Radiation, nuclear

Energy given off by matter in the form of tiny, fast-moving particles (alpha particles, beta particles, and neutrons) or pulsating electromagnetic rays or waves (gamma rays) emitted from the nuclei of unstable radioactive atoms. All matter is composed of atoms, which are made up of various parts; the nucleus contains minute particles called protons and neutrons, and the atom’s outer shell contains other particles called electrons. The nucleus carries a positive electrical charge, while the electrons carry a negative electrical charge. These forces work toward a strong, stable balance by getting rid of excess atomic energy (radioactivity). In that process, unstable radioactive nuclei may emit energy, and this spontaneous emission is called nuclear radiation. All types of nuclear radiation are also ionizing radiation, but the reverse is not necessarily true; for example, x-rays are a type of ionizing radiation, but they are not nuclear radiation because they do not originate from atomic nuclei. In addition, some elements are naturally radioactive, as their nuclei emit nuclear radiation as a result of radioactive decay, but others become radioactive by being irradiated in a reactor. Naturally occurring nuclear radiation is indistinguishable from induced radiation.

Page Last Reviewed/Updated Friday, January 20, 2023