Induced radioactivity

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Induced radioactivity occurs when a previously stable material has been made radioactive by exposure to specific radiation. Most radioactivity does not induce other material to become radioactive. This Induced radioactivity was firstly described in 1924, by the Romanian scientist Ştefania Mărăcineanu, but the credit of the discovery was granted to Irène Curie and F. Joliot due to their 1934 works, the circumstances being however unclear. This is also known as man-made radioactivity. The phenomenon by which even light elements are made radioactive by artificial or induced methods is called artificial radioactivity.

Curie and Joliot showed that when lighter elements such as boron and aluminium were bombarded with α-particles, there was a continuous emission of radioactive radiations, even after the α−source had been removed. They showed that the radiation was due to the emission of a particle carrying one unit positive charge with mass equal to that of an electron.

Neutron activation is the main form of induced radioactivity, which happens when free neutrons are captured by nuclei. This new heavier isotope can be stable or unstable (radioactive) depending on the chemical element involved. Because free neutrons disintegrate within minutes outside of an atomic nucleus, neutron radiation can be obtained only from nuclear disintegrations, nuclear reactions, and high-energy reactions (such as in cosmic radiation showers or particle accelerator collisions). Neutrons that have been slowed down through a neutron moderator (thermal neutrons) are more likely to be captured by nuclei than fast neutrons.

A less common form involves removing a neutron via photodisintegration. In this reaction, a high energy photon (gamma ray) strikes a nucleus with an energy greater than the binding energy of the atom, releasing a neutron. This reaction has a minimum cutoff of 2 MeV (for deuterium) and around 10 MeV for most heavy nuclei. Many radionuclides do not produce gamma rays with energy high enough to induce this reaction. The isotopes used in food irradiation (cobalt-60, caesium-137) both have energy peaks below this cutoff and thus cannot induce radioactivity in the food.[1]

Some induced radioactivity is produced by background radiation, which is mostly natural. However, since natural radiation is not very intense in most places on Earth, the amount of induced radioactivity in a single location is usually very small.

The conditions inside certain types of nuclear reactors with high neutron flux can cause induced radioactivity. The components in those reactors may become highly radioactive from the radiation to which they are exposed. Induced radioactivity increases the amount of nuclear waste that must eventually be disposed, but it is not referred to as radioactive contamination unless it is uncontrolled.

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  1. ^ Caesium-137 emits gammas at 662 keV while cobalt-60 emits gammas at 1.17 and 1.33 MeV.

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