Understanding Radiation: Scientific Basis of Nuclear Explosions – Fission Products

Understanding Radiation: Scientific Basis of Nuclear Explosions – Fission Products

Many different initial fission product nuclei, i.e., fission fragments, are formed when uranium or plutonium nuclei capture neutrons and suffer fission. There are 40 or so different ways in which the nuclei can split up when fission occurs; hence about 80 different fragments are produced. The nature and proportions of the fission fragment nuclei vary to some extent, depending on the particular substance undergoing fission and on the energy of the neutrons causing fission.

For example, when uranium-238 undergoes fission as a result of the capture of neutrons of very high energy released in certain fusion reactions, the products are somewhat different, especially in their relative amounts, from those formed from uranium-235 by ordinary fission neutrons.

Regardless of their origin, most, if not all, of the approximately 80 fission fragments are the nuclei of radioactive forms (radioisotopes) of well known, lighter elements. The radioactivity is usually manifested by the emission of negatively charged beta particles. This is frequently, although not always, accompanied by gamma radiation, which serves to carry off excess energy. In a few special cases, gamma radiation only is emitted.

As a result of the expulsion of a beta particle, the nucleus of a radioactive substance is changed into that of another element, sometimes called the “decay product.” In the case of the fission fragments, the decay products are generally also radioactive, and these in turn may decay with the emission of beta particles and gamma rays. On the average there are about four stages of radioactivity for each fission fragment before a stable (nonradioactive) nucleus is formed.

Because of the large number of different ways in which fission can occur and the several stages of decay involved, the fission product mixture becomes very complex. More than 300 different isotopes of 36 light elements, from zinc to terbium, have been identified among the fission products.

The rate of radioactive change, i.e., the rate of emission of beta particles and gamma radiation, is usually expressed by means of the “half-life” of the radionuclide involved. This is defined as the time required for the radioactivity of a given quantity of a particular nuclide to decrease (or decay) to half of its original value.

Each individual radionuclide has a definite half-life which is independent of its state or its amount. The half-lives of the fission products have been found to range from a small fraction of a second to something like a million years.

Although every radionuclide present among the fission products is known to have a definite half-life, the mixture formed after a nuclear explosion is so complex that it is not possible to represent the decay as a whole in terms of a half-life. Nevertheless, it has been found that the decrease in the total radiation intensity from the fission products can be calculated approximately by means of a fairly simple formula.

This will be given and discussed in Chapter IX, but the general nature of the decay rate of fission products, based on this formula, will be apparent from Fig. 1.64. The residual radioactivity from the fission products at 1 hour after a nuclear detonation is taken as 100 and the subsequent decrease with time is indicated by the curve.

It is seen that at 7 hours after the explosion, the fission product activity will have decreased to about one-tenth (10 percent) of its amount at 1 hour. Within approximately 2 days, the activity will have decreased to 1 percent of the 1hour value.

In addition to the beta-particle and gamma-ray activity due to the fission products, there is another kind of residual radioactivity that should be mentioned. This is the activity of the fissionable material, part of which remains after the explosion.

The fissionable uranium and plutonium isotopes are radioactive, and their activity consists in the emission of what are called “alpha particles.” These are a form of nuclear radiation, since they are expelled from atomic nuclei; but they differ from the beta particles arising from the fission products in being much heavier and carrying a positive electrical charge. Alpha particles are, in fact, identical with the nuclei of helium atoms.

Because of their greater mass and charge, alpha particles are much less penetrating than beta particles or gamma rays of the same energy. Thus, very few alpha particles from radioactive sources can travel more than 1 to 3 inches in air before being stopped.

It is doubtful that these particles can get through the unbroken skin, and they certainly cannot penetrate clothing. Consequently, the uranium (or plutonium) present in the weapon residues does not constitute a hazard if the latter are outside the body. However, if plutonium enters the body by ingestion, through skin abrasions, or particularly through inhalation, the effects may be serious.

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