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!
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.
Which of the following typically poses the biggest health threat to humans?
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.
Which of the following household items might contain radioactive material?
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).
Hopefully none of them. Isn't that what a product recall is for?
What percentage of harmful gamma rays do the hazmat suits worn by nuclear technicians block?
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.
Who was the first person to discover radioactivity?
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?
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.
What are some of the symptoms of acute radiation syndrome?
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.
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
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!
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
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.
Which of the following is NOT a real radioactive element?
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.
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