What is radioactive decay?

1 Answer
Oct 17, 2015

This is when an atom of a radioactive elements which has unstable nucleus breaks down, or decay.


During radioactive decay, particles and energy called radiation are are released by atoms of the radioactive element.


Radioactive decay is the term used to describe the process by which an unstable atom loses energy to its surrounding environment. With radioactive decay, the nucleus of the atom changes from a parent nuclide to a daughter nuclide.

There are multiple types of radioactive decay including alpha decay, beta decay, and gamma decay (see image below). Sometimes, the change will be such that the element changes. With alpha, beta, and gamma decay, the element changes. The first image is an example of alpha decay where the parent is U-238 and the daughter is Th-234.


The amount of time it takes the element to lose half of its radioactive atoms is termed an element's half-life. The amount of time it will take differs depending on the element. The image below shows the decay of C-14. As indicated in the image below, C-14 has a half-life of 5730 years.


You can read more about how radioactive decay occurs, learn about why half-life is important, or understand how to calculate nuclear half-life.