Nuclear Chemistry: A Primer

Preamble: The more we humans learn about how to manipulate the matter and energy of the world, the more important it is that some critical number of us have, at least, a rudimentary understanding of what we are doing and the magnitudes involved. My own experience with nuclear chemistry and its consequences is that of an interested layman. I have taught chemistry, but claim to be neither a chemist or physicist. I am claiming, however, that the application of thoughtful interest, time and effort can educate a person sufficiently to understand the issues of living in the present world. A certain amount of what appears, at first, to be tedious and arcane learning may be required, but it pays off in the end by serving as the basis of understanding, the essential basis of self-protection and sound social action.

Pete Rose’s birthday. Lindsey Lohan’s arrest record. The half-life of an isotope. It is all just numbers and stuff! But the last one can give you a tool to know when you are being lied to about matters of life and death; that is, if you want to know when you are being lied to.

The world, as our senses perceive it, is made of the naturally occurring elements – roughly 92 elements with a couple of them in a sort of grey area because of that half-life thing. 1 An element has two distinctly different sets of properties depending on what parts of the atom of that element are being considered: chemical properties and nuclear properties. Chemical properties have to do with how the element interacts with other elements. Two or more elements may combine to make a compound; and so the many elements can combine to form the millions of different substances that make up the stuff of our world. 2

But at the center of each atom of each element is the nucleus or a core where the greatest mass of the element is contained. The number of protons, positively charged particles, in the nucleus determines what kind of element it is: oxygen has 8 protons, iron has 26 protons, uranium has 92 protons. Also in the nucleus are neutrons, particles much like protons with no electrical charge; it is the architecture of the proton/neutron structure that determines whether the nucleus will be strong like a well-made and mortared brick wall or easily disturbed like a pile of poorly stacked bricks. This structure of the nucleus has basically nothing to do with the chemical properties of the element.

Imagine a large parking lot with a thousand piles of bricks, poorly stacked. The first day you look at the lot, all the piles are intact. After several days (weeks) you notice that some bricks have fallen from some of the piles. After several years many of the piles have lost their original structure. It is easy to imagine that in a few hundred years, the piles would be bumps in a field of bricks. If, rather than piles, the bricks had been made into solid walls they would be unchanged in that length of time. This is the difference between an unstable atomic nucleus and a stable one.

Radioactive isotopes are the result of an unstable nucleus, but rather than a brick dropping to the ground when the pile is disturbed, the nucleus breaks up explosively – like a tightly wound spring – and pieces fly off at great speed, at or approaching the speed of light. It is these little pieces, and the huge amounts of energy that they carry, that make radioactive isotopes both useful and dangerous. 3

This is the first basic understanding needed to grasp the situation facing specifically Japan, and any other place that attempts to use controlled nuclear reactions. The second basic understanding involves numbers – really big numbers of really tiny things.

Put about 2 drops of water on your hand – really do it. See how that little bit of water is not even enough to puddle. Rub your hands together and in a moment the water is gone and you hands are dry. Do you know how many molecules of water there were on your hand? More than the number of stars in the entire total universe – and three times that many atoms – more than 10 billion trillion molecules of water.

Now imagine that 1% of the molecules in those 2 drops were radioactive (contained isotopes that might decay explosively): that would mean that there were 100 million trillion radioactively unstable atoms. Let’s say that you didn’t put two drops, but that only 100th of that amount of 1% radioactive water misted onto your hand: that would mean that there were (only) a million trillion radioactively unstable atoms on your hand.

A dust particle containing radioactive iodine or cesium can be millions of trillions of atoms. Lodged in lungs, the isotopes decay over time and some of the little pieces flying off explosively strike the structures of nearby living cells sometimes killing the cells, sometimes hitting the DNA; and sometimes striking the DNA in such a way that the cell is not killed but loses its bearings, goes rogue and reproduces outside of the body’s control.

Our human intuition is useless in the domain of the Big (and Tiny) Numbers. Certainty and uncertainty are turned on their head. A particle of dust that you would only see with the greatest attention can contain a trillion million radioactive nuclei with a half-life that result in 100 atomic nuclei decaying (exploding) on average every second (8,644,000 a day and thousands of millions in 25 years). These are monkeys typing Shakespeare numbers. The ‘impossible’ becomes certainty. A lung with only one particle too small to see has a good chance of one or more of its cells eventually being damaged in such a way that it will become cancerous. Perhaps the immune system will find it, perhaps not. Imagine a 100 pieces of dust, a thousand. Look at the light streaming in a window; watch the dust dance on the air.

With these understandings it is possible to make some sense from the ‘radioactive cloud’ of bull-shit spreading from Fukushima nuclear plants and Tepco corporate offices. First and immediately heart-rending is that the men (I assume that they are only men) working in the plant facilities are dead men; only weeks or months of life left for some or even most them. Second, many millions of people will be effected, especially in the region, but also all over the world. When the epidemiological studies are done (if they are done), specific long-term cancer rate patterns will follow the emission and weather patterns occurring over the next weeks, months and years.

And perhaps the saddest of all; it is possible to know these things. A competent understanding of chemistry would prevent the lies being told – even in the beginning before the plants were built. A little general knowledge of geology would make the locations at Fukushima, Diablo canyon, and San Onofre (last two on the San Andres fault system in California) unlikely locations even if a knowledgeable public could be convinced that nuclear generation of electricity was a good idea.

The situational sociopaths and actual psychopaths that are willing to endanger all living things for a little power (both political and material) will always be with us and unaddressable with normal human concerns – that is what the pathology part means. Public awareness is perhaps the only guiding and governing force.

I had a student once who “couldn’t” learn math or science, but who could tell the exact familial relation of 300 people to her and to each other in her extended family; that is what mattered to her. I in no way diminish the importance of being the teenage ‘grandmother’ to her family, but she could have learned anything. There isn’t 50 pounds of learning and 30 pounds used up on the relatives.

What she taught me is that we must believe in the importance of what there is to learn. We are at the mercy of the situational sociopaths unless we know enough to recognize their half-truths and lies. The only way I can see to bring these two statements together is for everyone who sees the third element of the syllogism (that we must come to see as important the learning that will protect our human and living interests in the face of economic and political interests) to go out of their way to inform the public mind of the importance of knowing enough not to be lied to.

The reactors are burning: the uranium and plutonium are on their own now that we have concentrated them, stuffed them into tight quarters and then lost control. The nuclear material will not be brought to heel; that is another lie. That we were ever actually in control of the process is another one. But We let it happen. Our willing ignorance and greed for ease let it happen. We need to learn enough about the world that we actually live in to actually live in it.

  1. Half-life is not a difficult idea. It is the measure of the length of time it takes for one form of an element to “go bad”, that is, for it to breakdown. One form (isotope) of an element may take 20 minutes for ½ of the amount that is there to turn into something else (breakdown). Another might take 1000 years for ½ of the amount that is there to breakdown, while a third form of an element might take a billion years for ½ of the amount there to breakdown. The first has a half-life of 20 minutes, the second has a half-life of a 1000 years and the third has a half-life of a billion years. The first will be almost completely gone (turned into other stuff) in a few hours, the second gone in a few tens of thousands of years and the third will take “forever” to go away. The first is considered very unstable, the second is unstable and the third is a stable isotope (but radioactive). []
  2. Atom – the unit of an element; made of a nucleus (protons and neutrons) in the middle surrounded by electrons equal in number to the number of protons. Electrons are about 2000 times smaller than protons, but have a negative charge exactly equal to and opposite of the positive charge of the proton.

    Isotope – a form of an atom with a specific number of neutrons. The same element can be represented by several different isotopes: atoms, all with the same number of protons and electrons, but with different numbers of neutrons. Because of the differing numbers of neutrons, the nucleus of different isotopes of the same element have different structures and are therefore often more or less stable than the other isotopes of the same element. []

  3. Three different ‘pieces’ can be ejected explosively from a decaying atomic nucleus. Some isotopes produce all three and some predominantly only one or two; depends on the architecture of the nucleus. They are: gamma rays and other high-energy electromagnetic radiation, alpha particles (positively charged high energy helium nucleus, made of 2 protons and 2 neutrons) and beta particles (high energy negatively charged electrons or positrons). []

James Keye is the nom de plume of a biologist and psychologist who after discovering a mismatch between academe and himself went into private business for many years. His whole post-pubescent life has been focused on understanding at both the intellectual and personal levels what it is to be of the human species; he claims some success. Email him at: jkeye1632@gmail.com. Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.