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What is Radioactivity?
Radioactivity is the process in which unstable atomic nuclei spontaneously decompose to
form nuclei with a higher stability by the release of energetic sub atomic particles.

In order to understand radioactivity the structure of atoms needs to be understood.

Atomic Structure
Atoms are made up of protons, neutrons and electrons each with their own properties.

 Protons have a positive (+) charge

 Electrons have a negative (-) charge
 Neutrons have no charge (Neutral)

The protons and neutrons lie in the nucleus at the centre of the atom and the electrons orbit
round the nucleus. The proton and neutron are approximately equal in mass and they are each
about 1800 times the mass of an electron.

The Hydrogen (H) Atom

The hydrogen atom is the simplest atom. It
consists of a nucleus containing a positively
charge proton around which a single
negatively charged electron orbits.

Both charged particles in the atom are

opposite and equal and so the atom is neutral.
If the hydrogen atom loses the electron, it no
longer remains neutral and the proton in the
nucleus gives it an overall positive charge. In
this case it is called a positively charged ion,

The Helium (He) Atom

The Helium atom contains two positively charge protons and 2

uncharged neutrons in the nucleus. It contains two negatively
charged electrons in orbit round the nucleus to balance the
positively charged protons.

Atomic Number and Atomic Mass

The atomic number of an element is the number of protons that lie in the nucleus of an atom.

The atomic mass or mass number of an element is the total number of protons and neutrons
that lie in the nucleus of an atom.


If we take the example of the Lithium atom it contains 3 protons and 4 neutrons in its nucleus.

Therefore it's:

Atomic number = number of protons = 3

Mass number = number of protons + number of neutron = 3 + 4 = 7

Elements are normally represented by their chemical symbols along with their atomic and mass
number, as shown below:

All the atoms of a particular element have the same number of protons. It is the number of
protons which determine the chemical properties of an atom. This is because the number of
protons determines the number of electrons which orbit the nucleus. The number of neutrons
however can vary.

Atoms of the same element that have the same number of protons but different number of
neutrons are called isotopes of that element.

Or in other words, atoms of the same element with the same atomic number but different
atomic masses are called isotopes of that element.

The Three Isotopes of Hydrogen (H)

Protium  Deuterium  Tritium 

Hydrogen exists as three isotopes in nature. Protium is the most common isotope.  All three have
the same chemical properties because they have the same proton number but have different
atomic masses.
Stable and Unstable Nuclei
An atom is electrically neutral. It contains an equal number of positively charged protons and
negatively charged electrons and their charges balance. The nucleus however contains only
positively charged protons which are closely packed together in a very small volume (remember
neutrons have no charge). From the laws of physics (Coulomb’s Law) one would expect that the
protons being of the same charge and so close together would exert strong repulsive forces on
each other. The combined gravitational force from the protons and neutrons in a nucleus is
insignificant as an attractive force because their masses are so tiny. This implies there must be
an additional attractive force similar in size to the electrostatic repulsion which holds the nucleus

Strong Nuclear Force

A strong force must exist between the protons and neutrons in a nucleus to overcome the
electrostatic repulsion between the protons. This additional force is called the strong nuclear
force. This force acts is attractive over short distances, but this is not all. If the force was only
attractive then it would pull the protons and neutrons together to an ever decreasing small
volume of space. We know this not to be the case as each nucleus contains a distinct number of
protons and neutrons which retain their identity. The more protons and neutrons, the bigger the
nucleus and thus the separation between the protons and neutrons in a nucleus must be a fixed
distance. This means the strong nuclear force must be repulsive at a very small range as well as
being attractive over a slightly larger distance. This is the force that holds the nucleus together
and the energy associated with this force is called the binding energy.

It is the amount of strong nuclear force and the associated binding energy in a nucleus that
determines whether it will be stable or unstable.

Stable Nuclei

A stable atom is an atom that has enough binding energy to hold the nucleus together
permanently. Many nuclei in nature are very stable, most of the nuclei formed at the creation of
the universe or after supernovae explosions many millions of years ago are still in existence now.

The graph below is a plot of neutron number against proton number. It is used as rule to
determine which nuclei are stable or unstable.
Nuclei which lie on the stability line are stable nuclei. From the plot it can be seen that many of
the stable nuclei have equal number of protons and neutrons. These are usually the elements in
the lighter section of the periodic table. For the heavier stable nuclei the there are approximately
50% more neutrons to protons.

Unstable Nuclei

In unstable nuclei the strong nuclear forces do not generate enough binding energy to hold the
nucleus together permanently. It is unstable nuclei that are radioactive and are referred to as
radioactive nuclei and in the case of their isotopes called radioisotopes.

The unstable nuclei lie above and below the line of stability in the neutron – proton plot. This
gives information of the type of radioactive decay they will undergo. Nuclei which lie above the
line of stability contain too many neutrons to be stable. They are referred to as “neutron rich”.
Those that lie below the line of stability contain too many protons to be stable and are called
“proton rich”.

In summary it is the balance of protons and neutrons in a nucleus which determines whether a
nucleus will be stable or unstable. Too many neutrons or protons upset this balance disrupting
the binding energy from the strong nuclear forces making the nucleus unstable. An unstable
nucleus tries to achieve a balanced state by given off a neutron or proton and this is done via
radioactive decay.

Alpha, Beta and Gamma Rays

Radioactivity is the process in which unstable atomic nuclei spontaneously decompose to

form nuclei with a higher stability by the release of energetic sub atomic particles.
The above definition tells us that radioactivity is a random or spontaneous naturally occurring
process.  The process cannot be influenced by external factors such as heat, pressure or
exposure to a magnetic field. This is not to be confused with the radiation that arises from
nuclear fission in nuclear power stations. Here the fission is not spontaneous but is triggered in a
nuclear reactor by the bombardment of high energy neutrons. Secondly, it occurs in unstable
atoms or more accurately unstable isotopes called radioisotopes. These atoms are unstable
because of the unbalanced nuclear forces within their nuclei.

The sub atomic particles and their associated energy that are released during the decomposition
of the unstable nuclei are referred to as radiation.

There are 3 main types of radiations.

 Alpha particles
 Beta particles
 Gamma rays

The animation below shows the three types of radiations that can be released when an unstable
nucleus decays.

Alpha particles are released by high mass, proton rich unstable nuclei. The alpha particle is a
helium nucleus; it consists of two protons and two neutrons. It contains no electrons to balance
the two positively charged protons. Alpha particles are therefore positively charged particles
moving at high speeds.

Beta particles are emitted by neutron rich unstable nuclei. Beta particles are high energy
electrons. These electrons are not electrons from the electron shells around the nucleus, but are
generated when a neutron in the nucleus splits to form a proton and an accompanying electron.
Beta particles are negatively charged.

Gamma rays are electromagnetic waves of very short wavelength and high frequency. Gamma
rays are emitted by most radioactive sources along with alpha or beta particles. After alpha or
beta emission the remaining nucleus may still be in an excited energy state. By releasing a
gamma photon it reduces to a lower energy state. Gamma rays have no electrical charge
associated with them.

Penetrating Properties of Radiation

Radiations from radioactive materials can be dangerous and pose health hazards. By knowing
the ability of the different types of radiation to penetrate matter allows us to gain an
understanding on how best to protect ourselves.

The animation below shows the penetrating properties of radiations.

Penetration of Alpha Particles

Alpha particles can be absorbed by a thin sheet of paper or by a few centimetres of air. As alpha
particles travel through air they collide with nitrogen and oxygen molecules. With each collision
they lose some of their energy in ionising the air molecule until eventually they give up all of their
energy and are absorbed. In a sheet of paper the molecules are much close together so the
penetration of alpha particles is much less than in air.

Penetration of Beta Particles

Beta particles travel faster than alpha particles and carry less charge (one electron compared to
the 2 protons of an alpha particle) and so interact less readily with the atoms and molecules of
the material through which they pass. Beta particles can be stopped by a few millimetres of

Penetration of Gamma rays

Gamma rays are the most penetrating of the radiations. Gamma rays are highly energetic waves
and are poor at ionising other atoms or molecules. It cannot be said that a particular thickness of
a material can absorb all gamma radiation. Many centimetres of lead or many meters of concrete
are required to absorb high levels of gamma rays.

Properties of Radiation – Deflection in an electric and

magnetic field
An insight into the properties of radiation can be demonstrated by observing their behaviour in a
magnetic and electric field.

The animation below shows the deflection of radiation in an electric field.

Alpha Particles in an electric field

Alpha particles are attracted to the negatively charged plate. This confirms that they must be
positively charged as unlike charges attract. Alpha particles are helium nuclei; they contain 2
protons which gives them their positive charge.

Beta Particles in an electric field

Beta particles are attracted to the positively charged plate. This confirms that they are negatively
charged. Beta particles are fast moving electrons with a very low mass and so have a high
charge to mass density. They are deflected much more than the heavier alpha particles.

Gamma rays in an electric field

Gamma rays are unaffected by an electric field. This shows gamma rays are uncharged. Gamma
rays are highly energetic waves with no charge associated with them.

Alpha particles in a magnetic field

When a charged particle cuts through a magnetic field it experiences a force referred to as the
motor effect. Alpha particles are deflected by a magnetic field confirming that they must carry a
charge. The direction of deflection which can be determined by Fleming’s left hand rule
demonstrates that they must be positively charged. Remember for Fleming’s left hand rule the
second finger is aligned with the direction of the current which is from positive to negative.

Beta particles in a magnetic field

Beta particles are deflected by a magnetic field in an opposite direction to alpha particles
confirming they must hold a charge opposite to alpha particles. Beta particles are fast moving
electrons and are thus negatively charged.

Gamma rays in a magnetic field

Gamma rays are unaffected by a magnetic field. This shows gamma rays are uncharged as they
do not experience a force when passing through the lines of a magnetic field. Gamma rays are
highly energetic waves with no charge associated with them.

Detecting radioactivity – the Geiger Muller Tube

Alpha, Gamma and Beta radiations are invisible to humans and exposure to these radiations can
be hazardous to the health of living organisms. It is therefore extremely important that suitably
designed detectors are available in order to gain information on the type and amount of radiation

The Geiger-Muller tube or Geiger counter

Alpha, Beta and Gamma radiations are all ionising radiations. This means that all three forms of
radiations have enough energy to pull electrons from atoms turning them into ions. The Geiger-
Muller tube makes use of this fact.

The animation below explains how a Geiger-Muller tube works.

A Geiger-Muller tube consists of a sealed metallic tube filled with argon or another noble gas
mixed with a small amount of alcohol vapour or bromine gas. The argon gas is called the
detecting gas whereas the bromine gas or alcohol vapours are referred to as the quenching gas.
The gas mixture inside the tube is at a pressure below atmospheric pressure. A thin metal wire
runs through the centre of the tube. An electric potential of up to 1 kilovolt is maintained between
the metal wire (the anode) and the cylinder (the cathode). In the absence of any radiation no
current flows between the wire and the cylinder.

When a radioactive particle enters the tube it ionises an argon atom. The resulting electron is
accelerated towards the metal wire or anode.

As the electron approaches the metal wire it experiences an increasing electric field strength
which in turn applies a greater accelerating force on the electron. The accelerating force
becomes so strong that on collision with other argon atoms the electron can ionise them. The
electrons from these ionisations can go onto to generate a cascade of further electrons, an effect
called the avalanche effect. The ionisation by one particle can result in millions of electrons
striking the metal wire.

This migration of electrons inside the tube results in an electric discharge. This gives a
measurable voltage pulse in the external circuit of the Geiger-Muller tube. The counter registers
the number of pulses and converts them into sound signals or displays them as a measure on
the screen.
Quenching Gas

The purpose of the quenching gas is to absorb the positive argon ions as they accelerate to the
cathode. Without the quenching gas these positive ions will be neutralised at the cathode in an
exited state or could even also dislodge electrons from the cathode. These dislodged electrons
or excited atoms could trigger further ionisation creating a further voltage discharge giving
inaccuracies in the measure from the device. When the quenching gas migrates to the cathode it
recombines at ground state and so does not present the potential to cause any further ionisation.

Radioactive Half Life

The release of radiation by unstable nuclei is called radioactive decay. This process occurs
naturally and cannot be influenced by chemical or physical processes. The release of radiation is
also a random event and overtime the activity of the radioactive material decreases. It is not
possible to predict when an individual nucleus in a radioactive material will decay. But it is
possible to measure the time taken for half of the nuclei in a radioactive material to decay. This is
called the half-life of radioactive material or radioisotope.

Half-life can be defined as the time taken for the number of nuclei in a radioactive material
to halve. It can also be defined as the time taken for the count rate of a sample of
radioactive material to fall to half of its starting level.  The count rate is measured by using
an instrument called a Geiger-Muller tube over a period of time. A Geiger-Muller tube detects
radiations by absorbing the radiation and converting it into an electrical pulse which triggers a
counter and is displayed as a count rate. [How Geiger-Muller tube works?]

Radioactive elements have a wide range of half-life values.  The isotope Uranium-238 has a half-
life as long as 4.5 billion years whereas the half-life of Thorium-234 is as little as 24 days.

The animation below explains the half-life of a radioactive isotope.

At the start of the measurement the radioisotope has 10,000 unstable nuclei. Over 2 days 5,000
of these unstable nuclei undergo radioactive decay to stable nuclei. Therefore half of the original
radioactive nuclei have decayed in 2 days so the half-life for this radioisotope is 2 days.

Over the next 2 days 2500 of the remaining radioactive nuclei undergo decay. This is half of the
remaining 5000 radioactive nuclei.

The isotope undergoes further decay and it takes 2 days for the number of radioactive nuclei to
halve in number.

The half-life for this radioisotope is 2 days. Therefore the number of radioactive nuclei is always
half the number there was 2 days ago. The curve produced is called a radioactive decay curve.

Calculating Half Life

We know that after one half-life, one half of the original radioactive nuclei remain. After two half-
lives, one half of this half remains or one quarter of the original radioactive nuclei remain.

We can therefore say:

1 half-life     = ½ of the original radioactive nuclei remain
2 half-lives      =         ¼ of the original radioactive nuclei remain

This can be written as an equation as:


A radioactive isotope has a radioactivity measured on a Geiger-Muller tube at 10,000

Becquerel’s or 10,000 counts per second. What is the activity of the radioisotope after 3 half-

The amount remaining =   x Original amount

The amount remaining =   x 10,000

The amount remaining =   x 10,000

The amount remaining = 1250 Bq

For this question we did not need to know the half-life of the isotope, we simply needed to
remember the equation and the fact that the activity is halved for every half-life.

Uses of Radioactivity
Radiation in the treatment of cancer
The three types of radiation are highly energetic particles. Each type has its own distinct ionising
and penetrating property. Radiation can ionise the molecules in living cells, in particular the DNA
molecule. This can affect the ability of the cell to grow and divide. This effect of radiation on living
cells is made use of in the treatment of cancer.

The process of using radiation in the treatment of cancer is called radiation therapy or
radiotherapy. During radiotherapy both cancer cells and normal cells are damaged, however
normal cells can recover from the effects of radiations.

There are three types of radiation therapy;

 External radiation therapy

 Internal radiation therapy
 Systemic radiation therapy
External radiation therapy

In this type of treatment a machine is used to aim high energy radiation to the cancerous cells
from outside the body. A machine called a linear accelerator (LINAC) is commonly used for this
type of treatment.  In this device a highly energetic electron beam is used to generate x-rays or
gamma rays through the collision with a suitable target material. The x-rays/gamma rays are then
focused into a beam which targets the region requiring treatment. External radiation is used to
treat most type of cancers for e.g. cancer of the breasts, brain, bladder, lungs etc. It is also used
in certain cases when the cancer spreads to other parts of the body from the primary site.

Internal radiation therapy

In this type of therapy the radioactive material is sealed in needles, wires, seeds or flexible tubes
and placed directly into or near the cancer cells. The radioactive isotopes used in internal
radiation therapy are Iodine 125 or Iodine 131, Strontium 89, Phosphorous, Palladium, Cesium,
Iridium or Cobalt. As the isotopes decay naturally, they emit radiations which target the nearby
cancer cells.

Systemic radiation therapy

In this type of therapy a radioactive substance is swallowed or injected into the body and travels
through the blood/circulatory system, locating and destroying the cancer cells. Systemic radiation
therapy is used in the treatment of some types of thyroid cancer. The radioactive isotope, Iodine
131 is used. This is because thyroid cells naturally take up this radioactive isotope. For some
types of cancer treatment the radioactive substance is joined to an antibody. The antibody travels
through the blood and recognises the target cells; it binds to the proteins of these cells exposing
them to the radioactive substance.

Alpha particles in smoke detectors

Radioactive isotopes which emit alpha particles can be used in smoke detectors. The animation
below shows a smoke detector with the radioisotope Americium 241 as the alpha source.

Smoke detectors make use of the ionising properties of alpha particles. They contain an
ionisation chamber which consists of a positive and negative electrode along with a very small
amount of the radioisotope Americium-241. Amercium-241 has a half-life of 432 years and is a
good source of alpha particles. The long half-life is useful as it ensures a continuous source of
alpha particles meaning the detector is very reliable and will not stop functioning. It also means
the alarm does not require regular replacement; however the battery does require regular
replacing and this is indicated by a warning beep or light on the alarm.

The ionisation chamber consists of open channels allowing the air form the room to flow through
it. The alpha particles emitted from the Americium-241 collide with the oxygen and nitrogen
molecules in the air causing them to ionise. To ionise means to knock off electron/electrons from
an atom. Thus the alpha particles knock off an electron from the oxygen and nitrogen molecules
resulting in negatively charged electrons and positively charged atoms. The negatively charge
electrons are attracted to the positive electrode and the positively charged atoms to the negative
electrode. A very small current is generated which is detected by the electrical circuit in the
smoke detector.
When smoke enters the ionisation chamber the alpha particles collide with the smoke particles
instead of the air particles. The collisions with smoke particles does not result in ionisation so the
current drops. The electric circuit registers the drop in electric current and triggers the alarm to

Beta Radiation in Thickness Control

In industries involving the production of materials with a specific thickness i.e. paper, plastic
films, aluminium foil, steel etc. beta radiations are used to measure and control the thickness.
Strontium 90 is an example of a radioisotope used for this type of application. It is important to
know the properties of the radioisotope when selecting its use. Although there are other
radioisotopes which emit beta radiation their properties may not be best suited for use in a
manufacturing environment. Strontium 90 has a half-life of about 29 years; this means the
radioactive source for the thickness controller does not need regular replacement. This is
beneficial in a manufacturing environment as it means the processing line does not need to be
interrupted regularly to replace the source. It also means that the user does not have to
constantly worry about disposing of a radioactive material. An additional property of Strontium 90
is that the beta particles resulting from its decay are moderate in energy and this reduces the risk
of exposure to any workers in its proximity.

The animation below shows how thickness control using a radioactive beta source is achieved in

It is important to know the properties of a radioisotope when determining its

use. The main properties to consider are:

The half-life – A long half-life in equipment which uses the radioisotope as a

radiation source i.e. smoke detectors and thickness control. This reduces the
frequency of replacement and waste disposal. Short half-life radioisotopes for
tracer use radiotherapy.

The penetrating properties – In the use of thickness control, alpha rays

would not be suitable as they are stopped by a thin sheet of paper. Gamma
rays are the most penetrating of the radiations and would not be suitable in
applications where thickness control is up to a few millimetres as they would
all pass through. Beta rays are ideally suited as they have enough energy to
pass through thin sheets of metal.

The energy of the beta emission – Radioisotopes can emit beta radiation at
different energies varying from low, medium to high energies. It is important to
know the energy of the emission so that people exposed to the source can
take the correct level of precautions and protection.

Beta Radiation in Leak Detection

Leaks in underground pipelines can be detected by the injection of a radioactive isotope. This is
achieved by adding a small amount of a radioisotope which is a source of beta radiation to the
fluid. The area above ground where a high intensity of beta radiation is detected will pin point the
leak source in the pipeline. This saves time as the correct area is dug up.

The use of a radioisotope that emits beta radiation is important as beta radiations have the
correct penetrating power to travel through the soil to give a measureable reading above ground.
At the source of the leak the intensity of the beta radiations will be high as no energy is lost to the
pipe wall. An alpha source would be of no use as the alpha radiations would be absorbed by the
soil. Gamma rays on the other hand have too much energy and would pass through the walls of
the pipe and therefore be no more intense at the source of the leak.

It is important to use a radioisotope with a half-life of a few hours or days. This is so it remains
long enough for the leak to be detected but not too long that it may pose a safety or health risk.
Sodium 24 is an example of a radioisotope used in leak detection. It has a half-life of about 15
hours and emits beta radiation along with gamma radiation.

Gamma Rays in Sterilisation

The process by which an object is exposed to radiation is called irradiation.  Gamma irradiation
can be used to preserve foods. The radioisotope Colbalt-60 is used as the source for gamma
rays. The gamma rays from this source kill bacteria, mould, parasites and insects. They also
inhibit germination and premature ripening in fruits and vegetables. This helps to prolong the
shelf life of the food. The food itself does not become radioactive.
The Radura logo below is used to indicate the food has been treated by radiations.

Medical equipment is also sterilised using gamma radiation. Sterilisation by this method is more
advantageous than heating in the case of plastic equipment such as syringes as it avoids heat

Radiocarbon dating
Radiocarbon or Carbon-14 dating is a technique used by scientist to date bones, wood, paper
and cloth.

Carbon-14 is a radioisotope of Carbon. It is produced in the Earth’s upper atmosphere when

Nitrogen-14 is broken down to form the unstable Carbon-14 by the action of cosmic rays. The
unstable Carbon-14 is transported down to the lower atmosphere by atmospheric activity such as

Carbon-14 reacts identically to Carbon-12 and is rapidly oxidised to form (Carbon-14)Dioxide.

Since all living organisms on Earth are made up of organic molecules that contain Carbon atoms
derived from the atmosphere, they therefore contain Carbon-14 atoms. The Carbon-14 within a
living organism is continually decaying, but as the organism is continuously absorbing Carbon-14
throughout its life the ratio of Carbon-14 to Carbon-12 atoms in the organism is the same as the
ratio in the atmosphere. Once an organism dies it stops taking in Carbon in any form. The
unstable Carbon-14 within the organism begins to decay to form Nitrogen-14 by emitting a beta
particle. Over time there is a gradual decrease in the amount of Carbon-14 and the ratio of
Carbon-14 atoms to other Carbon atoms declines.
The half-life for Carbon-14 is 5730 years. Therefore half of the Carbon-14 has decayed after
5730 years. Half of the remaining Carbon-14 then decays over the next 5730 years leaving one
fourth of the original amount. By measuring the ratio of Carbon-14 in a sample and comparing it
to the amount in a recently deceased sample its date can be determined.

What is Nuclear Fission?

Nuclear Fission is the process in which the nucleus of a heavy atom, such as Uranium-
235 or Plotonium-236, is split into two smaller or daughter nuclei and three neutrons along with
the release of energy when bombarded by a slow moving neutron.

Nuclear fission releases a tremendous amount of energy. The mass of products from the fission
reaction are slightly less than the mass of the parent nucleus. The mass that is lost in the
reaction has been converted to energy. The amount of energy released from this mass can be
calculated using Einstein's equation below:

Energy Released     =     mass     x     [velocity of light]2

(Joules)                      (kilograms)        (meters per second)

E = mc2

The energy resulting from the mass loss is in the form of kinetic energy of the daughter nuclei
and neutron and electromagnetic radiation in the form of gamma rays.

The animation below shows the mechanism of nuclear fission.

A slow moving neutron bombards a heavy Uranium-235 nucleus. The neutron is absorbed by the
nucleus to produce a Uranium-236 nucleus. This neutron rich nucleus is unstable and begins to
The unstable energetic nucleus distorts and the repulsion between the protons begins to
separate the nucleus.

The repulsion between the protons becomes strong enough to separate the nucleus into two
separate nuclei along with the release of a large amount of energy.
Two daughter nuclei are formed from the fission and possess a large amount of the energy from
the nuclear reaction in the form of kinetic energy. These are accompanied with three neutrons.

Chain Reaction

A heavy nucleus undergoing fission splits into two smaller nuclei and 2 or 3 neutrons with the
release of energy. The neutrons released in the fission can go on to produce fission in three
other Uranium-235 nuclei. These Uranium nuclei split to produce further neutrons which in turn
trigger fission in further Uranium-235 nuclei and so on. This is referred to as a chain reaction.
Chain reactions are made use of in nuclear reactors and atomic bombs. In an atomic bomb
Uranium is used above a critical size to get an uncontrolled chain reaction by ensuring all the
available fissile material undergoes fission in the minimum time possible. In nuclear reactors the
concentration of Uranium-235 is much less and the chain reaction is controlled in order to reduce
it and more importantly stop it if required.

A Nuclear Reactor

The energy released from nuclear fission is much greater than the chemical energy released
when burning fuels. 1 kg of Uranium-235 gives the same amount of energy through nuclear
fission as is released by burning about 3 million tonnes of coal. The energy from nuclear fission
can be used to generate electricity in a nuclear power plant.

In order to safely harness the energy from nuclear fission the chain reaction needs to be
controlled. This is achieved in a nuclear reactor. The nuclear fuel used in the reactor contains a
small concentration of fissionable atoms, typically 3 to 4%. This low concentration reduces the
risk of a runway reaction. However, in order to establish a chain reaction with this low
concentration one neutron from each fission event must go on to cause fission in another atom.
This is achieved in the reactor with the use of a moderator. A moderator is a material used in a
nuclear reactor to slow down the neutrons produced from fission. By slowing the neutrons down
the probability of a neutron interacting with Uranium-235 nuclei is greatly increased thereby
maintaining the chain reaction. Moderators are made from materials with light nuclei which do not
absorb the neutrons but rather slow them down by a series of collisions. Carbon in the form of
graphite is a material used for moderators as is heavy water which is Deuterium an isotope of
Hydrogen with an atomic mass of 2 bonded to Oxygen.

The moderator only slows neutrons down in order to increase the interaction with Uranium nuclei.
They do not give any protection if the reaction goes out of control. If a chain reaction is heading
out of control the reactors needs to be able to reduce the concentration of neutrons. For this the
reactor uses control rods. Control rods are made from material with the ability to absorb
neutrons; Cadmium and Boron are examples of suitable materials. By inserting control rods
between the fuel rods the chain reaction can be slowed down or shut down. Withdrawing the
control rods can restart or speed up the reaction.

The animation below shows how the nuclear fission process in a nuclear reactor is controlled.

A large mass of moderator encases the nuclear fuel rods slowing down the neutrons to increase
their interactions with the fissionable atoms. If the chain reaction shows signs of being out of
control the control rods are inserted to absorb neutrons thereby slowing down the reaction. They
can then be withdrawn to allow the reaction to proceed in a controlled manner.

A Nuclear Power Station

The animation below shows how electricity is generated in a nuclear power station.
The moderator slows the neutrons down so they interact more strongly with the Uranium-235
nuclei. The fission reaction is regulated using cadmium control rods which absorb neutrons. The
reactor core is housed in a reactor vessel constructed from steel 20 – 25 cm thick.

Coolant (either water or carbon dioxide at high pressures to prevent boiling) flow through the
reactor core. Heat generated by the fission reaction is transferred to the coolant and removed
from the core. The coolant then flows through a boiler where it transfers the heat from the reactor
to water thereby generating steam.
The high pressure steam produced at the boiler is forced through the steam turbine. The steam
turns the turbine blade which drives the turbine shaft. The generator is housed around the
turbine shaft. A powerful electromagnet mounted on the turbine shaft produces electricity in the
generator windings as it rotates.

The generated electricity goes to a transformer where the voltage is increased and transmitted
along pylons.
The steam from the turbines is cooled in a condenser. Here it passes over a maze of pipes
containing cold water sourced from a nearby water supply such as a river. The steam condenses
to water and recycled back to the steam generator. The water in pipes sourced from the river is
no much warmer after gaining heat from the steam and is cooled in a cooling tower.

Radioactive Waste

Radioactive wastes are generated by different kinds of facilities. The major contributor is the
nuclear power industry but other users such as the defence industry, hospitals, manufacturing
industries and educational facilities produce radioactive wastes in a variety of physical and
chemical forms.

With the associated health and environmental risks associated with radioactivity, it is imperative
that the radioactive waste is disposed off safely and responsibly. The methods employed in
disposal of radioactive waste depend on several factors some of which are listed below:

 The activity and concentration

 The half life
 The chemical properties i.e. associated chemical hazards, reactivity and combustibility.
 The physical properties i.e. state (solid, liquid or gaseous), size and weight and solubility.

For example Plutonium-239 undergoes alpha decay. Alpha particles are relatively simple to
provide protection against as their high ionisation means they cannot penetrate more than a few
centimetres of air. However, Plutonium-239 has a half life of 24000 years and it is extremely toxic
and corrosive therefore any disposal system for this radioactive isotope needs to be very secure
for many thousands of years.

Radioactive waste has been categorised by a classification system. The categories are as
High Level Waste (HLW)

This is radioactive waste produced by the chemical reprocessing of nuclear fuel. It contains
mainly fission products and other heavy nuclei that are generated in the reactor core. Besides
being radioactive it is thermally hot. Disposal methods for high level waste include solidifying the
waste in a glass matrix and sealing it in a corrosion resistant steel lined drum. The drums are
stored in specially engineered cooling pools or storage vaults.

Intermediate Level Waste (ILW)

This is radioactive waste with a radioactive content that requires shielding but requires no cooling
as it is not thermally hot. Intermediate level waste includes the old components from a nuclear
reactor, chemical residues and other support structures form a nuclear reactor core. Intermediate
level wastes are mixed with cement and solidified in stainless steel drums which are stored in
special facilities above ground or in shaft or trenches underground.

Low Level Waste (LLW)

This is radioactive waste with a low level of radioactivity requiring no shielding. Examples of low
level waste include discarded protective clothing, packaging material and medical equipment
such as syringes and needles. Other than nuclear power stations this waste is generated from
hospitals and other industries. This type of waste is short lived and is stored on sites with special
licences until it has decayed and is then disposed off as ordinary waste.

The table below summarises the categories of radioactive waste.

waste category Examples Disposal method

High Level Fission products and other heavy Solidifying the waste in a glass matrix and
Waste nuclei that are generated in the sealing it in a corrosion resistant steel lined
(HLW) reactor core. drum. Storing the drums in specially
engineered cooling pools or storage vaults.

Intermediate Old components from nuclear Mixed with cement and solidified in stainless
Level Waste reactors, chemical residues and steel drums which are stored in special
(ILW) other support structures form a facilities above ground or in shaft or
nuclear reactor core. trenches underground.

Low Level Discarded protective clothing, Stored on sites with special licences until it
Waste packaging material and medical radioactive decay complete and then
(LLW) equipment such as syringes and disposed off as ordinary waste usually in
needles. landfills.

What is Nuclear Fusion?

Nuclear fusion is the process in which the nuclei of light elements combine, or fuse together, to
give heavier nuclei.

An example of a fusion reaction is that of two deuterium nuclei fusing together to give a helium
nucleus. Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen. The reaction is as follows:

Fusion reactions are accompanied by a much greater mass to energy conversion than in fission

Nuclear fusion requires extremely high temperatures. This is because the small nuclei require
enough kinetic energy to overcome their electrostatic repulsion. The energy we receive from the
sun is from nuclear fusion. The sun is made up mainly of hydrogen and helium. Within the sun
the temperature is millions of degrees Celsius, there is the constant fusion of small nuclei into
larger nuclei.

The animation below shows the mechanism of nuclear fusion.

Both nuclei contain 1 proton and 1 neutron. They carry a positive charge and repel each other.
An increase in temperature increases the kinetic energy of the nuclei and they move around at
increasing speeds.
At very high temperatures (millions of degrees Celsius) the kinetic energies of the nuclei
overcome their forces of repulsion and collide. The collision results in the two Deuterium nuclei
fusing to form a Helium nucleus along with a tremendous amount of energy.