Nuclear

Reactions
Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Decay

The Atom
The atom consists of two parts:

1. The nucleus which contains:
protons
neutrons
2. Orbiting electrons.

The Atom
All matter is made up of elements (e.g. carbon,
hydrogen, etc.).
The smallest part of an element is called an atom.

Atom of different elements contain different numbers of
protons.
The mass of an atom is almost entirely due to the
number of protons and neutrons.

Mass number = number of protons + number of neutrons

A

X
Z

Atomic number = number of protons

Element symbol

A

X
Z
A

= number of protons + number of neutrons

Z

= number of protons

A – Z = number of neutrons
Number of neutrons = Mass Number – Atomic Number

There are many types of uranium:

235

238

A

A

Z

Z

Number of protons

Number of protons

Number of neutrons

Number of neutrons

U
92

U
92

There are many types of uranium:

235

238

U
92

U
92

A

235

A

238

Z

92

Z

92

Number of protons

92

Number of protons

92

Number of neutrons

143

Number of neutrons

146

Isotopes of any particular element contain the same
number of protons, but different numbers of neutrons.

Most of the isotopes which occur naturally are stable.
A few naturally occurring isotopes and all of the manmade isotopes are unstable.
Unstable isotopes can become stable by releasing
different types of particles.
This process is called radioactive decay and the
elements which undergo this process are called
radioisotopes/radionuclides.

Radioactive Decay
Radioactive decay results in the emission of either:
• an alpha particle (a),
• a beta particle (b),
• or a gamma ray(g).

Alpha Decay
An alpha particle is identical to that of a helium nucleus.

It contains two protons and two neutrons.

Alpha Decay

A

X
Z

A-4

4

Y
He
+
Z-2
2

unstable atom

alpha particle
more stable atom

Alpha Decay
222
226

Ra
88

Rn
86

4

He
2

Alpha Decay
A

A-4

4

226

222

4

X
Z

Ra
88

Y
+
Z-2
Rn
+
86

He
2
He
2

Alpha Decay
222

Rn
86

222

Rn
86

A

4

Y
He
+
Z
2

218

Po
+
84

4

He
2

Alpha Decay
A

230

4

234

230

4

X
Z

U
92

Th
He
+
90
2

Th
He
+
90
2

Alpha Decay
230

Th
90

230

Th
90

A

4

226

4

Y
He
+
Z
2

Ra
He
+
88
2

Alpha Decay
A

214

4

218

214

4

X
Z

Po
84

Pb
He
+
82
2

Pb
He
+
82
2

Beta Decay
A beta particle is a fast moving electron which is
emitted from the nucleus of an atom undergoing
radioactive decay.

Beta decay occurs when a neutron changes into a
proton and an electron.

Beta Decay
As a result of beta decay, the nucleus has one less
neutron, but one extra proton.

The atomic number, Z, increases by 1 and the mass
number, A, stays the same.

Beta Decay
218
218

Po
84

At
85

b
-1
0

Beta Decay
A

X
Z

218

Po
84

A

b
-1

218

b
-1

Y
+
Z+1
At
+
85

0

0

Beta Decay
234

A

b
-1

234

234

b
-1

Th
90
Th
90

Y
+
Z
Pa
+
91

0

0

Beta Decay
A

210

b
-1

210

210

b
-1

X
Z

Tl
81

Pb
+
82
Pb
+
82

0

0

Beta Decay
210

A

b
-1

210

210

b
-1

Bi
83
Bi
83

Y
+
Z
Po
+
84

0

0

Beta Decay
A

214

b
-1

214

214

b
-1

X
Z

Pb
82

Bi
+
83
Bi
+
83

0

0

Gamma Decay
Gamma rays are not charged particles like a and b
particles.
Gamma rays are electromagnetic radiation with high
frequency.
When atoms decay by emitting a or b particles to form a
new atom, the nuclei of the new atom formed may still
have too much energy to be completely stable.
This excess energy is emitted as gamma rays (gamma ray
photons have energies of ~ 1 x 10-12 J).