Alpha, Beta or Gamma? It's the Nuclear Radiation Quiz

By: Jonathan Atteberry

Alpha, Beta or Gamma? It's the Nuclear Radiation Quiz
Image: ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images

About This Quiz

We live in a radioactive world, and we're not just talking about the times when a nuclear plant is melting down and scaring the heck out of us. How much do you know about the ABGs (or alphas, betas and gammas) of nuclear radiation?
What makes something radioactive?
an unstable nucleus
It's true that all elements with an atomic number higher than 83 are radioactive, but there are also several radioactive elements with lower atomic numbers. The true test of whether an element is radioactive is whether any of its isotopes -- or configurations -- are stable. If not, the substance is radioactive.
elements with an atomic number higher than 83
Haven't you seen any monster movies? Barrels of green toxic sludge!

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Which of the following events would expose you to the most radiation?
living next to a nuclear power plant for a year
eating a banana
getting a CT scan of your chest
A CT scan would expose you to far more radiation than all of the other options combined, yet still delivers only about a tenth of the yearly radiation level deemed safe for workers at nuclear plants. And in case you were wondering, eating a banana actually exposes you to a tiny bit more radiation than living next to a nuclear power plant for a year.

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How does radioactive material generate electricity?
The heat generated during fission creates steam that powers electricity generating turbines.
At the end of the day, nuclear power plants work a lot like those that use fossil fuels, by generating steam that powers massive turbines which, in turn, generate electricity.
The decay of uranium creates enough force to turn turbines directly.
To quote Joe Dirt, "How exactly does the sun set? How exactly does the posi-trac rear end on a Plymouth work? It just does."

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Which of the following typically poses the biggest health threat to humans?
alpha particles
beta particles
gamma rays
They all pose threats. It depends on the situation in question.
Any form of the above can be harmful in certain situations. For example, gamma rays are unique in that they have great penetrating power, allowing them to pass through the body and damage cells in the process. Ultimately, though, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends that you consider time, distance and shielding when considering exposure to ionizing radiation.

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Which of the following household items might contain radioactive material?
smoke detectors
The next time you change the battery in your smoke detector, check to see if there's a label warning you about the radioactive material Americium 241 contained within. If so, there's no need to be alarmed (unless there really is a fire).
thermometers
Hopefully none of them. Isn't that what a product recall is for?

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How do you neutralize the radioactivity of a substance?
incinerate the material
run a high-voltage current through the material
It can't be done.
Given enough time, all radioactive substances will decay until they're no longer radioactive. Unfortunately, there's nothing we can do to speed that process along.

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What percentage of harmful gamma rays do the hazmat suits worn by nuclear technicians block?
30 percent
While better than nothing, the vinyl hazmat suits nuclear technicians wear only block roughly 30 percent of gamma radiation. Accordingly, workers have to closely monitor the amount of exposure they receive and make sure to head for safety as that amount approaches predetermined safety limits.
70 percent
all of it

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Who was the first person to discover radioactivity?
Marie Curie
Henri Becquerel
Becquerel, a Paris-born scientist, first discovered natural radioactivity in 1896 after conducting experiments with uranium salts and phosphorescent plates. His discovery landed him a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, a prize he shared with Pierre and Marie Curie.
Albert Einstein -- he pretty much discovered everything, right?

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Where was the first nuclear reactor constructed?
the Mojave Desert
the Department of Defense's New York facility
under the bleachers of the University of Chicago's old football field
Believe it or not, the first nuclear reactor, known as Chicago Pile-1, was located directly underneath the University of Chicago's Stagg Field bleachers. Shortly after the reactor was activated, it was dismantled and moved farther away from such a densely populated area. Good call.

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How long can some nuclear-powered submarines go without refueling?
10 years
20 years
the life of the ship
Yep, some nuclear submarine models in the U.S. Navy are designed to never need new fuel, allowing them to run an estimated 33 years after which the submarines are retired from the fleet.

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How many nuclear power plants are there worldwide?
a dozen
several hundred
While there are plenty of nuclear reactors used for everything from conducting research to powering submarines, we use several hundred plants to create electricity.
a few thousand

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What are some of the symptoms of acute radiation syndrome?
nausea
blistering of the skin
loss of hair
all of the above
Acute radiation syndrome occurs when someone is exposed to an extremely high dose of radiation over a short time. Within hours, the patient develops different symptoms like the ones mentioned above. The illness is extremely serious and often fatal despite treatment.

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What does the United States currently do with high-level nuclear waste generated from nuclear power plants?
stores the waste deep underground in the Yucca Mountain storage facility
keeps the waste at the site where it's generated
For now, the United States simply stores its high-level nuclear waste at the place where it was generated. While the Yucca Mountain facility has been built to store the waste, it's currently not being used as policy makers determine whether or not the facility provides safe long-term containment.
sells the waste to companies and universities that then use it for medical and academic purposes

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What does the term "half-life" mean in reference to radioactive material?
the amount of time it takes for a radioactive atom to decay
the amount of time it takes for half of a given sample of a radioactive material to decay
When we talk about half-life in terms of radioactive decay, we're speaking in terms of probability. That's because, while we can't predict when a specific atom will become unstable and emit radiation, we can predict the average rate of decay for a given radioactive material.
Half-life? That's one of my all-time favorite computer games!

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Now that we've discussed the term half-life, take a guess at what the half-life for uranium 238 (U-238) is.
4.5 seconds
4.5 years
4.5 billion years
Uranium's most prevalent isotope takes its time to radioactively decay, about 4.5 billion years in fact.

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What are nuclear physicists referring to when they mention the "island of stability"?
the ideal conditions needed to keep radioactive materials from decaying
the theoretical range of elements on the upper end of the periodic table where isotopes become more stable (or have longer half-lives) again
To date, lab created elements with extremely high atomic numbers like ununoctium have proven extremely unstable, but some nuclear physicists believe that if they combine the right number of protons and neutrons together, they may create new, relatively stable elements with some very interesting properties.
the island where nuclear physicists vacation after working too many long nights

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How do workers at nuclear power plants know when they've received the maximum amount of radiation deemed safe?
Workers rely on complex formulas that give them the number of minutes or hours they can spend in a given area.
They use dosimeters that track the amount of radiation they've absorbed.
Dosimeters work much like Geiger counters, except that they keep a running tab of how much radiation they've received. When that amount reaches predetermined limits, the dosimeter alerts the worker to leave the area.
Currently, there's no reliable way to track radiation exposure, so workers avoid dangerous areas altogether.

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Which of the following is NOT a real radioactive element?
Rutherfordium
Neptunium
Vandammeium
Having the chance to name a new element is considered one of the highest honors in nuclear physics, though so far nobody has taken that opportunity to honor actor and martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme.

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Which of the following statements is NOT true?
The radioactive element polonium was used as a minor component of a toy bicycle in the 1950s.
Although it took decades to understand the true dangers of radioactive materials, nobody went so far as to put a highly radioactive material like polonium into a children's toy.
Before the first nuclear bomb was detonated, scientists took bets on whether or not it would destroy the entire world.
X-ray machines, used to aid the shoe-fitting process, were once a fixture in shoe stores before the dangers of radiation were well-known.

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Which of the following is NOT a common, practical way we use nuclear radiation?
creating mutations in crops in an effort to cultivate beneficial traits
purifying drinking water contaminated by bacteria
It's true we sometimes purify water with radiation, but it's of the ultraviolet variety rather than the nuclear variety. In fact, nuclear power plants constantly struggle to find ways to dispose of contaminated water.
carbon dating to figure out the age of ancient objects

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You Got:
/20
ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images

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