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Definition: radioactive decay from Processing Water, Wastewater, Residuals, and Excreta for Health and Environmental Protection: An Encyclopedic Dictionary

Spontaneous change in an atom by emission of charged particles and/or gamma rays; also known as radioactive disintegration and radioactivity.

Summary Article: radioactive decay
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Process of disintegration undergone by the nuclei of radioactive elements, such as radium and various isotopes of uranium and the transuranic elements, in order to produce a more stable nucleus. The three most common forms of radioactive decay are alpha, beta, and gamma decay.

In alpha decay (the loss of a helium nucleus – two protons and two neutrons) the atomic number decreases by two and a new nucleus is formed, for example, an atom of uranium isotope of mass 238, on emitting an alpha particle, becomes an atom of thorium, mass 234. In beta decay the loss of an electron from an atom is accomplished by the transformation of a neutron into a proton, thus resulting in an increase in the atomic number of one. For example, the decay of the carbon-14 isotope results in the formation of an atom of nitrogen (mass 14, atomic number 7) and the emission of a high-energy electron. Gamma emission usually occurs as part of alpha or beta emission. In gamma emission high-speed electromagnetic radiation is emitted from the nucleus, making it more stable during the loss of an alpha or beta particle. Certain lighter, artificially-created isotopes also undergo radioactive decay. The associated radiation consists of alpha rays, beta rays, or gamma rays (or a combination of these), and it takes place at a constant rate expressed as a specific half-life, which is the time taken for half of any mass of that particular isotope to decay completely. Less commonly-occurring decay forms include heavy-ion emission, electron capture, and spontaneous fission (in each of these the atomic number decreases). The original nuclide is known as the parent substance, and the product is a daughter nuclide (which may or may not be radioactive). The final product in all modes of decay is a stable element.



Emission of radiation

Alpha and beta emissions


Decay: Radioactivity

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