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Key Terms:
Binding energy, chain reaction, decay series, electron capture, fission, fusion, half-life, isotopes,
radioisotopes, mass defect, nucleon, nuclide, rate of decay, transmutation, transuranium elements, zone
of stability

Nuclear Reactions and Symbols (you must know how to write, balance these, including the

A. Types of Radioactive Decay:

1. Alpha decay follows the form:

Where A is the parent isotope (the atom being broken apart) B is the daughter isotope or the
isotope formed. When an element is broken down in alpha decay it looses two neutrons and
two (2) protons. Alpha decay is is not very penetrating because the He atoms capture electrons
before traveling very far. However it is very damaging because the alpha particles can knock
atoms off of molecules.Alpha decay is the most common in elements with an atomic number
greater than 83.

2. Beta negative decay follows the form:

The beta emission increases the atomic number by one (1) by adding one (1) proton. At the
same time, one (1) neutron is lost so the mass of the daughter isotope is the same as the parent
isotope. Beta negative decay is more penetrating than alpha decay because the particles are
smaller, but less penetrating than gamma decay. Beta electrons can penetrate through about one
(1) cm of flesh, thick aluminum sheet, etc. Beta decay is most common in elements with a high
neutron to proton ratio.

3. Gamma decay follows the form:

In gamma emission, neither the atomic number or the mass number is changed. A very highly
charged gamma ray is given off when the parent isotope falls into a lower energy state. Gamma
radiation is the most penetrating of all. These photons can pass through the body and cause
damage by ionizing all the molecules in their way. Concrete or thick lead will block gamma.
4. Positron emission (also called Beta positive decay) follows the form:

In this reaction a positron is emitted. A positron is exactly like an electron in mass and charge
force except with a positive charge. It is formed when a proton breaks into a neutron with mass
and no charge and this positron with no mass and the positive charge. Positron emission is most
common in lighter elements with a low neutron to proton ratio.

5. Electron capture follows the form:

In this reaction a nucleus captures one (1) of its own atom's inner shell electrons which reduces
the atomic number by one. This captured electron joins with a proton in the nucleus to form a
neutron. Electron capture is common in larger elements with a low neutron to proton ratio.

Beta emission - a beta is produced (right side)
Positron emission - a positron (positive electron is produced (right side)
Alpha emission - a Helium ion is produced (right side)
Gamma emission - energy is produced (right side)
Electron capture - an electron is absorbed (left side)
Neutron capture - an neutron is absorbed (left side)

B. Nuclear Transmutations: The change of one element into another. These occur when nuclei are
struck by neutrons or other nuclei. These reactions are useful in creating new radioisotopes.

6. Fusion: combining two light nuclei to form a heavier, more stable nucleus.
3 1 4 0
2 He + 1 H → 2 He + 1 e

7. Fission: Splitting a heavy nucleus into two nuclei with smaller mass numbers (occurs naturally
with U-235)
9 →1
5 a +
3 r +31

8. Transformation/Transmutation: Change of one element into another:

1 l +4
2e →
H 3
1 +1
9 f +
6 X+41

All radioactive elements disintegrate according to their specific half life. The half life of a radioactive
substance is the time required for half of the initial number of nuclei to disintegrate. The decay rate
expresses the speed at which a substance disintegrates. The following equation represents the
relationship between the number of nuclei remaining, N, the number of nuclei initially present, NO, the
rate of decay, k, and the amount of time, t.

The relationship between the half-life of a radioactive substance and k, the rate at which it decays can
also be found.

By using these equations, it is possible to calculate how much of a nuclear substance will be left after a
certain time and how much of a substance originally existed. A common example is isotopic dating in
which the ages of archeological artifacts are d etermined by measuring the activity of the isotopes.

Applications of Radioisotopes (Optional – study only if you have time/interest)

Radioisotopes have a number of important applications beyond the production of energy or weapons of
mass destruction.

1. Neutron Activation Analysis – neutron bombardment is used to determine trace amounts of

substances. By looking at the radiation emitted by irradiated samples, measurements of concentrations
of elements in the nanogram range are possible.

2. Geological Dating – certain isotopes are used for dating a variety of materials, including
rocks and human remains. 238U is especially useful for rocks, with a half life of 4.5 billion years. 14C is
used for measuring material less than 50,000 years old.

3. Tracers – complex chemical reactions can be followed using certain radioisotopes. Tracers
are particularly useful in biochemistry and medicine, especially in toxicology. 131I is useful for studying
thyroid conditions, 99Tc for bone disorders. These substances have very short half-lives.

4. Oncology – cancer cells are more sensitive to ionizing radiation than normal cells. This fact
is used in radiation therapy. Gamma radiation from 60Co and 137Cs are commonly used in a highly
directed beam that exposes as little healthy tissue as possible. Variations include placing radioisotopes
directly into cancerous tumors.

5. Radiation Detection – before the development of Geiger counters scintillation counters, and
film badges, nuclear scientists could not monitor their exposure to radiation. These devices are
essential for safe use of radioisotopes.
particle What is symbol charge mass relative Example Applies to which
it? penetrating particles
alpha helium He4
2 +2 6.664 1 92 U238 => 90Th234 + Atomic Numbers > 83;
particles nuclei or 2a4 E-24 g 2He
the 2 p+ 2n0 loss brings
the atom diagonally
back to the belt of
beta high eo or
-1 –1 9.11 100 I131 => 54Xe131 + -1eo Isotopes below the belt
particles speed -1B E-28 g of stability (high
electrons neutron : proton
When a B-particle is emitted, the at. no. increases by 1. A neutron is ratios). Causes a loss
converted into a p+ and e-: 1 1 o of 1 neutron and a gain
on => 1p + -1e
of 1 proton.
gamma high ogo 0 0 10000
Rays energy
Generally accompanies other radioactive radiation because it is the
energy lost from other nucleon changes. Gamma radiation is
generally not shown in the nuclear equation.
positron positron 1 eo +1 9.11 6C11 => 5B11 + 1eo Isotopes above the belt
emission E-28 g of stability (low
Causes the atomic number to decrease. It converts a proton to a neutron : proton
neutron + positron ratios). Causes a loss
1 1 o of 1 proton and a gain
1p => on + 1e
of 1 neutron.
electron inner -1 eo –1 9.11 Rb81+ -1eo=> 36Kr81 Isotopes above the belt
capture shell E-28 g of stability (low
electron neutron : proton
The nucleus capture an inner shell electron; thereby converting a p to ratios). Causes a loss
a no of 1 proton and a gain
1 o
p + e => n 1 of 1 neutron.
1 -1 o