergo a dramatic change in their properties. This group
includes novae and supernovae. A binary star system that includes a nearby white dwarf can produce certain types of
these spectacular stellar explosions, including the nova and a Type 1a supernova.[4] The explosion is created when the

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The asymmetrical appearance of Mira, an oscillating variable star. NASA HST image

white dwarf accretes hydrogen from the companion star, building up mass until the hydrogen undergoes fusion.[140]
Some novae are also recurrent, having periodic outbursts of moderate amplitude.[139]
Stars can also vary in luminosity because of extrinsic factors, such as eclipsing binaries, as well as rotating stars that
produce extreme starspots.[139] A notable example of an eclipsing binary is Algol, which regularly varies in magnitude
from 2.3 to 3.5 over a period of 2.87 days.

30.10 Structure
Main article: Stellar structure
The interior of a stable star is in a state of hydrostatic equilibrium: the forces on any small volume almost exactly
counterbalance each other. The balanced forces are inward gravitational force and an outward force due to the
pressure gradient within the star. The pressure gradient is established by the temperature gradient of the plasma; the
outer part of the star is cooler than the core. The temperature at the core of a main sequence or giant star is at least
on the order of 107 K. The resulting temperature and pressure at the hydrogen-burning core of a main sequence star
are sufficient for nuclear fusion to occur and for sufficient energy to be produced to prevent further collapse of the
star.[141][142]

30.10. STRUCTURE

297

Internal structures of main sequence stars, convection zones with arrowed cycles and radiative zones with red flashes. To the left a
low-mass red dwarf, in the center a mid-sized yellow dwarf and at the right a massive blue-white main sequence star.

As atomic nuclei are fused in the core, they emit energy in the form of gamma rays. These photons interact with
the surrounding plasma, adding to the thermal energy at the core. Stars on the main sequence convert hydrogen
into helium, creating a slowly but steadily increasing proportion of helium in the core. Eventually the helium content
becomes predominant and energy production ceases at the core. Instead, for stars of more than 0.4 M☉, fusion occurs
in a slowly expanding shell around the degenerate helium core.[143]
In addition to hydrostatic equilibrium, the interior of a stable star will also maintain an energy balance of thermal
equilibrium. There is a radial temperature gradient throughout the interior that results in a flux of energy flowing
toward the exterior. The outgoing flux of energy leaving any layer within the star will exactly match the incoming
flux from below.
The radiation zone is the region within the stellar interior where radiative transfer is sufficiently efficient to maintain
the flux of energy. In this region the plasma will not be perturbed and any mass motions will die out. If this is not
the case, however, then the plasma becomes unstable and convection will occur, forming a convection zone. This can
occur, for example, in regions where very high energy fluxes occur, such as near the core or in areas with high opacity
as in the outer envelope.[142]
The occurrence of convection in the outer envelope of a main sequence star depends on the mass. Stars with several
times the mass of the Sun have a convection zone deep within the interior and a radiative zone in the outer layers.
Smaller stars such as the Sun are just the opposite, with the convective zone located in the outer layers.[144] Red dwarf
stars with less than 0.4 M☉ are convective throughout, which prevents the accumulation of a helium core.[2] For most
stars the convective zones will also vary over time as the star ages and the constitution of the interior is modified.[142]
The portion of a star that is visible to an observer is called the photosphere. This is the layer at which the plasma
of the star becomes transparent to photons of light. From here, the energy generated at the core becomes free to
propagate out into space. It is within the photosphere that sun spots, or regions of lower than average temperature,
appear.
Above the level of the photosphere is the stellar atmosphere. In a main sequence star such as the Sun, the lowest level
of the atmosphere is the thin chromosphere region, where spicules appear and stellar flares begin. This is surrounded
by a transition region, where the temperature rapidly increases within a distance of only 100 km (62 mi). Beyond
this is the corona, a volume of super-heated plasma that can extend outward to several million kilometres.[145] The
existence of a corona appears to be dependent on a convective zone in the outer layers of the star.[144] Despite its high
temperature, the corona emits very little light. The corona region of the Sun is normally only visible during a solar
eclipse.
From the corona, a stellar wind of plasma particles expands outward from the star, propagating until it interacts with
the interstellar medium. For the Sun, the influence of its solar wind extends throughout the bubble-shaped region of
the heliosphere.[146]

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This diagram shows a cross-section of the Sun. NASA image

30.11 Nuclear fusion reaction pathways

Main article: Stellar nucleosynthesis
1

1

H

1

H

1

H

ν
2

ν
1

H

H

1

2

H

γ

γ
ν

H

γ
3

1

He

3

He

1

H

H
Proton

Gamma Ray

Neutrino

H

4

He

Neutron
Positron

Overview of the proton-proton chain

30.11. NUCLEAR FUSION REACTION PATHWAYS

4

1

He

1

299

H

H
C

12

N

15

N

13

O

15

C

13

N

14

1
1

H

H

Proton

Gamma Ray

Neutron

Neutrino

Positron

The carbon-nitrogen-oxygen cycle
A variety of different nuclear fusion reactions take place inside the cores of stars, depending upon their mass and
composition, as part of stellar nucleosynthesis. The net mass of the fused atomic nuclei is smaller than the sum
of the constituents. This lost mass is released as electromagnetic energy, according to the mass-energy equivalence
relationship E = mc2 .[1]
The hydrogen fusion process is temperature-sensitive, so a moderate increase in the core temperature will result in
a significant increase in the fusion rate. As a result the core temperature of main sequence stars only varies from 4
million kelvin for a small M-class star to 40 million kelvin for a massive O-class star.[120]
In the Sun, with a 10-million-kelvin core, hydrogen fuses to form helium in the proton-proton chain reaction:[147]
41 H → 22 H + 2e+ + 2νₑ (4.0 MeV + 1.0 MeV)
21 H + 22 H → 23 He + 2γ (5.5 MeV)
23 He → 4 He + 21 H (12.9 MeV)
These reactions result in the overall reaction:
41 H → 4 He + 2e+ + 2γ + 2νₑ (26.7 MeV)
where e+ is a positron, γ is a gamma ray photon, νₑ is a neutrino, and H and He are isotopes of hydrogen and helium,
respectively. The energy released by this reaction is in millions of electron volts, which is actually only a tiny amount
of energy. However enormous numbers of these reactions occur constantly, producing all the energy necessary to
sustain the star’s radiation output.
In more massive stars, helium is produced in a cycle of reactions catalyzed by carbon—the carbon-nitrogen-oxygen
cycle.[147]
In evolved stars with cores at 100 million kelvin and masses between 0.5 and 10 M☉, helium can be transformed into
carbon in the triple-alpha process that uses the intermediate element beryllium:[147]
4

He + 4 He + 92 keV → 8* Be

4

He + 8* Be + 67 keV → 12* C

12*

C → 12 C + γ + 7.4 MeV

For an overall reaction of:
34 He → 12 C + γ + 7.2 MeV
In massive stars, heavier elements can also be burned in a contracting core through the neon burning process and
oxygen burning process. The final stage in the stellar nucleosynthesis process is the silicon burning process that results
in the production of the stable isotope iron-56. Fusion can not proceed any further except through an endothermic
process, and so further energy can only be produced through gravitational collapse.[147]
The example below shows the amount of time required for a star of 20 M☉ to consume all of its nuclear fuel. As an
O-class main sequence star, it would be 8 times the solar radius and 62,000 times the Sun’s luminosity.[149]

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30.12 See also
• Exoplanet host stars
• Lists of stars
• List of largest known stars
• Outline of astronomy
• Sidereal time
• Star clocks
• Star count
• Stars and planetary systems in fiction
• Stellar astronomy
• Stellar dynamics
• Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (children’s nursery rhyme)

30.13 References
[1] Bahcall, John N. (June 29, 2000). “How the Sun Shines”. Nobel Foundation. Retrieved 2006-08-30.
[2] Richmond, Michael. “Late stages of evolution for low-mass stars”. Rochester Institute of Technology. Retrieved 200608-04.
[3] “Stellar Evolution & Death”. NASA Observatorium. Archived from the original on 2008-02-10. Retrieved 2006-06-08.
[4] Iben, Icko, Jr. (1991). “Single and binary star evolution”. Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series 76: 55–114. Bibcode:1991ApJS...76...55I.
doi:10.1086/191565.
[5] Forbes, George (1909). History of Astronomy. London: Watts & Co. ISBN 1-153-62774-4.
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30.14 Further reading
• Pickover, Cliff (2001). The Stars of Heaven. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-514874-6.
• Gribbin, John; Gribbin, Mary (2001). Stardust: Supernovae and Life—The Cosmic Connection. Yale University
Press. ISBN 0-300-09097-8.
• Hawking, Stephen (1988). A Brief History of Time. Bantam Books. ISBN 0-553-17521-1.

30.15 External links
• Kaler, James. “Portraits of Stars and their Constellations”. University of Illinois. Retrieved 2010-08-20.
• “Query star by identifier, coordinates or reference code”. SIMBAD. Centre de Données astronomiques de
Strasbourg. Retrieved 2010-08-20.
• “How To Decipher Classification Codes”. Astronomical Society of South Australia. Retrieved 2010-08-20.
• “Live Star Chart”. Dobsonian Telescope Community. Retrieved 2010-08-20. View the stars above your
location
• Prialnick, Dina et al. (2001). “Stars: Stellar Atmospheres, Structure, & Evolution”. University of St. Andrews.
Retrieved 2010-08-20.

Chapter 31

Thermonuclear fusion
Thermonuclear fusion is a way to achieve nuclear fusion by using extremely high temperatures. There are two forms
of thermonuclear fusion: uncontrolled, in which the resulting energy is released in an uncontrolled manner, as it is
in thermonuclear weapons such as the "hydrogen bomb", and controlled, where the fusion reactions take place in an
environment allowing some of the resulting energy to be harnessed for constructive purposes. This article focuses on
the latter.

31.1 Temperature requirements
Temperature is a measure of the average kinetic energy of particles, so by heating the material it will gain energy.
After reaching sufficient temperature, given by the Lawson criterion, the energy of accidental collisions within the
plasma is high enough to overcome the Coulomb barrier and the particles may fuse together.
In a deuterium–tritium fusion reaction, for example, the energy necessary to overcome the Coulomb barrier is 0.1
MeV. Converting between energy and temperature shows that the 0.1 MeV barrier would be overcome at a temperature in excess of 1.2 billion Kelvin.
There are two effects that lower the actual temperature needed. One is the fact that temperature is the average kinetic
energy, implying that some nuclei at this temperature would actually have much higher energy than 0.1 MeV, while
others would be much lower. It is the nuclei in the high-energy tail of the velocity distribution that account for most of
the fusion reactions. The other effect is quantum tunnelling. The nuclei do not actually have to have enough energy to
overcome the Coulomb barrier completely. If they have nearly enough energy, they can tunnel through the remaining
barrier. For these reasons fuel at lower temperatures will still undergo fusion events, at a lower rate.
Thermonuclear fusion is one of the methods being researched in the attempts to produce fusion power.

31.2 Confinement
The key problem in achieving thermonuclear fusion is how to confine the hot plasma. Due to the high temperature, the
plasma can not be in direct contact with any solid material, so in fact it has to be located in a vacuum. But as the high
temperatures also imply high pressures, the plasma tends to expand immediately and some force is necessary to act
against this thermal pressure. This force can be either gravitation in stars, magnetic forces in magnetic confinement
fusion reactors, or the fusion reaction may occur before the plasma starts to expand, so in fact the plasma’s inertia is
keeping the material together.

31.2.1

Gravitational confinement

Main article: Stellar nucleosynthesis
One force capable of confining the fuel well enough to satisfy the Lawson criterion is gravity. The mass needed,
however, is so great that gravitational confinement is only found in stars—the least massive stars capable of sustained
307

308

CHAPTER 31. THERMONUCLEAR FUSION

fusion are red dwarfs, while brown dwarfs are able to fuse deuterium and lithium if they are of sufficient mass. In
stars heavy enough, after the supply of hydrogen is exhausted in their cores, their cores (or a shell around the core)
start fusing helium to carbon. In the most massive stars (at least 8–11 solar masses), the process is continued until
some of their energy is produced by fusing lighter elements to iron. As iron has one of the highest binding energies,
reactions producing heavier elements are generally endothermic. Therefore significant amounts of heavier elements
are not formed during stable periods of massive star evolution, but are formed in supernova explosions. Some lighter
stars also form these elements in the outer parts of the stars over long periods of time, by absorbing energy from
fusion in the inside of the star, by absorbing neutrons that are emitted from the fusion process.
All of the elements heavier than iron have some potential energy to release, in theory. At the extremely heavy end of
element production, these heavier elements can produce energy in the process of being split again back toward the
size of iron, in the process of nuclear fission. Nuclear fission thus releases energy which has been stored, sometimes
billions of years before, during stellar nucleosynthesis.

31.2.2

Magnetic confinement

Main article: Magnetic confinement fusion
Electrically charged particles (such as fuel ions) will follow magnetic field lines (see Guiding centre). The fusion
fuel can therefore be trapped using a strong magnetic field. A variety of magnetic configurations exist, including the
toroidal geometries of tokamaks and stellarators and open-ended mirror confinement systems.

31.2.3

Inertial confinement

Main article: Inertial confinement fusion
A third confinement principle is to apply a rapid pulse of energy to a large part of the surface of a pellet of fusion fuel,
causing it to simultaneously “implode” and heat to very high pressure and temperature. If the fuel is dense enough and
hot enough, the fusion reaction rate will be high enough to burn a significant fraction of the fuel before it has dissipated.
To achieve these extreme conditions, the initially cold fuel must be explosively compressed. Inertial confinement is
used in the hydrogen bomb, where the driver is x-rays created by a fission bomb. Inertial confinement is also attempted
in “controlled” nuclear fusion, where the driver is a laser, ion, or electron beam, or a Z-pinch. Another method is to
use conventional high explosive material to compress a fuel to fusion conditions.[1][2] The UTIAS explosive-drivenimplosion facility was used to produce stable, centred and focused hemispherical implosions[3] to generate neutrons
from D-D reactions. The simplest and most direct method proved to be in a predetonated stoichiometric mixture
of deuterium-oxygen. The other successful method was using a miniature Voitenko compressor,[4] where a plane
diaphragm was driven by the implosion wave into a secondary small spherical cavity that contained pure deuterium
gas at one atmosphere.[5]

31.3 See also
• Thermonuclear weapon

31.4 References
[1] F. Winterberg "Conjectured Metastable Super-Explosives formed under High Pressure for Thermonuclear Ignition"
[2] Zhang, Fan; Murray, Stephen Burke; Higgins, Andrew (2005) "Super compressed detonation method and device to effect
such detonation"
[3] I.I. Glass and J.C. Poinssot "IMPLOSION DRIVEN SHOCK TUBE". NASA
[4] D.Sagie and I.I. Glass (1982) "Explosive-driven hemispherical implosions for generating fusion plasmas"
[5] T. Saito, A. K. Kudian and I. I. Glass "Temperature Measurements Of An Implosion Focus"

31.5. TEXT AND IMAGE SOURCES, CONTRIBUTORS, AND LICENSES

309

31.5 Text and image sources, contributors, and licenses
31.5.1

Text

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Paul A, Ahoerstemeier, Mac, Andrewa, Aarchiba, Julesd, Bogdangiusca, Netsnipe, Susurrus, Andres, Smack, Ec5618, Stone, Andrewman327, WhisperToMe, Katana0182, IceKarma, DJ Clayworth, Tpbradbury, Dragons flight, Furrykef, LMB, SEWilco, Omegatron,
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