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NUCLEAR PHYSICS

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LTHOUGH the image of nuclear physics


is inevitably connected with the
explosion of an atomic bomb, since World
War II, no other similar bomb has been
used for military purpose. While nuclear
weapons continue to be developed, the bulk
of scientific efforts has been geared
towards the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
The picture you see above shows a nuclear
plant that produces the equivalent energy
of millions of tonnes of coal and oil per
year. However, the control and maintenance
of the reactors inside is extremely critical
as incidents like the accidents at Three
Mile Island, USA, Chernobyl, Russia, and
the latest one in 1999 in Japan can have
devastating consequences.

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Proton number of an element is equal to the


number of protons in one atom of the element.
Nucleon number is equal to the total number
of protons and neutrons in one atom of an
element.
Radioactivity is decay of an unstable nucleus
by emitting radiation (such as alpha particles,
beta particles and gamma rays) to become a
more stable nucleus.
Alpha particle, is the helium nucleus and
consists of 2 protons and 2 neutrons. During
alpha decay:
(i) an alpha particle is emitted
(ii) proton number is reduced by 2
(iii) nucleon number is reduced by 4
Beta particle, is a very fast moving electron.
During beta decay:
(i) a beta particle is emitted
(ii) proton number increases by 1
(iii) nucleon number unchanged
Gamma rays, are electromagnetic waves with
very high frequency. During gamma decay:
(i) gamma rays are emitted
(ii) no change in the proton number and
nucleon number

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Examples of detectors of radiation are:


(i) Geiger-Muller tube
(ii) Cloud chamber
(iii) Spark counter
(iv) Gold leaf electroscope
(v) Photographic film
(vi) Scintillation counter
Activity of a radioactive sample is the number
of decays per second or the rate of decay.
Half-life of a radioisotope is the time taken for
the activity to decrease to half its initial value.
Isotopes are atoms which have the same
number of protons but different number of
neutrons.
Radioisotopes are isotpes whose nuclei are
unstable.
One a.m.u (atomic mass unit) is equal to the
mass of one twelfth of a carbon-12 atom.
Mass defect or loss of mass occurs in
radioactive decay and nuclear reactions.
Einsteins mass-energy relationship states that
mass and energy can change from one form to
another, and the relationship is given by:
E = mc2
Nuclear Fission is the splitting of a heavy
nucleus into two smaller nuclei when it is struck
by a neutron.
Chain reaction is the continuous fission of
nuclei and this occurs when the new neutrons
produced by a fission splits another nucleus.
Critical mass is the minimum mass that is
required for a chain reaction.
Nuclear Fusion occurs when two lighter nuclei
combined together to form a heavier nucleus and
energy is released.
Harmful effects of radiation to human beings
are:
(i) Somatic effect damage to body parts
except reproductive organs.
(ii) Genetic effects damage to cells in
reproductive organs.
Radiation dosage is the energy transferred to
a substance. The unit for radiation dosage is
gray, Gy.
1 Gy = 1 J energy transferred to 1 kg amount of
substance.
Nuclear Reactors
(i) Uranium rods are the fuel rods or the
material for the fission reaction.
(ii) Graphite core slows down the fast fission
neutrons.
(iii) Control rods control the rate of the fission
reaction.
(iv) The coolant in the reactors carries heat
from the reactor to be used in the production
of steam.
(v) Lead or concrete shield prevents the
radiation from being emitted to the
surroundings.

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Speaking of nuclear matters


The most common nuclear fuel, uranium, is
extracted from the earth's crust. It is the 48th
most abundant element. Long ago very big
stars called supernovas, exploded, becoming
intensely bright. Smaller and lighter nuclei
collided to form heavier nuclei like uranium,
which were then scattered across the universe.
Uranium ores are found mainly in Canada, the
Congo and the USA. They are in the forms of
pitchblende (most famously used by Marie
Curie, pioneer in radioactivity and double
Nobel Prize winner) and carnotite. There are
three isotopes, U-238 (99% of all deposits), U235 (only one that naturally undergoes fission)
andlJ-234.
About 30 000 tonnes of uranium are mined
each year. The ores are processed to extract the
uranium. Usually the uranium is taken out as
uranium oxide or "yellowcake". Later, this is
changed to uranium dioxide reactor fuel.
Another kind of nuclear fuel for reactors and
weapons is plutonium. This extremely
dangerous fuel is mostly made by bombarding
U-238 with neutrons. It gives off high-energy
radiation and is highly explosive.
While nuclear power plants do not cause
pollution, the waste materials generated
remain dangerously radioactive for thousands
of years. In the past, such waste was simply
dumped in the sea or deep lakes, or buried
underground. Parts of the former Soviet Union
are now so radioactive that you could get a
lethal dose of radiation just by standing near a
lake where the radioactive wastes had been
dumped.
Nowadays, nuclear wastes are stored carefully
depending on the level of radioactivity. Low and
intermediate level wastes are sealed in
containers and stored above ground at special
sites and moved underground later. High-level
waste is often set in glass bricks, (a process
called vitrification) before being buried deep
underground. Such sites must be in nonvolcanic locations where they are absolutely
stable.

REFLECTION Checklist
10.1 Understanding the nucleus of an atom
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Describe the composition of the
nucleus of an atom in terms of
protons and neutrons

Explain the term nuclide

Use the nuclide notation

Define the term isotope

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10.2 Analysing radioactive decay


State what radioactivity is

Name common detectors for


radioactive emissions

Compare the three kinds of


radioactive emissions in terms of
their nature

Explain what radioactive decay is

Use equations to represent changes


in the composition of the nucleus
when particle are emitted

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Explain half-life

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Determine half-life from a decay


curve
Solve problems involving half-life
10.3 Understanding the uses of
radioisotopes
Define radioisotopes

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Name examples of radioisotopes

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Describe applications of
radioisotopes

10.4 Understanding nuclear energy


Define atomic mass unit (a.m.u)

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Describe nuclear fission

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Give examples of nuclear fission

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Describe chain reactions

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Describe nuclear fusion

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Give examples of nuclear fusion

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Relate the release of energy in a


nuclear reaction with a change of
mass according to the equation
E = mc2

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Describe the generation of


electricity from nuclear fission

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Justify the use of nuclear fission in


the generation of electricity

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Solve problems involving nuclear


energy

10.5 Realising the importance of proper


management of radioactive substances
Describe the negative effects of
radioactive substances

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Describe safety precautions needed


in the handling of radioactive
substance

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Describe the management of


radioactive waste

Quick Review 5.5


Chapter Review Questions

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Section A
Section B
Section C