An atomic nucleus consists of protons and neutrons, collectively called nucleons. Although protons repel each other, the nucleus is held tightly together by a short-range, but very strong, force called the strong nuclear force. A nucleus has less mass than the total mass of its constituent nucleons. This “missing” mass is the mass defect, which has been converted into the binding energy that holds the nucleus together according to Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence equation, E = mc2. Of the many nuclides that exist, only a small number are stable. Nuclides with even numbers of protons or neutrons, or those with magic numbers of nucleons, are especially likely to be stable. These stable nuclides occupy a narrow band of stability on a graph of number of protons versus number of neutrons. The binding energy per nucleon is largest for the elements with mass numbers near 56; these are the most stable nuclei.
Nuclei can undergo reactions that change their number of protons, number of neutrons, or energy state. Many different particles can be involved in nuclear reactions. The most common are protons, neutrons, positrons (which are positively charged electrons), alpha (α) particles (which are high-energy helium nuclei), beta (β) particles (which are high-energy electrons), and gamma (γ) rays (which compose high-energy electromagnetic radiation). As with chemical reactions, nuclear reactions are always balanced. When a nuclear reaction occurs, the total mass (number) and the total charge remain unchanged.
Nuclei that have unstable n:p ratios undergo spontaneous radioactive decay. The most common types of radioactivity are α decay, β decay, γ emission, positron emission, and electron capture. Nuclear reactions also often involve γ rays, and some nuclei decay by electron capture. Each of these modes of decay leads to the formation of a new nucleus with a more stable n:p ratio. Some substances undergo radioactive decay series, proceeding through multiple decays before ending in a stable isotope. All nuclear decay processes follow first-order kinetics, and each radioisotope has its own characteristic half-life, the time that is required for half of its atoms to decay. Because of the large differences in stability among nuclides, there is a very wide range of half-lives of radioactive substances. Many of these substances have found useful applications in medical diagnosis and treatment, determining the age of archaeological and geological objects, and more.
It is possible to produce new atoms by bombarding other atoms with nuclei or high-speed particles. The products of these transmutation reactions can be stable or radioactive. A number of artificial elements, including technetium, astatine, and the transuranium elements, have been produced in this way.
Nuclear power as well as nuclear weapon detonations can be generated through fission (reactions in which a heavy nucleus is split into two or more lighter nuclei and several neutrons). Because the neutrons may induce additional fission reactions when they combine with other heavy nuclei, a chain reaction can result. Useful power is obtained if the fission process is carried out in a nuclear reactor. The conversion of light nuclei into heavier nuclei (fusion) also produces energy. At present, this energy has not been contained adequately and is too expensive to be feasible for commercial energy production.
Compounds known as radioactive tracers can be used to follow reactions, track the distribution of a substance, diagnose and treat medical conditions, and much more. Other radioactive substances are helpful for controlling pests, visualizing structures, providing fire warnings, and for many other applications. Hundreds of millions of nuclear medicine tests and procedures, using a wide variety of radioisotopes with relatively short half-lives, are performed every year in the US. Most of these radioisotopes have relatively short half-lives; some are short enough that the radioisotope must be made on-site at medical facilities. Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells by damaging their DNA. The radiation used for this treatment may be delivered externally or internally.
We are constantly exposed to radiation from a variety of naturally occurring and human-produced sources. This radiation can affect living organisms. Ionizing radiation is the most harmful because it can ionize molecules or break chemical bonds, which damages the molecule and causes malfunctions in cell processes. It can also create reactive hydroxyl radicals that damage biological molecules and disrupt physiological processes. Radiation can cause somatic or genetic damage, and is most harmful to rapidly reproducing cells. Types of radiation differ in their ability to penetrate material and damage tissue, with alpha particles the least penetrating but potentially most damaging and gamma rays the most penetrating.
Various devices, including Geiger counters, scintillators, and dosimeters, are used to detect and measure radiation, and monitor radiation exposure. We use several units to measure radiation: becquerels or curies for rates of radioactive decay; gray or rads for energy absorbed; and rems or sieverts for biological effects of radiation. Exposure to radiation can cause a wide range of health effects, from minor to severe, and including death. We can minimize the effects of radiation by shielding with dense materials such as lead, moving away from the source, and limiting time of exposure.