I know everyone is hearing lots of nuclear terminology being thrown around in the news right now, and I wanted to spell out some definitions, as I’ve seen several terms misused by the media. If you really want to see everything spelled out, check out the US Nuclear Regulatory Commision’s definition webpage. I’m going to assume a high-school level of education concerning what an atom is, what its made of etc. Again, as always, please ask for any clarifications if necessary.
Isotope – Elements, like in the periodic table, come in different varieties called isotopes. These isotopes of a material behave chemically exactly the same as each other. For instance hydrogen has three isotopes, H, H2 or deuterium, and H3 or Tritium. They all behave the same, and a small portion of all water actually contains deuterium instead of ordinary hydrogen. Tritium is radioactive, meaning that over time it will give off radiation, in this case a neutron, and become a different atom, deuterium. There are many isotopes for each element, only some of them radioactive. For instance, our bodies need iodine to be healthy. Most of us get this through iodized salt (look in your cupboard). However, nuclear reactors produce a radioactive version called I-131. Because its chemically identical to the normal iodine we need, your body will suck it right up and it will accumulate in your thyroid. However when it gets there it will continue to bombard your body with radiation over time. This is bad. So if you fill your body up with iodine, from tablets or however, you will absorb less of this radioactive iodine.
Radiation – High energy electromagnetic waves (like visible light, but much higher energies) or high-speed sub-atomic particles. Radiation is produced by nuclear reactions like the fission inside a reactor or the decay of radioactive materials (see below). In the nuclear power field, radiation refers specifically to ionizing radiation. This means that the radiation is of a high enough energy to ionize materials, or to strip away the electrons from the atoms in a material. This is bad for living things because these ionized materials in your body, mostly water, are chemically reactive and will damage your cells in a number of ways. This ionized water can also break up DNA in cells, potentially leading to different kinds of cancers. However, radiation can be stopped with different kinds of shielding, depending on the kind of radiation. Also, like a lightbulb is dimmer the further you are from it, the radiation from an object lessens the further away from the object you are, proportional to the inverse of the square of your distance (doubling your distance reduces the radiation by 4 times).
Radioactive Material (RAM) – This is any material that contains a substance that is radioactive. I kinda covered this above under radiation. Radiation is given off by radioactive material. This is the stuff you want to keep contained and away from the public. This is all the nasty stuff inside the fuel rods of a nuclear reactor for example. It also refers to to anything that has been contaminated by any radioactive substance. For instance, if you get some cobalt-60 ( a radioactive metal) on your clothes, your clothes would have to be removed and treated as radioactive material. A lot of the radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants is of this type of material.
Whew, this is taking more effort than I was expecting. I’ll continue more tomorrow, Chey is probably wondering where I am.