Radioactivity Essay

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Radioactivity is the process by which chemical elements decay from unstable to stable states by emitting sub-atomic particles and/or energy from molecules over a period of time ranging from infinitesimal fractions of a second to thousands of millions of years. Many elements exist in different isotopes, which are variant forms of molecular structure within elements of the same number and position on the periodic table of elements. Some isotopes undergo radioactive decay from an unstable isotope to a stable isotope. The process of emitting particles and energies can make radioactivity harmful to life since these emissions can be toxic or stimulate harmful growths or mutations in living cells.

The worst peacetime incident involving the release of radioactive material occurred in Ukraine in 1986, when part of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor station suffered explosions and fires resulting from human error. The radioactive material released into the atmosphere was spread over a wide area by wind and led to the contamination of forests and land for many miles around. Thousands of people were killed as a result of the initial explosion, but many more were injured from poisoning and genetic mutation resulting from proximity to the radioactive material. The atomic bombs exploded by the U.S. military over the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima toward the end of World War II still produce genetic mutations and illnesses 60 years and more after the event.

In the case of radioactive decay, the “parent” isotope decomposes into a “daughter” isotope. Understanding the rate at which these forms of decay take place can yield very important information about the ages of astronomical objects and the nature and age of the universe itself. The decay takes two forms, known as alpha and beta. In alpha decay, the molecule emits a helium ion and reduces its mass accordingly. In beta decay, a series of different but related processes occurs which are characterized by the absence of a discrete change in energy and mass level. Wolfgang Pauli and Enrico Fermi studied these processes and such observations were instrumental in identifying the neutrino. However, the major figure involved in the early understanding of radioactivity was Marie Curie, with her husband Pierre and colleague Henri Becquerel, whose work is remembered by the use of her name as a form of measurement, as well as the awarding of two Nobel science prizes. Extensive exposure to radioactive substances ended Marie Curie’s life.

A significant proportion of radioactivity around the world takes place according to “natural” processes-that is, through the decay of substances that are found in the earth’s crust and have been present since a very early period of the history of the earth. Radioactive elements in nature are known as radionuclides, and more than 60 of these are known to exist. This presence may have resulted from the processes of planet formation, or may have been brought about by interaction with cosmic rays in the many years subsequently. Perhaps the most significant of these is radon, which is a gas that is part of the decay of a chain of elements beginning with uranium-238 and passing through radium-226 and ultimately ending with daughter nuclides of radon that include alpha-particle releasing substances such as polonium-210. Radon is present in many parts of the world and its radioactive decay can cause cancers and bone diseases that may be lethal to human and animal life.

States with residential areas close to deposits of radon have been required to consider the extent to which they are responsible for re-settling people elsewhere and perhaps compensating them when their housing belongs to the public sector. Similar arguments exist with the case of asbestos, which has also affected people in homes that may be part of the public sector. Radiation from sources such as x-ray examinations has also been revealed to have negative health impacts, especially when individuals are subject to them on a sustained and repeated basis. Understanding of the dangers of radioactivity has stimulated the creation of measures to prevent disease creation in humans, including the use of lead shielding protective suits and the invention of the Geiger-meter, which is able to monitor the presence of alpha particles and some other forms of dangerous radiation.

The very slow rate at which radioactivity disperses means that nuclear power plants and machines that use nuclear reactions remain potentially dangerous for extended periods of time. In some cases, it may be possible to reprocess the nuclear material into stable isotopes. However, it is more common that the nuclear material cannot be reprocessed and must be kept in as secure a location as can be managed, perhaps for hundreds or thousands of years. This leads many people to doubt the wisdom of employing a technology that creates waste with very high future costs and risks that have yet to be properly assessed. While safety has improved considerably since the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island incidents, there remain real threats of deterioration of the conditions in which the material is kept, or that a determined criminal or terrorist may obtain radioactive material for nefarious purposes.


  1. Eve Curie, Madame Curie: A Biography, trans. by Vincent Sheean (Da Capo Press, 2001);
  2. Charles P. Enz, No Time to be Brief: A Scientific Biography of Wolfgang Pauli (Oxford University Press, 2002);
  3. Michael F. L’Annunziata, Handbook of Radioactivity Analysis (Academic Press, 2003);
  4. Emilio Segre, Enrico Fermi, Physicist (University of Chicago Press, 1995);
  5. Francis Song, “Currently Indisposed: Managing Radioactive Waste,” Harvard International Review (v.25/2, 2003);
  6. Richard Tykva and Dieter Berg, , Man-Made and Natural Radioactivity in Environmental Pollution and Radiochronology (Springer, 2004).

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