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Modern Physics: Radioactive Decay, Names:

Fission, and Chain Reactions

Find and open the PhET simulation Alpha Decay: http://phet.colorado.edu/simulations/sims.php?

Radioactive Decay in a single atom:
Open the Alpha Decay sim and go to the SECOND tab (single atom).
What is an alpha particle?

Helium nucleus

The simulation shows an atoms nucleus: In this representation, are all the nucleons
(protons and neutrons) in a center nuclear ball, or is the nucleus distributed in scattered
sections? Explain the structure.

There is a nuclear ball, as atoms have nuclei. These nuclei are represented by the ball

The force keeping the protons and neutrons together is known as the nuclear force. Just
like the basis for interplanetary forces is the fundamental force gravity, the basis of the
nuclear force is this fundamental force: Strong nuclear force. It gives structure to both
nuclei and nucleons.

In the simulation, a diagram of the potential energy terrain created by the nuclear force
is shown in blue. The alpha particles are located in the diagram also and they have a
fixed total energy (shown in red). Based on classical mechanics, would the alpha
particles be able to get out of the nucleus?


In this representation, do the alpha particles stay in the potential well of the nucleus, or
do they move into the barrier?

They move into the barrier

Define tunneling:

Tunneling occurs when a particle tunnels through a barrier that it classically could not

Define atomic number:

The numbers of protons in a nucleus

In-class work 20, Physics 102 / Dandaneau, page 1

When an alpha particle tunnels out of the nucleus, is the atom still an atom of the element
polonium (atomic number 84), or has the atom changed to a new element? If so, what

New element, Pb

The simulation labels the atoms according to the mass number (not atomic number).
Define mass number:

The numbers of nucleons in the nucleus

How many protons are in the original atom (polonium-211)? How many neutrons?

84, 127

How many protons are in the atom after it decays to lead-207? How many neutrons?

82, 123

What is the difference, and what does that make up?

2,4 - the alpha particle

The simulation has a reset button. When you reset it (many times to check well), is the
time is takes the new nucleus to decay the same, or about the same as the old time or is it

It is random but centered about the half-life perhaps normally?

Radioactive Decay in a sample of atoms:

While the atomic decay is random, for larger amounts of radioactive material, the overall
decay of the population of atoms can be characterized by a constant known as the half-
life (the time is takes for about half of the amount to decay).

Now go to the FIRST tab (multiple atoms) and keep adding 10 atoms until the entire
bucket is empty (there are 99 total atoms). Because the simulation starts automatically,
youll need to Reset all Nuclei before you take data. Every second, pause the
simulation and note the number of polonium atoms. Plot below:

In-class work 20, Physics 102 / Dandaneau, page 2



Number of Polonium atoms remaining


0 1 2 3
Time elasped (seconds)

What is the mathematical shape of the graph (linear, parabolic, etc.)?


Say material X decays radioactively into material Y with a characteristic half life of
two days. Assume you start with 100 kg of X. In the graph below, plot the amount of
material of X that remains after 2 days, 4 days, 6 days, and 10 days:

In-class work 20, Physics 102 / Dandaneau, page 3



Mass of X remaining (kg)


0 5 10
Time elasped since X first measured at
100 kg (days)

Say X has a safe level of 5 kg (for the given area it is located in). How long does it take
to reach a safe level?

8.64 days

If the original level is 50 kgs (half the original size), does it take half the time to reach a
safe level? Explain. (You may want to add a plot of this sample to your graph to help you, though it isnt required.)

No. It takes one day less, as the function is exponential. Consider the half life function
h(t) where h(t) is the amount of material left. The original level being 50kg is like h(1) on
the original graph, so it is merely the graph shifted over one unit, or h(1+t)

Add a plot for the decay of 100 kg of material Z, which has a half-life of 1 day. Label
this line. Then answer this question: how long does it take material z to reach a safe level
of 5 kg? How does this compare to the time it took material X to decay to this level?

4.32 days, twice as much

What happens to the mass lost by X in the radioactive decay? Is mass conserved, and if
so, how?

Mass lost = emmited particle and released energy in terms of mass using E=mc^2. Matter
and energy are conserved.


In-class work 20, Physics 102 / Dandaneau, page 4

Open the Nuclear Fission sim: http://phet.colorado.edu/simulations/sims.php?sim=Nuclear_Fission
Start at the tab Fission: One Nucleus
Define fission: The process by which an atoms nucleus divides into lighter nuclei, in the
process releasing energy and other particles

Run the simulation. Before the gun is fired, is the material stable, or does it seem likely
to radioactively decay?

Likely to decay

When you operate the gun, what type of particle does it fire?


If the gun fires and hits the nucleus, what happens?

The atom becomes U236 and then rapidly splits into two lighter atoms

Switch the tab to chain reaction and add some uranium-238. The atom used in the
previous tab was uranium-235. Is uranium-238 fissionable? How does firing the gun
on a uranium-238 atom change it? (Note you can aim the gun.)
U-238 is not fissionable, it merely transforms into U-239, which does not divide

Chain reaction:
Switch to the tab Chain Reaction.
Reset the sim (using the button) and add lots of fissionable uranium-235. What happens
and why?

The U-235 splits and then a chain reaction begins, inducing fission in all the U-235. A
neutron is used to incite the initial reaction, then the fission reaction releases neutrons at
high velocity that propagate the nuclear fission reaction among other U-235 nuclei.

Normal levels of the uranium-235 isotope are about 0.72%, with the majority being
uranium-238. Round the level up to 1% (in the favor of uranium-238), to one atom of
uranium-235 and 99 atoms of uranium 238. Use the simulation to discover if naturally-
derived uranium can start a chain reaction (and therefore be useful in either nuclear
weapons or nuclear power plants): Is naturally derived uranium able to start a chain
reaction, or must the sample be enriched?

No, the sample must be enriched.

In-class work 20, Physics 102 / Dandaneau, page 5

Use the simulation to find a minimum ratio of uranium-235 to uranium-238 (keep your
total of atoms always at 100); what is the smallest percentage that still starts a chain

40% U-238 to 60% U-235 is just enough to start a sizable reaction that consumes most of
the U-235 in fission reactions.

How does the above compare to weapons-grade enriched uranium (about 80-85%)?

Lower than weapons grade by about 20%

Use the simulation to make a nuclear weapon. What conditions are needed? (Hint, youll
need a containment vessel, and a certain level of enrichment that you must determine.)

About 80-85% U-235 sample in a containment vessel.

What is a dirty-bomb (you may have to look it up online). Is a high grade of uranium
needed for a dirty-bomb to explode?

A dirty bomb is a conventional bomb that is designed to spread radioactive material

around to make an area uninhabitable. No, radioactive dust is enough to make an area
uninhabitable. Fission reaction is not needed to produce a large explosion, merely one
large enough to spread the radioactive payload.

Nuclear power plants:

Switch to the Nuclear Reactor tab.
What is needed to start the nuclear reactor?

U-235 atoms, control rods, containment facility, neutron beams

What does adjusting the control rods do?

Allows the reaction to spread to other sectors, controls and limits pace of nuclear reaction

Without the control rods in position, what happens?

The reaction spirals out of control and becomes a chain reaction. The nuclear power plant
becomes a nuclear bomb.

Homer Simpson is asleep at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant

(where hes known to occasionally work.. although mostly hes
asleep at the controls). When the power plant sounds an alarm
(doh!), what is happening, and what must Homer do to save the
day? http://www.yoest.org/archives/homer_simpson_nnuclear_power_plant.jpg

In-class work 20, Physics 102 / Dandaneau, page 6

The heat of the fission reaction is too great and threatens to melt the container holding the
nuclear reaction or the nuclear reaction is getting out of control. He must shut down the
reaction by inducing the control rods to their maximum lengths to isolate the chain
reactions and shut them down.

In-class work 20, Physics 102 / Dandaneau, page 7