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Radioactivity nuclear

equations and decay chains

A presentation for Wed. in the
last week of Physics 125
Nuclear notation
Z = atomic number or proton number, is the
number of protons in the nucleus.
N = neutron number, is the number of neutrons
in the nucleus.
A = Z + N = mass number, is the number of
nucleons in the nucleus.
In general, the notation is Z X N
For example, 6 C6 has atomic mass 12.000
Periodic table links to isotope data

The standard periodic table is a useful way to organize

isotope data:

Lawrence Berkeley Lab interface: (link)

Lund University interface: (link)
Chart of the nuclides

All the nuclides may be charted on a single large chart,

with the neutron number on the horizontal axis and the
proton number on the vertical axis (or vice-versa):

This has an advantage because it will allow us to

visualize the decay schemes in a new way.

Wall-size charts are available.

Web-based charts are cheaper, and can link to massive

amounts of data.
Beta decay on the chart of nuclides
Carbon-14 decays by negative beta decay to
nitrogen-14 and an electron (and a neutrino):
14 14
+ n
6C 7N + -1e (b- decay)

Z increases by one

N decreases by one N
Beta decay on the chart of nuclides
Negative beta decay creates a daughter nuclide
to the upper left of the parent:
14 14
+ n
6C 7N + -1e (b- decay)


Z increases by one


N decreases by one N=7 N=8

Beta-plus decay on the chart of nuclides
Oxygen-15 decays by positive beta decay to
nitrogen-15 and a positron (and a neutrino):
15 15 0
8O 7N + +1e + n (b+ decay)

Z decreases by one

N increases by one N
Beta-plus decay on the chart of nuclides
Positive beta decay creates a daughter nuclide
to the lower right of the parent:
15 15 0
8O 7N + +1e + n (b+ decay)


Z decreases by one


N increases by one N=7 N=8

Electron capture (EC)
4Be +
3Li (and an X-ray)
This process has the same result as b+ decay,
except that no beta particle is emitted.
Alpha decay
Polonium-210 decays by alpha decay to lead-
206 and an alpha particle:
210 206 4
84Po 82Pb + 2He

The proton number decreases (84 82) and

the neutron number decreases (126 124).

Each alpha decay reduces Z by 2 and N by 2.

The daughter nuclide is diagonally down and to

the left on the chart of nuclides.
(link to BNL NUDAT) (decay mode shown here)
Decay chains
Heavy elements may decay by a series of alpha decays
in a decay chain. Beta decays also occur in the chain,
and the chain may have branches when a nuclide has
two modes of decay.

There are three major decay chains, labelled by an

important isotope on the chain: U-238, Th-232, U-235

All these chains end with a stable isotope of Pb (lead).

Natural ores of uranium and thorium contain all of the

nuclides on the chain in some equilibrium concentration.
The waste from processing these ores can be quite
hazardous due to high activity of these nuclides.
Radioactive decay chain: Thorium-232
Radioactive decay chain: Uranium-238
Radioactive decay chain: Uranium-235
Decay chains for U-238 and Th-232
Decay chains
A web site has an animation of these: (disappeared!)

Natural ores of the heavy radioactive elements will

contain these three long-lived isotopes of uranium and
thorium (U-238, U-235, and Th-232). Because the
natural ore has been in the ground for a long time, the
daughter products have increased to equilibrium
concentrations which depend on the half-lives. Each of
the products in the chain may contribute a similar amount
to the total activity of the natural ore.
Qualitative picture of chart of nuclides
The stable nuclides are in a pattern that runs diagonally
through the unstable nuclides.
Nuclides far from the diagonal are less stable: they have
shorter half-lives.
Nuclides to one side decay by b- decay, on the other
side they decay by b+ decay.
Heavy nuclides decay by alpha decay directly toward
nuclides closer to the center of stability.
Exotic decays: spontaneous fission, p, or n.
Qualitative picture: (these use java controls) (U.S. NUDAT site) (France)
Chart of nuclides with half-lives (note those with t over 1 hour)
A table of nuclides with half-lives t over 1 hour is distributed by
the Brookhaven National Laboratory in the U.S., and called
Nuclear Wallet Cards for Radioactive Nuclides, by Jagdish K.
Tuli. This is available as a printed booklet, a pdf file, and in a
form to be loaded into a PDA (Palm Pilot) for use by emergency
workers in the field. See

This also contains two lists of isotopes of special interest:

Nuclear Wallet Cards
Nuclear Wallet Cards
Some more resources for radiation safety:

CDC radiation emergencies isotopes, see:

CDC radiation emergencies

EPA radiation protection - information -

EPA link to fact sheets -
Nuclear technology and its consequences.
I would like to make a few additional remarks about the nuclear
fuel cycle and the basic physics involved in the production of
fission products.

Some of these might show up in the environment, and will be

very consequential if a nuclear accident or conflict occurs.
Sources of nuclear contamination

Mining of uranium ores (and some other special cases).

Processing of uranium ores into uranium, thorium, and
other naturally-occurring actinides (radium, etc.)
Routine operation of nuclear power plants.
Spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants.
Isotopes produced in nuclear reactors by neutron
activation, used mostly in medical research and
industrial radiography.
Accidents in nuclear power plants.
Nuclear weapons: production, use, abuse, disposal.
Mining and processing of uranium ores

Mining of uranium ores generates tailings with lower

levels of uranium and its decay products. This creates
problems similar to some other mining operations,
except that the contamination is radioactive, rather than
merely toxic (like lead or copper mining).
Processing of uranium ores into uranium, thorium, and
other naturally-occurring actinides (radium, etc.) can
produce concentrated wastes which contain relatively
long-lived isotopes in moderate concentration.
To understand this issue, look at the decay chains and
remember that most of the daughters will be present if
the uranium is extracted, each with comparable activity.
Routine operation of nuclear power plants
Nuclear power plants operate by the fission of uranium
(and possibly plutonium) into fission products.
This results in two main types of products:
Fission products, which occur when the U-235 is split
into two fragments with a range of masses.
Neutrons are generated, some of which participate in the
fission chain reaction by being absorbed by other
uranium nuclei. But many neutrons are absorbed by
other materials in the reactor, causing neutron activation
of these elements. The neutron-activated material can
build up huge activities (MCi) of long-lived isotopes.
For detail, I have found some material in an older book
on nuclear power. (use overhead).
Spent fuel, medical and industrial isotopes

Spent fuel rods from fission reactors is, of course, a big

problem, but unless an accident occurs, the material is
being contained in ponds and will go to storage.
Accidents in transport are usually not catastrophic.
Accidents with medical isotopes have been notorious
and well-publicized, but localized with only moderate
numbers of casualties.
(This is my opinion, I believe accidents in nuclear power
reactors and nuclear weapons issues are of much more
concern. Some pictures from Chernobyl are included on
the next slides.)


April 26,
Chernobyl reactor encased in
concrete and steel sarcophagus
Deserted city with reactors in the
background. The area abandoned
is half the size of Colorado.
4400 people have died so far,
about 7 million have ill health, and
over 150,000 abandoned their homes.