Atomic and Nuclear Physics
MODES OF RADIOACTIVE DECAY
Heavy elements, such as uranium or thorium, and their unstable decay chain elements emit
radiation in their naturally occurring state. Uranium and thorium, present since their creation
at the beginning of geological time, have an extremely slow rate of decay. All naturally
occurring nuclides with atomic numbers greater than 82 are radioactive.
Whenever a nucleus can attain a more stable (i.e., more tightly bound) configuration by emitting
radiation, a spontaneous disintegration process known as radioactive decay or nuclear decay may
occur. In practice, this "radiation" may be electromagnetic radiation, particles, or both.
Detailed studies of radioactive decay and nuclear reaction processes have led to the formulation
of useful conservation principles. The four principles of most interest in this module are
Conservation of electric charge implies that charges are neither created nor destroyed. Single
positive and negative charges may, however, neutralize each other. It is also possible for a
neutral particle to produce one charge of each sign.
Conservation of mass number does not allow a net change in the number of nucleons. However,
the conversion of a proton to a neutron and vice versa is allowed.
Conservation of mass and energy implies that the total of the kinetic energy and the energy
equivalent of the mass in a system must be conserved in all decays and reactions. Mass can be
converted to energy and energy can be converted to mass, but the sum of mass and energy must
Conservation of momentum is responsible for the distribution of the available kinetic energy
among product nuclei, particles, and/or radiation. The total amount is the same before and after
the reaction even though it may be distributed differently among entirely different nuclides